The jazz jams on campus have had an increasing focus on inclusivity. Photo by Kai Frueh.
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More than two years ago now, my life was incredibly different than it is today. At this time in my life, I simply had no idea of how I related to those around me or what the point of my life should even be. I was masochistically working on music, but felt a similar frustration. I want to tell you a story. Come with me to March of 2020, just before the pandemic hit it big.
At this time, I was trying to find my way in music just as much as in life. Focusing on my music was the most important thing to me in order to support my vague notion of a professional music career and fill an emotional void. While I was focusing so much energy on music, I didn’t know where I fit in that realm either. I wasn’t concerned enough with precision to be in love with classical music and I didn’t feel an innate affinity for the intimidating world of jazz. I was hugely concerned with building my proficiency as a trombonist and musician, but didn’t feel my heart pushing me to either of the typical conservatory tracks.
I came up with a random idea, which would be one of the last in-person music experiences I had before COVID subsumed our everyday lives. The idea was to host a “never-ending Bb blues.”. I was incredibly intimidated by casually playing a tune at one of Lawrence’s jazz jams. I didn’t dedicate the hours necessary to confidently and casually jam on jazz tunes because my heart simply wasn’t in it. Why, then, did I want to do this? Because I still wanted to jam.
While I didn’t have any tunes under my belt, high school jazz band had prepared me at the very least for a Bb blues: the cornerstone of beginners’ jazz education. I just wanted to mess around and make sounds and hear what I like or didn’t like in a non-judgmental setting and the Bb blues seemed like the only way I could get this.
I knew that being intimidated by the jazz jams was a common experience for many of us in the con who weren’t experienced passionate “jazzheads”, or, to use a term that was sometimes thrown around for a small number of them at their more conceited moments, “jazz jocks.” I wanted the jam to feel inviting to everyone, so I got a few close friends at the time who agreed to support this idea and co-host it with me. Then we got the word out. To convey the light-hearted intention behind the jam, the Facebook event specified “Bb blues and only Bb blues” with a silly picture of an old Duke Ellington advertisement captioned “Hitler hates jazz… and that suits us fine.”
The jam was far more well attended than I’d hoped. From my recollection maybe 20 musicians came through during the hour. I remember a voice major came with his guitar, a trombone-playing friend put his percussion skills to the test, and many beginners in jazz more happily than usual messed around, faltering and exploring, through the Bb blues chords that were written on the white board of the jazz room. There were also a number of experienced jazz students who showed up, the kind who could navigate a blues as naturally as they breathed. Most of the experienced jazzers were incredibly respectful, but some were, to be frank, quite impatient.
As you gain faculty in a skill, it becomes easier and easier to overestimate what counts as common knowledge or ability in that skill. For example, I was a geography and history-obsessed middle schooler and I remember a core moment of self-awareness when my 8th grade social studies teacher asked our class what people invented the Latin language. A boy guessed “the Aztecs” and I inadvertently laughed and scoffed about how Latin came from Italy. In the moment of self-awareness that followed, my brain heard how I sounded and I felt an intense shame that I’ve never forgotten.
Getting back to the Bb blues, a couple of the experienced jazzers decided that day to be “jazz jocks.” They were frustrated at the simple blues. Rather than challenging themselves to explore fresh new frontiers in the familiar Bb blues, they argued with me and tried to make everyone play a harder tune. To be blunt, their indignation about doing this killed the vibe and stressed a lot of people out.
Having respect for beginners is the only way music stays alive, like a flower garden going through changes of the season. Sonic seedlings, even those that don’t become imposing and virtuosic sequoias still have their place. They keep our musical ecosystem thriving so it can play its own never-ending Bb blues of sorts. While we come to a college or conservatory to learn, it doesn’t change the fact that music is fundamentally about community. And like any community, a musical one thrives when it has such an affinity for the diverse members and activities that make it up, that everyone is willing to leave their ego at the door so everyone can feel welcome.