One Saturday night many years ago, Hazen Schumacher’s program, “Jazz Revisited,” came on the radio while I was washing dishes. I didn’t think I liked jazz and would have switched it off if my hands hadn’t been wet. But Hazen played a familiar big band tune, and as the horns blared from the radio, I thought, swing music is jazz?
After that, I saved up dishes to wash each Saturday while I caught Hazen’s show. His commentaries intrigued me. I brought home jazz CDs and books on jazz from the library and began to learn more about improvisation. I’m not a musician, so the theories were beyond me, but I understood enough to appreciate the talents of the composers and players. My studies carried me from ragtime to swing to bebop, from Jelly Roll Morton to Duke Ellington to Dizzy Gillespie. And then I stumbled at John Coltrane.
I knew Trane was considered a genius, and I enjoyed his early ballads. But I couldn’t understand the breakneck, convoluted rhythms in his later pieces, in particular his masterpiece, A Love Supreme, the suite he recorded in December 1964 as a tribute to God. Was God pleased with this music? I wondered, the first time I heard it. Actually, I only listened to the first minute. Trane’s sax droned through the air like an airplane losing altitude, and I shut it off.
Yet, I kept reading about Trane, fascinated with his work in modal improvisation and his intense dedication to performance. I played a tiny bit of A Love Supreme each day, a minute and a half, then two minutes, then two and a half. I must have played the CD a hundred times in short spurts. Each time, I watched the clock, and as soon as the prescribed amount of time was up, I shut off Coltrane and put on a favorite swing band.
Then one evening, as I stood washing the dishes in the quiet of the kitchen, a jazz riff swirled through my mind, a riff that seemed to rise and fall like a nighthawk gliding over hills. Ba-dwaaa-n-da-dahh. Suddenly I realized I was humming a riff from A Love Supreme. How did that happen? My brain had finally connected to the patterns in the music, but more importantly, so had my heart.
I quickly dried my hands, put on A Love Supreme, and waited breathlessly for my riff to appear. And once it did, I kept listening. I stood beside the kitchen counter for thirty-three minutes and listened to the entire suite, finally and irrevocably enraptured with John Coltrane.
Years have passed since then. I’m still learning about jazz, working my way from Coltrane to Charles Mingus and now to Ornette Coleman (what is that man’s music all about anyway?). I won’t ever catch up, and that’s the thrill of it. Talented new musicians appear each year, springing from the giants that have come before them, and contributing their own gifts to the world. Though I may take a while to understand different approaches, I treasure the surprises that come—those ah-ha moments—when rhythms and patterns finally click in place. Jazz truly is a music of discovery and surprise.
(originally published in The Christian Science Monitor)