I could argue that Jazz is the most important musical style out there. The most groundbreaking, the most influential, the most responsible for shaping modern musical expression. I may not be able to prove it (though I’m happy to debate it), but I can say one thing definitively: it’s the biggest musical influence on my life.
And I don’t know why. It’s a question I don’t have an answer to yet.
I don’t listen to it every day. But I don’t have to. The music that I do listen to, and that I like, when it’s not Jazz, is probably created by musicians who were raised up on Jazz, taught it, loved it, and built something new out of it. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about foundations, about influence, about where our tastes come from. Just as I’ve been going back and re-reading (and reviewing) classic works of science fiction, so too have I been going back to my musical roots. I’ve been rereading some old music texts, listening to songs, studying where lines of style intersect and veer off. Did you know that Jazz in the Philippines, for example, didn’t start with the influx of American soldiers in the 40s, but most likely began earlier, with a group of Filipinos who’d fled the Spanish-ruled islands decades before and settled in New Orleans? (Before I left Penn I was writing a paper on it for my World Music class.)
Jazz is so interesting to me partly because I don’t remember why I like it. I grew up listening to rock with my mom. She woke up almost every morning, opened the doors to the deck, and turned on her sound system loud enough to wake the neighbors. Most days, this was on purpose. From her I get AC/DC, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Iron Butterfly, Leon Russell, Jethro Tull. From a close family friend I get Bluegrass, and from a couple of years when I was about 6 or 8, I think, I got my mom’s brief country influence – Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson – and a vague memory of how to 2-step. This led to an understanding of the fundamentals of Heavy Metal when I got into high school in 1991, mixed with some hard rock: Metallica, Iron Maiden, Pantera, Guns N Roses. I spent some time with Foreigner, Def Leppard, Journey, Night Ranger, Aerosmith, and Chicago cassette tapes in my Walkman. By the end of high school I was into Nirvana and the Cure, got into Bauhaus and Psychedelic Furs in my first bout of college, did some time in the goth scene, got into chick/indie rock and 70s glam rock (hello Indigo Girls, Iggy Pop, David Bowie) …
But where does my love of Jazz come from? The thing I didn’t mention above is that at the same time I knew the words to every song on Iron Maiden’s Powerslave album, and GnR’s debut, I was hanging out with the jazz band at school. I was in band, too (yes, there was marching, and an outfit), going from flute in middle school to French horn, trumpet, and percussion in high school. I could sit and listen to the trumpet line for hours, I dated a few drummers, I befriended the jazz choir kids – I loved it all. I’ve asked my mom and she has no idea where I’d have heard Jazz outside of school. She says I just liked it because I liked it.
Maybe that’s it.
But like my spotty ability to play a musical instrument, my musical history knowledge has some gaps in it. I took a class in American Musical History in Sacramento, when I was finishing up my AA degrees, and like I said, I’ve read some books, but I don’t know as much as I’d like to. Music matters to me, and always has, and though I’ll never work in it, it’s like my art history studies – it helps me to understand the world and to understand myself. So this is me, educating myself. I am going back to the beginning and I am going to teach myself what I don’t know. It’s never too late to learn, after all.
As always, comments and suggestions are welcome.