I've recently become aware that my relationship to the world is colored by the world of my youth. I can't erase my first impressions. Growing up in the 1950s and '60s I learned folk songs, spirituals, classical music, the American Songbook, show tunes and jazz. I never related to rock and roll. It seemed unsophisticated and aimed at kids, not unlike Sugar Smacks and Barbie Dolls. Given a choice between a fine French restaurant and McDonald's, there was no choice.
My parents were not the most sophisticated, but they instilled in me respect for learning and the arts. My father couldn't tell you exactly why Beethoven was great, but he knew Beethoven was great and deserved our respect. My exposure to great music at home through records and my mom's playing our spinet in the living room in the afternoons connected me to the world I saw and heard on TV and the movies. For me this was the soundtrack to American life.
Louis Armstrong, Jimmy Durante, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie and Perry Como, Dinah Shore, Frank Sinatra, Nat Cole, Sammy Davis, Jr.--they all were a part of America and who I am. By the time I was 12 or 13, my love of jazz caused me to to feel that Black artists, by and large, were more authentic. The difference between Joe Williams or Ray Charles and Elvis Presley, Pat Boone or even Sinatra appeared to be a great chasm to me. Jimmy Durante, Anita O'Day, and Peggy Lee were some of the few exceptions.
It seemed to me that white people were not aware of the Black experience in America, while Black people, most of whom worked for white folks, understood both worlds in our segregated society. This idea was confirmed many years later when I read Al Murray's The Omni-Americans.
I've been thinking that, for me, jazz describes my world. I can express how I view life through this art form that most of the world looks on as passé. Jazz is not some kind of period piece to me; it is living and breathing in my body. I often wonder as I encounter young musicians and students how they relate to jazz.
When I was young and played classical music, as much as I loved it, it never seemed to be my language. The moment I first played jazz, the music was my own. How do young jazz musicians relate to jazz? When I work with most of them, it comes across as a foreign language that they are attempting to learn. Not only was jazz not all around them when they were growing up, there are few opportunities for them to play and earn a living.
On top of all this, the original creators of the music have all been dead for decades. Charlie Parker and Clifford Brown died when I was six; Prez and Billie Holiday when I was 10, but I got to see Louis Armstrong, Ellington, Monk and most of the other jazz icons. When I became a professional, I got to work with many of my idols. They generously passed the tribal lore down to me knowing that I would treasure it, take good care of it and when the time came, pass it down to the next generation.
I'm not sure that jazz describes or represents America to people younger than myself. Playing jazz might be like playing Beethoven--beautiful music that describes early 19th century German/Austrian culture-- but to me jazz is how I feel and see the world in this very moment. It's authentic, because I don't know how to be anything but. I was never good at lying or pretending. It only feels good to me to be myself. Jazz is my language and my religion. It has saved me, and continues to save me, over and over again.