by Michael Goldberg
Monday, April 21, 2003
Fear Of Jazz
And how I broke on through to the other side.
To be frank, the world of jazz has, for many years, scared me. It's so vast. Have you ever checked out the jazz section in a big record store, such as the Amoeba store in San Francisco's Haight Ashbury? Or the Tower store in the Village? Vast. Do a search for Miles Davis on Amazon and you get 542 results! Even a lesser-known artist such as Yusef Lateef turns up 51 listings.
Jazz has, for many years, scared me because I don't know where to start. Which of the dozens of Sonny Rollins albums should I buy first?
As a kid, did you ever spend an afternoon sitting by the side of the pool, 'cause you were afraid to dive into the cold water? For me, jazz has been kinda like that. I looked at all those hundreds of records. Sometimes I really wanted to start getting acquainted with them. But for the most part, I just couldn't make the plunge.
It's not like I never listened to jazz. When I was a kid in the '60s, the owner of a record store I frequented turned me on to the Modern Jazz Quartet's still-challenging Third Stream Music, in which the group attempted to take elements of jazz and classical music and create something new. (Not only did they attempt it, they succeeded brilliantly.) Imagine a 14-year-old kid taking a break from his Beatles, Stones and Dylan albums and voyaging into the unknown with the MJQ. And when I was even younger, my folks once took me to see Miles play on the UC Berkeley campus. All I can remember of that experience is that my dad was disappointed that Miles often walked off the stage; he let his band do most of the playing.
I was still in high school when Miles' great A Tribute to Jack Johnson, featuring amazing electric guitar by John McLaughlin, was released. It's really more of a rock record, but it did get me to briefly focus on jazz again, as did some of the other albums Miles made with electric instruments including the groundbreaking In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew.
Over the years I've accumulated and listened to quite a few classics by Miles, Coltrane, Gil and Bill Evans, Duke Ellington and the great Charles Mingus. Yet rock in all its permutations ('60s garage, psychedelic, punk, new wave, post-punk, grunge, alterna-country, etc. etc.) is the music that I've been obsessed with, the music that I've felt really spoke to me.
I've resisted diving headfirst into jazz in the way that I've journeyed into blues, rockabilly and reggae at various times over the years. And, truth to tell, when I first decided to explore the blues, it seemed just as vast a musical world as jazz. Yet becoming comfortable with blues was easy. After all, many of the rock artists I'd listened to as a kid Dylan, the Stones, The Yardbirds, Bonnie Raitt, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, Little Feat (to mention just a few) included blues in their repertoires, or based their music on the blues.
There were so many ways into the blues. How could one not relate to the lyrics of such songs as "I Asked for Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)," "Stealin'" or "It Hurts Me Too"? There was the guitar playing so easy for anyone raised on rock to understand. And the singing. Some of the best rock vocalists had spent their lives trying to sound like the great blues singers. No, getting into the blues was easy.
Jazz was different. Why? Certainly the fact that it is, for the most part, an instrumental music must figure as a factor. But beyond that, jazz is, to generalize, a more sophisticated music than rock. Often the changes and the rhythms aren't predictable. It appears to have a language all its own, one that is hard for the average teenager to decode. Jazz is a more intellectual music. The clichéd idea (which I bought into) is that rock touches your heart (or your genitals) while jazz zeroes in on your brain. While I now feel that jazz is just as emotional a music as rock, it's also true that the recordings of Ornette Coleman and Coltrane and Charlie Haden and Monk are more, well, brainy than the Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction."
I don't think it's surprising that many kids discover jazz for the first time during their freshman or sophomore years in college. Since at least the days of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the sophisticated sounds of jazz have made a good soundtrack for those trying on adult attitudes, which is certainly one of the things that is going on at U.S. colleges.
Visit nearly any college campus and check out the record collections and you'll still find a group of music fans with jazz discs among their rock, blues, folk and world-music recordings.
Fusion was really taking off when I attended UC Santa Cruz in the early '70s, and along with records by the Stones, Led Zeppelin, Captain Beefheart, the Beach Boys, Bowie, Mott the Hoople and the New York Dolls, we spent a lot of time digging fusion recordings by Chick Corea's Return to Forever, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report and others. Yet once I was out of college (and the mid-'70s punk wave hit), jazz was forgotten as I dove into the raw rock sounds of Patti Smith, The Ramones, Richard Hell, The Clash, the Sex Pistols....
Until recently, I've just never really felt comfortable with jazz. That all changed when my friends Scott and Leslie invited my wife and me to see McCoy Tyner. Tyner played piano with Coltrane in the early '60s, appearing on a number of Coltrane albums, including the great A Love Supreme. Up close and personal at the jazz club Yoshi's in Oakland a few months ago, he was a revelation. His sound, at times almost symphonic, hit me with the force of a great set by Sleater-Kinney or Sonic Youth. I felt the music, and it made me hungry for jazz.
Back home, I searched the bookcases of CDs, pulling out my stash of Miles and Coltrane and Mingus. But I also found an unopened collection, Just Before Sunrise, that contained two classic Charles Lloyd albums, Just Before Sunrise and Love-In. What a mind-blower! I had completely forgotten that in 1967 I'd bought the Love-In record, mostly 'cause it had been recorded live at the Fillmore West, and had a really cool psychedelic cover.
Lloyd, who played in bands with Chico Hamilton and Cannonball Adderley before launching a solo career in 1964 with Discovery!, has always played both flute and tenor sax. For the Love-In performance, the Charles Lloyd Quartet included Keith Jarrett on piano, Ron McClure on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums. It's understandable how the group could be accepted at a rock concert hall that more typically featured the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane. Their performance on pieces such as the 10-minute, 33-second "Tribal Dance" is clearly experimental. At times Lloyd, Jarrett and McClure wildly improvise over a rhythm that seems equally unpredictable, though in fact it the beat is rock steady. DeJohnette is so good that he can improvise too, even as he keeps things on the one.
Since my awakening to jazz, I've been hunting down records (yeah, vinyl records of albums not yet released on CD) by Lloyd and another flute player, Jeremy Steig, while delving way into Monk (the Blue Note box with everything he recorded for that label is a good place to start), Cannonball Adderley, Archie Shepp, Mingus and more. I don't know why, but I'm no longer intimidated by the miles of jazz recordings at Amoeba. Now they look like a treasure trove. The water may have seemed cold at first, but now that I'm in it, the temperature is just right.