I went to hear a good bit of jazz in the last month. All jazz. All different permutations.
James Baldwin wrote that Jazz – all black American music – has at its origins a necessarily laconic expression, encoding what it was saying with circumspection. It needed to say things without being universally understood. It still does that, often with an extravagant filigree of virtuosity. It misdirects attention from the thing that is really being said, or the thing that is too painful to be said outright.
“Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” Emily Dickinson advised readers in a poem. Both she and Baldwin stated plainly that poets – that is, artists – were the only people seeing things for real, and telling the truth of it.
Hearing trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis and his Uptown Jazz Orchestra playing New Orleans jazz at the Side Door in Old Lyme earlier in January was a present-day re-interpretation of this history, and how alive it was in the intricate, passionate jazz-blues of the players and their songs. Marsalis’ group of players laid out the pain and the joy that live in the music, and in their own lives. “Make America Great Again!” is Marsalis’ new album. This entire bravura act – and “brave” doesn’t remotely cover it – can make the hair stand up on the back of your neck as well as bring you to your feet.
There are endless slants. Here’s another…
On January 19th on a basement stage in the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London, local painter Doug Rice, who lives and works in Stonington, CT, acted out the fantasy of Jack Kerouac, circa 1955-1957, written in the opening notes of his Mexico City Blues, 242 Choruses, “I want to be considered a jazz poet/blowing a long blues in an afternoon jam/session on Sunday.”
Rice chanted from Kerouac’s 242 poems while Ian Kelly, Scott Drouin, and Tom Lataweic accompanied and counterpointed Rice’s voice in an extended hour-and-half-long open jazz score. Kelly adroitly and amusingly played his own toolkit of sticks as much as his drumkit. Rice stood on one foot in a yogic tree-pose while riffling through his copy of Kerouac and site-reading spontaneously.
Backdropping it all – literally making a backdrop — was Rice’s assemblage of 242 reiterations on a visual theme, riffing on the brush-painted symbol from the cover of Kerouac’s original edition of the book, slashed in bold strokes and colors. This mesmerizing visual musical score floated behind the whole surreal performance scene, taken in by museum visitors munching cheese, grapes, and sipping wine.
Elsewhere jazz lives on in calm, supportive roles. The music abides purely as a way to get together, to make art together, to practice. On January 27 at Café Nine in New Haven as part of the Blue Note Mondays from the New Haven Jazz Underground, I saw drummer Brandon Terzakis gather a new group of players to work through some tunes in an informal session.
Cafe Nine calls itself “the Musician’s Living Room,” and it did feel like being in someone’s living room on wintry Monday night. A low-key audience collecting against the brick interior walls along with the funky pictures of Blondie, Iggy Pop and the Malones; the purple-star-lit pocket of stage cushioned Terzakis and his group who circled around facing each other, calling out tunes. The Boston-or-New York-bound train line whistled by just outside across State Street.
Terzakis’ twenty-something group of players comes out of a shared Hartford-New Haven jazz community. It includes Mike Carabello on keys, Jeff Moro on upright bass, and Reagan Johnson on electric guitar. Over the course of two hours this newly assembled group softened and heated up into an electric, grooving sound, with their own smiles telling that story across the circle.
In particular it was great to hear Johnson’s voice on electric guitar swinging up and singing by the end of the second set. She and Carabello are students at the Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford. Terzakis is from Guilford. Moro lives in Brookfield. They travel some distance to get together and play. Each plays other forms of music — gospel, shout, R&B, funk, jazz-fusion — but Moro said during a break that “jazz is our work-out. It keeps us honest.”
“But it’s a workout we like,” Carabello added.
That honesty and the work-out are both beautiful things to witness. Their joy in playing together, and the songs themselves.
Whether music, including jazz, exists to cloak us in protective radiance or whether it’s a deep core of us, stripped bare, whether its tones are ours or stolen, I’m not sure I’ll ever know. But I’m learning.
Clare Byrne is a dancer-and-choreographer-turned-songwriter who has performed and taught in New York City and environs, Burlington, VT, and around the world. In addition to songwriting via guitar, harmonica and piano, her multi-art projects have included Weekly Rites, an improvisational dance blog, and The Poor Sister Clares Traveling Dancing Monk Show, an experiment in gospel dance and gardening in Vermont.