Jazz Greats and Giants

To appreciate jazz, you have to give yourself over to it. Let it absorb into you.

Parker was the yardbird, an intellectual who could chirp high and glide close to the ground. Thelonius Monk was abrupt, dramatic, poetic and deliberate. Monk's Dream is my favourite bedtime story. Later, Miles Davis flirted with improvisation and guided it with instinctual harmony. He reminds me of a downhill skier in the alps. Bill Evans played the piano as if dipping a toe in a still, blue lake in spring. Coltrane could morph from manic cat to prowling jaguar. If you listen carefully, you can hear his thoughts. Dizzy Gillespie was a saucy punk and legend of succinct complexity. Chambers was like a blue whale; strong and gently creating his own current. 

These greats speak to us through their instruments. They are eloquent in their chosen language of jazz. The instruments are characters and the sounds are actions, plot points, exclamations. Imagery comes easily. If it's good jazz, it tells a story. It is a pleasure to listen to and to decipher. The story appears when you pay attention.

When I am 9 minutes into Kind of Blue, I sink into the story. 

The notes evoke a sequin dress, tight against the curves of a woman, who sparkles in the dark. It is nighttime in New York. Light on her feet, the piano dances with the crowd on tippy toes. The spotlight shines towards the bar. The mood slows and the sax signals tribulation. As she dances, she rips apart the heart of the scotch drinker, watching from the bar, from under the brim of his hat. We imagine him watching her, grimacing from heartache. Is this Freddy Freeloader?

The rhythm change announces a change of scene and now she's walking home and it's nearly daylight. She's tired. The horn comes in again. He's following her, begging her to stay longer. He pleads long and loud. She lists the ways he has disappointed her. The sax is her voice. She slurs some of her words. She is frustrated. A person interjects and tries to calm her from making a scene. It's too early in the morning for this fighting in the street. She tells them to shove off and continues berating Freddy. After a long explanation, she walks away, leaving him behind. She walks slowly, her dress catching the first ray of daylight. The piano is the sun peaking through the stout buildings. He laments his loss, and watches her disappear. 

Active Listening

I must have been around 8 years based on the pictures I remember seeing. We had arrived in the afternoon and I remember having to be woken up when we reached the dock. It might have been raining. I was drowsy or grumpy when I had to step into the little motor boat. The weather was fierce and I hid under blankets on the floor of the boat as it bumped against the choppy surface.  It felt like forever. The boat slowed and I emerged, looking out to face a giant rock on top of which a house sat.  The familiar scene of Georgian Bay. 


After dinner I remember sitting on the couch. The couch separated the dining room and faced away from the table and towards the fireplace. I curled at the end of the couch. The adults may have still been eating. I had my back to them. There must have been a fire lit, but I don't remember it. 

I remember Leonard Cohen. It must have been "Take this Waltz" and I may have fallen asleep before I could hear more. I remember being drawn to the darkness of his voice. I didn't pay attention to the lyrics. I have the strongest memory of sitting on that couch alone,  listening to his voice harmonize with his backup singers. I was absorbed by his sound completely. I don't reminisce often. I'm not nostalgic, and I think that affects my ability to remember - but hearing his voice when I was on that couch is clear as water.

I remember walking down the rock and into the forest on the other side of the water.  I may have been exploring alone. I often sang as I wandered. Mom told me that I was misbehaving and was sent outside. She says I went under the porch and found a snake. I don't remember the snake, or much else from that trip.

When I listen to Take this Waltz, I imagine rough waters bashing against a hill made of one big wet rock with a house on top, where I sat alone among family and where the voice of Leonard Cohen made a permanent imprint on my brain. I am reminded that no matter how grumpy, I can always feel better with music.