Why You should Like Jazz
For my 8th birthday, my parents got me a pink cassette player, which to me is still one of the best presents I’ve ever received in my life. I loved it. I loved that it was pink. I loved the clicking sound it made when I put a tape in. I loved that I had the freedom to listen to whatever I wanted in the privacy of my room – grant it all tapes were borrowed from my older sister and parents.
My uncle lived in Munich and he would visit us sporadically. His flight was always a late one and I would beg my mom to wake me up when he arrived, which she never did. But one night, I woke up to him sneaking a tape in my cassette player. When he saw that I was awakened, he turned on the lights and pressed play with a knowing smile that said “I’m going to share a secret.” It was Ella Fitzgerald, singing Summertime, and I thought it was the most beautiful voice I had ever heard.
Influenced by my enthusiast uncle, jazz always had presence in my life and has been the soundtrack to its major phases. Nina Simone’sPlease Don’t Let me be Misunderstoodwas my secret anthem in High School as I felt, as almost all teenagers do, angry and misunderstood. Chet Baker’s Almost Blue kept me company on lonely nights as I cried over my divorce. I hummed Stan Getz & Astrud Gilberto’s The Girl for Ipanemaon my most memorable summer days.
Perhaps because I have such a personal association to it, it always takes me by surprise when someone dismisses it with such animosity. Particularly in Istanbul, I notice a great divide. There are a lot of genuine jazz lovers who seek jazz clubs and participate at festivals with such joyous enthusiasm; then there are haters who are so self-satisfied with their antipathy that they even localize their combative opinions during an actual performance. (Why they are there to begin with is beyond me.)
The most common justification seem to stem from the stubborn belief that “jazz is for snooty intellectuals or fake wanna-be’s.” With a similarly hostile sentiment, they also label jazz as “high society music, not people’s music,” which I find ironically misinformed. Not only because I strongly believe that any music is for anyone who will listen to it – regardless of the listener’s social status or personal preference – but more pressingly because jazz was born out of slavery, colonialism and the exploitation of African people in the 1800s.
You feel the pain of the working men when they sing I’ll be glad when the sun goes down; your heart breaks when Marian Anderson achingly sings Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve seen. You don’t have to understand the lyrics or be a musician to hear and empathize with the hardship of getting through the day with little to no hope. So I find defining the entire genre as “arrogant’s music” to be tragically misguided.
People are quicker to judge something when they don’t quite understand it. I don’t claim to be an expert. Hell, I’m not even an enthusiast with the truest sense of the word. I am simply a loving listener of jazz. My intention is not to dictate what one should or shouldn’t listen to. That is indeed subjective. But I would like to point out the mere possibility that some may feel more obliged to dismiss jazz – as “such a headache” for instance – just because it is unfamiliar. So by sharing why I love it, I would like to at least try to neutralize the ungrounded antagonism towards it, and maybe even turn it into curiosity for a few. For part of what jazz is about is curiosity and change.
This openness to change comes from what is rooted at its core… improvisation. Whether it be harmonically structured or a complete free fall, improvisation is the only constant. They live by the melody, but are not confined by its composition… I wish I could live my life like a jazz musician plays his instrument. They go with the flow… Their passionate curiosity to explore other possibilities, layers and dimensions of a song breaks the routine and sparks creativity. Their sensitive ability to feel the mood of the room and adjust the tempo accordingly gives them fluidity. The incredible mastery of their crafts allows them to be spontaneous. Improvisation keeps you in the moment.
Dave Brubeck said, “Jazz stands for freedom. It’s supposed to be the voice of freedom: Get out there and improvise, and take chances, and don’t be a perfectionist – leave that to the classical musicians.” What I also appreciate in jazz is how exemplary it is in its representation of how an ideal society functions. As a band, they are structured by a certain set of rules, which enables them to harmonize. Yet within that harmony, each player is completely independent. They are not anchored by the notes and they are not led by one composer. They are grounded in their craftsmanship, but free to express themselves.
When you see a live performance, you notice how players feed off of one and another’s spirit on stage. They encourage each other to show off their skills and create the space to express their feelings through their skills. Even when they make musical arrangements, each player is heard and given the freedom to be themselves. Uninhibitedly. Herbie Hancock said, “In jazz we share, we listen to each other, we respect each other, we are creating in the moment. At our best, we’re non-judgmental.” Jazz is open-minded. That is why it can be playful, and that is why a jazz concert can be an adventurous experience.
There is an eagerness to explore in jazz. Not only the musical possibilities, but more essentially our emotions. Whether it be passion, anger, excitement, happiness or sorrow, both the melody and the lyrics delve into the depths of the human experience. You wouldn’t be able to truly hear jazz if you’re not ready to surf through its emotional waves, which for some may be more difficult than to baselessly reject it.
My uncle once said, “Unlike a pop song, you can’t consume jazz like a bag of chips. You have to listen to it.” Jazz, in its essence is about the human spirit. In order to understand jazz, you need to listen to it. Not only with open ears, but also with an open heart.
I hope you see that jazz is not the watered down versions of old songs that we grew to call “elevator music.” Jazz is not limited to a stream of avant-garde drum solos. With its long, evolutionary history and wide-range of distinctive styles – from ragtime to New Orleans, from Dixieland to swing, from bebop to hard bebop, from blues to afro-cuban – jazz is as rich and versatile as our emotions. Sentimental, passionate and tenacious, it captures the rhythm of our very own hearts.
I’d like to leave you with a few inspirational playlists we made especially for you. 50 songs in total, they are a mixing pot of different styles, featuring significant singers and players that capture various moods, activities and time of day. Just click on the playlist of your choice. Be open, feel it and enjoy!