Friday, December 26, 2014


This week, I got to watch my grandkids playing jazz for the first time at Tipitina's amazing Sunday Youth Music Workshop.  They are both hard-working musicians, practicing their craft, getting beats and fingerwork and crossovers and flams and frets and hemiquavers...

...those two, like every musician I have ever met, speak a different language when they are talking music. 

So these competent budding musicians, who I have been admiring  am terribly envious of, got on stage and played with the house band.  The chord progression was simple, and was repeated over and over.  The drum line was not terribly intricate, and the house drummer walked them - all seven aspiring drummers - through the line a few times, and helped adjust them when they were not driving hard enough. 

Gabi and Remi in the all-new G&R.

But this was not learning and practicing a song.  This is not discovering how to play in sync with one another. 

At least, it is not only that.

This is improvisation.  This is taking a turn at the helm and creating ornamentation that makes sense.  Or doesn't initially, but then resolves back into something that does.  Tension, tension, release.  Learning the boundaries, and playing within them, then breaking through the boundaries.  And coming back home again.

And I watched as both struggled to do it.

We are simply not prepared for playing like that.  From our schools, to our music lessons, to our organized sports, we are inculcated in the following of rules.  Girls don't make mud pies.  Boys don't play with dolls.  Calvinball is not a real game.  We are taught to follow rules, to respect our place, to wait our turn.

Jamming means you wait your turn.  And when it is your turn, the journey is yours, and the only thing necessary is that you get back to the framework by the time your turn is over. The people who guide you while you are playing, suggesting a riff, encouraging you to drive your tempo, leaning in when you hit that perfect ornamentation - they are your bandmates.  Not your instructors.

Image From Dreamstime
The daughter of a friend of mine is doing jazz with her sewing.  At 11 years old, Allison already knows that she wants to be a fashion designer.  And she is taking sewing lessons, and shows serious aptitude at it. 

What is interesting to me, though, is that she is learning jazz there, too.  She sees the rules, knows the rules, and likes learning new tools to use.  But when it is her turn, she plays to her own tune.  Therhythm might be a little off, but she corrects it, slows, then accelerates, turns the corner and BAM!  She has a piece that is uniquely hers.

I honestly have NEVER put sewing and jazz in the same category.  But I like it.  It speaks to how our minds can work - creatively - and how the opportunities for creativity play out throughout our lives.  As long as we think of the rules as frameworks, we can play within those rules and even step outsides the rules (carefully) and still play beautiful music. Writing a grant?  Use your magnificent storytelling talents like Suzanne Raether does, playing counterpoint to the dry text.  Teaching a class about post-processualist archaeology? Riff about your own field narrative like archeojazz genius David Anderson. Temp job answering phones?  Use improv from your acting background like the incomparable Caroline Lawton does.

There is always room for jazz.  Not everyone will approve.  I have never been a fan of experimental jazz, even though I wanted to like it.  But the truth is, everyone around you will be happier because of the willingness you have to explore the boundaries and have fun with the task at hand.

Well, except for those who drive a truck.  Parker - you get limited creativity between those lines.

By the end of the session, G&R were jamming comforably.  They had made improvisation part of their repertoire, and started coloring outside the lines.  I suspect that the experience will make them less likely to accept a stodgy learning process in the future.

They are now jazz musicians, no matter what they play.

No comments: