Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Things I Did Last Summer

This summer I took a master's class in jazz history and research, taught by the beneficent Lewis Porter, at Rutgers University in Newark. Lewis was kind enough to allow me into the course despite that I am an undergraduate studying political science and Arabic at McGill University and despite that he only knew me through e-mail before I walked into class on the first day. About eight people (all musicians) took the class, which spanned about a month of six six-hour classes. I had never been in a classroom for six hours before.

We discussed pan-cultural notions of improvisation, the flaws of Ken Burns's Jazz, the phenomenon of Dave Brubeck, rare piano recordings. I participated in a free jazz improvisation. We did a lot of listening-- to music, to each other, to the sounds of police and ambulance sirens on the streets of Newark. I had the chance to peruse the Institute of Jazz Studies (IJS), which, as the IJS writes on its website, "is the largest archive of jazz and jazz related materials in the world." I read a letter there that Ben Webster wrote from Europe to Mary Lou Williams. It was special seeing his handwriting, and understanding his diction in a language other than music.

During this time, I was seeing one live jazz performance a week at those hallowed New York jazz clubs--the Vanguard, Birdland, the Jazz Standard, Smalls--which I am so lucky to live near when I am home from school. I saw Paul Motian, Masabumi Kikuchi, Billy Hart, Mark Turner, Anat Cohen, Vijay Iyer, Evan Christopher, Mike Lipskin, Ben Street, Miguel Zenon, Bill Frisell, among others. I was reviewing these shows and taking the reviews to Ben Ratliff, with whom I was privately studying jazz criticism. (Lewis Porter, who seems to know every one in the jazz world, connected me with him.)

I wanted to study with Ben because, in high school, when I read his first book on jazz, he showed me that reading about jazz didn't have to be boring. That a writer can make any subject enlivening if his writing is clear and humane and empathetic. As I read his new books through the years, I became more and more impressed and inspired by his ability to write beautifully and understandably about such complicated subjects as, for example, the mythification of Coltrane or the mystery of Paul Motian.

So when I went to Ben, we agreed that the main objective would be to hone my writing--learning about jazz would be a side-effect of the writing. He told me I could write book reviews, movie reviews, theatre reviews. But I chose to review jazz performances because I wanted to experience live music, to be entrenched in it. I went to his apartment once a week for ten weeks, each time with a new concert review in hand which he would read and edit with me for about an hour or two at a time.

It was emotionally draining to try so hard on a piece of writing knowing there was probably some flaw I had not noticed right on the surface. And sure enough, there always was. But I was learning, and as I continued through the weeks, I got better.

Now I am back in Montreal. The lessons with Ben are over. The master's class is over. School will start again in early September. I have never been involved so deeply with jazz and writing as I have been this summer. I have written some short stories of my own volition. And I listen to jazz whenever. But combining my love of jazz with my desire to become a better writer I hadn't much considered until recently. So far, it's been keeping me moored.

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