The Gist and Jest of Jazz and Death

'Summertime Jazz' by Jay Schwartz“Over all, I think the main thing a musician would like to do is give a picture to the listener of the many wonderful things that he knows of and senses in the universe.”
– John Coltrane
 
“I am not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
– Woody Allen

 

As a writer and someone who tends to ‘feel and think’ his way through life, I have certain subjects I often feel compelled to write significantly about since they intensely stir the very core of my existence. Today, I’m referring to jazz and death – the former with love, the latter with fear. Time to connect the dots.

Please note that this essay is not the big magnum opus I plan on writing one day on these topics, but merely my attempt to broach related issues of an existential nature (breathe, breathe, breathe). In fact, I’m quite aware that in all likelihood I will probably never write what I’d like to, since I’m mindful of the fact that any attempt to do so would fall short … simply because jazz and death are both larger than life. Moreover, descriptions of jazz are just as elusive as rationalizations of death. Most literature provides the gist, but misses the jest. That’s where I come in.

Death never takes a Holiday Why should You - NARADeath Becomes Us

To put it bluntly, death scares the shit out of me. Therefore, in an attempt to be rational about the irrational, I feel that I need to get a handle on this dark concept and come to terms with it somehow. Of course, I’ve read much on the subject – the psychological, the philosophical and the mystical – but I am less disposed to swallowing any of the standard ‘party lines’ of its true nature. It’s my fear you see that makes me reply, in less than kind fashion, “Oh yeah? So says you!”.

Therefore, to conquer my fear of death, I feel the need write about it myself on my own terms. That’s the way I work. In my twisted mind, this means inviting the Grim Reaper over for a few drinks, ‘literarily’ speaking, and then playing ‘devil’s advocate’ with him.

On many levels, my philosophy on the uncomfortable is “when in doubt, make fun of it, and confuse things”. I am after all a dadaist and have no ego that claims immortality … but then again what the fuck and why the hell not?

Life’s complications have a funny way of working their way out one way or another, so the least you can do is laugh about them. Death is no different; it’s just another of life’s complications. Moreover, if there is a ‘grand scheme’ to all of this life and death, there must be a punch-line in it somewhere. So with regard to death, excuse me for wanting a take a nihilistic approach (with sincere apologies to the Grim Reaper; it’s not personal).

Ultimately, I think that dealing with death means finding your place in this world. Certainly, there are those who will rush to your door to market their schemes for an ‘after-life’. Those most concerned with saving your soul would suggest that if there is a world beyond, then your participation in it surely depends on your deeds in this world. Passage alone does not absolve you of your sins or put a ‘reset’ on your merits and virtues.

Me? I have other ideas which make absolutely no sense, mainly because I’m in denial of my own rationalities. Yes, I too can preach, rant and rave about heaven and hell and even life after death scenarios. Instead, (pregnant pause) I’d rather just be. This is why I’m tired of death and the accompanying fear it evokes. I’m tired of not living my life to its fullest … because I’m scared of dying. In fact, I would rather be listening to jazz than worrying about ‘pushing up daisies’. Still, I have a lesson to learn.

 A portrait of John Coltrane by Paolo SteffanJazz Devours Us

No other form of art moves me as spiritually as music does. Jazz, in some forms and along with certain types of ethnic music, affords me the kind of non-synthetic ‘out of body’ experience that only gurus lay claim to using transcendental meditation.

The nature of music is such that its chromatic vibrations resonate within us at the cellular level, at least that’s how I feel about it. It creates a nexus between us and all things in existence. It allows us to tap into the fabric and data stream of divinity and disappear into its very marrow. It provides a feeling that I imagine only a fetus might perceive in its first trimester of existence.

For me, jazz, especially in the forms of Bebop, Hard Bop and Modal Jazz, transcends time and space, the physical and meta-physical, the logical and the fantastic, and the organized and improvised. It speaks to my artistic and creative nature and the underlying symmetry of my life’s chaos. It allows me to breath and then it catches my breath. It kills and then resurrects, transmutes and transmogrifies.

Can you blame me for my need to share this sensation? An impassioned desire to listen to and preach this gospel motivates me to describe the indescribable … perhaps in much the same way a UFO abductee might, having met benevolent aliens with higher psychic and enlightened capacities than we possess – the inhuman making us feel more human.

The Lesson Overcomes Us

Jazz drummer Art Blakely once remarked that “jazz washes away the dust of every day life”. The same can be said of death.

RShavasana - Corpse Poseelatedly, a yoga ‘asana’ I enjoy doing very much is called shavasana. Its form is basically described by its name, ‘corpse pose’ and its purpose, ironically, is to rejuvenate the body, mind, and spirit. Basically, its role is to provide practice for dying. When I listen to good jazz, I want to assume this position; laying back, stretching out, closing my eyes and sensing the music wash over me like a wave crashing on the seashore, allowing me to float away … surrendering to the music … surrendering to life.

In the end (pardon the pun), the whole point of death is to make use appreciate life. In other words, screw the destination and just enjoy the trip. For proof, listen to any of John Coltrane’s extended solos and you’ll know what I mean.

Namaste. See ya later, alligators …

 —————————————-

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