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.