If I’m not careful it is easy for me to become overwhelmed by the mediocrity that seems to keep us all in constant danger of succumbing to it’s hypnotic siren song. Yeah it’s easy to switch on my television and flop down on my couch, getting up to visit the refrigerator every time one of those food commercials gives me the munchies. But I know I will go to bed unsatisfied with that choice. Why? Because the singer was just lip syncing and was more concerned about flipping her hair than interpreting a ballad, or even knowing what it means to be on pitch. I already knew how that movie was going to end that I watched at the same time. I’m not as stupid as I’m being played for. But no one asked me what I thought, or even said hello. I’m just left with doubts and fears and phobias planted every few minutes by snake oil salesmen, and festering in my uneasy sleep. Turn on the radio and I am assaulted by booty songs, or conversely, angry conversations between people who are not communicating or cooperating or accomplishing anything. And of course the other kind of pitch. I’m not talking about notes or baseballs either. There is always the sales pitch. Even when I do venture out to a live production with real people playing real instruments, I am often sorely disappointed to find many of them mimicking mass culture, and motivated by ego or vanity, and not a genuine attempt to communicate.
I know industry and economy are here to stay. I know that I am inescapably a consumer, but I don’t have to be just a consumer every minute of every day. The fact is that I want and need deeper connections, and experiences that appeal directly to my soul. Speaking of soul, it is a strange truth that the same country (United States of America) that produces the most schlock, is also the birthplace of an art-form that practically defines Soul, admired and celebrated more often in other countries than here at home. I’m speaking, of course, of Jazz. What makes Jazz a language of the soul? I will tell you. Its intelligence. Its ingredients. Above all, its free spirit.
When I was little, my mother used to play records of Beethoven concertos, and Mozart symphonies, and Chopin piano compositions. The names of the conductors and musicians have long since faded in my memory, but the music remains there. As my understanding grew of the history of music I came to realize that when Beethoven and Mozart and Chopin were alive, they were all skilled improvisers, and the classical concerts and recordings of today, as moving as they may be to some people, are but shadows of what live performances of these masters must have been like. The sheet music probably functioned as a guide for their solo performances similar to the “fake books” and “real books” that serve as guides to modern standards for budding musicians. What jazz musicians did and do, is take the ingredients of their time, the sounds and rhythms of a cultural melting pot, and deliver it fresh each time they play. Not only does Jazz draw on the classical traditions of Europe with great skill, its roots lie in ancient African rhythms and harmonic structures. Seamlessly blending the two great traditions together, you will also hear Latin and even East Indian and Chinese elements combined to create living music for today.
Even when there is the occasional great Jazz concert on television, it still isn’t the same as being there, and actually feeling the vibrations of the drums. That is where the true spirit of any performance really exists, in the moment and place that it is unfolding, among the musicians and the audience who are present. Any live performance is something which will never be duplicated, even if it is repeated note-for-note by devoted followers studying the recordings the same way classical musicians study their scores.
In 2003, in an interview by Javier Antonio Qui?ones Ortiz for allaboutjazz.com, our hometown master of percussion, Babatunde Lea, is qouted as saying:
“After many years studying the rhythms of the African Diaspora, I have peeped that through many of the African cultures lies the understanding that there is no separation between mind, body and spirit. In fact, that is when health ensues. I contend that polyrhythms are a metaphor for universal culture. Polyrhythms are connected. So are we as human beings. We just dont fully realize it because it needs to be taught, just like one needs to be taught rhythms by a master drummer.”
Yes folks, we need to be taught, and it is up to each of us to learn the lessons, or pay the price. What price? The price of lingering dissatisfaction, the price of regret, the price of boredom. I contend that the polyrhythms that Babatunde Lea refers to are not only heard, they are felt. But you have to take the steps leading to a place of community, where you can experience something real for yourself. When Tony and I opened the doors to Listen & Be Heard Poetry Caf? we made the commitment to support live jazz right here in Vallejo, to create a home for jazz musicians to come and be heard with the listener?s respectful attention. We have been delivering on that promise every Saturday night when we feature live jazz with a poetry intermission. We have had several patrons exclaim that they “can’t believe this is happening in Vallejo.” But why shouldn’t it be happening in Vallejo? It’s happening in Tokyo. It’s happening in Frankfurt and Amsterdam and Berlin and Paris. Why shouldn’t it be happening in a place that has a rich history of Blues and Jazz musicians who were walking and playing these very streets. New Orleans knows its history, and has capitalized on it. If anything, it is its history more than anything else that will motivate people around the world to rebuild and preserve the city. Why shouldn’t we be proud of our history and the musicians living among us? This particular Saturday will be extra special because we will be featuring seasoned masters.
David Gonzalez is a perfect example of a living, breathing form of music that he has made uniquely his own. Of Mexican heritage, he grew up in San Francisco listening to the sounds of Ellington, Basie, and Goodman, and also Mexican radio programs that played everything from John Phillip Sousa to Jorge Negrete. Years later he has become an accomplished vocalist that according to the legendary bassist Vernon Alley, “swings his ass off.” Singing both original compositions and standards, David brings a great vocal range, (and pitch), and interesting latin variations on standards. He has no problem rising above even the most driving rhythm section, which is what he will have to do this Saturday, because he will be appearing with none other than the Babatunde Lea Trio.
You won’t find him on television (yet), but Babatunde Lea is an internationally recognized performing artist. The truth is that the only reason you have the opportunity to hear him live and at a very reasonable price right here in Vallejo is because he lives here and makes the choice to support live Jazz here. Lea has forged a career steeped in the rhythms of the motherland of Africa and its Caribbean and South American Diaspora. Raised in New York and Englewood, New Jersey, he migrated westward to the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1960’s. He was deservedly voted Jazz Musician of the year by SF Weekly in 2005. Joining him will be Ron Belcher on bass, and Glenn Pearson on piano, two of the most sought after rhythm section men in the business, and for very good reason. When they get into the spirit, there is no denying feeling it. If you have never ventured out to a live jazz concert, this Saturday would be a perfect time for you to dip your toes in the water. You will not be disappointed. If you hold out with only the highest most discerning standards when it comes to Jazz, this will also be a night for you.
I have a word of advice for the musicians reading this column as well. I am continually surprised at how few musicians who have appeared at our caf? and other venues in the area, turn out to listen to and support other musicians. This Saturday it will cost far less to pay the price of admission, than a semester at school, but you stand to learn just as much. The singers who show up to jam sessions not knowing the lyrics to the songs they want to sing, the musicians who turn out wanting to be heard, but not really listening very well to others, the humble ones who know they have much to learn and still lack the confidence to really fly, this will be a night for all of the above to take away something they can use to improve themselves.
So come out to support live jazz by all means, but more importantly come out to meet strange people like yourself who are searching for more than mediocrity. Come out to learn. Come out to feed your soul.
You can learn more about David Gonazalez by visiting http://www.sfjazzmex.com. You will find more about Babatunde Lea, and the Educultural Foundation founded by him and his wife Dr. Virginia Lea, by visiting www.motema.com. You will get a chance to meet and greet them on Saturday night from 9pm to midnight at Listen & Be Heard Poetry Caf? located at 818 Marin Street in Downtown Vallejo. Admission is $10, and the phone number is 707-554-4540. You can also visit www.listenandbeheard.net for more information.