My introduction to Jazz was only in passing as a boy when I watched Charlie Brown and heard the theme music—but I didn’t know what to call it. My first real love, though was punk rock when I saw The Clash and The Ramones on MTV, and I drew comparisons to the Outlaw Country and Surf music my father listened to along with Motown from the 1960s my mother enjoyed. My mother blames a punk rock friend of mine I met in high school for my love of the fast beats and three chords, but she and my father laid down my musical foundation with twangy, soulful moans rocking back and forth with the ocean. She wouldn’t hear any of it. To acknowledge my points would cause her to face her own narrow mindedness. The point of all that back and forth was my love of all kinds of music while favoring specific styles, but I didn’t know the origins until I was in eighth grade.
In junior high my school offered a class called The History of American Music. I instantly signed up for it because I am a sucker for origin stories. I thought the class would start with the birth of rock n roll in the 1950s, but I did not expect the class to begin on the plantations of the American South in the mid-19th century. My teacher made the argument, we read the books, and then watched videos. I knew enough about spirituals to know these were mournful prayers for deliverance and served as code for runaway slaves passing through to freedom. What I didn’t know was sixteen years after The Civil War in New Orleans, white musicians took the rhythm of the spirituals and the beats of the drums used by slaves, and created Jazz, but made it clear that no black man would ever play this music. These musicians disregarded the origins of their music and paid their rent with exploitation. This was the point of Langston Hughes in the 1920s when he brought up the amount of white people who danced to Jazz and played Jazz. He didn’t care so much that white people were part of Jazz, but they did nothing to solve the injustice inspiring Jazz.
We moved to the beginnings of Blues in the 1920s as a way of naming and singing the pain to be free from pain, the beginnings of Country and Western in the 1930s, and Bop in the 1940s. What blew away my mind, though, was the creation of rock n roll. Bill Haley synthesized Country & Western and Rhythm & Blues to create the song “Rock Around the Clock.”
I saw the creation of sub-genres like surf, Motown, Punk, and Hip Hop. The music I enjoyed and loved connected me to the sorrow of back breaking labor and marginalization. The same anger and contempt I heard in my Punk Rock, I could hear in Hip Hop, and a voice of many calling out in the urban wilderness for jubilee and justice. God didn’t go silent after the ascension of Jesus nor did the canon of God’s word close in the mid -4th century, but shrieked in my 20th century American concrete sprawl.
I didn’t begin to appreciate Jazz or immerse myself into the music until I discovered the books of Jack Kerouac. Kerouac’s writing was influenced by the Bop created by Charlie Parker. The reason Parker created Bop had to do with making beats so complicated that none of the white swing people could copy and commodify his music. Kerouac wanted to write like Parker blew. First thought, best thought which is the core of his Bop spontaneity, and the driving force behind On the Road. But I must point out that Kerouac romanticized Jazz and the hard life of the African-American trying to survive in a culture that hated them. James Baldwin had more than a few terse words regarding Kerouac’s treatment of African-Americans in his monumental work. African-Americans are not the child-like, magical saviors for disaffected, bored white people looking for kicks. That being said, though, Kerouac was searching for something more, but echoed the systemic racism of the country. For me, I knew enough to know I don’t understand, and I, like Kerouac, will say something unintentionally prejudiced, but I want to know. I want to join with Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, and Charlie Parker to look for IT. To look for that divine source where all answers hum a benevolent truth granting shelter to the weary seeker.
My recent Jazz experience was in an AMC connected to a mall in Omaha, NE. It was April of 2016, and Don Cheadle’s mystical biopic of Miles Davis “Miles Ahead” was playing. The movie was brilliant and solidified my opinion of Cheadle’s talent in acting and directing. Ronnie and I bought our tickets at five ‘o’ clock for the seven ‘o’ clock showing, and went to the Half Price Books to look over some Beat literature of which they had plenty, but the store also had a tremendous Jazz selection. In the brief time we had, I purchased a box set of Miles Davis, and went to the theater. We were the only ones in the theater, and in the darkness I heard Miles Davis through Don Cheadle sitting with his back against a car door, “Don’t call it Jazz, man. That’s some made up word—it’s social music.” The movie ended with Miles Davis playing to a 21st century audience wearing a vest, and on the back of the vest, “#socialmusic.” The argument of the film is what Miles Davis said in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s still said something today. The social situation had not changed when Davis first picked up his horn, but the language did, and the rage could be felt in the modern expressions of hip hop and punk. Jazz, at its core, gives words to the indecipherable groaning of the broken heart. Jazz still speaks because hearts have not healed, but when hearts finally heal Jazz will not cease. The music will evolve and continue to be the rumbling human search for the divine.