Thursday, September 2, 2010

Finding Talent

I read the sign on the wall advertising a jazz jam session on campus and stopped to think, with newfound courage, I might attend. I had been playing jazz drums for about three years, felt mildly confident with my ability to accompany, to accent. The jam would be the following day in the music building. Someone passed me in the hall: a fellow student, I hoped. "Excuse me," I said, pointing to the sign, "Can anyone show up to this jam?"

"Yeah man," he said jovially, "What do you play?" I told him I play the drums. "Well, just bring your sticks, man, there'll be a set there." I thanked him and he walked away, a guitar gently bobbing in the case slung around his back.

I walked home, thinking about whether or not I should go. I knew "Autumn Leaves," "Blue Bossa," "All the Things You Are"--some of the songs listed on the sign. I reasoned with myself: Isn't college a place where you try new things? Where you put yourself out there? Where, even if you make mistakes, you try to learn from them, because now we're all humanists, right? And we know that the end of the world is actually the end of the world and not just something that might embarrass you?

I went to class the next day and showed up at the jam in the late afternoon, my palms sweating. Everyone seemed to be seating himself in a semi-circle around the set-up of piano, drums, vibraphone, and some amps. I sat next to a guitarist and he immediately introduced himself. "Hey, man, I'm Tim," he said, extending his hand. I shook it and said my name was Matt. "What do you play, Matt?" he asked. I told him that I sort of played the drums, that I was new to McGill, that I played jazz back home, that I saw the sign on the wall yesterday and thought I'd show up. Eventually I figured out from Tim, who was a master's student studying jazz guitar at McGill music, that this jam session was not really as informal as the sign had made it seem.

"Yeah, man, I'm just checking out the new musicians, you know, surveying the talent," said Tim. He told me that this session was for McGill jazz performance students, that they would jam together, see who they liked playing with, and then form groups as part of a required, year-long, jazz combo class. He told me I should stick around, that not being a music student didn't exclude me from the combos. I stayed where I was. But discouraged, I started to feel like an emissary, as though I should conceal my identity as a first-year in the humanities, major undecided, drumming capable but shoddy.

A man walked in and told us basically what Tim had just told me, with a few more technicalities. When he was through, he beckoned us up to the stage to begin the jam. You could feel the tension in the room, the hesitance. Would he pick me? I thought. Would he make me go up? I had that feeling I used to get in high school when I didn't know the answer to a question the teacher had asked in class. A guy my age finally stepped up and took to the drums. People applauded him, and in a few minutes, an alto saxophonist, a trumpeter, a pianist, a vibraphonist, a bassist, and a guitarist had assembled before us. Then they were into "Autumn Leaves," and I began to tap my foot.

When the group missed trade-offs with the drummer, my heart eased a bit. Not everyone's perfect, I thought. Maybe I could still step up, play a tune. I didn't. "Autumn Leaves" complete, the next group of musicians took the stage and started in on "Blue Bossa." The drummer played well, but I thought he complicated his beats too often. He took an extended solo, the group concluded in unison, and I left--not disappointed, just a little tired of feeling nervous.

That was about three years ago. I don't know how much I've matured since then. I still get pangs of nervousness when my stomach feels light and my heart punches at my chest. People tell me that when I play the drums before an audience, it looks as though I'm uninterested in the music, staring off into space. But the case is that I'm focusing so intently that I recede within myself.

Last night, I showed up at the jam session again. This time without the intention of playing. (I planned to write about it later.) I wanted to incorporate myself into the student community of jazz musicians. It sounded courageous in my head, but when I showed up, I sat down alone and listened to the man from three years ago give the same talk. "Let's not take twenty-six choruses, alright?" he said with a bit of levity. "This isn't going to be the sequel to 'A Love Supreme,' go in and give us all your best ideas straight-up, who needs developing, right?"

I felt uncomfortable as I sat there, but I noticed some familiar faces from the first time I attended. I wondered if they remembered me. Last year I took a jazz history class with some of them, too. Maybe they thought I was a musician. I thought, even though I wasn't planning on it, that I might still have to play. But then again, why would that be such a sin? Am I that bad? Anyway, I figured my not playing might trigger some suspicion, that my casual slouch against the wall might be taken for complacence or insouciance. I also wanted to tell them about my blog. But it would be so lame, I thought. If only I could get their attention. Maybe go up to the stage, or go talk to the man, tell him what I'm all about. Definitely not. Or maybe I could just write it on the blackboard behind the stage and walk out? That would be pretty cool, suave. Maybe.

I listened to a few groups jam. The first pianist to go up played Red Garland block chords and also soloed like Red on "All the Things You Are." The drummer strolled through with some steady quarter-notes on the ride. The guitarist had a good tone, direct and round, but his playing seemed hesitant, like the ideas coming through the amp were not the ideas in his head. But he played some good notes. After he played, he happened to sit next to me. He turned to me, extending his hand. "I'm Matt," he said.

"I'm Matt, too," I said, shaking his hand. He seemed confused.

"Oh, you're Matt as well?" he asked. I told him, yes, my name was Matt as well. I told him, without his asking, that I didn't play an instrument, that I was just checking out the scene. He nodded, said cool. Then I realized what I'd said.

"I do play an instrument actually," I corrected myself. "I play the drums, but I'm in political science," as if they are mutually exclusive. Do you want to read my blog? I wished to ask him as he turned away to talk with some people to his right. I wondered if I consider myself a musician anymore.

I felt reserved, perhaps because I was planning on writing about these musicians as though they were something to be observed and explained. But the more I sat there, the more I wished to explain myself. We're all just people, aren't we? Wouldn't they understand? They all seemed to be having a good time, laughing, clapping for good solos, whooing and ahhing, nodding with approval at the dexterous handling of a turnaround. No, I wouldn't play. I'd stay a little longer and then go home. Perhaps I'd meet some of these musicians later at future jam sessions in the city, get to know them, tell them about my blog.

I stayed for one more group playing "Billie's Bounce," which I happened to have played in the first jam session I sat in at in Montreal. It still didn't make me want to go up. I started to think about talent. About how far it gets you. About how much talent has to do with courage. About who wants what and who thinks they have talent and who is willing to work hard to get talent and who won't ever have talent. About why I'm in school and what I want in life and if I'm willing to work for it and how hard I'll probably have to work for it and that I'll never know until I do. About what people think of me and if that's enough and if what I think of me will get me somewhere and which is more important or maybe not important but...The song ended. I got up and walked out. The end of the world is actually the end of the world, I thought.

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