What do you think about Jazz? Can’t make head nor tail of it? I used to suffer from the same affliction myself. And yet Jazz may well be the great American cultural creation, so in this season of mom, apple pie and another Mets’ nosedive let’s take a look at it.
First things first - the key to enjoying Jazz is finding your way in. My own initiation came at the Kiwi, a down and out after-hours joint in Manhattan’s East Village half a lifetime ago. The place didn’t even boast a jukebox but when the humor was on him one of the regulars used to blast his cassette mix-tapes from a battered old boom box.
Jimmy Rees had been featuring John Coltrane that uproarious morning though he might as well have been playing Larry Cunningham and The Might Avons for all the attention I was paying.
I’m not sure exactly what happened but suddenly the iconic sax man’s manic stream of notes began to make sense and I swear I could tell exactly what he would play next. It was exhilarating, like deciphering a hidden code that allowed you to enter a wonderful new world.
When I finally looked over at Rees, he was beaming back at me, “You finally got it, man, right?” He called out.
Rees died soon thereafter. They misdiagnosed him in a local emergency room, thought he was just another drunk who needed sobering while he was suffering from a bad dose of Pneumonia.
But let me try and pass on the gift he gave me. First of all, don’t start with Coltrane, he may be a titan and someone you’ll enjoy in time, but he’s too much of a speeding train to safely clamber aboard. Rather go with Miles Davis.
Miles was the coolest and he understood Trane and his addiction to notes per minute delivery. Once when the sax man mournfully concluded that he was so infused with his muse that he could never seem to conclude a passage, Miles dryly suggested, “Did you ever try taking the horn out of your mouth?”
Miles was the man and in more ways than one. When heroin was wiping out the world around him, he locked himself in a room for two months and went cold turkey. He emerged determined to echo the terrifying loneliness he’d just experienced and to do so with the fewest and most relevant notes possible.
Begin your journey with any of his albums, but I would suggest Kind of Blue, Sketches of Spain, or Porgy and Bess.
Kind of Blue is the top selling Jazz record of all time and for good reason – it’s accessible. It sounded like cocktail music to me at first, and therein lies the key: play it in the background while having a brew. If you’re off the sauce, don’t worry – this understated masterpiece will still work its magic but may take a few minutes longer.
Coltrane is on there, restrained for once and interacting beautifully with Cannonball Adderley on alto-sax. But most importantly listen for Bill Evans’ lovely piano chords; they make the perfect bed for the aching sparseness of Miles’ trumpet.
I’ve listened to Sketches of Spain innumerable times and found new reasons to marvel with each hearing. Many would say it’s not Jazz at all – more a mini-symphony - but who cares; after a couple of listens you’ll have gained an innate knowledge of the culture and history of Spain, and you won’t have endured a word of a lecture.
You’ll already be familiar with many of the melodies of Porgy and Bess. George Gershwin may be America’s pre-eminent composer, but Miles and arranger Gil Evans take his music to places that the Bard of the Lower East Side never dreamed of in their scintillating re-imagination.
Try one of these albums for the Fourth of July – you’ll be amazed at how well they go with hot dogs, burgers and cold beer. In a world of hype, Miles remains the man and if you can handle his coolness he’ll open you up to a whole universe of red, white and blue American music.