I couldn’t tell you the first time I heard jazz music, but I could tell you the first time it climbed into my heart and found a home. It was one of those deep and clear nights that begs you to roll down your windows and soak in the moon. My father and I had just finished a meal at some restaurant in some town in northern California and we were on our way back to some place we were calling home. It was bright out, and the vines of passing vineyards were outlined in ribbons of silver and covered with the layers of night. Coltrane. A Love Supreme. A night I will never forget.
Nothing happened on that ride. I didn’t get a life lesson from my often verbose father. I didn’t have a destiny altering epiphany, and I didn’t figure out my fate. I just got a feeling, a twinge in my toes and a snap in my fingers. We hardly said anything to each other. Trane’s deep tenor sax did all the talking and we did all the listening. My eyes stayed locked to the sky and I marveled at how even though we were driving highway speeds, the stars didn’t move an inch. They stayed focused and so did I.
After that night I grilled my father. I asked him questions, sought advice and begged to borrow records. He told me as much as he could, but my father is more of a classical man. He finds his peace in the notes of Bach, Beethoven and Bartok. I didn’t care for the classics, I was curious about jazz. The most loosely interpreted art of the 19th and 20th century. I wanted to know about Louie, Miles and Monk. I wanted to retrace the steps of blues and find the outlines of bebop. I wanted to know about the harsh brass, the mellow moods and confusing melodies. I wanted to know how it was so confusing, where it became so strange and why it all felt so right. I wanted know it, because I wouldn’t be able to live.
To me jazz really started with Parker. Sure Louis Armstrong was the single most influential man, and what he did for the genre is indisputably groundbreaking. But Parker launched bop. Goosed up on drugs, bass-lines and a sax he gave birth the coolest man in music. Miles Davis. And Miles gave birth to my personal favorite, John Coltrane. Bop is encompassed in these three men for three very different reasons and for the better part of the 1950’s and 60’s their sound waves were rivaling those of Elvis, Fleetwood Mac and The Beatles. They were titans, and they still are today.
I have a deep respect for legends the never make sense. Who the hell can tell you what Birth of Cool is all about? Who understands Parkers Mood? And So What? The absence of a definition is what is so intriguing. What’s more is that the music offers a unique opportunity to each of its players. There is not set way to perform and there is no standard of execution. Jazz is a feeling and feelings are what make individuals. The poet Patrick Rosal once said “the beauty of jazz is that each player is a part of the whole while being a part from the whole.”
But beyond the greats and the eras, the music has deep personal ties. It is the only thing on earth that can sincerely relax me to my core. It is the only thing worth listening to on a rainy New York afternoon. It has pulled me to the smoky underground of the Village Vanguard and enticed me to stand motionless in the subway stations while street hustlers play their saxes. It has reminded me of whiskey, women and a world without worries and allowed me to drift into the currents of daydream. It is loud, it is calm, it is harsh it is smooth. It is crazy, it is sensible, it is sophisticated and rebellious. It is drug infused, high class, and low brow. It is serene, rambunctious, and beautiful. Jazz means many things to many people, but it will be forever linked to the moonlit nights of Napa California and my wise old father behind the wheel.