Thankful for a fortuitous jazz “education”

I could simply just rave about how Friday night’s performance by the Joe Lovano Quartet ranks among the top shows in my memory in the SFJB Concert Series. Yet a particular thought often came to mind during the concert: how grateful I am that I had college roommates who helped me develop an appreciation for jazz.

Lovano’s quartet played a range of tunes, almost like a jazz survey.  While bop lay under most of it, there were ballads, a touch of more free form jazz and even a bossa nova/samba feel.  Whether it was Lovano’s own compositions or tunes by Thad Jones, John Coltrane and even Ornette Coleman (generally outside the bop stream), this was a tight quartet of truly gifted musicians. (Lovano, in fact, has two Grammy nominations for Kids, a live duet performance with Mel Jones.)  Yet it is largely by chance that I came to learn about jazz.

During my last two years of college most of my roommates in the large house we shared were music majors and jazz aficionados. We ended up rooming together because of a mutual friend who also lived in the house. I will always remember something that happened one of the first days in that house. I put an album on the stereo, Silk Degrees as I recall. It was immediately greeted with howls of “What!?!” and “Who put that on ?!?” Minutes later my jazz education began.

I don’t recall the exact album that was almost immediately put on in place of my selection. It may have been Kind of Blue but I know it was jazz. Now you don’t have to be a hardcore jazz head to appreciate Kind of Blue. But over the course of the next two years I listened to — and learned to enjoy — artists as diverse as Miles, Coltrane, Don Ellis, Woody Herman, Wayne Shorter and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, to name a handful. The range was from straightforward jazz to fusion (to which I’d had some exposure) to the free jazz sounds of artists like Coleman, Sun Ra and Eric Dolphy. While I disliked free jazz, I could only learn from the depth and breadth of my virtually daily exposure over those two years (we probably could have opened a record store with the albums we had among us).

This was not as force fed as it may sound. I had the advantage of living with people who didn’t hesitate to point out what they liked, what they disliked and, more important, why. It didn’t take long at all for me to realize I had been unaware of some astounding music. I soon developed an affinity for bop and West Coast jazz. Because Lovano and his quartet excelled at some of what I like best about jazz as a whole and the bop idiom, I couldn’t help but think back to those days as the performance left me enthralled.

Like many, I can’t really describe what it is that draws me into jazz. In fact, I remain convinced that when my roommates and I listened to a jazz album, we weren’t hearing the same thing. I recall an envious feeling that they heard something different, something deeper and richer. Be that as it may, that two year “education” broadened my music horizon and meant decades of great listening pleasure for me. So I owe a great debt to all those guys. I never would have imagined the happenstance that made us roommates would reverberate musically for three decades.

[I]t bugs me when people try to analyze jazz as an intellectual theorem. It’s not. It’s feeling.

Bill Evans, Down Beat (Dec. 8, 1960)

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