Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine


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A Pulsing Bright Light

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Smalls is my favorite hang in New York because the lines between people and the different roles that they play are always a bit blurry. People in the club come from everywhere—they are part of the audience, but many of them (including the staff!) hope to make it onto the stage during the jam. Even the owner is as likely to be on the stage as behind the bar.

The best way to experience Smalls is to check out the opening show before the jam session, then sit behind the piano player’s chair and try not to see the people who come up on their respective instruments. Just close your eyes and listen. This is what I do—and then I guess where the people were schooled musically.

On the piano I hear someone who probably grew up in Philly or Detroit. I can hear that they’ve checked out some Delta blues players too, yet there’s something different that I don’t quite recognize.

When I open my eyes I see a Japanese woman. Between songs she introduces herself and I discover she’s been in the United States for approximately four months. Not only does she sound like Miles Davis’ former pianist Wynton Kelly, but she has adopted many of the musical/cultural protocols that you only hear when a person is raised in the jazz culture.

“She’s killin’!” I say to the couple next to me. They say something back to me that I can hardly recognize—it turns out that they’re British and they’ve just arrived themselves.

Nowadays a party is when a bunch of people get together in a room and stare at their electronic devices. The big lure is to “get online.” When they get there they’re invited to trick themselves into believing that they have way more friends than they actually have. The media then bombards them with pressure to identify with some virtual demographic group unless they want to risk poverty or social exclusion or just be zoned as uncool.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m writing this on an iPad. I love technology and the internet. However, much like sugar and matches, it’s dangerous when misused. Do we really need another temptation to isolate ourselves from ourselves?

My point is this: my trip to New York has been immensely revitalizing because the importance of what a jazz musician does was really driven home to me. They connect, they communicate, they build bridges between individuals and groups and even cultures. These days there are very few activities that depend on the unique differences of individuals to energize large groups of people and bring them together.

What I heard at Smalls was fueled by what everyone in the room had in common: the ability to speak jazz. The experience was then made uniquely beautiful by the random mix of nationalities that came together to musically speak with—and listen to—each other that night.

From my seat behind the piano player, the world was like a huge crystal and jazz was like a pulsing bright light. ν Steve Kirby


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