Photo by Willie KingIt’s almost impossible to believe that this most Twilight Zone of summers is rapidly drawing to a close. How did September come so fast despite many of us enduring so many long, empty and isolated days? Days upon days of not working, of not going out much save when necessary, of not seeing people, except on a computer screen or in brief “Dare we?” encounters. Indeed, with everything still pretty much upside down and our sense of normalcy and time in tatters, it’s hard to even say what the passing of summer means anymore. More on this later, but it reminds me of one of the many wonderfully droll lines from the great relief pitcher Dan Quisenberry: “I’ve seen the future; it’s a lot like the present, only longer.”

A Blizzard of Cancellations

In the old days, during inevitable patches when work was slow (we didn’t know what slow was), musicians would jokingly say “I looked in my gig book the other day and got snow blind” – as in too many blank, white squares, a blizzard of empty dates. It’s like that now, only the vast white spaces are interspersed with dates that have been scratched out, looking like little scruffs of dirt poking through the snow. And COVID-19 has brought a new gig convention: the courtesy cancellation, when a bandleader calls or emails the other musicians they’d booked on a job to tell them it’s been cancelled.

Read more: PANDAMIT!

Steve Wallace, centre, in friendlier times, with the Barry Elmes Quintet. Photo by Don Vickery“Playing the changes” is jazz argot (jargot?) for navigating the chord changes of any given piece or tune being played, a hard-earned skill, the challenge of which varies depending on how many chord changes there are, and how complex they might be. It’s also referred to as “making the changes,” as in playing notes which fit the chords – a sort of entry-level requirement – or “running the changes,” which can carry a negative connotation of a soloist robotically playing a lot of notes without necessarily making a coherent musical statement of any melodic value.

However, the difficulty of negotiating the labyrinthine chord changes of, say, Giant Steps, or I Got Rhythm, pale in comparison to the challenges facing jazz musicians during the COVID-19 lockdown of the past three months and counting. “Playing the changes” has taken on a whole new meaning – as in adapting to the catastrophic changes wrought by this virus. These have affected all of us deeply of course, but I would like to address them from a jazz perspective.

I’m slightly reluctant in doing so lest this take on a “woe is me” tone of self-pity, as if jazz players have suffered more than other live performers such as actors, dancers and musicians in other fields. Everyone has surely suffered from the lockdown measures, but as a largely in-the-moment, collectively improvised music – and an economically vulnerable one at that – jazz and its practitioners have been particularly set back by social distancing.

Read more: Playing Changes

To wildly understate matters, these are not normal times. Neither will this be a normal WholeNote issue, nor is this a normal column for me, if such a thing exists. I don’t intend to make this seem all about me, but I do want to go into detail about how the pandemic shutdown has affected me as a musician and music teacher, in the knowledge that mine is just one of thousands of such stories, and in the hope that my experience will resonate with others in the same position. Or those who are worse off.

The crisis really hit home on March 11/12, when all professional sports shut down almost at once; this sent shockwaves about how real and serious this virus is, and remains. Within hours schools closed, social distancing measures were implemented and by March 16, Ontario had issued lockdown orders re non-essential businesses closing, limiting travel and large social gatherings, etc. To quote two lines from W.B. Yeats’ poem, Easter 1916: ”All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.”

On March 11, my wife Anna developed a sudden, burning cough, a concern for obvious reasons. It was diagnosed the next day as “only” pneumonia, perhaps the first time ever that a fairly serious illness was greeted with relief. On March 15, the last day I appeared in public, I developed a bad cold: sinus congestion, bad cough, but no other overt COVID-19 symptoms. We were laid up for about three weeks with these ailments and there were times we were certain that we had it. There’s nothing like a highly contagious and deadly virus to waken the inner paranoid hypochondriac in all of us. Like most others, we stayed home as much as possible and tried to stifle our uncertainties and anxieties.

Read more: Don’t Get Around Much Anymore

In Part One of this article, last issue, I offered this working definition of jazz: Jazz is a music of collective improvisation which swings, and which places a premium on individual sonic expressivity. I went on to discuss the collective improvisation and individual sonic expressivity aspects, but ran out of space before getting to the business of swing and why it matters, which I’ll take up here. But before getting to that ... perhaps not surprisingly, given the music’s moving-target nature, I’ve already expanded the definition: Jazz is a music of collective improvisation which swings, and which places a premium on blues tonality and individual sonic and rhythmic expressivity.

Apologies for complicating things, but jazz is complex, and after all, the first part of the title is “Notes Toward…”. In all honesty, I may never arrive at a definition of jazz which is satisfactory – indeed, that may be impossible – but I’m trying to assemble the essential elements of the music and what makes it distinct from others and it occurred to me that the individual freedom essential to jazz extends not just to a player’s personal sound, but also to matters of rhythm and phrasing: Coleman Hawkins did not phrase eighth notes like Lester Young did and Wayne Shorter doesn’t phrase eighth notes like Young did, and so on down the line. And no two drummers play the iconic skip-beat on the ride cymbal the same way – not quite.

As to the use of blues tonality, I think we can all agree that it has been prevalent in jazz throughout its history. Not just on the standard 12-bar blues form, or in the obvious use of blue notes, but as a pervasive stylistic influence informing matters such as pitch, vocalism, sound, phrasing, spacing, vibrato (or the lack thereof) and above all, emotion; the feeling in jazz. To be sure, this blues influence is not exclusive to jazz; it can be heard in country and folk music, and in rock ‘n’ roll, but in jazz it’s much more central, more varied and subtle, even to the point of abstraction. Every time you hear a great jazz player – from Louis Armstrong to Ornette Coleman and beyond – put a buzz or a smear or a bend on a note, or play what seems like a wrong note, you’re hearing the blues. Lester Young could play the most obvious note – the tonic of a chord – and invest it with an extraordinary feeling; the feeling of the blues. 

Read more: Notes Toward a Definition of Jazz, Part Two: Swing

It seems the longer I’m involved with jazz, the less I understand it. I’ve been immersed in it now for nearly 50 years in many ways – studying it, playing it, reading about it, collecting records, listening to it, and more recently writing about it and teaching it – and yet at times I feel I know less and less about it and would be hard-pressed to offer a succinct definition of its essence. If it even has an essence anymore.

Part of it is the truth of that old saw: the more you learn about a subject, the less you know about it, or so it seems. As knowledge of jazz expands, so do the boundaries; the forest keeps getting bigger to the point where you can’t see it for the trees.

Perhaps this is as it should be, because jazz is not a simple music, though often at its best it seems so. But it’s quite complex, and part of the problem in trying to get a fix on what jazz actually is, is that it never stands still. It’s constantly shifting and expanding, taking on new influences while also exerting an effect on other types of music. Like many things in the digital age, this cross-pollination process has sped up in recent years, leading to a bewildering array of hybrids, which I call “hyphen-jazz”: Acid-jazz, smooth-jazz, jazz-rock, vocal-jazz, Latin-jazz and so on, seemingly ad infinitum. Well, okay, these are contrived terms to describe narrow sub-genres of varying validity, but increasingly I hear people asking – and often ask myself – “Well, yeah, but what about ‘jazz-jazz’”? Does that exist anymore, and if so, then what the heck is it?

Read more: Notes Toward a Definition of Jazz, Part One: The Forest and the Trees
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