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I began this reminiscence writing about a year of concerts and festivals, that renewed togetherness and back-outsideness that feels at once routine and rogue after the hiatus, but quickly realized that what’s most important to me about jazz right now is what is happening offstage and backstage, in-between shows and attitudes, when we catch ourselves wondering what we’re saying as if trapped in a dreamscape that only the right question posed at the right time can interrupt or interpret. Some of the best jazz songs ask such questions. Mingus’ version of “What Is This Thing Called Love?” for example, which makes sure to never define what it seeks to define, embodies it instead, revels in the unknowns as its very tempo and temperament. Or Tony Williams’s “Where” – interrogating that dream to rid it of aimlessness, where are you going / where have you come from / if anyone asks you / I hope you can say.
Jazz is an elegiac form as much as a collective one, such that its tones often vacillate between ache and celebration, ecstatic love and dead-end romance, self-discovery and self-delusion — ballad and blues. Jazz ensembles and compositions are safe havens for codes that don’t exist outside of them and subject to the exile that comes with protecting the freedom of expression that mainstream culture aims to replace with the ready-made. Sometimes those codes woven into the music are so exclusive that their makers exist in obscurity, or in a network of rumors among themselves, their families, friends and most avid fans, never entering the minds of those outside of it. Some jazz musicians spend their whole lives within this network, perhaps never venturing away because it fulfills them enough, because the pivot to some kind of celebrity musicianship is no more glamorous than being loved and appreciated by one’s own community. A little utopian caveat about the myths animating the jazz underground, and backstage and post-stage and festival.
I’ve spent this year mining those territories with direct questions, conducting oral histories of jazz families whose legacies are often left to apocryphal lore and imagination. I began with the Coltrane family, interviewing Michelle Coltrane, daughter of Alice and John, Surya Botofasina, their nephew, and several of the singers who grew up on the ashram Alice Coltrane lived on in Malibu, Calif. I interviewed Keki Mingus, daughter of Charles Mingus, who told me she hadn’t been asked about her father by the jazz establishment in many years. His centennial this year was in danger of passing without Keki’s account, sourced from a close and loving relationship with him and his life and music, which seemed almost intentional and in the service of more sensational narratives about Mingus’s life and temperament. Next, I interviewed pianist Jamael Dean and his grandfather Donald Dean, a drummer born in 1935 who has played with everyone from Cecil Taylor to Donny Hathaway, to, I found out in the interview, my own father. And I was interviewed by singer Melanie Charles and Yunie Mojica, two women who are at once performing and creating a community of musicians and thinkers offstage.
Most recently, I spoke with Jasper Marsalis about his upbringing, his music and painting, what it’s like to be Wynton’s son and what it’s like to be himself expanding that tradition in new forms. What each interview has taught me, and in a different way each time, is that jazz music is the energetic extension of an oral tradition that separates Black art from the rest of Western art, in that it values knowing things by heart, remembering, and retelling in person, or riffing on a closed-notion, over paper documents and final says. Jazz musicians and their families become talking books and written biographies and articles must be supplemented with oral histories which whisper secrets that can never be translated here, if they hope to evolve into accuracy, which is never a fixed point in the history of this music. The stories morph and change as the songs do each time they are played.
The danger of not exploring the ways this music is traded and handed down across generations, becomes collective improvisation as a way of life and not just a way of sounding more lifelike in song, is that the keepers of these stories are not as immortal in the flesh as their sound is in spirit dimensions. In February of this year an LA-based, Chicago-born jazz musician, Derf Reklaw, died after a gig in Los Angeles. Ask me how: He was found waiting for a city bus with his instruments and his phone in his hand. He had performed a show hours earlier.
He was a longtime family friend and would recount vivid, ever-changing stories of his life in and out of the music of which we have little record. Those stories may vanish because no one asked the right questions, because we neglect musicians whose charisma transcends the limits of a two-hour concert or album.
For me, this has been a year of looking at the parts of the lives of jazz musicians that cannot be recorded or even recounted in music alone, but that earn you true access to the music, its elegies and its glories. We are responsible for looking to improvisers and composers for more than entertainment and dazzle or distraction. When we do, we find a void neither stage nor its opposite, made up of tedious procedures, some grandeur and delight, and all the withheld questions that threaten to displace everyone involved: How did you get home from shows? Is the one haunting me most. Have we made it home?