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A List Of Things Which Are More 'Jazz' Than Bad Jazz Music

Pickup basketball, for one.
Pickup basketball, for one.

For non-playing participants, jam sessions can be difficult musical experiences. As "hangs," or social gatherings, they aren't so bad — sometimes you learn a lot by talking to the musicians there. But the quality of the music itself often varies. It only takes a mediocre performance to sour the mood, and a poor showing can turn you off altogether, especially if you've paid money to see it.

You know the feeling? What happens when you hear something with all the archetypal trappings of jazz — a basic swing pulse, people improvising rapidly over standards and blues changes, taking place in a jazz club — which leaves you generally unmoved? Do you ever think, "This sounds like jazz, but it poorly embodies the values I associate with jazz"?

That sent me thinking: Could there be other things that feel more true to the essence of jazz — really, of black American music — than indifferent jazz music itself? Fully aware that "jazz" is an artificial construct which everyone defines differently, and that I'm projecting my own romantic ideal onto it, I don't think it can hurt to explore the positive associations we have with the term. So I humbly submit a short and arbitrary list:

  • D'Angelo. There's a reason beyond nostalgia that his new performance clips spread like wildfire through the jazz community on social media: He makes soulful, sonically adventurous black music.
  • Friends greeting each other like this. Demonstrative, deep-seated camaraderie. (Sorry, Eagles fans. Both our teams lost the NFL this year anyway.)
  • Soul Train. To quote from Dan Charnas on The Record: "Don Cornelius proved a truism about America and race that so few people, even today, understand: Black culture, expressed in undiluted form and unapologetically, will by virtue become accepted by the American mainstream."
  • Quality time with your grandparents, if they're cool. Or sometimes even if they're not cool. Oral tradition from elders, y'all.
  • Blake Griffin's dunk over Kendrick Perkins. Watch. The Chris Paul assist, the improvisation, the raw surge of power, the resourcefulness, the overcoming of barriers, the reaction from everyone involved, the sense of play of it all.
  • Pickup basketball at the park. Or soccer, or any similarly egalitarian team sport with a ball, mutually-enforced rules and minimal infrastructure. Especially that older dude who plays point guard (or center midfield) with the sharp elbows and unconventional style who is incredibly frustrating to defend.
  • Lourdes Delgado's "Jazz In New York: A Community Of Visions" exhibit. Musicians live their art.
  • The folk art exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Really, anything that has to do with thousands of hours of private creativity for a highly personal product, but especially the pieces that respond directly to real-life events or an artistic tradition.
  • Remembering your late comrades by telling uproarious and sometimes lewd stories about them. Often with liberal use of the word "motherf--."
  • This last item happened at the Jimmy "Junebug" Jackson memorial jam session last night. Bittersweet tribute — celebration and mourning at once — is a very "jazz" thing too.

    Who else has something to contribute to this?

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