An audio version of this post is available at Flak Magazine.
I started playing trombone in the fifth grade – at the very beginning of the 1980s. I was a tall kid, and the adults around me figured that my arms were long enough to play the trombone with its long slide – way out to 7th position – and shoulder-mount, like a bazooka. By the seventh grade, I was playing 4th chair in the junior high jazz band. Our music teacher, Mr. Richards, taught to play simplified versions of charts made famous 40 years earlier by bandleaders like Count Basie and Duke Ellington. “Alright, OK, You Win,” was a particular favorite of mine.
When we started, a bunch of pimply white kids in a gymnasium in rural Maine, we couldn’t swing a note to save our lives. Swing? Swinging? Swinging was what you did on the playground. What is this syncopated dynamic of which of you speak, Mr. Richards? One evening before rehearsal, Mr. Richards made us listen to Count Basie.
The kids in the band were used to reading music, to metronomes, to counting up and down, up and down. But to swing, you had to know the beat, and then forget it just enough to feel the possibilities of rhythm within the beat. It was this feeling, this intuition, necessary to swing, that fascinated me so much. That’s what we heard – or at least some of us heard – when we listened to Count Basie.
About the same time, I heard the playing of Stevie Ray Vaughan, that overpowering blues guitarist from Texas. When I heard the first track from that first album, those bending licks that open the driving song “Love Struck Baby,” something went through me. From that moment forward, I wanted a guitar, wanted to learn how to play it like Stevie Ray, and, for better or for worse, I shifted my focus from the trombone to guitar and never looked back.
And also, it seems about the same time, an unusual song began appearing on the radio, a mix of synthesizers, samples, drum machines, and something called scratching. The song, “Rockit,” by Herbie Hancock, with its outerspace sound and superstrange video, was unlike anything I’d encountered before. I couldn’t get my hands on a copy of the album Future Shock. The guy at the music store offered to order it for me, but I didn’t bother.
About a year later, flipping though some the record collection at the university library, I found an album by Herbie Hancock, in particular by the Herbie Hancock Quartet. This was Hancock in performance with Ron Carter and Tony Williams and the new phenomenon in jazz -- trumpter Wynton Marsalis, who was all of 19 years old. Now, I thought I might be getting the same futuristic mix that I heard on “Rockit."
I listened to the whole album, and in those songs, I heard the swing of Count Basie and the blues of Stevie Ray and the imagination of “Rockit.” Ah, this felt like home. It felt I suppose I never really looked back from that point. Following the musical links from that single Herbie Hanock album I went all the way back to Miles Davis and Charlie Parker and forward to the very best of the acoustic jazz revival of the 80s. Stevie Ray Vaughan led me back to Albert King, Albert Collins, Freddy King, Elmore James, and Buddy Guy. From those few songs I heard years ago, a whole lifetime of listening has grown. Here was a music – blues and jazz -- it seemed to me, for which I’d been looking my whole life – it had honesty and raw energy, creativity and imagination, and offered me a view of the world that, as different was it was from my white, rural existence, still rang true. The struggle, the striving, the playfulness in the music were all things I felt I needed in my life.
Over the years, the musical traditions that began with African-Americans, in college and in my work, have led me deeper into the literature and history of the United States, into, as it were black history and culture. Now, an awareness and importance of race and class is essential to what I do in my work as a teacher and writer.
It is often said that jazz is really America’s classical music – and that is a properly broad idea, it seems to me. It should also be pointed out that black history is really American history, and our lives are all the richer for acknowledging that truth. Hopefully, one day, we won’t even need a black history month. But for now, I for one am grateful for the bits and pieces of African American culture that found me when I was a kid, and which have lead me to a far richer understanding of who I am, who other people are, and our place together in the world.