Why We Play

by Jason on June 6, 2009 · 5 comments

in Music, Thoughts

Photo by Ashwin Rao

Photo by Ashwin Rao

I was reading my friend Jason Palmer’s blog earlier today. Jason is a fantastic trumpet player from Boston and he and I have been internet buddies for a few years now. If you want to hear some really cool jazz music check out his album, Songbook.

I’ve always dug Jason’s playing and more recently have been enjoying his blog posts. In a recent post titled Why we Play… he recounts the story of one of his idols coming in to see his band play, and how that affected the band and the emotions he felt on stage. It was those emotions that he says are the reason he plays. I can only imagine how wonderful it felt on the bandstand at Wally’s that night.

This post got me thinking about why it is that I play, and more specifically, why I play jazz. There are many reasons, of course, but there are two that are at the top of the list.


Before I talk about why I play, let me state for the record that these are reasons that are personal to me and I don’t expect they are the same for you. They may be, and that’s great, but we all come at it from our own perspective and life-experience, and my reasons are no more or less valid than yours. I respect Jason’s reasons for playing and I’m sure I’d respect yours, too. In fact, why don’t you take a minute after you read this and leave your reasons in the comments below?!

My #1 reason for playing is one that may not be at the top of everyone else’s list these days, so I’m going to start with my #2.

Reason #2: Connection

I love the connection I feel to my bandmates and to the audience when I play. At it’s best moments jazz music is a conversation. The conversation is simultaneously going on between the band members themselves and between the band and the audience. This connection is bigger than any one individual. It gives me a feeling of euphoria I don’t get in any other part of my life. When the band is really hittin’ and the audience is right there with us, the room is filled with an electricity that is palpable. It’s as if we are all experiencing some magic that is coming not from any one of us, but out of the collective experience. It’s as if Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Dexter Gordon, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Terell Stafford, Tom Harrell, Lewis Nash and Dave Holland are all there with us, as well as the kid who will be the next in line. It’s a beautiful feeling being that connected to the past and the future while being fully immersed in the present.

Reason #1: Entertainment

As long as I can remember I’ve been an entertainer. It makes me happy to make people happy! My brother and I used to write songs in the back of the car on family road trips. We had a band called 3 in a Bunch +1 (I was the +1) when I was about 4 years old. We would sing songs and act out skits in public places. I would perform on piano or ukulele at family functions. And to this day nothing excites me more than being on stage and seeing people grooving or laughing or clapping along.

It seems to me that this might put me in the minority, especially amongst jazz musicians. Jazz has become such “high art” that often when I go see others perform it feels very serious and austere. And that’s cool. Again, my way is no better or worse than their way. But I have realized that why I go to shows, and why many people go to shows, is to be entertained. I want to see a band having fun and feel like I’m part of that fun. And when I play I want my band to be giving off that vibe. That’s why I play with the cats I do, because they are all extremely talented musicians who also know how to entertain.

I’ve often said that I’m not the best trumpet player in Seattle…not even the 10th best. But what sets me apart, and more importantly keeps me working, is my ability to entertain. This holds true whether I’m playing a jazz club, concert hall, wedding, bar mitzvah or festival. Entertaining the audience and making them feel like part of the fun is a skill that has helped me achieve many of the successes I’ve enjoyed. And the best part is that I truly enjoy the process!

Art for art’s sake is cool. I’m glad there are artists in the world. Me, however – I’m an entertainer first and an artist second. And I like it that way.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

david pierre-louis June 7, 2009 at 7:03 pm

Why I play? well actually I really don’t except for the time after hours when I pick up the drum sticks and mess around a bit. I will eventually. But seriously even though I don’t play I am part of why people play and it is because of cats like me that musicians are able to play and have an audience to play to.

And to be quite honest I can’t really tell you why because I didnt choose Jazz it chose me. and every day there’s a new reason I play. It’s only been 7 months and to be honest there’s over several hundred reasons why I play but here are a few.

#1 I admire the artist who create something from nothing, to see an artist on stage entertaining, going with the flow is sometimes the most amazing. I remember one night when the JPQ was playing and David (drummer) was having problems with his kick pedal, and he was fixing it, during the other artist’s solos but as the time clock was winding down and it was time for him to play he wasnt ready and jason knew he wasnt going to be ready and jason began to clap and the audience joined in, it was so amazing being a part of this performance and it wasnt even scripted.

#2 the way it makes me feel, especially the jazz songs with out lyrics, it allows me to give it my own definition. In Jazz, for me at least it is what I make it.

#3 I can support these cats and their visions and because if you’ve created anything in life you understand exactly what it takes to make something from nothing the time and energy that goes into coming up with the idea, to actually working through the kinks, and coming up with a finished product. It’s a great feeling when people appreciates you.

#4 Music is happiness! I feel so good when I listen to Jazz and you can see the shared joy that others feel for what they are listening.


Andrew Durkin June 8, 2009 at 12:20 am


I’m not even sure I know what the difference between “entertainment” and “art” is anymore — seems like many folks use the word “entertainment” as a code for describing art they don’t like. But just because something has a groove, or makes you laugh, or inspires dancing, doesn’t mean it can’t also be art!

Jazz has a great way of bringing out these tensions because, in terms of its audience, it really has one foot in both worlds (art and entertainment). Of course many jazz fans try to put it one box or another — but to my ears it is and always will be the great hybrid!

Twitter: 1WorkinMusician
June 8, 2009 at 2:12 am

Thanks for the comments, guys!

David – I remember that night well. It’s those moments of connection that really stick with you, and I bet there’s folks who were in the audience that night that still talk about it. That’s what I’m talkin’ about! Thanks for all you do to help the community thrive and prosper. Looking forward to the show on the 19th!

Andrew – you are right about jazz being “the great hybrid”. That’s a wonderful way of putting it. I wish more of our peers felt that way. And I certainly didn’t mean to imply and sort of dichotomy between the two. It should always be a balance of both. The irony is that just as often as someone uses the term “entertainment” to describe art they don’t like someone else is using it to belittle something they see as somehow “less than” art…go figure.

I hope you guys make it up to play in Seattle soon. Maybe you should talk to David about a gig at Lucid!

Andrew Durkin June 10, 2009 at 8:22 am

Thanks, Jason (and nice to meet you, David)! Yes, we’d love to come to Seattle again soon… will keep you posted…

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