Wednesday, May 9, 2007

What Jazz means to me

Life is funny. Back in 1975 I had the chance to sit backstage at a Frank Sinatra concert in Jerusalem, and blew the opportunity. I guess I wasn't enough of a Sinatra fan at the time. What an idiot I was then! When I entered Hillcrest High School in 1964, I could have learned saxophone and played in the school big band. Instead I signed up for woodwork (a disaster for me and the poor remains of the trees I abused), and waited thirty years to start learning to play that divine instrument. By the way, the saxophone was invented in about 1840 by Adolphe Sax, who spent his life trying to convince people to play it, and fighting off imitators. The problem was, Adolphe invented the sax about 80 years before it found its ultimate cosmic role as the soothing melodic voice of jazz. Poor Adolphe Sax. He didn't live to see his great triumph. But if you go to Belgium, try to see his museum.

Tonight is remembrance day in Israel (all holidays and events start and end here in the evening, in accordance with Jewish custom). One of the great friends I lost here over the years is Gaby Ben Artsi (Friedlander), who was killed in a military exercise thirty years ago, this very month. He was one of the most brilliant people I ever met, cut down at 21. He was an airplane pilot (navigator), loved bridge, basketball, and mankind. About six weeks before he died, I helped him buy a Yamaha saxophone. He was making progress on it when he died. After his funeral, his parents asked whether I wanted to play his sax. I couldn't bear to. It took me almost twenty years to hold a sax in my hands. But as soon as I did, music started to come out. And it hasn't stopped since.

I started playing classical piano in grade three, but didn't find out about jazz till I was about twenty. Classical music is great, but it involves a sort of bondage to the composer, however brilliant, who wrote the piece. You are limited as to how much leeway you can take with a classical composition. But jazz is all about leeway. You take a 'standard', or 'blues', or original composition, or whatever, and go with it where it takes you. In jazz there are also some forms and rules, but if you break them in an appealing way, then you may be on your way to stardom. I love the way that playing and singing a jazz standard frees you to put a lot of yourself into it.

Jazz, like many music and art forms is a language, and wherever you travel around the world, you find others who speak it. You might not be able to exchange a sentence, but you can play a whole tune together. One of the great things is walking into a place with a horn, and 'sitting in' on a tune or two. I've done this in London, Vancouver, Washington, Tokyo, Brussels, etc. and it's a great feeling (actually it feels even better when you play well).

Jazz is also about teamwork and sharing. Good jazz occurs when the musicians are attentive to each other's playing, and inspired by it. I've met some great and wonderful jazz singers who have shared their knowledge freely (Sheila Jordan who's in this picture with me, and Anita Wardell), and have jammed with some really super sax players with true camaraderie for greatly inferior players (such as myself), Ian Ritchie, for example, who tours with Roger Waters.

More on music on a future posting.

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