A COUPLE of weeks ago, a friend of mine asked me if I would put together a list of jazz albums.
“Jazz Albums.” I paused. “Any particular style? Era? Instrument of choice?”
“No. Just some things that someone should know about.
My friend’s friend felt as if there was hole in her listening repertoire. For awhile now, she had wanted to correct it, but didn’t quite know where to start.
She told him that she just wanted a list of titles that might be something that “one might have in their library.” She didn’t use the word “definitive,” thankfully, but the request still gave me pause.
Music is so personal: The discovery of new music — how music becomes absorbed into your life, how it becomes entwined with particular rituals and entire life-chapters — all feels so private and evolutionary. I’m often asked to make playlists for people. For long drives. For dinner parties. For contemplative moments. Sometimes the mix is just to introduce someone to a particular artist or a very particular period of an artist’s career. I’ve done those countless number of times — mix-tapes, ripped-CDs and now playlists — with some thought, but never flummoxed by it. But there was something very duanting about going back to my jazz origin story.
I grew up in a house full of music. My mother played piano and sang. My brother and I cycled through instruments and music lessons. (He found one that stuck, seriously, and therefore is a musician today. I, however, continue to wander.) There were piles of records in all styles leaning in stacks near the console stereo. Some were stowed next to bookshelves, others, in closets. We all built and cultivated our record collections, often sharing sounds. Jazz flew through the house often — bebop, post-bop, a smattering of experimental, “out there” stuff, fusions and soul jazz and “drummer-less” trios — so I know that my first taste came from listening in the house and in the car as we tooled around. For some reason Sunday afternoons come back the strongest — whenever I hear David “Fathead” Newman’s “Hard Times”, I feel like I can still see one of the curves of Angelus Vista Drive, in copper-y late-afternoon sunlight, through the windshield, making the last turns toward home.
I didn’t start working on my personal jazz collection until college, which, I think, infused my early selections with a sort of self-conscious, “I better pick the right ones to send the right message” — vibe. Later, of course, it didn’t matter as much. I had been “listening across the dial” as early as I can remember. Back then, L.A. radio had lots of choices and DJs to help usher you in and spell out the finer points. And even though it was around the house, jazz was still something that felt like I still needed a guide to — my mother was one, and an essential one, and so was one of the voices I associated with my “jazz scholarship” — DJ Chuck Niles. Niles’ way-down-low voice rumbled the floor. I would stretch out on the carpet in front of the speakers just so that I could feel the tremor.<img class="alignleft"
I don’t remember what “jazz” album was my first. Back then, the 80s, a lot of straight-ahead musicians were doing mainstream, at-the-moment pop songs as part of their album’s song cycle. Pushing back into the past was an excursion that took place through guides, like the aforementioned DJs, or the musicians themselves or fans with a deep sense of history. But I’d say the lion share of it for me was moving through history via antecedents, personnel/players, moods, instruments. I started with my mother’s records: Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Bill Evans, Erroll Garner, Stan Getz. Reading from those session lists, I moved to other artists, Theolnious Monk, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Charles Mingus. I saw music, in colors and shapes. I heard the humor and wit in Monk. I felt the Trickster-figure in Mingus, I felt the palette of many, many colors with Miles. Erroll Garner was like bright jewels. Then, a whole phalanx of drummers (Dannie Richmond, Kenny Clarke, et. al) called up different feelings: footsteps and codes and heartbeats. It was all so very personal.
Jazz can be abstract and impressionistic, bent and “swervy” (to use one of my editors’ favorite terms) or technically precise, eloquent and clean. Jazz, of course, is many moods — sometimes even within the space of one composition.
Tasked with this list, I realized, a couple of days later, that in a way this exercise was like revealing your essence to someone. The musicians do it, sure. But we listeners, by passing the pieces on, reveal something about ourselves: Our playfulness, our love of puzzles or conundrums, our lush-life sides, our blue moods. Pop music, I began to realize, is more like journal musings, but jazz (like classical music) goes right to your core, to the place your thoughts originate, before they have shape or words to describe them.
I’m still putting the finishing touches on my list, deciding how much to reveal or not reveal, the itinerary I’ll make for her, the pins in the map, the places I think she should travel. And the most wonderful, unexpected extra of this is going back and locating the very thing embedded in a piece that suddenly pulls me closer to the person I was, while at the same time connecting me to how I came to be right here, right now.