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Why I Love Jazz

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One day 14 years ago I became a jazz fan for life. I was a newspaper reporter in Idaho, and was paid so poorly that I supplemented my income by delivering pizza in my pickup truck on weekends.

The good part about it was that I had a good stereo, and could pick up a good public radio station out of Salt Lake City, KUER, that played a lot of jazz.

Someone got a cold pizza one day because of Charles Lloyd. At the time I was just barely learning about jazz and didn’t yet know what I liked, what I didn’t like. Yes I knew that I liked Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” because that’s very often the record that people who are curious about Jazz start out with. Same for Dave Brubeck’s “Time Out.”

So I was making a delivery and was compelled, literally compelled, to pull over. Something about what was playing on the radio had captured my attention, and there was no way I was going to let anything, not even a pizza delivery interfere with it. It was a long tune, and I realized it had been playing awhile, and had a distinctive beat, and a lot of interesting things going on with the saxophone, the piano and the bass.

What had captured my attention so strongly was Charles Lloyd’s live epic from Monterey in 1966, Forest Flower. It was extraordinary. In fact rather than try to describe it, here’s a sample:

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I didn’t really know what it was I was hearing, but I knew I was hooked on this thing called Jazz that had been sort of burrowing its way into my psyche for a couple of years. This music became my link to the outside world of culture and of art and of intelligence and thoughtfulness during a period when I lived in a place that valued none of those things. I loved the spontaneity, and the fact that Jazz is an improvisational art appealed to me. It was never the same thing twice, and it could never be exactly the same to two people.

As I went on to become a Charles Lloyd fan and to collect many of his records, I learned the Forest Flower is, like “Kind Of Blue” and “Time Out” are for Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck, merely an entry point. The song, all 18 minutes of it, is actually two tracks, one entitled “Sunrise,” the other, and the one from which my sample is taken, “Sunset.” It was a popular crossover hit in the 1960s with the psychedelic set and sold a million copies.

Over the years I picked up his other records. From the 1960s there’s albums like the poppy “Love In” and “Dream Weaver” which contains its own epic tune, the 12-minute “Meditation, Dervish Dance,” and which like “Forest Flower” has its own hypnotic rhythm. But it was the later records, the new material that captured my imagination. “Canto” from 1997 had me at the first few notes of the opening track, “Tales of Rumi.”  2000 brought “The Water is Wide.”

I made it my business to learn more about Lloyd, and to see him perform live. I learned that at the height of his fame he stepped away from performing and went into a period of solitude. He played with The Beach Boys. He allegedly played the flute on a few Grateful Dead recordings. (See track 3 here and listen for the flutist.) And, over the summer he played a concert in New York.

It was a transformative experience, the sort of performance that made you want to be a better person, that made you want other people to understand that music shouldn’t always be something you turn on to fill the silence in the background when you do other things, but that it should move you and make you wish for more art and beauty in life and less of the boorish and banal. He delivered a few monologues on his years here playing in Greenwich Village, in his rapid-fire Tennessee drawl, part beat poet, part minister, part cultural historian. The concert opened with a poetry reading by Charles Simic, the Poet Laureate of The United States. Obviously once moved by Lloyd’s music as I was, he memorialized his flute-playing in a poem called “Two For Charles Lloyd,” describing “the mystery of this moment, the sudden realization that we have a soul.” He ends with the lines “‘Sweet Georgia,’ I hear someone whispering. ‘Without this music life would be a mistake.'”

The New York Times was there too.

After the show we walked up Central Park West in a sort of near speechless state. It was a hot summer night, and while it seemed a shame to go home and call it night, anything else we might have done just wouldn’t have fit with unparalleled artistry and musicianship and spirit we had just experienced. We were different people after the show, changed somehow by the warm wail of a saxophone and the delicate breeze of a flute.

I snuck a recorder into the performance, but it didn’t work out. My recording wasn’t very listenable. Fortunately someone captured a soundboard performance of a July 4 show in Vienna, only three days later. The first number is below, and a YouTube clip of another performance from the same tour follows after that.

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Written by ahess247

October 24th, 2008 at 11:41 pm