How jazz shaped my philosophy of life

I’m not alone am I? I mean, most guys in their thirties … with a waistline you don’t want to be reminded of, and a knee-jerk cynicism about the world … most guys are wondering what happened to that little boy they once were: his focus, his energy, his passion, his fundamental optimism … his innocence?

A mid-life crisis? It’s basically a second adolescence where the question has changed from ‘who do I want to be?’ to ‘who have I become?’

There are a few things that make me feel sixteen. One of them is swimming in open water, another is listening to jazz, old jazz, New Orleans jazz from the early 20th century. That’s essentially the sound-track of my teens.

How do you rebel in a world of non-conformists?

It’s a strange choice, but honestly, it was about the only avenue left open to express my rebellion, while I was trying to be a non-conformist like everyone else. My peers were listening to Nine Inch Nails, Portishead, House of Pain, Iron Maiden, Guns N’ Roses. My family (and music teachers) listened to baroque and classical music. Even the more progressive teachers listened to New Model Army and The Levellers. I got captivated by the energy and optimism of jazz, and later found in it a voice for the melancholia and rebellion I treasured in my adolescent heart.

I started out taping jazz radio programs on BBC Radio 3. I ended up collecting photos of jazz musicians, reading every scrap of jazz history I could find, and spending every break time on a piano in the music school. This music became one of my earliest mentors and I’m only discovering now how much it set my expectations and shaped my outlook. That boy I once was is still fundamentally running the show from a speakeasy in the back of my mind.

Freelancing is the highest form of employment

For instance, I don’t think I’ve ever questioned my assumption that freelancing is the highest form of employment. I learned this from my trumpet-blowing heroes. At the end of the day, they had themselves, they had soul and a horn to blow it out from. They pitched up, they did their thing, then they disappeared back into the night, beholden to nobody. If they were good, they got booked; if they weren’t hot enough, they got cut. If they got into self-destructive habits, they burned their career, because they were inseparable from it.

Gentlemen prefer banjos
Gentlemen prefer banjos

That’s it, you know, these musicians stood or fell on the basis of something that it was quite impossible to fake. You can paint jazz by numbers, and I’ve heard plenty of these guys who have emerged from conservatories who can run up and down scales very prettily — but the elusive elements of soul, swing and hotness … sticks out a mile.

Of course, I’m romanticising it – but it’s the myth that wired me to be a freelancer.

I have no idea what’s going to happen, and I love it

Then there’s my almost-pathological preference for spontaneity. My heroes were (and still are) improvisers. None of them would pitch up to a jam session and ask to see the score or dream of showing up with a bunch of pre-rehearsed licks. They’d internalised the outer forms and the inner core of their art a long time before they stepped up to the mic.

I can’t see the problem with going by the seat of your pants as long as, you know, you made those pants yourself, you know they are up to the job, and you carry a sewing kit in case they get torn

I still believe that you’ve gotta be a sponge and soak in stuff, so when you get poked that’s what comes out. If it’s not in you already, it’s too darn late to start preparing now. Being an improviser isn’t about not being prepared, it’s about the preparation happening over years in the past.

Individualism can coexist with collectivism

Then take the matter of ‘teamwork’, ‘leadership’ and all those buzz words you’ll never find on the sleeve notes of a hot record. My take on these things is still cast acccording to the loose categories of ‘ensemble’, ‘soloist’ and ‘bandleader’.

The feature that makes early New-Orleanian jazz so special compared to what followed is the ‘ensemble’. Everyone plays together – everyone improvises together. It’s not about the solos like it is today. You might not hear any solos; sometimes the most a single instrumentalist gets to play in the limelight is a four-bar break to key the ensemble back in.

The phenomenon of a bandleader is an interesting one in this egalitarian context. From my reading of early jazz history the bandleader is:

  •  needed by the entertainment industry so they have a name they can use to sell records and attract the punters (‘Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers’ is going to sell better than ‘some guys with horns and stuff who happened to be available on Friday afternoon’)
  • the one with the personal influence, the network and the contacts (in modern business terms) to convene an assortment of seasoned musicians who are going to sound good together (the cats dig him/her enough to pitch up)
  • someone who has to take care of that client-facing stuff, you know, and make sure everyone gets paid if they’ve been sober

None of that means the band leader is any kind of big-shot when it comes to the team performing (or the band playing).

Classic New-Orleans jazz is a shining example of how both individualism and collectivism can play loud and strong together in society. I guess I’m holding out for that.

That’s almost enough said … yup, enough. I’ll just let the music speak for itself. This is Black Bottom Stomp (it still raises the hairs on my neck):

6 thoughts on “How jazz shaped my philosophy of life

  1. Great post! When I was a boy, my father listened to heaps of old jazz at home, turned up loud. “Who’s that on clarinet, son? Come on, you know it”. “Listen to that trumpet, son, listen”. And so on. He’d tell me stories of seeing jazz greats playing at the Colonial here in Toronto, a joint which by that time in the 60s featured girls girls girls and no jazz in sight. On Jelly Roll, he’d say, “He had a diamond in his front tooth, son….so he’d have a thousand dollar smile.” I absorbed it all, but since it was my dad’s music, I decided I couldn’t possibly like it. I recall the day, in my 20s, when I called him up and said, “hey Dad, you still got that Jimmy Rushing record, the one where he plays Brussels Blues live with Benny Goodman on the clarinet?” Geez, my eyes well up when I think of that moment, the moment I recognized that I loved all that old jazz and I was so proud of my dad and his incredible knowledge of the music, and the moment I recognized the incredible gift he had given me..He once told me about going to see Wingy Manone at the Colonial (“he was a one-armed trumpet player, son and man could he blow”). He sent a shot of booze up to the stage for Wingy, who said to the band, “take it away boys, I’ve got a sponsor”, and he went and sat down with my father and they talked about the Tar Paper Stomp and and all those old tunes and God only knows what else. It was because of my father that I gained a life-long love of music outside of the mainstream material that was being marketed to me every day.

    These days I listen to a lot of old time music, and like with the old jazz, there are no solos. All the musicians come together and around they go, finding the groove, that moment when time stops and all the instruments come together perfectly, the fiddle on the high melody and the whole band driven by the rhythm of the clawhammer banjo.

    1. Hey, Eugene – Thanks so much for your comment and wonderful reminiscences! Your Dad really gave you a precious gift there. I’m sure he and I would have talked and played records late into the night 😉

    1. Thanks! Loved it. The cat on washboard is classic – Dirty Rice Richardson! Reminds me of my first ever band: The Washboard Boys. We had Jack on keys, Tom on fiddle, Will on tea-chest bass, and me on ukulele banjo … no washboard, though.

  2. paulhedj says:

    Loved this, Seymour. It got me thinking.
    And no, you’re not alone. These days, I’m also asking ‘who have I become?’ rather than ‘who do I want to be?’ Actually, that thought crosses my mind most of these days.
    My reasons for ‘thinking in jazz’ are a little different, perhaps. I guess I would be more inclined to talk about how jazz theory shaped my philosophy of life. Those chord extensions that make everything so much more complex and beautiful – but only once you develop an ear for them. The ‘outside’ #9 on a V chord that wants to fall to a b9 and then resolve to the tonic – if you let it. The mistakes you make when playing/living faster than what you’ve got the chops for, and the ways you can redeem those errors by acknowledging them and adopting them as part of your performance. The art of listening to others rather than getting lost in your own musical world; responding and opening up dialogues with the other cats in the band. The way a wholetone scale sounds ‘out there’ when played on its own, but has a mesmerising beauty if you just pick your moment right (say, over a minor ii-V-i).
    These are some of the jazz principles that make sense of my life these days. So thanks for your post, and for expressing your freelance spirit.

    1. Ah, Yes, Paul. Good thoughts! There’s another whole blog post that could be written from the “Jazz theory” perspective: the continuously unresolved cadences of life; the importance of listening; practicing until you’ve got the chops for it; reharmonisation; the shared underlying heritage of the ‘standards’ re-interpreted for each succeeding generation … I could go on. Thank you for adding your perspective; I can totally see it 😉

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