When I discovered and immediately came to love jazz while I was in high school, I had a friend who felt quite the opposite. He hated jazz. He was a good musician, already had quite a stable of students, and managed to save for a new Camaro with musical horns as an added feature. And he hated jazz. This is all jazz is, he would say, and then play a C major chord, play some C major scale in a random manner, and claim with certainty that he had just played jazz—and there’s really nothing to it. Now classical, he would continue…
That’s wrong, that’s not jazz, I would say. Then what is jazz, according to you, because according to the dictionary—and this was always his trump card, rightly or wrongly, things always came down to the dictionary—he had technically just played jazz. So I have to argue with Webster, I nodded. And we dropped the subject for another day.
He didn’t know it, and neither did I, but the question of what is jazz hasn’t been answered. When everyone knew what jazz was, no one asked, and when folks started asking, there were so many types of jazz and so many ways of playing jazz that it couldn’t be answered. Combine that with the rise of jazz programs, and ye abandon all hope. When Fred Astaire sang an Irving Berlin tune, is that jazz? To me, no. When he started dancing, then yes, that was jazz. The reason was because he had brought the tune to life. And that is jazz, its essence, bringing some song to life, not just playing it, not just varying a theme—actually bringing the tune to life. Here’s where Webster’s hits a wall, here’s where biology hits a wall, here’s where our whole culture hits a wall—there is no definition of life other than by using the Unofficial English Composition 101 technique of “Bullshitting”. “Bullshitting” is using a bushel more words than needed in order to cover up that you really have no idea. The writers of Webster’s, the Professors of Biology all dress up the definition—Life is when something is alive—the cornerstone tautology, with bushels of barnyard glitter.
The tautology is clearer; the need for bullshit is considerably lessened when defining ‘dead’—when something is no longer alive. Clear enough—you get to walk three steps before running into the wall.
Songs die. They still get played, played too much, and they die. And there is a graveyard for dead songs. It’s called the wedding band. “Take the ‘A’ Train, Satin Doll, Misty, all staples for wedding bands, all dead. The band, essentially rock players, rehearse it, play the kind of rhythm you find as a setting on a cheap organ, and they will play the same solo every time, with a little bit of guitar distortion because as we all know, in the guitar world, distortion is emotion.
The first time I began to understand the true greatness of Oscar Peterson was hearing him play ‘A’ Train—as if it had never been played before, as if the lead sheet would still smudge if you accidentally leaned on it too hard. And he didn’t play four choruses and out, he played it for 15 minutes, each chorus more exciting than the next. He did the same with Satin Doll, nearly 9 minutes of quiet beauty, building beauty, enhancing it until it was ready for Mt. Olympus. All the Things You Are—he was raising the dead. He was putting his force of life into these tunes, he was showing us, bypassing English Comp Barnyard, that life is indeed a force, like gravity, like the stuff that holds atoms together, and the stuff that makes the television flicker pictures. Through his music, he was showing all of us, if we care to pay attention, what western civilization has been missing. He was showing us life. He will be missed, More Than You Know.