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The XX Files - 5.24.06


The Jazzorcist

Even though my friend had to drag me there, it was turning out to be a great evening. We were at Milestones sitting cheek to jowl at long, narrow tables. And what a crowd. Everyone was smart, funny, and, yes, slightly crunchy, but that was okay. If only the music would never start.

While we waited for the band to take the stage, I talked to a novelist and her DJ husband on my right. My friend was laughing with the physicist and art professor across from us. Then the conversation took an ugly turn: someone mentioned jazz.

Jazz? I whined to myself. Why ruin a perfectly good evening with talk of jazz? It had only been a matter of time, though. This was, after all, during the Rochester International Jazz Festival a few years back. Attending this concert --- a jazz concert, natch --- was part of my friend's campaign to get me to like this incomprehensible form of music.

Suddenly the artists, astrophysicists, and arctic explorers all around me were talking about the band, reminiscing about blissful jazz riffs heard years ago in NYC dives, and recalling this or that groovy vibe.

I smiled and nodded, not daring to open my mouth. These are the kind of people you wait your whole life to meet, and Fate was laughing at me. If I said a word, they'd know I didn't get it. That I am jazz illiterate. That I am, I'll admit it: jazz stupid.

I get other kinds of music --- even opera --- though I prefer rock, punk, and hip-hop. But jazz seems to be built on a secret set of assumptions, the way math made me feel in 7th grade when we jumped, without warning, to fractions. What? Numbers can be broken into smaller pieces and be made even more complex than they are already?

Jazz doesn't just make me feel stupid. It makes me feel like my musical sophistication is on par with that of an orangutan rhythmically banging a metal bowl against the fake tree in her enclosure. Actually, that might be kind of cool.

It's Jazz Fest time again, and it's already starting: In coffee shops and at theaters, in restaurants and at Little League games, people ignore me as they excitedly discuss upcoming and past jazz acts, like kids trading Simpsons anecdotes.

I do have one little jazz tidbit to offer, something that would get people's attention. My friend's brother is a minor jazz celebrity in Europe. But I refuse to say his name because it will mean more to you than it does to me, and I'm tired of being left out. Why couldn't she have a brother who is Ludacris or Joey Ramone? Then we'd all have something to talk about.

Soon, tagging along behind my determined friend, I will go to a jazz concert which I will have to admit, by the end, wasn't really all that bad. Then I'll be in for the crowing and the preening, and every time I get in her car I'll have to listen to some bootlegged jazz from Belgium or some other God-forsaken thing on her iPod.

If I have to be stuck in a city known for a certain type of music, I'd pick Nashville any day. At least when I was living in Nashville I could be snobbish about people involved with the country-music industry. The women in the playground with their bright blue eye shadow and white suede fringe. The men in the supermarket in their cowboy boots and ten-gallon hats.

I was quite smug until one day a sleek, tricked-out Lexus SUV pulled into the parking lot at my son's day care. An acquaintance who'd previously driven a battered old car hopped out. Because her songwriter husband had just sold one song to a country star, they were now officially wealthy. One song. Suddenly country music held some appeal.

Songwriters, it turns out, are the crowned rulers of Nashville. I spent the remainder of my three years there writing bad lyrics and trying to get someone, anyone, to listen to them.

In Milestones, I took heart when the band filed onstage. These weren't Beatnik-era cool cats with berets. They were youngsters, boys like the ones in bands I go see, with messy trendy hair cuts and Iggy-Pop tight jeans. I sat up straight in my seat. It was only a matter of time before they started thrashing their instruments in a hail of beer and sweat.

I know what you're thinking: what could be hotter than a guy with an ax or drumsticks? Well, it turns out, a lot of things. When they played, the young men on stage exhibited a preternatural restraint, maturity, and refinement. With little tap-tap-taps of the cymbals and well-practiced guitar riffs, the jazzers quickly dashed my hopes of a wild show.

It may be tempting to follow in my poor friend's footsteps and try to offer me a jazz tutorial. Don't waste your time. Having grown up in Boston, I dated my share of Berklee students. I've heard all the theories. I've listened to all the greats. Even back then, I felt the vast divide --- some waitresses melted at Pat Metheny sightings while I lived for when members of the Cars or Aerosmith stopped by for a cup of joe.

This year, for the first time ever, I'm happy to report that the Jazz Festival is making an effort to reach out to the rest of us. Woody Allen will be here! Of course I love his films. I wonder where he's screening them.