The most recent issue of Jazziz magazine contained an article by Michelle Mercer entitled "The Fire Down Below." In the article Ms. Mercer writes about taking novice jazz listeners to see the Mingus Big Band and one woman’s surprised sexual arousal from the music. Ms. Mercer comes to the conclusion that listening a jazz show in a New York club today is "a singularly existential listening experience, so if you get your freak on there, it’s all yours." In plainspeak, you are probably the only one getting aroused by the music.
It is no secret that jazz has come a long way in one hundred years. Concert series at places such as New York’s Lincoln Center and Chicago’s Symphony Center have exalted jazz to a lofty peak just below the great composers of classical music. Today’s uninformed don’t know how to approach jazz, even after watching Ken Burns lay down the "keep it simple, stupid" blueprint last year in his documentary. Jazz has come a long way its beginnings in New Orleans brothels and its adolescence in Prohibition-era Chicago and the Harlem Renaissance. However, Jazz has never strayed far from its roots or in its ability to titillate and arouse. Sometimes the two go hand-in-hand.
For example, check out the two most recent cover photographs from the aforementioned Jazziz. The featured artists: singers Diana Krall and Jane Monheit. The Krall issue, where you can find Ms. Mercer’s article, shows the current savior of jazz’s commercial fortunes in a close-up shot, staring longingly into the camera against a red background, the headline reads, "Looking for Love." The Monheit photo features the subject dressed in a leopard skin top, left shoulder bare, her long brown hair teased to no end, face made up, lips pouting; positively coquettish. I offer these two photographs to anyone who argues that jazz is a purely cerebral experience. We’ve known for years that advertisers use sex as a marketing tool. It is also well known that Krall and Monheit are both attractive women, a fact that is played up in every photo shoot and interview that features those two. The cover shot on Cassandra Wilson’s "New Moon Daughter" features the singer lying above a pool of water, her dress clinging to her hips, back to the viewer. One of the songs from that album, "A Little Warm Death", is a paean to orgasmic climax. "New Moon Daughter" sold over 600,000 copies, and I’m sure a few of those sales were impulse purchases from looking at the cover.
I can’t speak for New York. Here in Chicago, where free jazz, avant garde, and Latin, Asian, or African rhythms inform the music, jazz is a fitting soundtrack for the meet market mentalities of places like the Green Mill, Rumours, Andy’s, and Green Dolphin Street, where the well-heeled and vacuous meet. On Monday nights, young adults barely out of college congregate at HotHouse in the South Loop to dance the lindy to the sounds of Yoko Noge and the Jazz Me Blues Band. Their footwork is a throwback to a gilded age, pattern of playful flirtation, free love and self-expression. Not once in the almost three years I’ve seen the band has anyone ever, ever, broken down the notes of a Jazz Me Blues number. They’ve always gotten on the floor to get their dance on. It is a genuine reaction of getting on the floor and grooving with someone you just met. One can pick out the long time couples on the floor. They’re the ones who dance a little too close, who’ve stood cheek-to-cheek for untold hours, legs entwined in a seemingly Gordian knot that is manipulated whenever the band hits another song. It is foreplay with the partners fully clothed, and when the band stops, the couples are spent, gathering their strength for another round, a little warm death of another kind.
As a reviewer for Jazz Review, I’ve always tried to approach my assignments from an emotional point-of-view. One of my first articles here was a concert review of Pharoah Sanders. It was a galvanizing performance, leaving me breathless and wanting more. Almost like a really good date. When I saw Sanders five months later- same band, same venue- the performance was lacking somewhat. Maybe it was the sense of familiarity of the set list. It might have been that Sanders was simply there to collect a check. Either way, it wasn’t better the second time around. And yet, my disappointment from that second show only furthered the passion of my good memories of the first show. It was like your first real serious relationship, the overwhelming passion, the feeling that this union was unbreakable, the fairy-tale glow before reality sets in. I approach my music the same way. When I play someone a song that moves me, it’s like giving a piece of myself. I always wonder if that person knows that I’m feel like I’m stepping out on a limb every time I play "Sketches of Spain." Or "New Moon Daughter." Or Emmylou Harris’ "Wrecking Ball" (not entirely a country album- you should go check it out.) Today is Valentine’s Day. As you’re preparing for a romantic evening with your significant other, you might be loading the CD player with music that brings back memories from the early days of your relationship. Might I suggest that you try not to think too hard as you decide what to put in your stereo tonight, and go with your heart.