One of the world’s leading jazz musicians, trumpeter, bandleader and composer Terence Blanchard has recorded dozens of acclaimed albums since the early ’80s, and has won four Grammys and been nominated for 11. He has written the scores for more than 40 films, many of them directed by Spike Lee, and has played with Abbey Lincoln, Dr. John, Toots Thielemans and many others.
It’s been talked about from the first downbeat, since the first chorus was ever played: What’s the importance of jazz? Some go as far to ask, is it important? I’ll just answer the second part right now: Yes. Why is it important, though? With International Jazz Day coming up on April 30th, this question seems to become even more important. There is so much music out there right now, which certainly isn’t a bad thing. Though most of what the average person listens to isn’t the latest release from today’s jazz artists. You can’t judge the weight of jazz by how well the albums are doing on the Billboard charts or if you’re hearing the latest Wayne Shorter release on the radio on your morning drive to work. (Although we all would be far better off if that were true.) Jazz is bigger than all of that. It’s more than just notes.
I certainly don’t want to sound all high and mighty or like jazz should be in an ivory tower somewhere. Describing it as if it were a delicate piece in a museum is a disservice to the music and what it has always been. Yes, jazz is incredibly important from a historical perspective. It’s inspired and influenced so many genres of music, it would be difficult to name them all. But jazz has always shown a willingness, or even a need, to evolve constantly. Jazz has always been the home of performers who were willing to tread new ground — from Sidney Bechet to Cannonball Adderly to Miles Davis and Woody Shaw, all the way up to the Ambrose Akinmusires and Lionel Louekes of today. You’d be hard pressed to say any of these artists sound similar. Of course, you can see how each was influenced by what came before them, but to say Sidney and Lionel sound the same would be a huge stretch. In this way, jazz reflects life and shows us our humanity — all of us have the need to change and grow, to be unique, to be more than what we are now. Jazz can teach us to expand and evolve.
Teaching jazz in the school systems is often overlooked, and often the first to be cut when budget issues pop up. This is because most of the people in those budget meetings are just looking at jazz from the Billboard chart perspective, not in what we actually get from experiencing the music. Learning an instrument and learning to improvise is extremely difficult. Teaching our kids how to do this instills a work ethic, gives them goals, gives them a path in life that they may not otherwise had. I’m not quite sure what I would be doing if I hadn’t played jazz, certainly can’t and don’t want to imagine my life differently. Without jazz we and our kids would lose a crucial way of expression.
And people have a need to express themselves, they always have. Music has always been one of the best outlets for people to express themselves in an unspoken way. It’s a universal language that everyone can immediately identify with, you can just feel that connection. Certainly today, with the advancement of technology, people are finding new and more immediate ways to let their inner feelings be known. With Twitter and Facebook you can let people know your feelings from second to second, though you probably should keep a lot of that to yourself. In jazz, an artist has always been able to say exactly what they are feeling in that moment, not how they were feeling five months ago when they wrote that tune or how they are feeling through the filter of piece that was written hundreds of years ago. You get the now. You get them. You can hear some deeply personal things expressed that may have been lost in music with more rigid structures. You’ll hear their joy, sadness, even their failure. The immediacy of this music is what makes it vital.
Art imitates life. Nowhere is that more true than with jazz. It is life. It is the world’s spirit in musical form. Jazz can express the unspoken, things people can’t say, things that are better understood when they are not said. And I just can’t think of anything that is more important than that.