Sunday, August 16, 2015

Being more me

Recently I had the good fortune of attending part of the Rockport Jazz Festival, including the 'JazzChat' and performance of trumpeter Sean Jones at the Shalin Liu Performance Center.

JazzChat with Sean Jones and Rich Tennant (L to R)

At the JazzChat, an audience member asked Jones how and when he found his 'voice' in jazz. Jones speculated that everyone has their voice their entire life, that you are born being an individual, but through culture and expectations you don't always give yourself full expression. As you go through your life you allow yourself the freedom to be who you are. Quoting pianist Thelonious Monk, Jones added, "a genius is one who is most like himself." In this way, Jones expressed that finding your voice in jazz is really not even about music, it is about the journey to "being more me."

Watch Sean Jones go behind the scenes of his new album im•pro•vise:

Sean Jones' quartet

I wanted to share a personal account of how jazz has helped me accept myself, through my own stories and through sharing jazz musicians that exemplify individuality.

Being more me
How jazz helped me be myself

1. Enthusiasm 

When I was in public school I remember people making fun of me because of my personality. I even remember being hurt when a group of girls called me "too smart" and laughed at me for being that kid that was excited to raise their hand in class. Bullying among other bad memories made me want to disappear. 

However, from being part of this jazz community, I have come to terms with the fact that being smart and having enthusiasm for what you do is invaluable and isn't something anyone should hide. You can find people that like you for who you are.

A jazz musician that exemplifies enthusiasm is Dizzy Gillespie, known for his humor:

2. Self worth

I think every teenager goes through a time in their life where they feel as if they aren't good enough or they don't fit in with a certain group, as if it's the end of the world. Maybe you're the one kid at the party that doesn't know the lyrics to the song, or you don't wear the clothes that everyone is wearing, you're not involved in sports or many clubs or maybe you just don't keep up with pop culture. Frankly, you feel out of place and lonely. 

I believe that surrounding myself with positivity from music has helped my to realize that self worth is not dependent on people liking you. Self worth is dependent on you looking at yourself each day and loving who you are without apologizing. And when I play jazz I like myself, which is hard for many to say.

Thelonious Monk's personal and individual musical style exemplifies what I mean:

3. Confidence

Everyone has confidence problems, even the people that may seem at ease. As a musician, I have had stage anxiety to the point where I shake while I play or I can't breath or I even cry I feel so uncontrollably scared. Scared of people judging me or labeling me or laughing at me. And some of this has gone away with age and maturity, and some stays with me. But if I trace back I know that improvising in jazz has been a major factor in increasing my confidence. 

Anxiety is when you live in the future and depression is when you live in the past. In this way, improvising has taught me that living in the present moment, right now, is where you are happy. At one point, a music teacher told me to practice the blues and incorporate every note, no matter if it fit in the chord or clashed. This allowed me to hear that what we mentally perceive as a mistake can be beautiful. And yes, we can live through a mistake, recover from it and move on. 

Miles Davis' 'Second Great Quintet' with Ron Carter, Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter exemplifies confidence and exploration:

4. Authenticity 

As I said, we all have this need to want to fit in, be noticed, be part of a group. You may make friends with people you may not even like that much, but you just want to be part of a group. I think we've all bought clothes that don't suit us, tried hair cuts that don't flatter us, bought toys that are popular, gone to events we didn't want to go to, etc. so that we can be part of this 'image.' 

But I think what jazz does, in its community spirit, is say yes you are in our group, but you have to be yourself and bring what you know to the table. You can't be fake in hopes of people liking you. So whenever I am down, I go back to my time at Herbie Hancock's lectures where he noted that if you play for applause, you're fired. 

Herbie Hancock exemplifies authenticity through his inspiring lectures and performances:

5. Simplicity 

We all have a need to impress people. Sometimes it seems like our whole day is about pleasing others or impressing others. People post selfies on Instagram, pictures of their party on Snapchat and exciting tales from their life on Facebook. We have all done this, and sometimes it comes across as putting up a facade to impress people or to make it seem like we have a perfect life. 

However, from listening to jazz masters, I have noticed that complexity is best showcased in simplicity. Simplicity to the point where people might not applaud you for high notes, fast notes, complex lines - but they appreciate something clear, concise and meaningful. We don't need to impress people all the time; we need to simplify, make real connections and stop to look at the roses. 

Ahmad Jamal's use of space exemplifies simplicity:

Final Thoughts:
What makes me love jazz and its community is that it's a vehicle for self expression, whether you play it, listen to it or dance to it you are free to be who you're meant to be.

Rockport, MA

Please visit my jazz poetry blog, "Without a Poem", where I improvise a new poem everyday! I also share jazz music and art there, so stay tuned! This week inspired my poem, "Improvise".

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I am excited to be a journalist for this year's Detroit Jazz Festival. The world's largest free jazz festival, this year has an amazing lineup including Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band, Eddie Daniels, Carla Bley, Danilo Perez and Artist In Residence Pat Metheny. I highly encourage everyone to make the trip to Detroit to celebrate what's sure to be a marvelous Labor Day weekend!


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