When Chris Rock, pontificating at Kanye West’s ye listening party at West’s ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, claimed that “hip-hop music is the first artform created by free Black men,” he was right, so long as we understand “free” in this case to mean “not enslaved.” But while hip-hop may have been the first artform free Black people created, jazz was the first artform they perfected.
John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, all of them free, Black, and but a fraction of the full list, covered the range of human experience from the mellow traipse of cool jazz to the Lisztian bebop sprint. The influence of such pioneers stretched far beyond their race, just as happened with hip hop: Bill Evans, Chet Baker, Ryo Fukui, the list goes on. It may seem that the genre has impressive reach to be able to touch people of all creeds, from all corners of the Earth, as easily in Harlem as in Tokyo. But distance is irrelevant when the music takes us all to the same place.
This ability to transport listeners is largely responsible for the enduring appeal of jazz. Go to wherever they play jazz at night in or around your neighborhood to discover precisely what I mean. Survey the patrons: how many of them seem present? Eyes closed, heads rocking, feet stomping, and, perhaps during a particularly moving performance, sweat streaming, they have left the realm of the living and joined that of the sonic, being sped along by bass, brass and percussion.
The first time I heard Coltrane’s “Alabama” from my bed in Orlando, Florida was also the first time I visited Alabama. I didn’t move, yet somehow I saw the tragedy-stricken streets of Birmingham and the subjects of the song, those four little girls whose lives hate cut short. And a saxophone, with love, brought them back. Suddenly, I understood how music could make one writhe, and why upon hearing jazz one may appear more afflicted than pleased.
To be transported is not always easy, but it is a labor of love. And it is love that lends jazz its magic, as it lent the blues and the spirituals before it. When you shut your eyes and follow where the horns, drums, keys and strings have chosen to take you, you don’t fear what’s happening to you.
You plunge backward into a trust fall you can’t possibly guess the ramifications of. Instead of meeting terminal velocity with dread, you welcome it—this was the point. This was supposed to happen. You may be swaying quietly, imperceptibly to the softest musings of Miles’ horn, or simply enraptured, aflame with the energy Charlie Parker’s sax bequeathed to you, your feet kicking and fists banging, or anywhere in between. It’s love that brought you there, and it’s love that will bring you back.