April is Jazz Appreciation Month. It is also Mathematics Awareness Month and National Poetry Month, among others. Why should we choose to celebrate and appreciate jazz instead of trying to solve quadratic limericks or prove iambic pentameter?
As a uniquely American creation and something that has influenced music, visual arts, and society at large, I believe jazz deserves an honored seat at the head table of the artistic bounty. Here are just a few of the life lessons I have learned from this music.
1. Play Well With Others
Jazz is an example of what happens when a group of individuals comes together to create something that is greater than the sum of their individual parts. Every contributor in a jazz band brings a unique skill set, a unique part, a unique responsibility. Success will only happen when all of these elements work together.
Participants must be willing to offer what they can while accepting what others can give. Sometimes they need to dial back their individual desires for the good of the whole, while at other times they need to assume a leadership role. All of this happens in a dynamic environment that requires trust and support from everyone.
When it all comes together, there are few things on Earth that are more beautiful.
2. Listen, Then Speak
“I always learn more when I am talking than when I am listening,” said no one ever. There is a reason we have two ears and only one mouth.
We are more reasoned and empathetic when we take the time to better understand the world around us before we express ourselves. Jazz is an aural music. It was developed, shared, and grown by players listening to and imitating sound.
It is impossible to be a jazz musician and not be a good listener. Jazz musicians must constantly listen to those around them. It is the only way the music works. If jazz musicians are not listening to one another the only end result is pandemonium and musical inertia. Jazz demands careful listening from both the performers and the audience. Anything that encourages listening before talking is worthy of our attention.
Jazz is the ultimate social music. Its roots are in group improvisation and dance. If a jazz musician does not share with other musicians or the audience, the end result is again going to be disappointing.
Sharing applies to many contexts. A musician can have the greatest and most creative ideas in the world but they will go nowhere without the support of others. A performer must be willing to share these ideas with others in order for them to reach their full potential. While there are certainly many examples of superb solo performers, most jazz music is performed in groups and these groups only work when all players are willing to share their technique, musical skills, and other talents.
Jazz musicians share their very lives as well, because life experience plays such a role in how they express themselves. Everyone has something to offer, and when we share with others we make the world a better place for everyone.
4. Respect Everyone
Jazz musicians draw inspiration from across the musical spectrum. Its very beginnings blended slave songs with European form and harmony. It is difficult to imagine two more disparate lineages to bring together.
Jazz musicians have always been open to reaching outside of themselves to further the art and are the most respectful of styles and genres different from their own. Two well-known examples include Dizzy Gillespie blending Cuban music with jazz and Miles Davis fusing jazz and rock.
Contemporary performers like Esperanza Spalding and Norah Jones bring jazz techniques and sensibilities to their creative performances. Even if we may struggle at times to define styles of modern music, labels are far less important than quality.
Duke Ellington said, “There are two kinds of music, good music and the other kind.” Jazz musicians avoid “the other kind” by respecting and borrowing from across the musical spectrum. We would do well to do likewise.
5. Be Yourself
Jazz is the ultimate self-expression music. Jazz music thrives on the individuality of the performers, even if it is performed in a group. The improvising soloist is the obvious example of this, but many of the great bands that have come to define the music were unique collections of individuals.
Duke Ellington famously wrote his players’ names on their parts for his band. Most arrangers simply write “Alto Saxophone 1” implying that the part could be played by anyone. Ellington named the individual player for his parts (in the case of Alto 1 he would write “Rabbit,” meaning Johnny Hodges). These parts were not written for a generic alto player, Ellington had Hodges in mind for the entire piece, not just for the solos Hodges would play so beautifully.
All of us have something unique to share with the world and the world is a better place because of it. Jazz music exemplifies this.
Upon further review, I realize these aren’t ways to appreciate jazz, they’re reasons why we should appreciate jazz.
To make good on the promise of my title, here are five ways we can appreciate jazz:
- Buy a jazz recording
- Attend a live jazz performance
- Read “Music is my Mistress” by Duke Ellington
- Join your local jazz society
- Help crowdfund a new jazz project by a local jazz artist
I also encourage you – and your students – to honor jazz this month (and every month) by playing the music.