I put on “Blue Train” (John Coltrane, originally issued 1957) the other day and was immediately immersed in a sound so comforting and familiar that it constituted “home.”
Not that the music is in any way sentimental. And the first three tracks, midtempo and uptempo, aren’t “comforting” in a way that would make anyone want to lie down and relax. It’s just that for me, this sound was one of the main imprints of the happiest parts of my childhood. The soundtrack of Trane early and late, pulsing, singing, wailing, exploring, and somehow knowing underneath. And his committed, swinging bands driving right under and with him.
My dad was a serious Coltrane fan. He had gone to see Coltrane in clubs often enough in different cities to warrant coming up to him and saying hello between sets. My dad was an even closer friend to a number of other jazz musicians. I grew up hearing “the music” — as the musicians called it; not “jazz,” but “the music.” I certainly heard it even from the womb. Jazz listeners such as my dad experience jazz as their primary spiritual experience. My dad and the music and the depth of experience it created have been bound up together for me for as long as I can remember. Warm, creative, driving, interesting, fun — and a place for me to be all those things: home.
In some ways, this familiarity with “Blue Train” — and most of what came before and after it in jazz — was a disadvantage to me as a singer. That’s because I really understood what jazz entailed, and that was overwhelming. I admit that at times I have not only scorned but also envied those jazz singers whose bios proclaim that they became interested in jazz when they first heard Ella at 19 years old after having started out as country-western singers. Or that their parents sometimes played jazz, so they learned a few standards as teenagers and just kept going. Ah, the power of innocence. The sense that you have started to plumb something that your parents don’t really understand. That unplowed field was not for me. I knew more. Was more awed, more reluctant, more silenced by the power and history of the music. It kept me away from it for awhile as an artist.
For instance, as a child I played and studied classical piano. There was some talk of my being taught by a jazz pianist, but it didn’t happen. One day the brilliant avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor came to visit my parents and our home. This was in a period in which he was fairly shy and reticent – not the later garrulous Cecil. He asked me to play Beethoven for him. Though I was in fifth grade, maybe sixth, I had already heard a lot of Cecil’s playing on LP and live too. That was enough to keep my hands off the keys while he was there. I guess both of us were feeling shy. Except I was shy before the quiet of a volcano at rest. I guess he was shy because of being a volcano at rest.
It has surprised me whenever a self-appointed guardian of jazz feels that he (and it’s invariably a he) must bar me from that exclusive realm. Oh, and this person is invariably not a musician. Not that it’s happened often. But, readers, when it does, I remember and it stings. We all seem to remember such slurs with more sharpness than we remember the praise and appreciation, even if the latter are more voluminous than the former. One editor of a major jazz magazine declined to review my CD “What’s New, Pussycat?” because, according to my publicist, he couldn’t tell if I was being serious. (Does jazz = serious?) Another jazz vocal critic asserted in print that it wasn’t jazz I was singing, even while praising my voice. Of course, many other critics and jazz radio DJs and listeners have accepted the same record as jazz and as other things too. But when I face those fierce guardians who seek to define me out of their church, I’m dumbfounded. How can it be to not hear the core of someone whose earliest soundtrack is the sound of Coltrane (and in this case, the sound of Lee Morgan, Curtis Fuller, Kenny Drew, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones)? Can’t you hear the atmosphere in which I breathed and jumped and played as a child? The patterns that entered my own pulsebeats? They are still with me, the underpulses from which everything else springs. Home.
copyright 2008 Lisa Bernstein