When I listen to jazz, I feel at my most American.
This started very young. For two impressionable years, from age 3 to 5, my family lived in Manhattan (NYC) and my father loved jazz. Installed in the married student housing of Union Theological Seminary on 121st and Riverside Drive, we lived very close to the jazz clubs of Harlem. We did not have any money: my father earned a modest stipend and my mother set up an easel in their tiny bedroom and did her oil painting in there, sometimes on commission. She claims she liked the smell of turpentine, but I never heard that from my father.
But anyway, the jazz clubs weren’t expensive.
My father chose two songs to sing, one for me and one for my brother, and called them “ours.” “My song” was “Hello Dolly.” My father sang it to me in a rich tenor, trying to achieve Louis Armstrong’s sound. To my brother, Simon, my father sang his own rendition of “Mr. Sandman:”
“Mr. Simon, Give me a dream…Pum, pum, pum, pum…”
Because he had cherished dreams of becoming a big band leader (perhaps because he studied no instrument growing up on a farm in Russell, Kansas), my father also bought us a record album that trained children to conduct. The record came with a black baton, which we lost almost immediately. While we studiously ignored his urges to learn about big band direction, my father listened to the music of Paul Whitman or Tommy Dorsey, eye closed, moving his hands smoothly to conduct.
In Manhattan in the early nineteen sixties, jazzmen were everywhere. Duke Ellington attended our church, Advent Lutheran, on 93rd and Broadway.
As a university student, I took a course on the History of Big Bang Jazz from the director of the University of Wisconsin marching band, Michael Leckrone. Leckrone’s hero was trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke. With each mention of Bix he stopped to place his hand over his heart. I had taken the class for fun, and was thus unprepared for the mountain of work it involved: I spent hours in the music library memorizing versions of Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy” until it seemed as if Ellington himself had moved from Manhattan to haunt me. We studied sidemen and composers and signature songs. But I was really just there to listen to the stories set in Harlem, New Orleans, Chicago, Kansas City and St. Louis. Tales of everything from Jelly Roll Morton’s teeth to Tommy Dorsey’s passing kept me on the edge of my seat.
Eventually I got to see many of the greats myself. In Chicago, New York City, Baltimore, Washington D.C. and Ann Arbor, Michigan I saw Sarah Vaughan, Ornette Coleman, Ahmad Jamal, Dizzy Gillespie, Stanley Turrentine, Illinois Jacquet, Benny Goodman, and Woody Herman, to name a few.
I recently submitted a proposal to give a “general public lecture” at the Montrieux Jazz festival in Switzerland next summer. My topic is “the embodiment of emotion in the perception and the production of music.” That title just means that we use our whole bodies and the brain’s motor systems to both appreciate and make music. Next time you listen to the solo on the standing bass, for instance, pay attention to how the bassist crouches when he plays the low notes and stands up straight to make the high ones. He isn’t just trying to reach parts of the instrument, he is trying to produce the sound. Notice that you are doing it too. Likewise, if you are truly listening to Ahmad Jamal, you’ll be exhausted and sweating at the end of a piece.
And if you totally embody “Black and Tan Fantasy,” well, then you’ve understood American jazz.