Bradley Zeve here. The high school experience—if you remember those tough formative years—was full of opportunities, some of which were actually expansive. For many, these years are also a time when fitting in is a do-or-die prerogative, and standing out in any way, be it for your tastes or talents, isn’t exactly positive.
Students who are part of the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra of the Monterey Jazz Festivalwhich is the subject of part of the cover story of this week’s print edition of the Weekly, definitely stand out. These high school musicians are the best among their peers. Their dedication to this art form is a brave example of independent spirit. Many of us could have been catapulted in the same way if we had had the chance.
(The second part of this week’s cover, written by Paul Wilner, is about the musical tributes to jazz greats John and Alice Coltrane taking place at this year’s 65th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival. There is also a helpful guide to the huge work Coltranes.)
One of my first loves in high school was jazz. She came to me, seduced me, broadened my life and helped me better appreciate a part of rock and roll that was my first teacher. During those years I worked at a record store selling all kinds of music and my manager, Scott, asked me to bring home a jazz album after every shift, so I “knew my shit” . Art Blakey, Stanley Turrentine, George Benson and Mary Lou Williams were “locals” and required special attention and knowledge. Wayne Shorter, the Crusaders, Grover Washington, Jr. changed the game and did a lot for satisfied customers, who kept coming back for more.
I started listening to jazz on the radio—WAMU-AM was a direct jazz station where the afternoon DJ closed his show with this: “Stay nice, watch out for the onion man.” It was obvious that jazz had personality. I liked that. Afterwards, I started seeing professional jazz musicians live (for $1) at the University of Pittsburgh Jazz Seminar – near where I grew up – and my young mind is open. Thank you Dr. Nathan Davis. He introduced us all to Max Roach, Donald Byrd and Richard Davis, and educated anyone who wanted to listen to the history of jazz, years before Ken Burns epic documentary series.
Entering my freshman year of college, I was hoping to work at the college radio station, and the only DJ spot available was for jazz. To the delight of the station manager and to my surprise, it became my slot, renamed Jazz Now. Jazz fans tuned in, but not my roommate or other friends. They called it “Later Jazz”.
There is popular music and unpopular music—today jazz does not belong to the first category (although it once did), less than 2% of music consumption in the United States. Most don’t appreciate its complexity, although jazz can be smooth or intense, melodic or jarring, the improvisational interplay sometimes stands out. And if you listen to jazz at a young age, let alone choose to pursue jazz in high school, you are the very definition of unique. Some might call you an iconoclast. That’s a compliment.
MJF’s Next Generation Jazz Orchestra is a hotbed of fiery creativity. Talented young jazz musicians have a place to play and grow within themselves. Study with professionals, learn the standards, be pushed to play at a higher level, learn to be on time, in tune. These are the basic rewards. The next step: a launching pad for a professional career in jazz. Over the 51 years of the program, many musicians have taken this route, a number from Monterey County as well.
(They’re also amazing musicians right now—you can watch a video of the NGJO 2021 performance here. Or their 2020 virtual performance here.)
Let’s celebrate all the mavericks, all those young explorers who celebrate, even savor, the unpopular. And to you young jazz musicians, thank you. You remind us that freedom is freedom, including the freedom to do our own thing, while playing with others, just in time, whether as a duo, trio, quartet or even a full orchestra with inspired conversation and improvised.