How To Play Jazz

This is my "How to..." assignment from my Creative Writing class in Fall 1999. It's semi-autobiographical, but cleaned up to make a better story. I did get to look at the back of Kara's head an awful lot. And we did play Chameleon for a half hour.

You have to start in elementary school -- say, fourth grade. At this point your musical taste is pretty much whatever your parents play -- Van Morrison, Popa Chubby and Eric Clapton, mostly. Jazz is that corny music in those really really old Looney Tunes cartoons. You join the concert band, because your mom and dad are mad that they didn't stick with music when they were kids.

You pick the trumpet, because your parents can't afford to buy an instrument, but your uncle still has his old trumpet. You take it out of the case. It smells funny and looks like it got hit by a bus. After a week of practicing, you can play middle C.

You move to a new school and find out that most people there started in fifth grade, so you're a year ahead. "Great," you tell yourself, "I don't need to practice very much anymore." Not that you practiced much before. Your mom wants you to play for a half an hour every night, but you weasel out of it whenever you can.

Then comes Junior High. Suddenly, you see what real trumpet players are like. You get stuck playing 3rd part. And you can't even play that right. Luckily for you, Jen and Del are a thousand times louder than you, so no one hears your mistakes. After the concert, your mom and dad tell you how good you sound. But you don't believe them. You know you suck. The music you have to play sucks. You want to quit.

But you don't, because your dad was trying to fix your instrument and he ripped the bell off of it. So your parents bought you a new trumpet for Christmas. You don't have the heart to tell them you want to quit after they spent $500 at the music store.

So you stick it out for a few more years. The music doesn't seem to get any easier or more fun, and you don't seem to get any better. In retrospect, you will see that this is a good thing. If you could play what was on the page, you would become a classical trumpeter. And the goal here (though you don't know it yet) is to play jazz. So you file your anger away for future reference.

Eventually, your friends coerce you into joining Marching Band. Ah, the benefits of peer pressure. The music is on tiny sheets of paper and you have to play it while marching, but for some reason you don't mind. Marching Band is fun. You like playing Louie, Louie and Smoke on the Water and Funkytown. The band members start to become your friends. You enjoy watching the football team lose to Catasaqua. You tell yourself your life has meaning.

Your band director tells you that they need trumpet players in the Jazz Band. You decide to try out. After all, if you can play Malagueña in Marching Band, Jazz Band can't be too bad. Somehow, you earn the second spot out of four trumpets. You're feeling pretty good.

As concert time approaches, your director asks if anyone else wants to play an improvisational solo. You volunteer. "If there aren't any notes on the page," you reason, "I can't play a wrong note." So you give it a try. There are chord changes written down, but you don't know what they mean. Cmin7? Bbdim? You ignore the paper and stare at the back of Kara's head. You wonder why, no matter how the band is arranged, in concert or marching or jazz, you always wind up directly behind her. Maybe it's fate. Maybe it's a conspiracy.

Before your know it, the solo section is over. Your director nods, and adds the song to the list for the upcoming competition.

At the competition, you step up to the mike to play your solo. You have no idea what the chords are. You remember that the song is in the key of F. That means most of the good notes are probably open or first valve. You adopt the "guess and hope" strategy. You acquire a massive sidesticker and round of applause.

In a few years, you go off to college. And your are reminded of how you used to think you sucked. Any one member of the band here has as much talent and skill as two of you. The piano player is better than the rest of the band combined.

All of these people can read chord changes. They know their scales like you know the back of Kara's head. They also know their Jazz. You've never heard of Horace Silver or Thelonious Monk, but your bandmates can play Song For My Father and Straight, No Chaser without music. Your director tells you you should take lessons. The other trumpet player in the band tells you you should listen to more jazz.

You try, but you have decided music is not your top priority. "Why spend time getting better," your tell yourself, "When in four years I'm going to graduate and maybe never play anymore?"

But you like jazz too much to quit. You try to learn chords. You try to remember how Rick explained about finding common tones and reducing chords to the closest major scale. You play some thirds and sevenths. You deconstruct Amin7(b5) so that, when that measure comes up, you know what to do. Rick tells you you have a good ear. You can hear the form of the piece, and the chord changes. You invite friends, acquaintances, and love interests to your next concert at the Pub. You plan how you're going to impress them with your awesome interpretation of Mr. P.C.

And you fail.

Once everybody has left, giving you a polite "Nice concert" on the way out, somebody suggests playing Chameleon. You'd rather just go home. Chameleon only has two different chords, so you let them talk you into staying. As the song starts, you realize you can't remember what they are. But you can feel the bass line. Nobody is watching. You pick up your horn and play. Your lip is tired and you don't know what chords you're using, so your solo probably sounds like crap. But you don't care.

Afterward, you look at your watch and see that Chameleon lasted half an hour.

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