Monday, May 16, 2016

Learning Jazz Through Osmosis - Early Performance Models

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Musically, Jazz can’t be taught, but it can be learned

We all learn differently.

When it came to Jazz, learning more about it became a burning desire for me - a passion.

My first learning experience with Jazz came as I absorbed it through listening to as many recordings of it as I could lay my hands on.

And did I listen; over and over again until I had every tune, arrangement and solo memorized note-for-note.

It’s almost as though I was assimilating knowledge and awareness about the music through a form of audio osmosis.

Judging from the following excerpt from Paul F. Berliner’s constantly enlightening and instructive Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation, it looks like I was not alone in this regard.

Early Performance Models

“In reflecting on their early childhoods, many jazz artists describe the process by which they acquired an initial base of musical knowledge as one of osmosis. They cultivated skills during activities as much social as musical, absorbing models from varied performances — some dramatic, others incidental yet profoundly effective — that attuned them to the fundamental values of African American music. Ronald Shannon Jackson remembers his father's infectious habit of humming the blues "around the house" while carrying out daily routines. Vea Williams's mother sang jazz "all the time" at home; she possessed a beautiful, powerful voice that passed easily through the apartment's screens and resonated throughout the courtyard.

The children of professional musicians receive a particularly intense exposure to performance. Tommy Turrentine fondly recollects his father's "saxophone section" that practiced regularly in their living room. Music literally "surrounded" Turrentine as a child. Lonnie Hillyer also describes much of his early musical education as "environmental"; his older brother "played jazz, and he always had guys in the house fooling around with their instruments."

In Barry Harris's Detroit neighborhood, he and his young friends absorbed the intricate rhythms of the "ham bone"; its clever body percussion — slapping movements between the thigh and chest — accompanied improvised texts. Additionally, in the surrounding neighborhood, the "average black family had a piano and at least one family member who could play boogie-woogie."

Kenny Barron used to anticipate eagerly the daily arrival of the neighborhood ice peddler, a blues player who routinely availed himself of the Barrens' piano after delivering the family's ice, fascinating the youngster with his musical prowess. After he left, Barron would try to pick out on the piano "the little melodies and chords" he remembered from the performance.

Within the larger community, hymnody at church services, marches at football games, and soul music at social dances contribute further to the children's education, as do concerts in performance halls and informal presentations in parks and at parades. During the thirties, Charli Persip was especially fascinated by a black orphanage's high-stepping marching band that performed jazz and by the swing bands that accompanied stage shows in the intervals between film showings at New York City's renowned Apollo Theatre. Moreover, in some neighborhoods "every corner bistro had a piano, and the pianists were sometimes joined by a bassist and a drummer and, sometimes, a horn player. There was live music all over the community" (Max Roach).

Sympathetic club owners in Detroit left their back doors open so that passersby and underage audiences who congregated in the alleyways could sample the music of featured artists. Performers in the "bars, weekend storefronts, and neighborhood jazz clubs" in other cities similarly made a deep impression upon youngsters, as did informal get-togethers by musicians. George Johnson Jr. was enticed by weekly jam sessions conducted in the apartment of his building superintendent.

Music provided by record players, radios, and jukeboxes complements live performances within the general soundscape. People "could listen to jazz all day long" on the jukeboxes of Cleveland's neighborhood restaurants, cafes, and nightclubs in the forties: "You heard this music every place you went" (Benny Bailey). Since the fifties, television has sometimes featured jazz as well. Record stores also offered places for young enthusiasts to gather and socialize, particularly when the stores provided listening booths for customers to sample the latest albums before deciding whether to buy them.

Some homes of musicians actually "looked like record stores" because the families owned so many recordings; they listened to music "constantly" (Don Pate). In other instances, children participated in an "extended family" that shared and distributed recordings among adults. Patti Bown remembers private records circulating from house to house in the black community of Seattle. In another musician's neighborhood, few could afford records or record players; however, a neighbor whose generous spirit equaled his enormous collection made others welcome in his home. Evenings, everyone met there to listen to jazz.

Record collections of aficionados typically represented a wide range of popular jazz artists, including Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Louis Jordan, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Nat King Cole, Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane. Ronald Shannon Jackson does not recall hearing the term jazz or such idiomatic designations as New Orleans jazz or swing when he was a youngster. In describing the music of "black dance bands" during the thirties as "jump music," his community simply viewed the music some called jazz as part of the larger family of African American musical traditions.

The record collections of black families typically included examples of spirituals, gospel music, boogie-woogie, blues, and rhythm and blues, as well as selections of Western classical music and light popular classics. This discussion of early jazz musical education reminds us that exposure to their own community's music as well as that of the mainstream is one advantage commonly afforded minority children in America.

Musicians reflecting on their impressionable years tell insightful, touching stories of the importance of recordings in their childhoods. Melba Liston often contended with bouts of loneliness at home, for she had no siblings; early in life "music" became her "very dear friend," with the radio its primary vehicle.

In another case, operating the record player was one of Kenny Washington's first manual skills. He often spent the day by himself listening to recordings while his father was at work. Family anecdotes attest to his emotional attachment to favorite recordings. As a toddler, Washington had learned to associate the designs on record jackets with their respective sounds. One day, he observed his father misfiling one of his albums. "I couldn't really talk yet," he explains, "but I started going through changes, trying to tell him that he'd put the record in the wrong case." His father was baffled, but his mother "insisted that he check it out. Sure enough, he'd put the record in the wrong case."

On another occasion, when Washington was intensely listening to recordings, his father interrupted him by placing a new one on the turntable. Noticing his son's agitation, he promised that he only intended listening to one cut. The younger Washington became increasingly upset as his father extended his promise, cut by cut on the album's first side, ignoring his son's appeals. When his father turned the disk to begin side two, Washington "went through a temper tantrum and ran down the hall," tripped over his pajamas and hit his mouth on a bed with enough force to knock a tooth up into his gums. "This was all over a record," he muses.

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