All that Jazz

When I think of jazz music, I think of the colour blue. Probably because the cultural reference that comes to mind is Donald Miller’s book Blue Like Jazz which I quoted from in this post. But jazz is also blue in the way that one can feel blue: melancholy, sad, or depressed. A lot of jazz music has this melancholy sound. And then other jazz music has a funky, upbeat sound. And jazz is also blue in the way that it comes and goes “into the blue”—into the unknown. This is the improvisational and syncopated quality of jazz. The notes move in and out of time; you never really know when they’re going to appear, disappear, and in what variation. Listening to jazz is a lesson in unpredictability.

At the beginning of this month, my friend had a birthday celebration at Cory Weeds’ Cellar Jazz Club. I’m not a huge fan of jazz, but of course I wanted to go:

  1. Because it was my friend’s birthday and she LOVES jazz
  2. It’s a great location that is unfortunately closing down there at the end of February
  3. I want to learn to like/appreciate jazz

Interestingly enough, The Cellar Jazz Club is the same place I spent all of August long weekend in as an extra for a friend’s movie. It was great to be in that space again, enjoying it as it is meant to be enjoyed—as Vancouver’s only full-time jazz club that has been on Downbeat Magazine’s list of the world’s greatest jazz clubs for six years. You can read the Globe and Mail article about the Club’s unfortunate closure here after 13 years in its Kitsilano location on West Broadway.

The Cellar Jazz Club is literally in a cellar—you walk down a flight of steps from the street front and enter a dark, intimate space with red walls and a speakeasy feel. Vibrant, eye-stopping paintings of famous jazz musicians hang from the walls. Candles light the dark wood tables.

We dined and then we swayed and/or bopped to the slow and fast songs. Four musicians graced the stage: one playing drums, another playing electric guitar, the third playing a Hammond B2 organ (my favourite); and the fourth, Cory Weeds himself, playing the saxophone.

The food is decent but nothing to write home about. But you don’t go there for the food. You go there for the live music, and it is well worth it. In his opening remarks before the two sets (at 8 and 9:30), Cory Weeds requested that conversation be kept to a minimum so people around you can enjoy the music and, quite frankly, I didn’t even have a desire to talk because the music is that arresting. It fills the room. My eyes darted back and forth to the different musicians when they were soloing, trying to figure out when they knew to move in and out of the piece at the right time.

My birthday friend taught me about “comping“—what the other musicians do when their bandmate is freestyling—all those repeated chords, rhythms, and countermelodies that provide structure to the riffs of the soloist. It’s a fine dance between presence and absence, busy and sparse, supporting without stealing.

I feel like jazz music is replete with metaphors for life, especially in the arena of relationships.

I came away from that January night with a much deeper appreciation for jazz music, just as I came away from the Cellar Jazz Club in August with a much deeper appreciation for filmmaking. One location, two great new experiences.

Showing me the way with a brush and splashes of paint

None of these writing prompts prompt me lately. I don’t want to write about an onion, how I fight life, or what I would have said if I had landed first on the moon.

I want to write about the little boy in the art class I help teach who makes up the craziest interpretations of his work and reminds me what it’s like to be young and wonder-full. There are ninjas and dragons and oceans and astronauts where I see only splotches of blue and splatters of red. When he’s explaining it to me, I start to see his world. I start to love his world.

Maybe it’s like Donald Miller with jazz music:

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 five-year old boy I see once a week at the Surrey Art Gallery is the musician never opening his eyes. He gets immersed so easily, even if it’s not in the ‘sanctioned’ activity. He’d rather bob his sponge up and down in a container of water with the end of his brush than load it with paint and put it on canvas because he is, after all, a boy, and boys like to play.

“Take a look at this,” he calls me over in a eureka!-type voice. “The sponge is so heavy with water, but it still floats! This is amazing!” And I guess it is. Forget the paintbrushes and paint. Equipped with sponge and water, he is mesmerized the rest of the class.

The kids are painting self-portraits. Bright colours, Matisse style. Fauvism. Or Andy Warhol’s pop art.

Portrait of Madame Matisse (The Green Stripe) by Henri Matisse. 1905.

Portrait of L. N. Delekorskaya by Henri Matisse. 1947.

Silkscreen prints of Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol. 1960s.

Or at least they’re supposed to paint bright colours. Green, orange, red, blue, yellow. They get a bit of white for lightening purposes, and black, to outline their features.

“There’s something wrong with these paintbrushes!” the boy quickly remarks in an alarming tone, beginning to outline the edges of his face.

“What’s wrong with them?” I ask.

“They look thin but they act fat!” He lets out the groan of an artist not happy with his work.

I laugh. Appearances can be deceiving, whether you’re five or forty-five.

Looking at the canvasses in the room, I don’t see many bright colours. Kids are so creative and yet when encouraged to be creative, they blend the colours like crazy until they find the most realistic skin tone. Maybe you have to be old to be avant-garde. No, that’s not true.

They were old enough to be frustrated.

“I’m beginning to regret something about my painting,” the same boy says with a deep sigh. I didn’t know a five-year old knew regret, let alone could use it in a sentence.

“What do you regret?” I ask, curious what’s on the other end of that line in a five-year old’s mind.

“I put so much white on my face, but I don’t think it will show up.”

It did show up. White as snow. This is the boy who stuck eight layers of glaze on his clay cupcake the week before to make sure it would come out of the kiln completely covered. It came out covered all right. More like caked.

Sometimes kids do things too completely. Lost in art, they don’t know when to stop. Of all the problems to have, I think this is a pretty good one. The saxophone player never opening his eyes, feeling his way through the music.

A good kind of lost.