Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine


With Ears to Hear

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I was midway through a concert in the Berney Theatre when I had this revelation. Listening to jazz is like reading good poetry: you get better at it with practice, and the more you bring to it, the more you carry away.

Like poetry, jazz can be intimidating, bewildering, even unappealing. Many dismiss them both as obscure or self-indulgent, or (worse) just something an artist makes up on a whim. In reality, each one depends on an elaborate system of conventions. If you don’t understand those conventions, you won’t be able to retrieve much meaning. It’s like listening to a language you don’t understand. Where do words start and stop? How does the grammar work? How on earth can listeners distinguish words that zip along in such a blur?

I had my eureka when Cyrus Chestnut took the stage for a solo tune. Two or three haunting chords in, I knew he was sweeping us into a Chopin nocturne I learned and loved several decades ago. Of course, what Cyrus offered was not a performance of Chopin but a rich and respectful and deep-spirited conversation with him. A jazz musician has a different mandate from the classical training I knew—the whole point is to use given materials as a basis, then alter and extend and invent and ultimately transform them.

Hearing Cyrus reinvent Chopin got me thinking about how much more I’m able to catch in jazz performances as the years fly by. I can hear influences and divergences. Even better, I don’t miss so many of the references—to songs, players, eras—that are a big part of this art form. Quotation is how these players honour the language they’ve inherited. It’s also how they tease and challenge and celebrate one another—it’s how they play.

Developing fluency in the language of jazz increases my appreciation for the skill and wit and passion of its best practitioners. It’s exactly the same with poetry. At first, I could sense a kind of heartbeat that mesmerized me, but it has taken years of reading and studying and writing it to really hook into that magic. Now I can hear influences and divergences. And I don’t miss so many of the references—because poets too are in the business of honouring and challenging their tradition.

Both jazz and poetry are deceptively difficult precisely because they work with such familiar materials. We all talk and music is everywhere. I suspect this is why people get irritated when they find these art forms inaccessible. They don’t appreciate that access requires study.

To me, making the familiar new again is part of the brilliance of both jazz and poetry. Both offer an invitation to discern another language that is imbedded in one we already know, and that takes patience and determination—and a fair amount of curiosity. The rewards? I defer to American poet, e.e.cummings: “now the ears of my ears awake and now the eyes of my eyes are opened.” You can’t improve on that.

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