“Where words fail, music speaks” – Hans Christian Andersen
One of the greatest storytellers of all time, Hans Christian Andersen understood the universal language of music. It resonates with your soul, across culture and society. It draws your feelings to the foreground, be they light or dark. It is the one thing to truly bring us together from all around the world. What better way to celebrate music than with the genre of life itself: JAZZ. International Jazz Day (April 30) is offering a score of events and opportunities to showcase jazz music in all its musical glory. Come and jam with us, through our Make / Play / Watch / Read and learn to live a little.
Make: Music for Jazz Day
Let me start this with a full disclaimer: I am not a musician, let alone a jazz musician. I come from a long line of musicians but I am pretty sure it completely skipped a generation and went straight to my kids who play trumpet, bass clarinet, and undecided-but-leaning-towards-cello. My father, particularly, is a jazz musician and has tried desperately to teach me his ways. Lo and behold, he is a pretty good teacher and most of his wisdom has worked. Thanks to him, I have three tips on how to ‘make music’ with jazz.
- Listen to Jazz. All the Jazz.
“Jazz is not just music, it is a way of life, it is a way of being, a way of thinking.” – Nina Simone
This is the easiest because honestly, not all of us are created to make music. I am perfectly fine with the role of Listening. Proud student of Step 1. But it is a very important ‘Step 1’.
Start with some of the legends: Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Dizzy Gillespie, Toshiko Akiyoshi. Follow their albums, learn who they played with and follow their albums. It’s a hypnotizing spiral into the depths of music but the immersion will give you a far better idea of what you are working with. The more you listen, the more you recognize themes and patterns and styles of jazz. It’s like fingerprints of the musicians, with slight nudges for what you like and how you can play. This is where to start your Jazz Day and let the moment flow on.
- Know Your Music Theory
One of the biggest misnomers about jazz comes from those who think it is an excuse to play wrong notes.
“When you hit a wrong note, it’s the next note that makes it good or bad.” – Miles Davis
If ever you need to understand the basics of music theory, ask a jazz musician. Holy flugelhorn! Jazz is not simply playing music; it is playing with the music. You need to know your music theory: your scales, your 5ths, and your 7th chords. You need to know your blue notes. This all comes back to knowing your scales. Practice your scales and we can go from there.
This probably sounds like the most patronizing advice ever but the truth is you have to play. If you want to make music, then you have to put the history and the theory into practice. Good ol’ Dad says: Start with three notes in a scale. Let’s say, C, D, and E in C Major (so no sharps or flats). Play them in ascending order. Now descending. Now mix it up and play in any order you like. Now add two more notes, F and G. Keep playing around with them, feeling the relationship in the music. Try playing the first, third, and fifth notes (also known as C Major triad). The more you do this and expand on the notes you are playing, the more you will learn how music is fluid. You, and the music, will grow with every session.
Play: Genesis Noir (Steam / Xbox One / Windows 10 / Switch / Epic / GOG / Humble)
We have had a few music-themed games that fit in nicely with Jazz Day (like Oom-Pah! and Starstruck: Hands of Time). However, to carry on the jazz theory mentioned above, Genesis Noir will blow your mind.
Genesis Noir hit the stage this year, after showcasing at PAX Online 2020 and again in LudoNarraCon. It is a beautiful noir adventure through time and space, blending the creativity of jazz with the beauty of cosmic creation. You play as No Man, a watch peddler finding his way through the jazz scene. Blindly, you are caught in a love triangle with two other cosmic beings: Miss Mass and Golden Boy. Passions run hot and a bitter confrontation results in a gunshot–The Big Bang. As the Universe continues to expand, you need to find a way to either prevent or destroy creation, and hopefully save your love.
The game opens with some cool jazz and amazing visuals to portray your travel through space. It is a point and click narrative game with puzzles to move the story along. Very little is explained, so at times I found myself stumbling along. However, that’s kind of similar to the nature of jazz. I should know the basics but a bit of experimentation yields fantastic results. There are certain puzzles (like learning improv with the Double Bass player) which feel pulled straight from jazz theory exercises. Add this to the soundtrack and noir atmosphere, and the whole game feels like this smooth slide into a mind-blowing adventure. It will definitely add some jazz to your gameplay on Jazz Day.
Watch: Soul (Disney+)
Have you seen Soul yet? It is the latest Pixar animation, currently available on Disney+. Where jazz is life, Soul is about all the stuff that happens around it. It centers on a jazz pianist, Joe Gardner. Joe aspired to be a great jazz player and he has more than enough talent to do it. Always chasing the dream, while slowly resenting his mediocre job as a teacher because at least it pays the bills. Then Joe finally gets his big break! Caught in the stress surrounding his big chance, Joe slips up and has a near-death experience. Trapped in the afterlife, Joe needs to face some life-choices to prove whether or not he is ready to live his life again.
Now, if you’re going to have a movie about a jazz pianist, you better have some jazz music to back it up. Soul has brought its A-game, winning an Oscar for Best Original Score. The music team behind the movie is Trent Reznor and Atticus Rose, who do a great job with the soundtrack. However, all of my jazz love goes to Jon Batiste. He is responsible for the jazz compositions and arrangements. You might also recognize him as the Band Leader for “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.” The man has a gift. You can see this gift in the movie, with every shot of Joe’s hands on the piano being based directly from footage of Batiste doing the same thing.
Side note: I really enjoyed listening to the Disney Pixar’s Soul Soundtrack with smooth jazz music. There are plenty of variations on YouTube but this one is my favorite for listening while I work. It is a great soundtrack for Jazz Day.
Read: Swing by Kwame Alexander and Mary Rand Hess
This is one of those rare times where listening to the audio book is actually better than reading the book (but reading the book is still awesome). The book is Swing by Kwame Alexander and Mary Rand Hess. The audiobook is read by Kwame Alexander and his voice brings a timbre and spring so essential to this free-verse poetic story.
Swing features two teenage boys: Noah and his best friend Walt (aka Swing). They’ve been cut from the school baseball team for the third year in a row and Noah is ready to call it a day. Walt, on the other hand, believes they will come back! Walt is convinced they will make the team again, Noah will win the girl (his love interest since third grade), and finally find ‘cool’. All they need is to follow Walt’s plan.
The real inspiration behind the story comes from the love letters Noah finds in an old travel bag. While Walt is focused on baseball and quick tricks for relationship blues, Noah is finding words and feelings in the old letters. He is learning about love, jazz, being true to yourself, and living your best life. Just like the letters, the story is told in elegant prose with the use of open poetry, similar to the style used by Amanda Gorman. There is raw emotion on every page as Swing takes you through life lessons for both boys. If ever you wanted to see how jazz can slide into everyday life, Swing is the book for you.
International Jazz Day is this Friday, April 30. The big event to cap it all is the Global Concert, starting at 5pm EDT on jazzday.com. Musicians from everywhere are joining in to celebrate jazz in all its glory. Come and join in the fun with your own improv!