Thursday, June 3, 2010

Jazz Isn't A Genre, It's A Way Of Life

I learned a valuable lesson last night -- Jazz is more than a genre of music, it's a way of life.

Growing up, I took every Jazz history course I possibly could. I would stare as if into oblivion when our grade school music class got to watch a video about the Big Band era. Heck, I even spent four months of my life during high school devoted to studying Jazz and playing Jazz every waking moment at the Interlochen Arts Camp in Traverse City, Michigan.

College was no different. The reason I decided to attend American University is still one of the easiest choices I've ever made -- Jazz Director William E. Smith told me I could play trumpet in his Jazz band. How could I turn down the offer? I couldn't. I didn't. And as they say, the rest is history.

While I don't remember the exact stories, I do know that young players often got their start as one of the big names in the genre by the older players asking the rookies to take the stage. It was never pre-announced. The kids had their horns ready hoping for a shot to cause musical commotion with the players creating a new genre of American music, but the kids also knew that showing up with your horn or axe was no guarantee for playing time.

It's like riding the bench of a major league sport. You suit up, bring all your equipment, and then keep your fingers crossed that you get tapped on the shoulder by the manager to take the field ... or in this case the stage.

It's a right of passage for a Jazz musician to take the stage after being called up, just like when Stephen Strasburg will take the mound for the Washington Nationals next Tuesday for his Major League debut. That's how it's been since the early days of Jazz over a century ago, and lucky for me it hasn't changed.

Jazzer's take care of their own. It's a family within a community based off a sub-culture of American music. I wrote an article for We Love DC last week about Buddy Bolden's (one of the text book originators of Jazz as a genre) great-grandson who is now the leader of a Jazz-Funk-Rock fusion band called Big Sam's Funky Nation.

I interviewed Sam over the phone and instantly felt a connection for two very music related reasons:

1) He's a trombone player. Which means he's a brass player. As a trumpet player, I can dig it.
2) His family might be rooted in Jazz history, but he is definitely the future if he keeps tootin' his horn like he knows how to. I'm all for that.

At the end of our phone conversation, Sam told me to bring my horn to the band's gig in Annapolis, Maryland (which was last night). Of course, I said yes right away but I knew getting there would be a slight problem considering I live in DC without a car and there's no easy way of getting to Annapolis by foot.

The fates were in on this one -- my sorority sister and her fiance drove me to Annapolis out of the kindness of their heart as I toted my trumpet along hoping and wishing to get a big break and jam with some truly talented musicians.

I didn't see it coming, but in the middle of Big Sam's set their manager tapped me on the shoulder. "He's calling you up," he told me as I watched Big Sam gesture at us.

I was shaking (in a good way). I didn't let the nerves get to me. This was it. My big call-up. Now I know how rookies in the bullpen feel before their first big league outing in front of a sell-out crowd.

Was it my finest performance to date? Not by a long shot. I hadn't warmed up, I didn't do a sound check, it was really hard to figure out what key the song was in, but I stepped up to the plate and you better believe I knocked it out of the park.

And yes, it felt amazing.

The following is a video from last night's performance:

It's nice to see that Jazz is a community. We're all looking out for each other. You better believe I'll pay it forward the next time I have a show and a rookie is waiting in the wings. It's my responsibility to do so. After all, we're just one big Jazz-loving family.

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