OK here goes. I’ve been contemplating this for a while and I guess I should just get it all out there now. It’s cliche to say ‘What Is Jazz?’ but it’s an important thing to think about for those who are legitimately asking the question for the first time. It really depends on who you ask. For some Jazz is strictly limited to the Dixieland bands of new Orleans and for others it’s all about Big Band Swing. Yet start talking to a self proclaimed Jazz fan and you could get anything from Miles and Coltrane to Ornette and Braxton. Still others who claim to be HUGE fans of the genre worship the likes of Kenny G and, well I don’t want to lump anyone else in with Kenny but you get the idea.
People who know my musical background (Heavy Metal, Alternative) will often ask me for advice about getting into Jazz and I try to be very careful where I steer them first because I want them to fall in love with it the way I did 15 or so years ago. The wrong choice can close someone off forever. The generic answer to ‘Where Should I Start?’ is Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and that is indeed a great gateway album, but is it the right one for someone into Death Metal? Probably not. It’s important to consider where someone is coming from when starting them off.
I tell people that my entry into Jazz via Metal was through the following chain: Faith No More/Mr. Bungle/John Zorn/Naked City/Sonny Clark. Sure I had heard Jazz before and even played in a Big band in college, but I never really fell hard for the music until I started working in the Jazz department at HMV on 72nd and Broadway in NYC. John Zorn a so-called Downtown Avant Garde composer/musician produced the debut album by Mike Patton’s Mr. Bungle. So I was aware of his name when a friend approached me with a band of his called Naked City. It had all the volume and aggression of Metal but it had an alto sax and other ‘Jazzy’ elements that made me listen a little differently. I spent the next year or so getting all of the Naked City albums as Japanese imports, no easy feat as a broke college student in New Hampshire. Luckily I had a friend who worked at a record store who could order them for us.
Fast Forward a few years and I’m at my first day of work at HMV. A fellow employee looks me up and down and snorts ‘what kind of Jazz do you like?’ I rambled a little bit trying to fake an answer for this large gruff looking guy and managed to get the name John Zorn out. He immediately perked up and we started talking. That man was Dave Dunn and he became my Jazz mentor for lack of a better term. I learned an immense amount from Dave from the beauty of Bill Evans piano trios to the aural assault of Peter Brotzmann and just about everything in between.
One of the first things I purchased for myself from the store was a John Zorn album called News For Lulu. I picked it up because I was going to see the band live during Zorn’s 40th Birthday concerts at the Knitting Factory that month and wanted to know what I was in for. The band features Zorn on alto sax, Bill Frisell on guitar and George Lewis on trombone (which intrigued me as I was also a trombone player). This became a gateway album for me as it introduced me to 50’s Hard Bop composers Kenny Dorham, Hank Mobley, Freddie Redd and Sonny Clark.
I soon found myself hooked on the simple and catchy melodies of these (largely) Blue Note recording artists and began hunting down everything of theirs that I could find. Easy in a way because they each had finite careers, but difficult in that much of their music at the time was only available as Japanese imports.
So began my life in Jazz a love affair that I build upon every year. There may be times where I wander away from Jazz for a while, but I’m never very far and I always come back. More often than not I’m asked to make some ‘beginner’ suggestions and find myself falling in love all over again; reliving the advice that Dave Dunn gave me all those years ago and happily passing it on to the next new fan.
For more exhaustive Jazz discussion online please check out All About Jazz.