The Secrets My Parents Knew About Jazz
I was born and raised a blink away from the city that never sleeps.
The city where skyscrapers stretch so high, you blind your eyes as the sun ricochets one hundred stories of radiant light down at your feeble frame. The city where color comes fast through cans on Brooklyn brownstones. Graffiti on walls, the urban message in bottle—souls spilling out stories like love letters lost at sea.
A blink away from this city, I was born to a mixed man and a mixed woman. A Manhattan mural of my own, I was. A swirl of colors—spiraling black and white and indigenous gold.
At times, I lost myself to the many colors that made me up—like the many mixed colors on a canvas that mute one another, only to make a muddied brown.
Yeah—that was me. Rachel Brown.
No one color because I was every single color, all at once.
So, when I felt lost inside the many shades of me—the art of me—music found me.
Spoke to me.
I remember bare feet on cold floors, the silence of a room and a music stand spread wide with notes on the pages, tiny black dots scattered like a million city eyes waking up and looking at me.
I practiced at night with clammy hands wrapped around that longest, thinnest rod of silver. I wasn’t first chair, or second, or third. Just happy to be there with my Bundy flute, passed along from my aunt—tarnished and all, and still holding notes—right into my eager hands.
I played every thing but jazz.
Even now, vivid memories paint themselves anew across reminiscent expanses in my brain.
Dad plays jazz in long car rides. Around the neighborhood, across New York’s bridges—to and fro, and teaching me how to single out the song of the saxophone. The rat-a-tat-tat of the drums.
“I don’t like it,” I’d tell him.
“It gives me headaches.”
And there, so fondly, I see Mom in the kitchen with water boiling under burners, and her hips moving from side to side in sync with songs that I couldn’t stomach to understand.
But, here I am.
Thirty years old, and swaying myself to the exotic blares and blows from “Caravan” by Duke Ellington’s big, brass band.
I’ve learned the secrets of jazz, the secrets my parents knew all along.
Jazz Makes You Listen
You’re never really sure where a jazz song is going to go, so you listen. When there are no words, and seemingly no story, you become the author. The storyteller. The writer. What is the man with the sax saying, his loud brassy tones? Is he crooning a love story? Do those jumpy city sounds tell of speeding subways and men hailing yellow cabs? Is there ever a way to know for sure? The title of the song, through notes in major or minor scales. Maybe the answer comes. And maybe it doesn’t. But that’s just it, that’s why we listen. That’s why we lean in long.
Jazz Makes You Linger
In his book Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller said:
“I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn't resolve. But I was outside the Bagdad Theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes, and he never opened his eyes. After that I liked jazz music. Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way.”
The soul needs a little bit of that from time to time. A little bit of what doesn’t resolve. A little bit of what stretches beyond three minutes and twenty two seconds. A melody that keeps moving. Music that keeps you musing. Makes you stand around and listen. Not to figure it out. Or keep you guessing. But just to enjoy—like long rides in the car for no reason at all. No good reason at all.
Jazz Makes You Lean
There is a long legacy to lean into when it comes to jazz. Layers of lives, another swirling of colors—all woven into the same fabric that blankets over the history of blacks and whites, and everything in-between.
You cannot listen to jazz and not wonder about the face of the man behind that blaring trumpet. You can’t not wonder about the woman, aged with wrinkles that have been stitched across her face like finely pulled thread. And her lips, yes those soulful lips, painted red and singing behind a silver microphone.
Look up the names now, scroll on that screen of yours, skim the spines of hardcovers in dust jackets: Louis Armstrong. . .Miles Davis. . .Dizzy Gillespie. . .Bill Evans.
Soul seeps from every syncopated note in every jazz song there is.
You can’t listen and not learn. And you can’t lean into the art and history of it all and not love or, at least, like it.
Jazz Makes You Laugh
There’s a kind of joy that bounces right off those upright bass strings. Even if you aren’t fully brought to laughter, still. There is that slight smile. The inevitable curvature of once pursed lips that eludes to delight of the rarest kind. Proof that a sound, a song has raptured you. Entirely transported you to a new place.
As you dance around the kitchen while no one’s watching, tapping across the tile floor from NOLA, to Harlem, and back again.
These are the secrets my parents knew, the ones they never told me. The ones they held out for me with hope that, someday, I’d stumble upon them on my own, in my own time. Even if it did take a couple of years to come around.
And these secrets are yours now. All for the taking, all without having to sift through decades of your life just to find them.
Maybe you’ll turn jazz away like I once did. A snobbish young thing, with deaf ears and no imagination, I was.
But, maybe, just maybe, you’ll let the music move you, let it teach you, take you to transcendence. Not only in music.
But in life, too.