The comic and actor Billy Crystal recently aired an HBO comedy special where he jokingly revealed a special relationship between him and his father. Billy tells us about his father’s job where he was surrounded by jazz musicians and credits true American music as being jazz. Listening to jazz makes you realize that you are listening to some of the greatest musicians that you’ve never heard of. Jazz is the closest thing you will find to classical music in terms of the complexity of melodies into weaving very much like a Bach cantata only jazz uses scales you would never hear in classical music.
Like the old classical masters, jazz musicians can be in the composers of the songs they perform. Yet a true master at their instrument will be able to play the same song in many different styles. Try to find some of the old music somewhere. Pianists like Errol Garner who was known for his sexy swing ballads yet he was a performer from a half century ago. You know they were great when you can play their music 50 years later and it still sounds great and not old. Thank goodness for U Tube where you can still type in the names of these guys and instantly hear them and see them as if they’re performing for you right here right now wherever you are.
Listen to James P. Johnson to hear great old Ragtime music where the pianist seems to play every key on that piano in a good old western bar. No he was not life related to our president and these guys did not have the benefit of fancy recording studios where they could record one note at a time. No these great jazz musicians had massive hands and seemed to have used every finger to play every note on the piano as fast as they could. In the early 20th century, Johnson took Ragtime and made it sound like swing.
Thelonious Monk was like a Picasso only on piano. Listen to his song called Round About Midnight where he is a true virtuoso combining notes and chords that no one really heard of in 2017. You really need a day to listen to each one of these guys individually to get a true feeling of jazz music and the magic of a piano when played well. But there were the big bands too. A time in America when there was a job for every musician, no electronic keyboards faking the sounds of a good trumpet player or trombone player and nobody did big band music better then Duke Ellington.
Duke had famous songs like Take The A Train that had a simple melody that we can all whistle too. His music was played a lot on the radio. He had a big famous band that tore up cities and paved the way to make other individual musicians famous like the great trumpet player Louis Armstrong who appeared in movies well into the 1970’s like Barbara Streisand’s Hello Dolly and sang solos in his romantic gruff voice. It was the first time in America when white people loved black people and accepted them for their talent. Lewis was not handsome. He was not tall. He was known to play for hours and hours till he was all sweaty and his lips were swollen from playing that trumpet. Often he would even play with a towel hanging from his playing fingers to be able to quickly wipe the sweat from his brow between phrases he had to play.
Chick Corea is a Spanish jazz pianist who can define the word improvisation though his music. The way you can pick out the famous melody in a Beethoven orchestral piece you can pick out the famous melody in Chick’s music and he will make you feel smart like you know something about music. And what about the guys who can simply play the stuff the innovators gave us? There is a musician who is alive today that you’ve never heard of called Marcus Roberts who is a fabulous pianist that you’ve never heard of. He can play the music of all the guys I just mentioned with his eyes closed. His eyes are closed forever because he is blind. But he can see the many colors of musical styles that most people can’t see because he does not have the distractions that sight gives someone.
Listen to his amazing concert where he played his rendition of George Gershwin’s song called Rhapsody In Blue performed with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in front of 18,000 people. This performance is particularly notable because random notes came out of his fingers that an entire classical based reading music orchestra was able to follow his lead into a flawless musical experience for all. The word improvised means not written down. It is music from your heart at the time it is beating. George Gershwin was a pianist himself and it is so sad that he wasn’t able to hear his performance of his work.
We can listen to the performances of all these guys. So listen to them. All these guys are black. So be grateful we have black people in this country to always give us new things in music whether it is jazz ragtime swing or rap. They make us feel good so feel good to have them in your lives. Keep young Black boys out of jail. Give them a piano keyboard to play with. They will figure out something to do with it even without a single lesson. I say for every gun you take away from a kid, give them a piano, it can become an excellent trade off.