Ask me what my home music is, by which I mean ‘Where does my heart and soul and head go to make sense of things and where I can begin (again, always again) to make something of and for myself?’ and the answer is jazz. I’m that guy, the one who got it early and never got over it, not at all.
But here’s the thing: I also lose jazz, sometimes for long periods, like the one I’ve just passed through. I don’t love music any less; for that matter, I don’t love jazz any less. I just can’t hear it, don’t have the patience for it, can’t grasp it. This last time, I went off and listened hard to some music that I have never given enough due – r & b from the 40s and 50s, country of about the same vintage, early rock n’ roll, and the blues, yes the blues, which I always appreciated more than I liked.
It’s made me an antiquarian, in that I’m happier listening to Proper Boxes, JSPs, Mosaics, Time-Life than something new, including most new jazz. That’s hard, because I always resisted the idea that music is bound to a particular time – down that path you find oldies stations and the need to hear something you’ve heard before, because you can no longer bear the new.
Well, ok. Maybe that’s me, now. I don’t much care though, and there’s a world of music from, say, 1930 to 1980 to keep me company. I’ve written about it before, but my model more and more is Bob Dylan, whose Theme Time Radio Hours are works of art just as surely as his albums and who simply rolls along, pointing out the window of his tour bus at the music he passes by. He hears everything, but mostly music from that 50 year span, that prime time, and it all fits together, just like the country did, if you look at it from a certain angle.
So I have wandered and have now returned to jazz. Each time I come home it’s a little different; this time, it’s the way jazz connects to all that other prime music. It’s Connie Kay playing with the Modern Jazz Quartet by night, and shaping some essential rock n’ roll singles as a studio drummer by day. It’s Cosmo Matassa and Johnny Otis and Johnny Hodges. It’s music for dancers and listeners and though it knows its history, it wouldn’t dream of being wrapped up in itself or, God forbid, being merely clever. This music has largely gone missing in modern times, though paradoxically, it’s easier than ever to hear the originals.
Here’s what I think: I think the country was on a path, and this music was a big part of that path. We’re far afield from it now, but like a conscience the music waits for us, insists gently or roughly that we strayed and that what we must do is find our way back to the downtowns, the diners, the churches, the storefronts, the public square, the speaker’s corner, the repairman, the good thief, all of it, everything that gives weight and gravity to the idea that our lives are both our own and utterly mixed with everyone else. It’s the tug of a world that is still just out of reach, except when we hear that sound, the one that says keep trying.