Monday, September 20, 2010

Jazz in the Background

I can't deny that music sets a mood. It can set your mood. When I first started listening to jazz, I was going to the school library, checking out jazz CDs randomly, seeing what I liked. I remember one album fondly: Oscar Peterson's "Saturday Night at the Blue Note" (Telarc) recorded live in 1990. In the first track, "Kelly's Blues," I was awed by Peterson's virtuosity on the piano, his powerful block chords, the way he ended his solo with such authority as to make it seem the only way: his way. I didn't come to admire Peterson's playing all at once. At first I was put off by the album's sound quality. But for some reason, I went back and listened again, and again. By degrees, I started to consider the interplay, the dynamics, the methods in jazz.

I wasn't drawing any conclusions; I was learning something about listening. About the value of paying attention. One spring day in grade eleven, I put on that Oscar Peterson CD as I drove two friends home from school. They were talking as I turned it on, so I listened alone for a couple of minutes. Eventually, I interrupted their conversation, asking what they thought of the music. They hadn't really noticed it and stopped to listen. Peterson had just ended his solo with thunder and Herb Ellis was emerging from the wake, stating a line that would remain in my head for a long time to come. They both agreed that it was good, that it was something they would play at a party, in the background. Good friends that they were and are, I was still frustrated by their appraisal, even more so because I think they meant it as a compliment.

I sensed they were saying it was music to set a mood, to accommodate an environment, perhaps a quiet affair with martinis and beef wellington, or sugar cookies and mulled wine. But there was a contradiction in my frustration: I agreed with them, though not for the same reasons. Sure, I thought, I'd play this at a party. That's because I'd want to listen to it, to enjoy it with others. I felt that my friends implied it was music not worth listening to, that you'd play it at a party because it seems like a sophisticated thing to do.

I would get a similar feeling two years later, in February of my first year at university, when my roommate told me he liked jazz in the winter as I listened in the living room to Clifford Brown. Once again, I agreed with him, but not for the same reasons. Only in the winter? I thought. Why not all the time? But then again, he seemed to listen to the same Joanna Newsom song every night. I certainly wouldn't have done that, but I'd play "Joy Spring" so many times that I could whistle along with the solos.

I don't lament such instances anymore. You can be offended by a lot of things if you try. I imagine my feelings were hurt in high school because I was younger, excited by something, wanting to share that excitement with someone my age. (I never really did, in high school at least.) My friends didn't know then how much I loved listening to jazz, how heroic I found it and how badly I wanted to understand it. How could they have? How could I have known it would serve as the background music for my life?


  1. who was it in the car with you in high school? really nice post.

  2. Thanks, bro. It was Jared and Matt. (As you probably guessed.)