My Jazz Revelation
I really hated modern jazz. There is no melody––or at least that is what I thought––just a diarrhea of sound that gave me a headache.
Well, as God would want it, my 17-year-old son is a fanatical aficionado of jazz. He plays the saxophone and studies jazz at a boarding school that specializes in music. Every summer he attends jazz summer camps. He practices his scales till his lips are swollen. He sleeps with jazz music playing on his computer all night long.
I, on the other hand, love folk music, which he absolutely hates. Once, when I was listening to Bulgarian women singing in harmony, he remarked that their singing sounded as if they were having “a real bad time with their period.”
As you can see, we were not really “sharing.”
But this summer, he asked me to join his summer jazz workshop at the University of Louisville, Kentucky. He wanted me to bring my accordion and learn to play jazz, so we could have something in common.
I took him on.
With trepidation: Not only did I hate this music, I also do not know how to read music. I play by ear and only in the C scale.
How was I going to fit in?
Upon arriving, I discovered that there were 400 bass, guitar, drum, piano, sax, and trombone players––but only one pitiful polka accordion player: me.
This is going to be humiliating, I thought.
But on the other hand, what an opportunity to be vulnerable, to get out of my safety zone and see what would happen.
Go and surprise yourself, I said to myself. And a surprise it was, proving that getting out of your safety zone can be a rewarding growth experience despite the pain.
The workshop was five days long, starting every day at 8 a.m. and ending after midnight with a concert and jam sessions.
Learning something totally new means being subjected to change, and change is like burying your past. So it should not come as a surprise that as part of the experience, you traverse the five stages of grief that Elizabeth Kubler Ross wrote about.
First was Denial: Why am I here? I do not even like jazz, etc. Then I moved to the Anger phase, becoming furious at my son for bringing me into a situation where I would certainly be humiliated by my ignorance.
On the second day, after Denial and Anger, I entered the Bargaining phase: If I just sit in a class and listen, maybe I will learn something.
Depression was next: I was assigned to a band. All the members were playing their instruments, while I just sat there like a mouse in the rain, hugging my accordion like a child clutching his teddy bear. I could not play anything. I was miserable.
I finally started enjoying the week after I entered the Acceptance stage: OK, so I am ignorant; so what?
Focus on your goal, I told myself. You did not come here to learn to play. You came to learn what jazz is all about and to bond with your son.
How easy it is to forget our goals and get sidetracked by experiences that overwhelm us.
And what did I learn?
I learned that jazz is a whole separate language of music.
If you listen to people conversing in a language you do not know––say, Wolof, which is spoken in Senegal––it will sound meaningless to you, like random sounds. But once you learn the language, then you start understanding the conversation.
Playing jazz in a combo is a musical conversation. And like any language, it has rules and a structure. Jazz even has “dialects”: the rules for playing bebop are different from the rules for swing, cool jazz, or free jazz. It is the same language––a bebop musician will understand what a cool jazz musician is playing––but each has a unique musical construct.
You really know a language when you can tell a joke in that language. And jazz has its own sense of humor: Sometimes in their “conversations,” the solo instruments tease each other musically, and by the time they finish playing everyone is laughing.
Contrary to what I always believed, there is a melody in jazz, and it is played first. Then each player in his or her turn improvises on the chords of that melody. That is the structure––the sequence of the chords following the melody––but there are countless improvisations each player can make within each chord. Thus, although they are playing the same piece, they usually do not repeat the same music. Using language as an analogy, we would say that if several people tell the same story, each would tell it differently.
Thus, jazz is a structured form of creativity. Each player is, in a sense, a composer, but since the musicians all play together there must be a structure that unites their playing.
This reminded me of the Adizes methodology for team problem-solving: Each participant has and follows his own distinct style, free to make his unique contribution, while Adizes provides the structure to lead the discussion so that the team can work together.
At one of the performances that week, a very famous musician gave what I thought was a terrible performance: high, shrill sounds on the sax that sounded more like screams than like music.
Who taught him to play? I wondered, and how can he be famous when he can’t even get normal sounds out of his instrument?
The next day at breakfast, I mentioned to another sax player that I thought the previous night’s performance had been embarrassing. I had seriously thought of leaving during the intermission.
He looked at me as if he was a Muslim and I had just told him I’d burned the Koran.
“What are you talking about? I had tears in my eyes!” he exclaimed. “It was an unbelievable experience. It was a privilege to listen to him.”
Now I felt like a person who discovers his pants are torn and his rear end is showing … without underwear …
The musician the previous night had been playing “free jazz,” which has no rules. The instrument is manipulated to express the musician’s feelings. Honestly. Openly. Truly. Freely. All his pain, despair, anger, and hope.
The man was falling apart emotionally and telling it to us through the sounds he was creating.
Oh my God, I said to myself. I realized I needed to (and I did) apologize to my son. His music was his way of communicating his feelings to me; when I criticized his music, in a sense I was criticizing, possibly even negating, his feelings.
And what did I learn from this?
To have a smaller mouth and bigger ears. To talk less and hear more. Not to judge at all––period. There is a reason for everything that happens. Just watch and experience. Think less. Feel more.
And that is exactly how good jazz musicians play.
When they practice, they will play scales, chords, up and down and back and forth, for hours. But when they are improvising, they do not think about what to play. They simply allow the music to take its own path.
When jazz musicians improvise, perhaps they are themselves acting as instruments, to allow something bigger (God?) to come through.
This reminds me of meditation: The goal is to calm your mind and let your heart speak––your heart, where God dwells.
Bio-energetic healing, which I recently studied, is similar: You are not the healer. You make yourself a conduit for cosmic energy, which passes through you to heal your patient. And the same for Reiki.
And come to think of it, the same is true for everything we do creatively. I have this experience when I write. Like right now: I am not thinking about what to say. It just flows out of me, if I let it, by not thinking and not judging. Thinking blocks the energy. Our egos interfere with the creative process.
It helps to see ourselves as instruments of something larger. We are like the saxophone, which does not perform. It is the instrument with which the player communicates.
Ah, thinking like this makes you humble. It is not you who are great. (Golda Meir once remarked to someone: “Don’t be so humble. You are not that great.”)
You can become greater by being humble and understanding that it is God that does it all––God as endless cosmic energy with consciousness of right and wrong.
We are great when we realize how small we are.
I look forward to hearing your opinion.