I have only a modicum of understanding when it comes to jazz. Call it the common knowledge of any person who has shared an American college dormroom with someone in the intellectual East. Also, being amongst classmates prepping for the Foreign Service Officer Exam, we were reminded that jazz was one of the only originally American artforms, evidently a question that was always asked during the FSO interview.
But beyond that I can tell the difference between the variety of jazz sub-genres, dixieland, cool jazz, bebop, swing, et cetera. I can identify the giants, and spit them out catechism style by single name like the Hipsters do: Miles. Dizz. ‘Trane. Sonny. Bird. Monk. Et cetera. I can even appreciate what guys like Wynton were trying to do by perpetuating the traditional styles versus what guys like Stanley Clarke and Billy Cobham, even Spyro Gyra and Pat Metheny, were doing with jazz fusion. But no, I could not grasp Ornette Coleman. Or Kenny G for that matter.
I would venture to say I’ve got enough jazz schooling to have a reasonably topical discussion with a bunch of aficionados at a smoky club over rye highballs before the house band hits the stage. If I want to, I can even whip out the story about how I got to meet Dave Brubeck backstage in 1998 at the Blaisdell Concert Hall, when a promoter friend asked if my date would like to present him with a lei after his performance. “Would I” exclaimed the attractive classically trained pianist I brought.
But, if I really want to up my cred I’ll mention my favorite jazz artists, the Modern Jazz Quartet. No I don’t have encyclopedic knowledge of their recording or label history, but they’re obscure enough not to be iconic, yet iconic enough not to be obscure (the same can be said for Charlie Mingus, and frankly I could be writing this paragraph as much about him as about MJQ). I first became aware of MJQ when Signet Bank in D.C. ran a series of memorable black and white TV ads profiling time-tested artist-unions of great renown. Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn were featured. I think The Everly Brothers. And these guys, Milt Jackson on vibes, John Lewis on piano, Percy Heath on bass, and Connie Kaye on drums (I had to look that up on wikipedia), talking about creative partnership, dressed in matching black turtlenecks and amidst their instruments. MJQ were confident enough to completely disband in the 70s. They re-formed on a semi-permanent basis in 1981, for the sole reason that they wanted to. In jazz, there is no cashing in for reunion tours a la Van Halen, Black Sabbath, or Quiet Riot.
Listen to their performance of Django. You can’t ignore how unique the vibraphone sounds in context; better for my money than the acclaimed intimacy that Miles Davis’ soft horn offers. It’s the kind of music you listen to because you’ve concluded a long day working late. The wife and son are already asleep but you’re not ready to get in bed yourself. You want to enjoy your darkened home, alone, in solitude.