The first jazz record I remember buying about seven years ago was Jimmy Smith's The Sermon. I had listened to jazz before, but the act of purchasing the record represented a foray, a coming-out. The first, title track ran about twenty minutes, and I listened to it over and over again. I remember listening closely, and more closely, to Art Blakey's stoic shuffle, wondering if his snare hits on the two and four would ever vary; to Jimmy Smith's gospel phrasing--he seemed to me a blacksmith of soul, hammering out anvils of funk on the Hammond B-3; to Kenny Burrell's attention to space as he let a single note from his guitar rise and fall, revealing its full dimension before moving onto the next.
Of course things are less mystical to me now. I have found new ways to appreciate jazz, and other music I might not have appreciated when I was in high school. Appreciation is tricky. I want to enjoy a lot of things, to understand a lot of things. When I can't finish a book or a movie, for example, I wonder if it is my fault--if I am boring or bored or both. I try to follow my tastes, my feelings, my intuitions, but sometimes they pull me apart into a sort of passive state where accomplishment seems far off.
Often I want to know--to have read, to have seen, to have listened to, to have written, to have enjoyed, to have felt, to have lived--more than my life's experiences can allow.
When I bought that first jazz record seven years ago, jazz to me was something that I found beautiful, enchanting, rugged. I didn't find it intellectually challenging. I kept on buying records, and listening, and listening. I read the liner notes, became acquainted with the names of the musicians. I was learning about jazz and its complex history without knowing it. I don't remember trying to learn. I have tried to learn many times, and it did not feel like it did as I delved into the world of jazz.
I know much more about jazz now, but I am still learning about it, and I in no way consider myself an expert on the subject. But the act of learning about jazz, and, in fact, about almost everything, seems so much more deliberate than it once did.
Enjoyment for me is now most often a learning experience. Max Roach said jazz records are the textbooks of jazz. That's not necessarily how I see them, but I am much more self-conscious of buying a record than I once was because I want to know how it fits into history, what lives the musicians had, who wrote the tunes. I don't consider this curiosity a burden. It often humbles me, but sometimes I am thrown off by my anxiety.
Perhaps that will change someday. Perhaps someday I will look back at this entry and wonder why I did not realize as I sat in this charming cafe down the street from where I live, how much I was unconsciously learning just through the process of writing and reconsidering my feelings and examining my past.
Matthew Kassel is a fourth-year at McGill University studying political science and Arabic. When he can, he writes--often about jazz. Find some of his work at http://coldjazz.blogspot.com/.