I was thrilled this week to be a part of this season’s Jazz OnStage: an exciting part of the OnStage series of free chamber music concerts at the Nashville Symphony.
The OnStage series is a longstanding part of the Nashville Symphony’s community engagement programming – I’ve written about these programs in a number of previous posts here on Off The Podium. The concept behind OnStage is simple: on selected weeknights throughout the season, Nashville Symphony musicians present an early evening chamber music concert in which the audience is seated on the stage with the musicians, and the program includes the opportunity for dialogue between the musicians and the audience.
Last night I had the great fortune to be a part of a fine ensemble of musicians performing our very first Jazz OnStage: part of the OnStage series of free chamber music concerts at the Nashville Symphony.
The OnStage series has been a part of the Nashville Symphony’s community engagement programming for many years now, and I’ve written about these programs in a number of previous posts here on Off The Podium. The concept of the program is simple: on selected weeknights throughout the season, Nashville Symphony musicians present an early evening chamber music concert in which the audience is seated on the stage with the musicians, and the program includes the opportunity for dialogue between the musicians and the audience.
One night when I was a child – this would have been sometime in the 1970s – I was in bed but had not yet fallen asleep when my mother came to my room and got me to come see something important that was about to be shown on television.
This was back when all television was broadcast: before streaming, before cable, before Blu-Ray, DVD, VHS, or Beta. There were 3 commercial networks and PBS had only been broadcasting for a few years – so if something came on TV and it was important or interesting, you had to set aside time to watch it then or you would miss it, with no chance to see it again. In those days, many people organized their lives and made plans around the scheduled broadcasts of programs or events they wanted to see.
So I shuffled down the hall to my parents’ bedroom and sat on the edge of the bed in my pajamas, peering up at the small black-and white TV set that sat on a shelf high on the wall. (What seemed to my young eyes and ears like) a dowdily dressed old black woman in coke-bottle glasses stood in front of a piano trio and proceeded to astound me with the most outlandish and virtuosic singing I had ever heard. At first she sang what seemed to my limited experience to be a pretty conventional rendition (of a song I did not know – in my memory she sang How High the Moon and A-Tisket, A-Tasket in this broadcast but I don’t know if that’s accurate as I’ve been unable to locate a video on the internet that syncs with my memory of this moment) but then she closed her eyes and started to make strange movements with the hand not holding the microphone as she sang what become obvious to me was not the song but just something wild she was making up, singing nonsense. My mother told me this was called scat singing. I thought that scat was another word for poop but I didn’t say anything, I just sat there mesmerized, listening intently until it was over. I’d never heard anything like it.
It was Ella Fitzgerald of course. My father said something about Ella being the greatest jazz singer in the world, and it was clear to me (they got me out of bed to see this, after all) that to my parents – who seemed to regard this television event with the same weighty regard they had given to astronauts landing on the moon or President Nixon resigning from office – this crazy old lady was something special – anyway, she was on TV, and that was important in it’s own right. I went to bed when it was over, but sitting in my parents room that night watching Ella sing on TV made a strong impression on me, and I never forgot it.
It is my first “jazz” memory.
Keith turns seventy today. For those reading this who are not familiar with him, Keith Jarrett is an American treasure, and one of the most important musicians alive today. He is among the most accomplished improvising musicians in history and we are fortunate that we live in the age of recording technology: we have a voluminous record of his career spanning nearly five decades that catalogs his development as an artist, as well as many of his experiments and side-projects. In addition to his stature now as senior jazz statesman, Keith is also an accomplished performer of classical music, with many recordings of Bach and Mozart, etc. as well as music of 20th century composers (including himself) to his credit.
I realize that beginning a post with superlatives is contentious, but considering Keith and his life as a musician, it seems fitting to me – he has been nothing if not controversial. Through his entire career Keith has very much followed his own path, refusing to compromise on his ideals even to his own detriment. Looking back on his career as he enters his eighth decade, I am not familiar with any other pianist who has accomplished such profound music-making as both jazz and classical artist. I am aware of no other musician of any genre or instrument who has filled concert halls consistently for decades with audiences who come to hear completely improvised solo concerts, led several acclaimed jazz ensembles including the longest lived (more than 30 years) and most respected piano trio still performing today, and devoted a substantial amount of time (more than a decade) and energy to recording and performing classical music, as a soloist and concerto performer, and as a composer. There is nobody else who has done this, nor done it so well, nor for so long.