14 February 2008 (PS added 25 May 2009)

The mystery of jazz

By Tapani Lausti

Dan Morgenstern, Living with Jazz. A reader edited by Sheldon Meyer. Pantheon Books 2004.

A jazz musician friend once explained to me that playing in a jazz combo can produce mysterious sensations, as if something happens without the full understanding of the participants. This does not mean accidental notes or superstitious feelings but an experience beyond clear human understanding. The musician becomes part of a whole which is not simply the sum of the participants' individual experiences.

I remembered this conversation whilst reading this interesting collection of a veteran jazz writer's articles and reviews. Dan Morgenstern quotes the legendary trumpeter Roy Eldridge explaining the high notes he could hit when the spirit was upon him: "You pick up the horn and everything comes out just right — feeling, range, speed — you know just what you want and you can get it. It's a mysterious thing." (p. 173)

According to Morgenstern, one of Eldridge's favourite words was "mysterious".

The legendary drummer Jo Jones said to Morgenstern: "Music is therapy for people, and the most stimulating music there is is jazz. It is also the most spiritual of all musics — a delicate thing. You can't play it unless you have found yourself, and it takes time to find ourselves." (p. 185)

Indeed, I have always thought that jazz can touch parts of your "soul" which other art forms cannot reach, although, of course, people's reaction to art vary. Jazz is also an attitude which, at least in my imagination, comes close to politically libertarian feelings.

Jo Jones comments on problems with some individuals of the younger generation of jazz musicians (the interview was published in 1965). Morgenstern writes: "Jones also resents musical intolerance and the tendency among some younger players to put down musicians who ask them to play in ways that may not be of their own choice." (p. 184)

Morgenstern's book leaves the reader with the impression that as human beings earlier generations of musicians were more often than not more tolerant and easy-going than some later players. They also did not mind being seen as entertainers even if they as musicians were high-class stylists. With later generations the self-importance of being artists sometimes became off-putting.

Morgenstern's own story is interesting. Although I used to read his articles in Down Beat magazine (which he edited in the 1960s and into the 1970s) I never knew that this famous American writer was not originally American. He was born in Vienna and spent much of his youth in Denmark and Sweden. His love of jazz thus started with listening to records and going to concerts in Europe.

Morgenstern arrived in New York in 1947 at the age of 17 and almost immediately found himself right in the centre of the "Big Apple" jazz scene. He writes: "While most first-time visitors wanted to see the Statue of Liberty (arriving by ocean liner, I'd already seen it) or the Empire State Building, I wanted to go to Fifty-second Street, that legendary block of jazz clubs I'd read so much about." (p. 9)

Soon Morgenstern became friends with many jazz musicians, among them the legendary trumpet player Oran "Hot Lips" Page. Numerous famous jazz musicians gave him a friendly welcome. Trumpeter Roy Eldridge became a close friend. In his portrait of "Little Jazz" (as Eldridge was also known), Morgenstern writes: "In many and mysterious ways, Roy Eldridge changed every life he touched."

As to the art/entertainment argument, Morgenstern wrote in 1970: "And who the hell says that 'art' must always be pure and holy and profound? Me, I'd rather tap my foot to some soul jazz, organs, electric bass, and all, than be hectored by some no-blowing poseur's naked ego trip. One may be a commercial cop-out, the other serious art — but don't bet on it. These are ambiguous times." (p. 673)


PS 25 May 2009: I wrote in the first paragraph: "The musician becomes part of a whole which is not simply the sum of the participants' individual experiences."

Today I found a wonderful way to express the same thing. Finnish drummer Jussi Lehtonen said in an interview (I am translating from Finnish): "For me the best moments in playing jazz are those when every member of the band seems to instinctively sense each others' intentions. The music begins to fly on its own wings." (Harri Uusitorppa: "Rumpali on kahden esikoisen isä", Helsingin Sanomat, 24 May 2009)


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