Wednesday, March 3, 2010

What Jazz Is... Sometimes

A couple of times every year Standard Deviation, a band I play with, plays a house party in a large, 100-year-old house in the Inman Park neighborhood of Atlanta. The house is owned by a popular older couple with ties to city's the old-school liberal activist community. The parties are always a blast - lots of food, lots of alcohol, and lots of interesting people: writers, folksingers, liberal talk-show hosts, drag queens, and folks from the neighborhood.

We play a pretty wide variety of jazz at these parties, including tunes by Jelly Roll Morton, Ellington, Monk, Gershwin, and Cole Porter. And the people love it - all night long party-goers hang out to listen, drink, smooch, and especially to dance. We played one of these parties last Saturday, and at its height, that rare, magical alchemy happened - the band, the dancers, and the listeners became one intense, sweaty, happy entity.

For a jazz musician these days, especially one whose music usually leans toward the avent-garde, this can be a rare phenomenon. Jazz is often relegated to the role of background music for eating, drinking, or conversation. Or it's presented in a concert setting, with the band on a lighted stage and the audience in the dark, invisible to the musicians. And there's nothing wrong with that. But it sure is nice to experience that immediate, symbiotic connection with the audience.

Different people have different views of what jazz is, probably because jazz is so many things. It's often called America's classical music or our country's contribution to the arts. I know that comments like that are meant to be positive, but I hope jazz never becomes what classical music has become in some circles - atrophied music to be listened to in the dark, quietly.

Admittedly, the party-goers reacted so well to the music partly because most of the tunes included vocals, and because most of the music featured a strong, danceable beat. But once that connection was made, they were willing to follow us into slightly more challenging areas. Of course, we didn't go into any 30-minute versions of Albert Ayler tunes, but that's not what we were there for. I'm not about to abandon more challenging areas of music, but it's great to swing hard on "I Can't Believe That You're in Love With Me" and have the audience swinging along with you. That's not all jazz can be, but I hope it never loses that populist connection.

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