When the papa of jazz -- the blues -- got hold of me, I began to notice what a touchstone
the form was for my more accomplished musician friends.
And only now, in the twilight of life, am I realizing how important that connection was
when I made it more than three decades ago.
For the growth of the blues inevitably let to the growth of jazz, and that meant a kind of
cultural upheaval, even a migration, to the centers of the music.
In the United States, there are historically obvious centers of jazz -- New Orleans,
Chicago, Kansas City.
But, why should this be so?
The New Orleans connection is perhaps the easiest to explain: it is a seaport open to the
Caribbean influence that brought to it the sounds of Africa, Central America, South
America and whatever strange sounds floated down to it from the north.
In addition, it was a major southern city, where the shameful legacy of slavery still had
some adherents, which kept the Crescent City's music firmly in the proletarian pews where
it began. And there, jazz percolated and absorbed any influence that came down the pike.
Like a laboratory, New Orleans became, and remains, the proving ground for honest musical
expression stripped of pretense.
Chicago, on the other hand, owes its reputation as a jazz center to a northern migration
of poor black people who went in search of work during the era surrounding World War II.
It brought with it the proletarian blues of the rural south that eventually blossomed into
the equally common-folk-based persona of jazz. And there is a definite blurring of the
lines between "pure jazz" and "pure blues" in Chicago. Nobody cares
too much about labels. It's music they crave.
And Kansas City, that schizophrenic city that lies in two states -- Kansas and Missouri --
benefited from the migration west of the po' folk, even as late as WWII. The incubator of
Charlie Parker, the city is proud of its heritage, as are all the others on the obvious
list. And well it should be.
But jazz has grown, in the latter part of the 20th Century, into a kind of pervasive
underground cult. Listen to any late-night jazz show and you will hear the names of
musicians you've not heard before, and you will find that there is a lively contingent of
heretofore unknowns who are struggling to keep the jazz flame lit.
Because jazz is a music of the people, people who regard themselves as a congregation in a
quest to keep alive something precious and good and true.
And jazz musicians congregate wherever this is so.
Name a city. Throw a dart at the map. Toledo, Ann Arbor, New York, Denver, Boston, San
Francisco, Minneapolis .... Climb onto a plane or a train or a bus, and go there.
Somewhere in the yellow pages will be a jazz club. Go there and hear what the legacy of
early jazz is. It's alive. It's healthy. And it's worth investigating and preserving.