Sunday, November 30, 2014

Modern Art and Jazz

This past week I went to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. I went through many exhibits, including ones on Renaissance art, Ancient Greece and Egyptian art, among others. The exhibit that struck me the most was the contemporary art collection of Shinique Smith. This exhibit polarized me - I was stuck between being confused about whether I was looking at art, and not caring if it was in fact art. And what I took away from this was a completely non-biased look at what people may think of jazz the first time they listen to it - the stun, shock, and confusion of it all.

Modern Art and Jazz

Jazz stunned me. To me, this sound epitomized elation and joy; it was different and exciting, but it was also confusing. What is happening? I liked it because I felt like I discovered the whole thing, like it was mine, like only I could hear what these people were communicating. The music was talking to me, and it was genuine to my ears.

Being confronted with another medium, one that I am personally unfamiliar with, allowed me to gain perspective. Honestly, with any art form it is easy to think that you would be seen as unintelligent if you did not like the art, or if you said that you didn't understand it at first. Some art forms take patience and willingness to understand.

Just like jazz stunned me, these pieces of art stunned me. I looked at them in a sort of nightmarish way - spirals, collages, splatters of paint, all put together with heaps of yarn. At the exhibit, I looked at pieces over and over, reading the descriptions to try to understand what was happening. And the thing was, I didn't understand it, and that is okay. Sometimes you just have to accept something and let it be.

Jazz gave me a gut reaction, just as contemporary art, just as some poems and novels. Sometimes you just go with your gut instinct - a feeling, an emotion. How does the piece strike you? Perhaps you may find humor, creativity, boldness, inspiration, or even freedom in a piece without exactly knowing why.

This video of Charles Mingus playing "Flowers for a Lady" musically presents the same shocking feeling I felt about this art collection - I saw beauty, but also controlled chaos, and abstraction.

Final Thoughts: 
I have found that sometimes the most you learn about jazz is when you are doing something completely non-related to jazz in the first place. By stepping outside and appreciating new art, I was able to see the physical and symbolic - how this art related to me. And with each paint stroke and collage I was able to understand the feeling of acceptance for an art you may just not 'get' at first glance. Joy comes from your heart not your head. You don't need to be an art expert to get nostalgic about a sculpture. You don't need to be a jazz aficionado to cry at Billy Strayhorn's Lush Life. It just happens.

My sketch of Thelonious Monk
This sentiment inspired me to start drawing. As I have mentioned here, I don't consider myself an artist; but I as I was surprised to find out that jazz musicians Miles Davis and Tony Bennett drew at the Montreal Jazz Festival, I figured why not draw what inspires me?

Inspired, I wrote my poem, "Wrong" on my jazz poetry blog, "Without a Poem", in which I improvise a new poem everyday without editing my thoughts. I will also share my 'sketch of the day' on my poetry blog!

Share your thoughts about the similarities between modern art and jazz in the comments.

Photographs by Grace-Mary Burega.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Joyful Jazz Songs

Recently I came across the poem "Motto" by Langston Hughes, which has quickly become one of my favorite poems. 


I play it cool
I dig all jive
That's the reason 
I stay alive
My motto
As I live and learn
Is dig and be dug in return

I think this poem, containing jazz language such as "jive" and "dig", can relate to anyone. To me, this poem means to keep on being yourself, and fill yourself with positivity, even in the face of adversity. To "dig and be dug in return" is the respect you gain from this positivity. 

Building off my previous posts, "Jazz Songs for When You're Feeling Blue", "Relaxing Jazz Songs", and "Peaceful Jazz Songs", I wanted to share some songs that make me joyful, elated, radiant, and jolly. 

Joyful Jazz Songs

Dizzy Gillespie's song "Salt Peanuts" always makes me chuckle. I love the humor in this song, and Fred Taylor from Scullers even said that this song made him fall in love with jazz. 

Duke Ellington's "Take the A Train" has such a singable melody. In this video you can really see the smiles on everybody's faces, and that kind of positivity surely rubs off!

Glenn Miller's "In the Mood" is another swing era song that can get anybody up and dancing. There is something about a strong horn section like this one that brings so much character to a simple song.

Frank Foster's song from the Count Basie band, "Shiny Stockings" has so much energy, as well as a broad range of dynamics that transports me into another world.

Jerome Richardson's song from the Thad Jones/ Mel Lewis band, "Groove Merchant" creates such a heavy groove, with a clear emphasis on strong articulations, that it feels as if you are being pulled up off your seat!

Final Thoughts: 
This list quickly became a list of some of my favorite big band pieces too - I guess I just love the family quality of seeing how a group that size can relate to each other. The energy bouncing from player to player bounces straight to me, bringing me joy even when I'm feeling down. So I hope these joyful songs can also help you lead a life to "dig and be dug in return".

As always, please read my jazz poetry blog, "Without a Poem", in which I improvise a new poem everyday without editing my thoughts!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

A Concert Experience - Dizzy Gillespie All-Stars

Today's blog is a guest post by JazzDad who had the pleasure of seeing the Dizzy Gillespie All-Stars this past Friday at the Regatta Bar.

The Dizzy Gillespie All-Stars is a 6 piece ensemble consisting of John Lee on bass, Jeb Patton on piano, Tommy Campbell on drums, Dave Stryker on guitar, Mark Gross on alto sax and Freddy Hendrix on trumpet.

The night started with John taking the mic and saying he was going to introduce the musicians. The musicians all got up and introduced themselves to each other, ignoring the audience. John then said that this was a tradition with Dizzy's bands.
John Lee on bass

The first number was written for Dizzy by Lalo Schifrin, best known for the theme to "Mission Impossible" : Toccata from Gillespiana.
Jeb Patton on piano

The second number was Fiesta Mo Jo. What was apparent was the band was really enjoying themselves. In particular the drummer, Tommy Campbell used his foot at one point to kick the symbols, and he crossed his hands behind his back and hit the drums with the sticks.
Freddy Hendrix on trumpet
Here is Dizzy playing Fiesta Mo Jo:

The third number was Birk's Works, followed by Bebop - the song that started the revolution.
Mark Gross on alto saxophone

The fifth number was the famous tune, from the movie of the same name, Black Orpheus.

The set was rounded out by an excellent rendition of Night in Tunisia - the drummer had a rubber pig on the drums that he squeezed for noise effects, in between the cow bells.
Tommy Campbell on drums
Overall it was a very enjoyable evening. The audience enjoyed the music, and the musicians enjoyed themselves, smiling and laughing.


Joshua Redman
It's amazing that when you attend a jazz concert, you also attend a sort of therapy session. Personally, the feeling of being part of a jazz concert is a feeling that teaches me about myself: Who am I? What do I love? 

In the spirit of previous posts, "Master Class" and "Learning from the Masters", I thought I would share what I have learned in the past month from some of my heroes. 

Lessons learned from jazz

Meeting Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock never ceases to inspire me ever since I attended his Harvard Lectures. On October 23rd I attended his keynote interview with Berklee's president Roger Brown followed by a book signing at the Boston Book Festival for his memoir "Possibilities". Every moment in the presence of Herbie seems to be an eternity of wisdom.

  • If you play to get applause, you get fired. You need to play in the moment and be present. Trust. 
  • You don't need to play the 'butter notes'. Sometimes you just need to leave space for the soloist to determine the direction of exploration. 
  • Creativity comes with an innate sense of curiosity. How do things work? How can I put something together that hasn't been done before? 
  • Listen to what you are playing. Sometimes all the information you need is there. 
  • You don't need to resolve. 
  • What you get out of it is what you need. 
  • Get your life together. You are not a musician first, you are a human being. 
  • Bury your head and ears into the world of life. 
  • Follow your heart. You are the only person in that body. You wake up in the morning and you face yourself. It happens everyday of your life and being your self in that creates the path to honesty. 
  • Try not to be judgmental. You can contribute to the music either through silence - nothing - or something to help develop, or grow to bring a seed to a flower. Let things flow and see what happens. 
  • Try to reword matters of hierarchy, because people are equal. 
  • Practice is what you do everyday, all the time. Practice with your eyes and ears open, and hope that as the years go by you get better as a human being - that's what practice is really about. 

Meeting Joshua Redman
Joshua Redman has been one of my favorite modern jazz musicians for a very long time. Needless to say, I was elated when he came to play at Scullers jazz club on October 26th. Unlike Herbie, Joshua did not come to do a talk - he came to play. Yet, in the art of playing, I learned a few things. 
  • You can reinvent yourself. You are in charge. 
  • Freedom can come in a standard tune. Freedom comes from interaction, and hearing beyond. 
  • Jazz is about energy and creating a moment that can't be repeated: the moment is in that room, with those people, at that time. 
Joshua Redman

On November 4th, I was able to attend a trios masterclass with Fred Hersch at the New England Conservatory. Hersch has a great sense of constructive criticism. 
  • Everyone has rhythmic responsibility. 
  • Think of the sentence before you take a breath, in the midst of a thought. Talk, speak through lyrics to find where you breath, and how to manage the phrases. 
  • A drop in energy during improvisation can come from a lack of confidence. Listen to basic horn players, learn beautiful phrasing. 
  • Get yourself off the page, you play differently. We need to play out of our imaginations, what's on the page is just a skeleton. 
  • As an exercise, take a tune without a lead sheet and in your mind hear the chord changes, and write a couple of choruses and then play them on your instrument to see how it sounds on your instrument. Then do the opposite, figure out a solo that is too hard for you to play. This transcends what you can do technically without transcribing - it's learning recognition. 
Kenny Werner at Regattabar
I was very lucky to be able to attend the Berklee Global Jazz Forum on November 5th. The forum had Kenny Werner, Danilo Perez, and George Garzone as teachers for students in the Global Jazz Institute. Within two hours, my perspective on hearing jazz was flipped.  

Kenny Werner: 
  • You don't need to play every bar, every chord. You need a wider beat, an elastic feeling. The purpose of the notes is the rhythm in and out of the key, so you can resolve and hear things in context. 
  • The tune is the vehicle to layer things on top of. The bottom line is you really know the tune. 
  • The two things youths struggle with are: 1) A lack of their own sound 2) Everyone plays in their own bubble. 
  • It's best when you can make a piece and it's like a movie you can see. 
  • You need to have joy when you hear yourself. 
  • Play something that isn't music. 
Danilo Perez "Panama 500" at the 2014 Newport Jazz Festival
Danilo Perez: 
  • You need to be able to say things, use words. What am I feeling? It is like the different layers of a house. Play things not trapped by the pulse by paying attention to the pulse. 
  • What about sound? What do you want to sound like?
  • You need the desire to create something together. You need to be with others, it's like life - you need some basic rules to share. It's a question of listening but also sharing. 
  • Try different parts of your sound. You can tell when people are affected by their environment. You have to have tension and release - it's like you are talking with syllables!
  • Try tap dancing, pretend to be a little kid scribbling with a marker - where are the colors now? 
  • You don't need to prove you've done your homework when you play - just have fun and be happy. 
  • Say what you want to say, sing it. Gestures, a conversations - play that! I know it's crazy sometimes, but it's not. You're the only one who can do that for your self. It's the feeling of just talking - you talk to your self sometimes. 
  • Music is an experience. Make that for everyone. It's a right for humanity. Allow the sounds to tell who we are. When people are listening there is a frequency, you need to tune in. 
  • Free doesn't have to sound out - it's the spirit. 
  • When you play the music - don't apologize for what you don't know. Do what you do beautifully.

Tia Fuller and Mimi Jones (L to R)
Tia Fuller is an amazing role model to female jazz musicians, as well as anyone in general. I was glad when Tia Fuller came to Scullers on November 5th. 
  • Have a party, have a celebration with music!
  • You need to find an angelic warrior within your self. Create a balance within your life: angelic, graceful, peaceful, prayerful; opposite: warrior, disciplined, tenacity, reaching beyond what you think. Balance.   

Ralph Peterson Jr.
Final Thoughts: 
I enjoy writing about the lessons I learn from jazz because I believe that even if you are not a jazz musician or a dedicated jazz fan, you can find some insight from this music to apply to whatever you love to do. 

Maybe you are a scientist and jazz teaches you curiosity and how to find new combinations to information. Maybe you are a teacher and jazz teaches you how to create a balance within your life to lead your classroom. Maybe you are a nurse, and jazz teaches you that there are infinite possibilities. And maybe you are a student, confused about the future, but jazz teaches you to follow your heart because you are the only one in your own body. 

Whoever you are, and whatever you do, I think jazz can teach us all something so intrinsically human - and if we just bury our eyes and ears into the world of life we can feel it.

As always, I improvise a new poem everyday on my jazz poetry blog, "Without a Poem".

Sunday, November 9, 2014

It's about people

John Zorn receiving an honorary Doctorate of Music.
Hankus Netsky, John Zorn, Tony Woodcock (L to R)
This past Tuesday, November 4th I went to the New England Conservatory of Music to attend "The Music of John Zorn". The night included a pre-concert discussion with John Zorn, Anthony Coleman, and Hankus Netsky; a presentation of an honorary Doctorate of Music upon Zorn by Tony Woodcock; and a student concert of music from Zorn's prolific career. And within the twists and turns of words and music, one could only realize that people can unite anything.

It's about people
What John Zorn taught me about life

John Zorn, Anthony Coleman, Hankus Netsky (L to R)

1. Zorn taught me about integrity. 

Netsky started the Q&A by asking Zorn of his musical heroes. Upon much prodding, Zorn came out by saying his hero was Jack Smith, the American film director, and explained that as an artist, you have to pay your dues - you have to earn the right to do what you do. Zorn paid his dues with Jack Smith. 

Smith was always performing, and would give shows for three people in the audience. Zorn always wondered what would happen when nobody showed up - and Smith did the same exact thing. This purity of purpose showed that Smith was what he did, unique. In this way, Zorn learned integrity. Coleman interjected these humble beginnings were also in Zorn's musical career: Zorn created intensity with even six or eight people at a show. 

Listen to "Saigon Pickup": 

2. Zorn taught me about the intensity of intimacy. 

You take a small canvas and create something that changes in the world. "Bigger is better loses humanity, while intimacy touches you directly." Intimacy is seen in reduction and in small ensembles. Zorn prefers to be concise, so every note has weight and meaning. Small groups can interact with meaning.

I thought Zorn really hit on something when he explained that music is a platform - music is really the people and feelings, and the energy they bring to the work. Zorn continued by saying it is all more than notes on a page, it's about life experiences; sound on its own is very uninteresting. Zorn claims, "I write for people - people are interesting, not music or sounds". 

Hankus Netsky, John Zorn, Tony Woodcock (L to R)

3. Zorn taught me that music is united by people.

If you took one look at "The Music of Zorn" program, you would think, "how could this piece, 'Madrigal's Book II for six female voices', be followed by 'Rain Flowers'?". And this chronology hit on more than just breaking genres. Zorn explained, "What ties my genres together is people. I met certain people, I made a bond, and I wrote for them." Zorn has rock music friends that inspire rock music, and he claims these friendships create a fluency of language. It's about having a rich life with diverse people - a sort of palette cleansing. 

Watch "Cobra": 

NEC students performing "Cobra" under director Anthony Coleman

4. Zorn taught me about community.

Zorn laughed about how he used to play in the basement of a pet shop with Coleman. Zorn claimed that community was one of the most important things about his humble beginnings, because the people that were there supported each other. Zorn added that when success happened, the money went to charity, his own label, grants, books, and more because everything is about community: "Music is about people, and without people there is no music". 

5. Zorn taught me about roots. 

Roots are about looking deeper inside your self: "Where are your roots? Who are you?". These questions provoked Zorn to write for his Jewish fusion group, Masada. 

Watch "Tekufah": 

6. Zorn taught me that some things you just can't notate. 

In addition to his Jewish roots, Zorn talked about his childhood and how when he first heard jazz he was struck by the foreignness of it: "How do you notate this jazz?". 

Yet, what was funnier than this quip, was the fact that Zorn actually gave up speaking for a year in his adolescence. Zorn believed that spoken language was just a big lie. His report card even stated, "While I identify with his suspicion with spoken language, I do believe he has taken it a bit too far." Maybe this disgust for spoken language led to his prolific musical career, since music is an unspoken language in many senses. 

NEC students performing

7. Zorn taught me that music is sacred.

Zorn admitted that his childhood was beautiful, because everyone had a piano, and if you wanted music you had to learn it. "Things happened through learning and discovery, not boom anything you want." This sentiment has allowed Zorn to keep a sense of treasure and sacredness within his music: "Music is a place to go I can always count on, it's always a source of joy."

Listen to "Between Two Worlds": 

NEC students performing

8. Zorn taught me to live with positivity. 

At the Montreal Jazz Festival, the great Dr. Lonnie Smith told me to surround myself with positive people. This advice has really touched me, and Zorn reiterated the importance of supportive people. Zorn admitted, "It's about loyalty, belief, integrity, sacrifice. These things make communities work, and make music and art deep and meaningful."

Zorn tries to channel four things within all of his music: 1) catharsis 2) imagination 3) craft 4) honesty. And he always ties these four qualities together with people. 

John Zorn
Final thoughts: 
During the talk, Zorn mentioned that artists need support not criticism. I can only agree - a self critical personality needs support to thrive. That is why, as an aspiring musician, I do not write negative blog posts. I think it is better to share the lessons that I learned from an experience with others. Because, at the end of the day, we are all just people. 

This concert reminded me of my poem "About People" from my jazz poetry blog, "Without a Poem". 

Sunday, November 2, 2014

There are no rules

I did not always enjoy poetry. I think a lot of people can find poetry boring, or snobby, or confusing. But, I have to say I had my own sort of 'epiphany' during a jazz concert of all places. I saw "PoemJazz" featuring pianist Vijay Iyer and Poetry Laureate Robert Pinsky last March.

And I can say it wasn't as exciting as when I saw Pharaoh Sanders, or as exuberant as when I saw Kenny Garrett, or as fun as when I saw Paquito D'Rivera - but it went somewhere I never would have expected. I started to hear the music in poetry and I started to hear a sense of language in jazz. And through learning, I would say poetry can put to words how I feel about jazz, and jazz can put to music how I feel about poetry. 

There are no rules
How poetry has taught me to hear jazz, and vice versa

Because of this concert, I decided to write poems and eventually share them. I have a jazz poetry blog called "Without a Poem", in which I improvise a poem a day. I got this idea from reading Jack Kerouac, and thinking about stream of consciousness literature, like James Joyce. So to 'improvise' a poem, for me, means that I write what comes to mind, without editing my thoughts. 

Based on my experience with "PoemJazz" and writing my own poetry, I started studying poetry. I take an online course on "edX" called "The Art of Poetry". I cannot say enough good things about this class! Robert Pinsky teaches the course, and brings such a light to poetry through his enthusiasm. There is something so refreshing in seeing someone that loves what they do. 

Lessons I have learned about jazz while studying poetry: 

"There are no rules." In fact, this exact sentence is how Pinsky starts his poetry anthology, "Singing School". And what a declaration!

Poetry is about imagination. Here is a segment from the course, "The Art of Poetry": 

Poetry is about "going somewhere", just as any jazz solo. Pinsky states, 
The freedom to improvise, the exhilaration of making it up as you go along, gets value from arrival. That arrival becomes a manifestation of purpose—purpose likely not formulated or even conscious until the destination reveals it: the goal, the emotion, the healing, the revelation discovered at the end of an apparent wandering or craziness or play.

The joy in poetry comes from hearing it. Poetry is meant to be spoken out loud - that is the legacy of the art form. There is a vocal rhythm to poetry that you only get through vocalizing the lines. Pinsky relates this to an interview with Dizzy Gillespie in which Dizzy says, 
I think the basic part of jazz is rhythm and you should delve into that...I'm not talking about that (rhythms)! Rhythmic content means how you accent, where your accents are, and how they fit in with different types of rhythm. You can't notate it for them; they have to be able to hear it. You can come close, but you can't really write jazz.
The vocal rhythm in poetry is quite subtle, and depends on the speaker. This individual experience of a reader with a poem is the same as with a jazz listener. Listen to a variety of poetry videos as part of Pinsky's "My Favorite Poem Project". Watch this personal recollection of "Minstrel Man" by Langston Hughes. 

Music can be formed by poetry. I never realized the words to the jazz standard, "Moonlight in Vermont" actually form a "haiku". 
Pennies in a stream
Falling leaves, a sycamore
Moonlight in Vermont

It's not always about the words - it's about the feeling. A lot of jazz music is instrumental, yet if you listen a certain way you can almost hear these conversations. Read Lewis Carroll's poem, "Jabberwocky". Although Carroll uses nonsense words, the reader can find meaning through the context and the emotions Carroll elicits through harsh sounds

Form is supposed to inspire creativity, not hinder it. Pinsky states, 
Form should not be a straitjacket, or a prison, or a set of hurdles you jump over. Form should be something -- as when you're throwing a ball, or ice skating, or bowing your cello -- that helps you do it as well as you can.
 Form is a sort of manners. A "twelve bar blues" to a jazz musician gives certain social expectations, just as the form of a "sonnet" does to a poet. 

Style enables feeling. It isn't exactly that it is feeling. It's like some figure in Mozart or in Charlie Parker where you keep stretching it further and further.

Final Thoughts: 
I think the final example of what poetry has taught me is the process of selection: It isn't only about what the style appeals to, but as Pinsky relates, it's also about what your examples of the art are. What is poetry to you? What is jazz to you?

So to cap off this post, I will share one example of poetry and one example of jazz that I love.

"Caged Bird" by Maya Angelou

"Blue in Green" by Miles Davis

Share a poem and jazz song that you love!