It’s riding a rollercoaster as the track is being laid. It’s running an obstacle course shrouded in opaque fog. It’s explaining the breadth of existence in a wordless language. It’s splendidly primal. It’s ineffably sophisticated. It’s life. It’s jazz.
Since I first heard Sinatra’s silky baritone crooning to the brassy refrains of a big band, I knew that jazz was for me. I was a ripe three years of age when I experienced this transformative sound. What attracted me to it? Was it the “fascinating rhythm?” The dynamic, emotional storytelling? The trading of fours, in which characters of brass, ivory, and catgut carried conversation about life’s wonders and woes? While I’d like to claim such a precocious musical acumen, the real reason for this predilection was pretty fundamental- jazz felt like playtime.
There is no better exemplar of pure human creativity than children playing pretend. Usually, they begin by naming the game, establishing some very loose boundaries of their fictional universe, and deciding the characters they will embody. When they launch into play, the laws of the universe will undoubtedly change on a dime and the characters may transfigure unrecognizably. By sad knell of the recess bell, they have created something new and distinctive. To structurally minded adults whose schemas of sequence are “more developed,” these arbitrary stories may seem nonsensical. But to the child’s imagination, it doesn’t matter how well the plot tracks or in what ways the characters develops… because it’s just fun.
Despite its modern intellectualization, jazz shares a common anima with a child’s game of pretend. It began on the front porch of a New Orleans shanty. After a day of hard labor, some penurious farmers popped a few cold ones and decided to have a little fun with a rusty trumpet, a battered banjo, and a tarnished clarinet. They settled on a song they all new (probably an old hymn or spiritual), a rough notion of a key, and a tempo. After playing a chorus or two straight ahead, the trumpet player broke into a lick he liked from a W.C. Handy march, the banjo player decided to get gritty with a seventh note, and the clarinet player dared to discover how long he could hold that high E-flat. To a contemporaneous composer or symphonist, it would have been nothing less than cacophonous hedonism. But to those musicians and the ensuing millions that would adopt jazz as “their music,” it was just fun.
By the time you enter middle school, playing pretend with your friends is abruptly and unceremoniously consigned to infantility in favor of basketball, video games, and, in today’s world, an endless litany of electronic diversions. At twelve-years-old, with tear-dimmed eyes, I hid away my extensive armory of plastic lightsabers, pirate cutlasses, and cowboy cap pistols (at least until college). By the age of 13, I was playing gigs with my uncle’s smooth jazz combo, reveling in scat solos with all the glee of a pre-pubescent Mel Torme. Jazz had become my playtime.
While a teenaged Corn Belt crooner is an anomaly to say the least, there, for me, was no more natural a transpiration. Games of pretend and jazz both rely on loose structural agreements as a guardrail against elements in blatant contradiction to the accepted reality. Both require at least some extent of subject matter familiarity. You have to know the game or the song you’re playing. They are also share a milieu of immediate creativity. There is no pause for contemplation or consort. You must decide the direction you’re going to take within split seconds of its execution. In a sense, they are stream of consciousness poetry in the best tradition of Samuel Beckett.
Ultimately, I perceived that jazz and pretend are founded on the same fundamental skill: improvisation. Both playing and performing challenged me to solve problems instantaneously, many of my own making. Whether fixing a perforated plot or recovering from a flat note, I was compelled to use only my own abilities to correct course in real time. In some cases, I sailed deftly through to the loud ovation of playmates or an audience. Other times, I crashed and burned, in which instance in turned to extempore quips to placate the cynics. However, the greatest thrill was not the resulting accolade. It was the sublime exhilaration of the uncharted journey.
Today, as an experience designer, I find my improvisational chops even more challenged ideating solutions for clients that span industries and creative needs. While the product is (hopefully) more refined and enduring than a fleeting jazz club performance or ephemeral afternoon on the playground, the development is ad-libbed. Instead of “Summertime” or “Lullaby of Birdland,” the songs I sing are titled “Pirate Theme Park” and “Caribbean Cruise Port.” I must riff within the confines of physical space and budget as opposed to time and key signatures. Shooting for the note and missing is encouraged, as long as I can learn still bring it home for the client in the end. And who knows, that clunker may be the first note of a yet-unwritten symphony.
Whether playing a game of cops and robbers, swinging a Gershwin tune, or writing a brand-new attraction… it’s all jazz. But then again, isn’t everything? Existence is naught but a song. It has a beginning, a beat, a verse, a chorus, some repeats, and a conclusion indiscernible beyond a beatific discordance of dumb genius. While reality is structured with stanzas, it’s up to us scat our own melody. While sometimes we may wander off key, we always figure out how to bring it home in our own way, leaving an imitable masterpiece in the songbook of eternity.
To play you out: Death is inexorable. Life is a song. Improvise fearlessly. It’s all just jazz anyways…