The points where jazz is born 

A couple of weeks ago I attended a concert mounted by a local big band of jazz volunteers. It was one of those Sunday-in-the-park affairs that featured folks whom one is more comfortable seeing behind the prescription counter at the drug store or mounting tires at an auto dealership. The ages ran the gamut from 20s to 70s and the program was heavy on the sort of stock arrangements one is accustomed to hearing at spring concerts in high school auditoriums.

The man who introduced the numbers made a couple of embarrassing gaffes, attributing the mambo to Italy and recounting how "people of color" were welcome at the Woodside Hotel in an age of racial prejudice, almost making a virtue of ignorance by pointing out that Count Basie's famous "Jumpin' At The Woodside" was in honor of the hostelry.

But, in my little town, such an event is the local equivalent of hoop skirts, sun bonnets, parasols and ice cream socials, and nobody worries very much about the facts of the matter so long as the placid surface of our mainly caucasian veneer isn't rippled by the dark stones of inconvenience that seem to afflict, as one of my acquaintances is fond of putting it, "the world outside."

The arrangements were stock, presumably penned for high school lab bands and, although one could hear that there is, indeed, some talent in that band of volunteers, the performance strayed only from the arrangements when someone made a mistake. And there weren't many mistakes.

My brother plays trombone in that outfit and he asked me later about the show. I tried to dodge the question with some noncommittal remark about the enthusiasm of the players and the wide range of ages in a group of volunteers, and I praised their willingness to put a free evening aside to rehearse, but he was having none of it. By far the superior musician, he and I have played in bands and had jam sessions for years and he knows how I think.

"Well," I finally admitted, "Charlie had the mambo from the wrong continent, 'Mambo Italiano' notwithstanding, and I was embarrassed by the anecdote about Basie. After that, it all sounded like no one was willing to step up to play some jazz. Stock arrangements, to me, are merely blueprints. What jazz needs is preliminary structure of the loose kind, then trust the musicians to blow. Don't follow the step-by-step diagram; make up your own. Blow!"

He nodded, but mentally threw up his hands, because he has the chops to do what I suggested. Only a few other of the volunteers would feel anything but naked if someone took their charts away.
My brother and I talked more about it later and I have given it a lot of thought. Some conclusions:
Jazz begins:

-- With the notion that music is malleable and capable of almost infinite permutations in its basic structure;

-- When a musician is stricken with a musical idea that demands he break out of the confines of a stock arrangement and let his audience in on the visitation of the muse;

-- As polyrhythms, syncopation and dissonance are brought into the mix for the spice of variety;

-- With respect, as when a master of Joe Henderson's stature is generous with his stage time for lesser-known soloists who might have something to teach even him;

-- With common reverence for and fearlessness of the possibilities that music offers;

-- With abandon;

-- A willingness to entertain oneself as well as one's audience, and a lack of fear of failing.

My little brother at age 41 knows all this and, knowing his talent as I do, I have no doubt he'd like to bring some of that to his dedicated group of volunteer musicians.

I may have succeeded in spoiling his volunteer fun, but I comfort myself in the knowledge that he's always wanted to play real jazz anyway.