Why Jazz?

Jazz is always a staple in our family culture but, in these last weeks of Mardi Gras, it comes to the forefront of our musical revue. In our nod to New Orleans as the premiere celebration spot for Mardi Gras, we listen in on Spotify, watch “The Princess and the Frog” based in New Orleans. I pick up a copy of “Their Eyes Were Watching God” written by Zora Neale Hurston. My husband makes a King Cake to be consumed before Lent kicks in.

A good friend said to me does not like jazz. When I hear this, I first wonder

What sort of jazz this person has in mind?

I do not remember my first introduction to the genre, but I remember when jazz became a staple in my life. We parked near the haberdashery in downtown St. Paul, walked around the corner and down the steps to the blackened entrance, where the man sitting on a stool called us “cats” and took our cover charge. We walked into the space, all painted black with large framed signed posters of jazz legends. At the opposite end of the room was the stage. The bar filled the center with tables all around. Whenever possible we sat near the front, to the right of the stage. There we learned the beauty of listening live, knowing the performers, encountered new musicians we never heard of before, discussing legends those who performed for hundreds of dollars a ticket upstairs, then jammed downstairs for all the after-hours. It cemented itself as one of my most stable and most enjoyable college memories: The Artist’s Quarter.

In all that listening, we distinguished the good from the “meh.” We tuned in during solos to hear each musician creating a melody based on the chord structure on the spot. My friend was not a musician, and neither am I, but we loved it and learned from it and carry that love into our lives lived on separate ends of the country.

Like all musical genres, there are many kinds of jazz.

Yes, there is bland, boring, cheesy elevator jazz. And there’s that man in sunglasses playing the “Careless Whisper” as his life depended on it. But there is also big band, swing, ragtime, and rhythms with its roots in African-American spirituals and other folk traditions.

In the big picture, jazz is a uniquely American tradition. Even the Peanuts Gangs have something to say about jazz in “This Is America, Charlie Brown”. If you want to instill a sense of patriotism in the next generation, teach not just John Phillips Sousa and Johnny Cash but Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.

It’s a gift to listen to these musicians at work. The gift lies not just in their ability to play an instrument, the craft of which I have little to no knowledge, but in watching the creator do something all great artists must engage in from time to time: improvisation.

Improvisation looks different in different mediums.

As a writer, I do not only count putting words to paper but also the reading time, the book club time, the impromptu read-aloud time while teaching my children to memorize poetry.

Playing with the medium, like a child handling a batch of playdough, works our mental and creative muscles in important ways, explains Marian Parsons, author of the Miss Mustard Seed blog and several books. To grow and develop as an artist, she argues, it’s necessary.

For the painter that might mean some messy, abstract strokes or color studies, that is, swatches of color on a piece of paper. For the writer, it might be reading nonsense verse out loud. For the musician, it’s very likely improvisation. And improvisation is the heart of jazz, that swinging song with some impressive solos.

This sort of creative play, in whatever the work is, sharpens our senses and develops our muscles for the given work so that when we come back to Bach or book editing or the canvas, we are that much more adroit to take on the challenge required for higher-skilled work.

So you take the time for something like this in your own life?

Something creative. Something playful. Something in which the stakes are low but the payoff is delight?

 “HORSE” for the basketball player.

An innovative mod for the gamer.

A go-cart for the car mechanic.

And jazz for the musician.

The fun of it, the joy of it, has the power to spill over to the benefit of not only the creative type himself but to those in his circle and those with whom that joy is shared. And in this world where international and national events seem so terribly terrible and important, this is the antidote we need to keep us balanced, focused and forward-moving. And that brings us non-musicians, this month, to the jazz of New Orleans.

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