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Preface to The Root of the Chord: Writings on Jazz's Essential Power and Artistry

Saturday 1/29/22

Get ‘Em in Your Soul: The writing of jazz and the jazz of writing, and the dance of life.

For a spell in college, as someone who couldn’t discover, listen to, or write about enough music, I gave lip-service to a theory I didn’t really believe in. I liked how it sounded. College kids, right? Know-it-alls!

I’d say that any piece of music writing should stylistically reflect the sort of music it was about. That is, a piece on punk rock ought to have punk-type prose. An article on country and western music should read like it had been crafted with the strains of a shivaree in the background. Yee-haw.

Not especially practical, and just one of those things that you say when you’re of a certain age, and you crave a reaction from people, or for them to remark, “Oooh, that’s clever.”

But I do think, as an adult who hopefully is wiser, that there is something fundamentally connective between prose and jazz, and the workings of the best forms of each. They have a modus operandi in common. We can even say that they’re the same thing, only in slightly different forms.

If you’re a fan of sports literature, you’ve likely noticed that there are sports that bring out the best in prose, baseball and boxing being foremost among them. Baseball is a thinking person’s game, mixing stateliness and energy, and boxing is poeticized human movement for maximum impact. Writing can function in this manner, and so the symbiosis seems natural.

All great jazz is writing, and all great writing is jazz. I’ve come to understand that as much as anything in my years listening to jazz and writing all that I’ve written. We always think of jazz as improvised music, and it is. But improvised doesn’t mean that it’s not written. The act of improvising is itself a form of writing. It’s just writing in a moment. Writing in a moment is no different than Charles Dickens walking the streets of London and all of a sudden coming up with an idea for a little work about a miser who will be visited by some ghosts and learn a better way. He’s written what he’s written in the space of a footfall, just as a Miles Davis gets to a new chord progression with the interval of a breath, and a beat in his mind.

John Coltrane entered the studio to cut A Love Supreme with charts for his famous Quartet, ready to go with the ideas he put lots of time and energy into crafting. What happened after the session got started, was what happened after the session got started. The music would go where it went, where the people making it could think to take it, while in service to the larger narrative.

That’s writing. It’s playing, interacting, improvising, but it’s also writing. Jazz is vocal music even when no one is formally singing. By which I mean, even if we’re not in the presence of a Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, or Ella Fitzgerald who step to microphone and sing words to us, the horns still sing. Bass. Drums. They’re in dialogue with each other. They’re talking. Working it out. Or not. Discussing plans. Expressing love, desires, needs. Weighing in on the events of the day. They’re telling stories via conversation that simply doesn’t have formal words. Stories with words beyond words. And that, too, is the way writing works, when it’s writing we absolutely need because it reaches us like nothing else can, and like jazz does. Writing and writing.

The writing of jazz brings us back to the blues. It’s encoded in this music. It’s the root of a lot of it. It’s the basis for so much invention and modernism, even though the blues is ancient. The blues is elemental. It’s core. It’s DNA.

The blues is someone needing to impart what they’ve been through, so that another person can say, “Yes, I understand, I hear you, and feel you.” Then they may well hear and feel themselves, or understand an experience better, or become ready to undertake a new one.

You can say as much about writing. If you read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, you’re reading the blues, in prose that is a lot like the rich textures we get with the Charles Mingus sextet, when he had the likes of Eric Dolphy grooving away with him. Fitzgerald called this kind of prose, when it was at its apex, “perfect prose.” We can all think of our favorite instances of perfect jazz. There will be the blues, the layering, the connecting, the dialogue between players, and the dialogues they have with themselves, made audible. You may also be able to dance to it.

The relationship between jazz and writing was one of the ideas I had in mind with this book. I wanted to get to the root of each, and the root of that relationship. We need art and entertainment that reaches us at the level of who we are. I believe that’s the aim of jazz, and of writing. The meaning of mysteries can be revealed—the big stuff, of life—but revelations often come in the form of questions we ask ourselves, which is always part of searching for answers, a different way forward, a new approach to try out in the next eight bars of the solo. The literal solo that Freddie Hubbard plays on “Breaking Point.” And the figurative one: The journey that each of us takes.

I think the people who love jazz love it hard. In other words, jazz people aren’t dabblers. They’re not just going to own Andrew Hill’s Point of Departure, but are going to hunt on the internet to find that precious download of a Mosaic box set of the early Hill sessions on Blue Note, all but howling in delight when the file is at last located. Their spouse may think them mad that they subsequently bound around the house with joy that night and take out the trash as if having entered the kingdom of heaven, but no matter. It’s prime Andrew Hill, baby.

Jazz can be a little intimidating that way and may feel—if you’re just getting into it—akin to jumping into a big, knotty subject like the French Revolution or Abstract Expressionism. Where to begin? Well, I thought the artists explored in this book, in these works of music, represent a perfect place to both get someone going, and, after years and years of listening, to mull, to approach and hear from new angles. It’s always worth noting that one of the foremost strengths of jazz is how inclusive it is, and how fast you slip into this world. It’s the point.

I made this book for those those getting started, as well as the diehards, because I’ve been both, and you know what? They’re similar things to be, and you’re always simultaneously a neophyte and a veteran with jazz.

When I first started getting into this music, my mind was blown by Charlie Parker and bebop, the way it was when I discovered the early Beatles singles like “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” I didn’t think about all there was to know. I was having a blast. I was hooked. I only cared about what I was listening to, and then what I might find after.

And, over time, the passing of which I barely noticed, I was steeped in jazz. It was life. You talk about how you feel regarding the possible outcome of the Super Bowl, or a mandate on vaccines, just as you find yourself discussing the quality of Billie Holiday’s Lady in Satin at the end of her career, and is it really fair to measure it against the Decca material, or it is even better, more lived-in and real and vital?

Jazz becomes just another way you become. But there’s no just about it—it’s awesome.

Jazz and writing both help us understand the world, ourselves, where we’ve been and where we’re going, to paraphrase a title of Gauguin’s. I offer this book as a guide, from my own form of jazz, about other forms of jazz. I’m a jazzy Beatrice, though you need not pretend you’re Dante, and we’re about to descend into hell.

No—quite the opposite. This is the music that makes heart and souls go ‘round, at its, and their, very essence: the root of the chord. The root of the jazz chord, the root of the writing chord, the root of the “I need to share this wonder and such sweet thunder”—to lift a line from the Duke—chord. The root of the art chord. The root of the “get your groove on” chord. The root of the human chord.

Let’s play it, shall we?


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