Having heard my share of live jazz, rock and classical concerts in the 60-plus years of my life so far, I very rarely get excited with a performance nowadays to the point of, say, standing up and whooping wildly. But that’s exactly what happened the other night when I went to hear a jam session during the recent Vancouver International Jazz Festival. It was a rare magical moment that had all the right ingredients.
The music was some of the finest jazz you can hear on our planet today. It was an impromptu performance that brought out one of the key elements of jazz – spontaneity. The atmosphere was, I felt, typical of the Vancouver live jazz scene – the musicians and the audience all laid back with no displays of big egos, just happy to partake in the joy of great jazz. Even my own Japanese background, I felt, factored in.
The past couple of years, I’ve been giving the big name performances at the annual summer festival a miss, going instead to jam sessions and free concerts. The relatively high price of tickets is one reason; another is my preference for the intimacy and spontaneity of jam sessions. I was feeling somewhat depressed that night as I headed for O’Douls on Robson Street, the venue of a midnight jam every night during the festival. I thought hearing some hot New York musicians blow might cheer me up. But I certainly was totally unprepared for what I was to encounter.
I sat at a spot on the rectangular bar opposite the small stage and listened as some out of town musicians took turns playing with a local quartet including nationally acclaimed players like Mike Allen (tenor sax) and Bruno Hubert (piano). It was solid jazz, quite enjoyable. Then I saw a musician of medium build quietly slip in, walk over to the side of the stage where other musicians were standing around, and take out his instrument. It was a trumpet.
The band was playing some standard number like “On Green Dolphin Street” and soon the late-comer was up on the stage taking his solo. I’d been watching him since he walked in and even before he played a single note, I knew it had to be HIM – Wynton Marsalis. As the sweet notes began cascading out of his trumpet, the atmosphere in the club turned electric. Here was the great Marsalis playing his stuff right here at O’Douls and many like me still seemed a bit incredulous. It was too good to be true.
He and members of the world-renowned Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra (JLCO) that he directs had flown in for their top-draw performance on the following day. Having found out where the jam was “happening,” they had dropped in. Marsalis’ habit of seeking out jams with local musicians is by now legendary. When I was living in Singapore back in the early 90s, Marsalis and his group came to perform two full sets at a big venue.
Afterwards, he dropped in at a local jazz and R&B joint to jam. I heard he played everything from jazz and blues to rock and funk and only stopped when policemen came to order the place shut at three a.m. because of neighbours’ complaints. However, I missed that jam and it was one of the biggest regrets of my 16 years in that island republic.
And now here I was at O’Douls in Vancouver about 15 years later, digging this jazz giant’s uniquely rich solos from only metres away . . . almost a totally different experience from watching him on stage or listening to his recordings. He was totally absorbed in the joy of making beautiful music. After playing a couple of numbers and bowing to thunderous applause, he sauntered over to where some band members were sitting, right near my corner of the bar.
An excited tourist couple sitting next to me, stopped Marsalis and asked to have a picture taken with him. He obliged and I could contain myself no longer. After I told him how much I’ve been digging his music since the 1980s, I found myself blurting out “Wynton, God bless you for all the beautiful music you’re giving this world,” exchanging a firm handshake. “Thanks man,” he replied quietly. How can I ever forget an experience like that?
I later thought it a bit ridiculous for an old man to have acted like a teenage fan, but that’s how magical the whole experience was, as those of you readers who appreciate Marsalis’ stuff might appreciate. Here was one of the greatest among the jazz greats, and a top draw at this year’s festival, showing one and all how much he loves to jam, to enjoy that spontaneous experience just for the love of the music. One of the things that makes jazz special is never knowing beforehand what good musicians will play during their ad lib solos.
The thrilling encounter might have been due partly to the casual, relaxed atmosphere of Vancouver. Marsalis is always his unassuming self, but jazz clubs in big cities like New York, Tokyo or London would be different. There would be many more fans and hangers-on, the atmosphere might be somewhat more intense and business-like with just less room for casual chats with the likes of nameless fans. Incidentally, the cover charge was $5, just a fraction of what it would be in clubs in those major global centres.
How does being Japanese come into it? In sum, I was exposed to jazz from early childhood. The Japanese were probably the first among Asian peoples to bring “jazz” of one form or another into their popular culture. There were many aficionados of the American big band swing music already before World War II, and after the war pioneers like Satoko Akiyoshi (piano/composer/aarranger) and Sadao Watanabe (alto sax) who honed their skills playing gigs on US military bases. My father loved listening to jazz on the US armed forces’ radio in Tokyo.
They and others of younger generations like Terumasa Hino (trumpet) and Makoto Ozone (piano), among many others, would go the US and achieve international fame. The fan base was pretty solid among us baby boomers. Many of us who were students during the 60s share the experience of sitting in smoke-filled jazz coffee shops, digging (or supposedly digging) the true-to-life sounds of the legendary greats like Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonius Monk flowing out of huge speakers. Also popular were jazz magazines like the iconic monthly “Swing Journal” filled with articles analyzing the music of different jazz styles like New Orleans, Chicago, New York, Kansas City and “West Coast” (California) down to the minutest detail as seemingly only Japanese critics can. So for over half a century now, jazz has been an established art form for many Japanese and probably Nikkei folks in Canada and the US too.
As a virtuoso trumpet player, who won Grammy Awards in both jazz and classical categories back around 1988, as well as a composer, advocate of the arts and educator, Wynton Marsalis has played and held jazz workshops in many countries helping, most significantly, to introduce jazz to as many children as possible.
“Listening is an important skill to teach our little ones in this age of global communication,” he recently told the Vancouver Sun. “When we’re on the bandstand we’re listening to the soloists. We have then to make a decision on how to respond. So teaching jazz is teaching how to listen in everyday conversation.”
Jazz has given me a great deal of joy and knowledge about human communication over the years both from listening to it and from playing it, in my own limited way, on the guitar. I can vouch that at any level, jazz, like other forms of music, can give you a lifetime of joy and the satisfaction of getting out of it as much as you put in. According to research, music is also the only art form that can regenerate atrophying brain cells to prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
There are some distinguished jazz musicians in our Nikkei-ijusha community too, a few of whom I have had the honor and pleasure of knowing, including Harry Aoki, the bassist/harmonica player/ethnic musicologist who’s been active for well over half-century and is credited, among other things, as the originator of “haiku jazz” and a pioneer of world music in Vancouver. He and his fellow musicians can be heard at a musical “forum” that takes place at the Nikkei Heritage Centre in Burnaby on the first Friday of every month. Also, Yujiro Nakajima (guitar), Bernie Arai (drums) and Sharon Minemoto (piano) are all first-class jazz musicians who perform at venues around Vancouver and beyond.
I mention their names because if you should hear them anywhere and tell them you love jazz, or any other form of music for that matter, I know that they will be happy to share their experiences with you. If you want to learn, no matter how old you are, so much the better.