Navigating the jazz canon means turning loose of the rudder -- for a while

An old friend writes to ask directions down the broad canal of jazz.

Jim and I are approximately the same age, went to school and church together, dated some of the same girls, and I once married a woman who grew up next door to him. We've been friends for the better part of a half-century now, and he has been casting about for some fulfillment of musical need.

We shared a lot of the pop music favorites of our peculiar era when we were teenagers -- Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Janis Joplin, The Doors -- and we spent hours talking about lyrics, the way music supports lyrics and vice versa, and rating the top guitarists, bassists, drummers and singers.

Ironically, his career has taken him to Kansas City, subject of Wilbert Harrison's late-1950s rock 'n' roll hit, hometown of Charlie Parker and the center of some of the greatest jazz ever produced.

As I framed my answer to his query about how to get a hook into jazz, it occurred to me that the best advice I could give is to proceed backward -- that is, to take what he already knows about blues-based music, improvisation and lyricism from the rock era and apply it to the new idiom for which he hungers.

For those of you who also are investigating this music, I offer the same advice. The jazz we know and either love or hate today has evolved from some pretty lean basics.

Slave "field hollers" in the United States are probably the spermatozoa that created jazz. They brought African rhythms, sensibility and community along, and gestated in the cozy and nurturing incubator of New Orleans, where Creole, Cajun and gospel influences altered the genetic musical code.

With the great migration north from The Big Easy -- from 1860, via the Underground Railroad, through about 1950, when post-World War II black Americans were looking for lucrative work as the economy shifted to peace time circumstances -- all those influences filtered into the parlors and dining rooms of "genteel" America. Chicago, in particular, has a claim as a terminus -- and beneficiary -- of this migration. And, as people headed ever west, Kansas City collected enough talent to raise a flag that rightfully proclaims it an important jazz center.

As I write, I am listening to "Straight Ahead" on SkyJazz, and Mike Smith is playing a selection by Nicholas Payton titled "Back to the Source." In it I hear not only the influences mentioned above, but also the echoes of European classical influences that gave rise to Third Stream music, be-bop's improvisational adventurism and even a bit of rock 'n' roll. That is a mighty expansive canvas for artistic expression, and I can't think of another musical genre that accommodates such diversity.

If you're a fan of electronica, you can find it in jazz. The same is true for chamber music, country music, neo-classical music and any other music you might conjure. Those labels rule out other forms. But jazz throws open the door and declares, "Welcome. We're all relatives here."

So, what have I told my old friend? Simply, as he navigates that broad canal known as jazz, to turn loose of the rudder and let his boat drift where it may. When he decides to declare his preference and take hold of the rudder again, jazz will be lurking in the reeds.