Jazz is America's gift to the world

Two of my good friends got married last weekend.  I like them even more now because they had the good taste to hire my band. 


After a lovely dinner and a toast or two, we kicked in to our first set.  Soon the guests were out on the dance floor.  Unfortunately, I had picked our music thinking the crowd was going to sit and talk.  I frantically stumbled through our song list to find some more swing tunes. 



Like most musicians, I don't dance very well.  I can, however, appreciate people who do.   When the downbeat comes, it feels great when people head to the dance floor. There's a connection between performers and dancers that's exciting to experience.



Why do people respond to jazz?  In all the years that I've been playing, I still haven't figured out the answer.  But playing at my friends' wedding made me think about it a little more.


Barry Fagin




Many people respond to the creativity of jazz.  Although there are some terrific jazz recordings out there, jazz is best experienced live.  No two performances are identical, thanks to the constant creativity of the musicians.  And we Americans are nothing if not creative. 


Jazz was perfect for my friends' wedding, because they're creative, entrepreneurial people.  Looking out among the wedding guests, I saw venture capitalists, business leaders, and real estate developers, all of whom had created wealth where none existed before.   If that's not great improvisation, I don't know what is.


A jazz performance engages the senses in a way nothing else can.  Sure, listening is important.  But a jazz performance is also a delight to watch.  Pay attention to the give and take between musicians:  how they know who is going to solo when, what happens to tempo, how they decide to make the piece more exciting.  When musicians glance at each other to get in a groove, they bring the audience in with them.  It makes the concert less like a performance and more like a celebration.

Some of it is patriotism.  Jazz is America's gift to the world: When you hear jazz, you hear America singing.  European tourists who want to hear American music go to jazz clubs, not Carnegie Hall.  During the Cold War, jazz was played in underground venues behind the Iron Curtain, to audiences hungry for the freedom it promised.  Remember Viktor Navorski, the Tom Hanks character in "The Terminal"? He traveled to America from Eastern Europe to honor his father's dying wish, because his father loved jazz.  Viktor is fictional, but he rings true.


We know that jazz has its origins in slavery, our greatest national shame.  But it has never said otherwise:  Jazz doesn't lie about its roots.  I enjoy patriotic music like "The Stars and Stripes Forever" as much as anyone.  But when you hear a trumpet wailing the blues, you know it's not all sweetness and light in America.  That's how it should be.  Above all else, art should be honest. 


Jazz is also a meritocracy.  You can't tell the color of a musician's skin by the solo he plays.  All you can tell is whether he's any good.  When you're in a jam session, nobody cares about your race, creed, or color.  All they care about is how you play.   The world of jazz is the colorblind world that America used to aspire to.  It's a reminder that race in America doesn't have to matter.


But jazz isn't just seen and heard.  Jazz is felt.  People talk about the pulse of jazz, and that's not just a figure of speech.  Listen to your heartbeat.  It doesn't tick like a clock.  It's syncopated:  da-dum, da-dum, da-dum.  In other words, it swings.  That's what gets you out on the dance floor.


I thought about that as our last song ended and we packed up our gear.  When the party is over and the guests have gone, everybody relaxes a little.  The waiters unbutton their ties, the band talks with the bartenders, and we're all just regular people again.  In that kind of environment, it's easy to remember what people have in common.


If jazz is the music of the human heart, then it really does mean a thing.  Because we've all got that swing.

2004, Barry Fagin

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