Turmoil + soul = jazz

So I’m lying in bed, unable to sleep. Some years back. And I’m thinking about money. Not thinking so much as fretting. Probably panicking. So I go downstairs and for some reason stand in front of my bookshelf, looking up at the books I hadn’t looked at or considered or opened for a long time. For years. And there was one book that stood out — I have no idea why. I’d never read it. It wasn’t even mine. It belonged to an old pastor friend. I know that because his name is scrawled on the first inside page. I opened the book randomly, straight to a chapter on … money. It said what I needed to hear and I sat there for an hour or two, calming right down.

I’m sitting at my office desk. Today. And the same book jumps out at me from the shelf. I’m not worried about money as such, not this time. But I’m knotted up inside, for lots of reasons. I open the book and read the dedication. It says this: In America, the first generation out of slavery invented jazz music. It is a free-form expression. It comes from the soul, and it is true.

That’s Donald Miller, at the beginning of his book Blue Like Jazz.

I have about 500 jazz records and I’m not quite sure how that happened. I didn’t always like jazz. And even now, I’m not sure ‘like’ is the right word. It’s more that what Miller calls the free-form expression, which I hear more as a kind of musical or lyrical chaos, sits well alongside the feelings that are going on inside most of the time.

The first time I recognised this, I was listening to Sting’s live album, Bring On the Night. His band on that tour were all jazz musicians and it was instantly one of my favourite albums. It still is. Sting is Sting, as always, but it wasn’t so much about his performance, it was about the guys in the band — particularly on the album opener Bring On the Night/When The World Is Running Down You Make the Best of What’s Still Around. I was mesmerised then, as I still am, by the piano playing of jazz legend Kenny Kirkland. Something about the power and the wild ferocity of it, the unbridled virtuosity, and yes, the chaos. I’d finally found something that could approximate the turmoil that I held inside me.

A friend heard me listening to the album, and said that his jazz-loving friends (they were all Salvation Army brass players), rated Bring On the Night as a genuine jazz record. We talked about it for a while and I heard some names that I’d heard before but never had a reason to seek out. Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

So I bought Kind of Blue — and spent hours of several Australian summers sitting out the back beneath the shade sail with it playing in my ears. I loved it. Loved what I came to learn was Miles’s modal jazz — the jazz that in Donald Miller’s words “doesn’t resolve”.

“I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn’t resolve,” he says, in an author’s note for Blue Like Jazz. And further down, “I used to not like God because God didn’t resolve.”

I knew immediately on hearing Kind of Blue that it was that very absence of resolve that was resonating with whatever I had inside. I am unresolved. Always have been. Never settled. Never content. Raging against something I can’t even recognise let alone define. Always bucking like an unbridled horse — the way Kenny Kirkland plays on Bring On the Night.

I needed more. And I found John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme.

Oh my God. I mean that quite literally. This. THIS. Was the sound of my soul. The agony of Coltrane’s addiction, his search for a higher purpose and a higher power, his desperation for resolution and the realisation he would never find it. And finally, his psalm of thanksgiving in the face of his restless and agonised humanity. It’s all there in the playing, Coltrane together with one of the best quartets in jazz history. Coltrane. McCoy Tyner. Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones. Each one of them playing a fundamental but discrete role in the creation of Coltrane’s confession and hymn of praise.

A Love Supreme isn’t easy listening. But my insides didn’t need easy. They needed an echo. More than that, they needed a song. A song that played the tune that I was never able to stifle or still. And Love Supreme is that sound.

I have five or six different copies of A Love Supreme on vinyl. The last copy that I bought, a reissue that sounds so dynamic and present it’s like Coltrane is standing in front of my turntable … I bought a second copy as well, in case I damage the first. I never want to be far from that piece of work.

Over the years I’ve searched for more. Jazz from the US, from the UK, from Scandinavia, from Japan and Australia. Different modes of playing, different styles and expressions, even various crossovers, with hiphop, for example, or dance. But each time the experience is similar … I don’t understand what I’m hearing a lot of the time. Sometimes I don’t even like it. Sometimes I need to find solace with a good Genesis or Queen record, which are as far from jazz as you can get. But again and again it plays a song that aligns with the chaos inside me, like a key lining up the mechanism inside a lock.

It doesn’t leave me feeling free. I can’t claim that. But I do feel understood. Which is more than I feel most of the time. And I also feel like I’m not alone. That I’m not the only person wandering around feeling such lack of resolution and not even knowing why. The history of jazz attests to the fact that others have felt it before me. It’s just that they were also geniuses who had discovered a way to give it expression.

For which I thank God.