A Child’s Introduction to the Million and One Secrets of Jazz

Photograph by Jose Padua
I think that long before I’d even come close to having a child, I believed that it was never too early to plant the seeds of a certain kind of determination in a child’s mind. Furthermore, if I had slightest bit of control over it, no child of mine was ever going to be addicted to the blowing up and blasting away of things and people as occurs in so many video games. I didn’t care whether or not any experts thought they had any lasting effects on a child’s development, these things were, as far as I was concerned, a colossal waste of time. And, also as far as I was concerned, it was first things first, and let’s just forget all the other nonsense.

It was unlikely, then—with me being her father—that Maggie would go through her toddler years without hearing the music of Charlie “Bird” Parker. Maggie was around three when I first played Charlie Parker for her and she immediately liked his music. Of course, by then, I’d already played Sun Ra, later Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, and even some Cecil Taylor for her. So, when she first listened to Charlie Parker, she was actually moving slightly back in musical history, and didn’t really need the child’s picture book we’d found—Charlie Parker Played Be Bop by Chris Raschka—to help her appreciate Charlie Parker’s be bop sax solos. Which isn’t to say she didn’t also enjoy the picture book we read to her.

Her introduction to jazz went slightly like mine. When I first started listening to it around 1974 or so, I was listening to things like John Coltrane’s free jazz versions of “My Favorite Things” and “Naima,” as well as Sun Ra’s The Magic City and Atlantis. It wasn’t until a few years later when I started exploring Charlie Parker and the music of the be bop era. To my surprise, after my first exposure to Miles Davis being his 1970 LP, Bitches Brew, I found that his work went back to the 40s when he replaced Dizzy Gillespie in Charlie Parker’s quintet.

Soon, I realized there was quite a bit of jazz history I needed to learn. And though I don’t consider myself an expert on the subject, I learned enough to get annoyed whenever someone would say something like, “I enjoy big band music” or, even worse, “I like jazz.” My reaction would always be, OK, who do you like or what do you like? Swing? Be bop? Hard bop? Who do you listen to, Glenn Miller or Duke Ellington? Bud Powell? Eric Dolphy? Albert Ayler? Do you listen only to jazz that puts you on some kind of nostalgia trip?

Because to so many people jazz was a single type of music they’d heard once at some party where everyone was smoking pot, or that they’d heard during a trip to New York when they stopped in a club and had a drink, or that they’d heard when they went to a friend’s wedding and the band at the reception was this group of old guys wearing cool tuxedoes. In other words, it was a superficial acquaintance that they would exaggerate into some kind of in-depth knowledge when the truth was they didn’t know the first thing about jazz.

Yeah, I know. I was a difficult person back then—and in a lot of ways I still am. But to me, real art of any kind isn’t a way to kill time—or to see or feel things that are pretty, or to get high, or to simply entertain oneself. When you’re experiencing real art you’re learning something you didn’t know before, you’re discovering a different way of looking at the world, and above all, you’re not escaping the world, you’re digging down deeper into it. And, when you know real art, and give it the time it takes to know it, you’re less likely to get fooled by all the idiocy that’s out there, exploding like an atomic bomb of horseshit.

In this photograph, taken somewhere around 2006 when we were still living in the northern Virginia suburbs, Maggie is holding The Very Best of Bird, a double LP I bought in 1977 at Olsson’s Books and Records on Dupont Circle in DC. (Or was the store still Bob Bialek’s Discount Books and Records back then? I’m not sure). Little did I think when I bought it back then that, more than 25 years later, I would have a child who’d be holding it, and listening to it, and digging it. And who in so doing would be sharpening the tools with which she learns— separating what’s beautiful from what’s merely pretty—and be determined to contribute to peace not war.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

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