I have played music, or sung (same thing, just using the voice as one’s instrument), from the time I was about 6 years old, maybe earlier. I remember hearing music from my earliest memories. Both my parents played music, in very different ways, and music was never always something to listen to only, but something to play an active part in. And, having some knowledge of how music is played, and the structure of chords, rhythms and harmonies, I always thought that listening to music was as much an appreciation of the technical as well as the purely aesthetic.
But, Jazz is something that I hold in awe!
Personally, I am mostly a classicist – tied inexorably to the notes on the page, and, although, there is some flexibility of expression always in any musical performance/execution, the limits of those black dots on the staves has always offered me a certain comfort. The musician can play with dynamics, can shift the tempo (within reason), but the notes are there to guide the player.
Jazz, on the other hand, offers complete liberation – the absolute opportunity to soar, or sink!
I have only had the occasion, a couple of times in my life, to improvise. The most clear example was when I was about 14 or 15 years old, and I was working with my dad on a construction site. He was doing flooring on a new house that was being built, and he had a friend who was laying the sheetrock. This guy – I can’t recall his name – was an enormous guy. He could hold a sheet of sheetrock single-handedly, and raise it over his head, prop it up against the ceiling beams with his head, and tack in the sheetrock nails, without any assistance. He must have weighed near 300 pounds!
At lunchtime, we ate our take-out sandwiches, and this giant pulled a guitar out of his pickup, and began strumming. My dad turned to me and said “Go around the corner [to my house], and get your flute. You can jam with this guy!”
I did as I was told, trembling all the way to my house and back again. I was petrified. I knew what my dad expected of me, but I felt completely inadequate to meet his expectations.
But I wasn’t going to show him that.
So, I pulled my flute out of my case, and blew some air through it to warm it up. I tuned to the guitar, and then listened, as best I could, to the chords he was playing. And, I started playing.
It’s been many years since I noodled on the flute, either classically or otherwise. I have been focused musically more on my voice, particularly as a member of the community chorus, Zemer Chai. When I joined the chorus, I had not been singing or playing music for a few years (medical school and residency training took up a chunk of years from my life!), and I got nervous about having a decent enough voice, so, I found myself a voice teacher. I wish I had taken that leap to get voice training years ago!
I do not vamp, or scat, with my voice. In fact, with my voice teacher, I stick to the classical and barogue repertoire. But, one thing that I’ve learned by studying vocal technique is the notion that seems to be a bit of a Universal Truth: in order to make music, you can’t hold on, and try to control everything about the pitch, the rhythm, and the intervals. Rather, you have to let go.
You can’t control Music.
You can’t control Life.
Musical expression has to be released. Life has to be lived freely.
But, oh, how hard that release is to achieve!
This post was inspired by 2 a.m.at The Cat’s Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino. This is an enchanting and staggeringly original debut novel about one day in the lives of three unforgettable characters. Madeleine Altimari is a smart-mouthed, rebellious nine-year-old who also happens to be an aspiring jazz singer. Still mourning the recent death of her mother, and caring for her grief-stricken father, she doesn’t realize that on the eve of Christmas Eve she is about to have the most extraordinary day—and night—of her life.
I was provided with a complimentary copy for the purpose of this post, as a member of From Left to Write. Join us on August 28, 2014, when we discuss this book, and our unique impressions prompted by it’s imaginative themes.