Some of you know CAP UCLA as a contemporary dance and theater presenting organization, others as a literary series. For some we are a “go-to” for global, roots, folk, indie and/or new music. Others look to us as the place to see genre-defying performance collaborations. But some of our most stalwart and active audience members experience CAP UCLA through our work in supporting and presenting the towering achievements of artists who live and breathe in the extraordinary world of jazz music.
In keeping with personal reflection: I had an uncle who listened to his coveted jazz records late at night after everyone had long since gone to bed. The far-off sounds from the porch would compel me to sneak out of my sleeping bag on the living room floor to get closer. This music was relished by my uncle, as was his time alone with it. He would land the needle on the vinyl record and listen with his head back and eyes closed. Any interruption would be unwelcome, so it was with delicate care (and a risk of detection) that my 5-year-old self would venture out for a better proximity.
Hiding there, just out of eye-shot, I would work at listening. These “songs” were long and unusual to me. There seemed to be no ending to anticipate, no relief in a refrain, and it was all complicated and amazing to my ears. A language unlike the country/pop/rock I heard on the car radio while riding with my parents. I tried not to breathe or move and would squeeze my eyebrows together to settle in a music that was unanswerable and fascinating. Putting my head back with my eyes closed helped, but the truth is what made me able to hear jazz was watching my uncle’s uncharacteristic revelry and intimacy in how he listened and how he loved what he heard in the music.
He drove a digger, welded, and worked the cranes when there was a construction job. He picked blackberries on the weekends to make jam and wine. He had served in the military and we understood it was not a thing to bring up at dinner. When I eventually asked him about his jazz records on the porch late at night, he told me that it was his friendships he was listening to. That the real way to understand the depth of jazz was to be with it in person and experience the musicians making it right then. That records were an artifact of something captured, like a sound equivalence of a photograph: “It can’t hold everything that goes into jazz, but it proves that a f’in miracle took place between people. When you listen to it, you are looking after that.”
As we celebrate International Jazz Day this week, we acknowledge the African American musicians that changed the sound of the 20th Century and the global impact of a form that continues to expand and express how the self-manifested and singular contribution of an individual can elevate the liberty of all of us. Jazz is democracy in full and generous flight.
In the past few days and weeks, jazz has lost many of its practitioners — elders, authors and musicians. Our celebration of the form is tempered by a grief for the loss of these music makers, and still requires us to bend over to put on that shoe, stand up, stay together and feel a grace in listening from the lens of love.
Let’s keep looking after each other.
Executive and Artistic Director
UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance