What I really want to do is sit you down and play you Kind of Blue, Miles Davis's album from 1959; watch the expression on your face change like the weather. That's what it does to mine, sunshine, and storms…
What it reminds me of
Music and memories go together in my mind like Billie Holiday and the gardenias she always wore in her hair. I grew up to the liquid sound of the clarinet, wire brushes lazily playing over the stretched skin of shiny drumkits, everyone dancing and singing as if that was the only thing to do on a Saturday night. At home we listened to Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong on the radiogram. I'd write out the words of the songs and feel the tingle of rhythm and the rhyme. That sort of thing goes in.
Thirty years later I started to trace its influence on my own work - a sinewy syntax, a fascination with formal rhythm and a stong desire to work against it, the sense of poetry as singing, the most exuberant expression of self and oneness. My most recent collection, Storyville (Bloodaxe 1997), contains poems that are the result of a collaboration with a visual artist, Birtley Aris, and musicians Keith Morris and Lewis Watson. We made poems, paintings and music, improvising around the theme of jazz itself. The finished work toured as an exhibition, accompanied by a CD of the words and music. I got to be the singer in the band and went right back to those Saturday nights with my Dad, listening to my beloved music, feeling it percolate inside me so I became part of it, drinking it in with my Coca-Cola through a paper straw.
What it sounds like
I can listen to a piece of jazz and feel opened, unsettled, soothed, sad, wild or aroused. Whatever, I will always feel more alive. The way jazz is built around irregular and simultaneously opposed rhythms challenges and provokes me, expresses what I feel it is to be human. In the pursuit and departure from the 4/4 marching rhythm at the heart of jazz - fooling around with the beat - I can hear echoes of the contradictions of the human condition, our contentment and our striving. Breaking the rules, pushing the limits of a melody, working mostly on the black keys - what are called the blue notes, E flat and B flat on the diatonic scale - jazz creates order out of chaos, beauty out of despair. Listening to it, understanding it, takes time and effort, an open mind and a loose body.
Jazz instruments were rescued from the marching bands of the American Civil War and taken up as weapons of resistance by black musicians, still singing from the traumas of slavery and racial prejudice. Traditional West African sound patterns found their way into the new music, via Blues and Ragtime, blending with European harmony and the natural expressiveness of the human voice. One of the classic jazz instruments is the saxophone, thought to most closely imitate the sound of the voice.
What it does to my body
Jazz has always had a strong connection with the physical body - heartbeat, breath, voice - associated with worksongs, worship, dance and sex. The name itself comes from the Negro slang - jass - a word for sexual intercourse, reflecting the passion of the music, its appetite, energy and openness. I defy you to listen to a good piece of jazz and not move some part of your anatomy.
Much of that rawness, the sense of immediacy, comes from the use of improvisation. Jazz is the only artform that is actually created in the here and now, the musician and his instrument literally making music in the presence of the listener. This sets up an atmosphere of risk and trust, authenticity and spontaneity, the excitement of witnessing something being born. Working in this way, the jazz musician brings all of himself to the process. What we play is life, said Louis Armstrong.
The way people make it together
The musicians themselves embody the impulse of jazz, the highs and lows, its rhapsodic, exacting dance. Around the turn of the century, photography was evolving alongside jazz, providing us with a rich resource of documentary material, evocative and revealing. A recurring image is the black musician, powerful and dignified, expressing what it is to suffer and survive. In too many cases they didn’t; poverty, abuse and addiction marking the graves of their early deaths and suicides. Informed by their experience, jazz pulses with the compassion at the heart of life.
The women – like Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan – are particularly important for me: skilful and stunning; courageous and loving; women with a voice. The sense of the jazz musician as maverick, as outsider, endures. Extremes of racial segregation and gender inequality many no longer exist but the way we live still inflicts many wounds to sing about, to lift into the open air.
Jazz is rebellion, apparently fuelled by anarchy – musically, emotionally and morally – but held together by a bass line of control. It carries a positive inducement to break the rules, championing self-expression, the exact opposite of repression. Not surprisingly it has been banned under many totalitarian regimes, as a threat to security and the good of the state.
It is a culture of inclusiveness, democratising and questioning the creation and the experience of art. Observe the way people listen to jazz at a concert or in a club: each in their own reverie, they enjoy the experience together. It’s strong and inspiring, a warm and powerful non-verbal communion.
The now and the flow of it
As a relatively young artform, jazz contains the adrenalin of freshness, possibility and change. Its natural mode is movement, constantly changing and evolving; its unpredictable flow, a living lesson in impermanence.
This level of energy does not happen without immense skill and a profound mastery of technique. Jazz musicians are very good at making it look easy, belying long years of discipline and application, cultivating fluency and perfect timing. Were it not for racial discrimination, many of them would have been playing in symphony orchestras or classical ensembles. Listen to a Big Band like Count Basie’s or Duke Ellington’s and the sheer scale will take your breath away.
The layers and variety of it
Like literature, visual art and other forms of music, jazz is not just One Thing.
Throughout the 20th century its various styles have mapped its own history and concerns: the early minstrel-inspired Dixieland years in new Orleans; the shift to Chicago and Kansas City shaping the ‘hip’ jazz aesthetic with a stronger white presence; the pull of New York, focal point of nightclubs, recording studios, a sympathetic culture and its commentators; the birth of ‘bop’, reclaiming jazz for black musicians; the rise of ‘cool’ jazz and the West Coat school; and the diaspora, jazz becoming international currency, embracing ‘fusion’, Spanish, Cuban influences, and anything goes. Contemporary jazz inhabits this familiar world established over the years and is also building new structures of its own, using typical jazz techniques of experimentation and integration of fresh cultural styles. Asian music in particular is currently spicing up new work and taking jazz somewhere else on its colourful journey.
What it tells me about paradox
The essence of jazz’s broad, intense palette is paradox, the unity of opposites. Its conflicting energies: poignant and exuberant, serious and flippant, introspective and expansive, wild and mellow, mirror other tensions – psychological, sexual, social, cultural and political. They’re what creates the fizz, the indefinable chemistry blown into the air with the music. It’s in love with words, arranging them mellifluously in vocal pieces, playing with meaning and sound in slang and scat, as well as surrendering itself to wordlessness, the liberation of not-knowing.
I recognise and appreciate the way this is crystallised in the process of ambivalence within each individual artist – the desire to express him or herself and create something new, balanced and unbalanced by the vulnerability and pain of exposure.
Look at Charlie Parker. His words: Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn. Like Louis Armstrong in the ‘30s, he dominated the scene in the ‘50s and could swing both ways. His ‘hot’ style was tortured, searingly beautiful, recalling the angry congregations of the South; his ‘cool’ style was gentle and lyrical, modest and oblique. He lived inside his music, communicating a sublime vision of the world, and died bloated with heroin and alcohol, alone in front of a television screen.
…his expression on his face
was as calm beautiful and profound
as the image of the Buddha
represented in the East – the lidded eyes
the expression that says: all is well
This is what Charlie Parker said when he played: all is well
The poetry of it
Like poetry, jazz is essentially a way of talking about life. They are both powerful agents of transformation. In working on experience – in words or musical notes – they articulate reality, make it more visible. And the effect of it, reading or listening, is to leave you changed, more fully engaged with the world inside you and around you.
Like poetry, it can literally help people survive, keeping them in touch with what really matters, inviting hope and resilience. Pianist Jutta Hipp talks about what it was like in Germany during the Second World War:
You won’t be able to understand this, because you were born here (in U.S.) but to us jazz is some kind of religion. We really had to fight for it, and I remember nights when we didn’t go down to the bomb shelter because we listened to (jazz) records. We just had the feeling that you are not our enemies, and even though the bombs crashed around us…we felt safe.
The life in it
The Reverend Mr. Alvin L. Kershaw – famous for his appearances on the American TV show The $64,000 Question in the 1950s (Come on, don’t tell me you’ve never heard of him) – made this statement about jazz. I like its openness and positivity, its awareness of the connection jazz has with experience and emotion:
True jazz…is for me far more an act of worship than singing some of the so-called religious songs I learned back in Sunday School…Jazz helps us be sensitive to the whole range of existence. Far from offering us rose-coloured glasses…it realistically speaks of sorrow and pain…it helps us relate and interpret the variety of experiences we have had…jazz stimulates us to feel deeply and truthfully…jazz thunders a mighty ‘yes’…it offers us an urgency to live fully.
The best thing about jazz is the same things as the best thing about being alive - the terrible beauty of every single second. It takes life by the hips and isn’t satisfied until it finds some friends to shimmy through the night with. It sparks like a firework, crazy, enchanting, elusive. In the morning the light hurts its eyes and it knows it’s alone and this is the way it is. Like an achingly gorgeous melody, jazz haunts us with our own longing to be free. Go listen to some. Live a little.