Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine


Groovy Tugboat

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Orsara is a little mountain village in southeast Italy. I was there during the first week of August this summer teaching at a jazz camp. According to the mayor, the city is practically a ghost town all year until the jazz camp arrives. Then people who have moved on and people who live in larger neighboring cities come there to relax and take a holiday.

It’s wine country, it’s farm produce country, it’s sheep and goats and cheeses and prosciutto. The restaurant menus are generally whatever the farmers have harvested—tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, enormous watermelons.

One restaurant I frequented was about the size of a tool shed. A mom, pop and an 11-year-old girl ran it. English was all but useless there, but the atmosphere was electric with wit and curiosity. The 11-year-old drove the excitement. She was always bringing us things and showing us things and getting us plates of bread and antipasti.

The people of Orsara encouraged us to try other restaurants with superior food selection and more sophistication—they were proud of their city and wanted us to experience more of it.

About Thursday, and a couple of days into our exploration of other restaurants, the 11-year-old showed up to my ensemble class “to see exactly how jazz worked.” My class interpreter sat her down next to me as we were preparing for the weekend’s performance. I noticed that she was toting a clarinet case so I asked her to unpack it. A collective groan swept the room. After all, time was running out and there were already too many members of the already too large band wanting way too much precious solo space. Besides, she hadn’t paid any tuition!

I explained to the class that they were being given the opportunity to exercise one of the most vital tenets of jazz: inclusion. I instructed them that they were to use all their wit and cleverness to musically support this little angel so that she can experience what it’s like to rehearse and perform with a jazz band. After all, she may be the future of this music.

I confess that I felt pretty lofty about the opportunity to bring this point to the attention of my students yet my demonstration didn’t come without its challenges. After a fair amount of coaxing, the little girl was only able to produce an E-flat above middle C with any consistency. Luckily she had near metronomic timing. She put the horn to her mouth and sounded out a steady stream of E-flat hoots and toots that came off like some kind of groovy tugboat. She practically swung the whole band with her pulse on that E flat!

After her demonstration, she turned and smiled broadly at us, appealing for our approval. The room erupted in a wave of laughter. When that subsided, we decided to arrange a blues in C because E flat is about the funkiest blue note you can play in the key of C. (It’s actually not even in the key of C!) The rest of the horns harmonized with the note, then we made an arrangement that hid her until the shout chorus after the solos. She became our secret weapon!

The point of this story is that the biggest lesson of the week had less to do with music and more to do with attitude. You have to have something that’s precious to you, and the desire to share it with someone else. You also have to have the wit and willingness to include any and every body that wants in, young or old, naïve or sophisticated.

Attitude is the creator of this music. It was the attitude of sharing and appreciating that characterized this music and made it possible in the first place, and exactly the qualities that inspired UNESCO to designate April 30 as International Jazz Day. They chose to honour jazz because it espouses the spirit of inclusion, it encourages cultural sharing, and it gives a voice to marginalized individuals. This world organization’s director drew the parallel between the goals of jazz and the goals of UNESCO: “to build bridges of dialogue and understanding between all cultures and societies.” In 100 years, jazz has gone from bald-headed, ugly stepchild to world treasure. “God bless the child that’s (finally) got his own.”

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