26 December 2010

Second Loves (i)

In college, I attended a masterclass by a very talented and increasingly well-known trumpet player not much older than I am now who had been a jazz major at a prominent U.S. conservatory, and who uttered something that will be with me forever: "When I finished college, I realized that I didn't really like jazz." Indeed, it could justifiably be called into question whether the music that was performed during this residency qualified as "Jazz" with a capital-J, yet this music was, besides being incredible, nevertheless inconceivable without its basis in jazz-conservatory training (not to mention being exceptionally fresh, and miraculously so, I guess, given that such training is often assailed for its potential to educate the individuality right out of its students).

This was an odd pose he was striking, disavowing jazz one moment while displaying an unabashed indebtedness to it the next (he might contend the accuracy of the latter description, but it was hard not to hear it that way, and this not in spite of how he prefaced his work but in fact most especially because of it). It's a pose that doesn't resonate with me any more today than it did back then, but having since navigated the post-college twenty-something years myself, I can at least say that I better understand the dynamics at play. I was barely 21 years old at the time of that masterclass, but my honeymoon period with bebop had already evaporated, leaving me bouncing between intense periods of study borne of fanatical devotion and despondent periods of non-study following an event or series of events which brought home to me just how stylistically limited an improvisor I had chosen to become. In the meantime, I was already noticing that while there were tons of other college-aged jazz players, tons of middle-aged jazz players, and more than a few senior citizen jazz players, I didn't ever seem to meet very many twenty-something jazz players. I only knew a few musicians who were 5 to 10 years older than I was, and like this clinician, most of them seemed to be after something eclectic which may or may not have entailed an overt jazz influence. Among this group, most were at peace with their past jazz study, but it wasn't unheard of to meet one who had disavowed it altogether as an adolescent phase. This wasn't a novel concept to me at this point; I just wasn't prepared to encounter it in the form a high-profile professional giving a university masterclass.

I'm now approaching the age this clinician was when those words were spoken, and a lot still has to change if I am ever to decide that I "don't really like jazz." Nonetheless, I say that his statement will be with me forever because it was the moment I realized that it's not just broken-down jazz-wannabe punk rock stoners with outsized inferiority complexes that say these kinds of things; they have, do, and will, but it can be soft-spoken, well-educated, profoundly gifted musicians as well, musicians who make music I would actually want to listen to, whether it's jazz or not, and who I might on a good day even be able to tolerate socializing with. That was something of a revelation, both for better and for worse.

Though I haven't disavowed jazz (or most any other music I've ever been smitten with for that matter), I have, in fact, gradually begun acquiring interests from outside classical music and jazz, interests which may be tremendously dissimilar to these styles on the surface, but which invariably contain deeper similarities. And having now more or less arrived at the dreaded age in question myself, I'm no longer limited to observing snapshots, but now have also witnessed trajectories, the before, during and after of it, as well as the litany of extra-musical priorities peculiar to this age that can, in some cases at least, drive the musical ones over a cliff.

I've frequently remarked to others that this is an age where musicians go one of two directions (leaving aside for a moment the dreaded third direction of quitting altogether), namely towards either lifelong learning or a lifetime of stagnation. By far the most insidious enabler of apathy is the incredible tolerance (enforcement?) of mediocrity that prevails at just about every turn among so-called professionals. A young freelancer can't help but notice how much lower the musical bar is at "money gigs" compared to even a second-rate college music department. Another is the frantic twenty-something race to petite bourgeousie domestic respectability, pitting canoe ownership against studio rental and wine tasting against score study in the high-stakes court of spousal approval.

Among those twenty-something musicians who, for whatever reason, continue to seek growth, a certain expansion of purview is almost inevitable. Yet a severe disconnect continues to exist between myself and many of those around me by virtue of the fact that, whereas I started with classical music and jazz and have been working my way out from there, most of them worked their ways to classical music and jazz from somewhere else. I say "continues to exist" because this was the source of even greater frustration when I was in high school and college. I used to entertain myself at jazz camps by picking out the students who came to jazz through rock just by hearing them (though hearing them was, of course, often superfluous as they usually were dressed for the occasion). Any given jazz jam I might have found myself at during those years seemed to follow roughly the same trajectory: a series of awkwardly played (sometimes awkwardly called) standards would prevail until some ballsy kid in a Green Day shirt had the guile to call "Chameleon," to which "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" was the inevitable chaser, and suddenly everyone except for the faculty and I was having the time of their lives. Some of the people I work with now have seen me refuse to play "Chameleon." It's not so much that I dislike the music as that its symbolic status as the pivot tune in the jazz-rock cold war that defined my musical youth has more or less spoiled it for me for all time. (I have performed "Red Clay," though, because if you really want to be a dick, you can always insist on playing it in the original key.)

Suffice it to say, then, that when disavowal time rolled around, circa age 24, there were some surprises among my peers, but not many. There's selling out, and then are those who never had anything for sale in the first place. Once whatever social factor it was that compelled all those high school punk rockers to go to jazz camp every summer had evaporated, they gave up trying to infiltrate the jazz world for status' sake and went back to being who they really were (which I don't begrudge them one bit because it's better for all concerned in the long run). This is most definitely not the route that our mystery clinician took; I imagine he falls firmly into the group that simply continued discovering non-jazz music he liked rather than that which divests itself of all things uncool at the drop of a hat. It should be obvious to anyone who keeps up with these missives that I'm a jazzhead at heart, but recent years have presented (if not manifested) the possibility of going eclectic in ways I never anticipated. That this has been brought about by exposure to what is, in the grand scheme of things, an exceedingly tiny fraction of the non-jazz, non-classical music that's out there only adds to my suspicion that a more eclectic route is inevitable.

Sounds simple, but it's not. For one thing, there's a fine line between studied eclecticism and merely indulging a short attention span, this being the difference between true synthesis and mere reference or allusion. For another, there's the issue of authenticity, or bringing one's depth of knowledge of and experience in newfound musical interests up to speed with lifelong ones. Finally, much as it pains me to say it, there's the social aspect of all of this, and the reality that whether one's change of stylistic direction is studied or unstudied, unified or fragmented, authentic or allusive, sincere or calculated, assumptions will be made based on limited evidence, and otherwise sympathetic peers on both sides of the divide will think to themselves either, "He's no longer one of us," or "He'll never really be one of us." Even to someone like me, that can be a more powerful deterrent than the specter of taking time away from prior musical engagements, though the latter also poses an interesting conundrum.