When I was 13 I entered high school. In my part of Canada we didn’t have junior high school, so we went from elementary school to high school. My high school had a fantastic music program and at 13 I was starting to get serious about music. On my first few days at the school I heard the incredible big band we had and I knew i had to be a part of it. I would need to audition to get in of course. So I spent 4 months locked in my bedroom immersing myself in a music that would change not just the way I played but I believe it changed the way my brain is wired and how I look on life.
That music was Jazz.
When I say Jazz it frightens a lot of people. They often think they don’t like it. But most of all, I think they don’t understand it. I can’t possibly convince you in 5 minutes about the history and merits of Jazz as a music. But I can relate how Jazz has changed me.
The foundation of Jazz is improvisation. I believe this is the key difference between it and classical music. In classical music you have a ‘score’. It will tell you exactly how to reproduce that piece of music. In Jazz you don’t have a score. You have a ‘chart’. Like on a ship. The chart in Jazz is a guide to the basic features of the piece of music. It might detail the simplified version of the chords or melody. But just like sailing a ship, as a Jazz musician your goal is to find your own way, using that chart as a guide.
Of course, you can’t just jump in and start playing whatever you like.
I liken playing music to cooking.
Music is a broad term. Like ‘food’. Jazz music is also a broad term. Like ‘japanese food’. Is it ramen? Sushi? Is it Gyutan? Jazz also has as many flavours. But at the center of all of them – like cooking – is the understanding of the rules. The rules of combining certain flavours together. It’s the skill of being able to open the refrigerator and knowing how to combine whatever is there into a great meal.
You have to follow your own taste. Some like it spicy, some like it smooth.
And this idea of improvisation, of taking what life gives you as a chart to be interpreted and not a score to be strictly followed, that has affected me most. I took the skills that I learned as a musician, a software developer, a writer and a filmmaker and combined them and applied them in a way that suited my taste.
It led me around the world.
But perhaps a problem with Jazz is that, because it is so dependent on personal taste, measuring success is difficult. You can’t look outside, to the world at large and say “is this good music”. And I think the same is true of life. You should not measure the success of your life by outside metrics. When playing music, at the end of the night you have to look back and say “I played well” or “I could have done better”. I think life’s a little bit like that, whether you believe it now or not.
When I was 16 I started a jazz sextet with 5 of my fellow musicians from the big band. All of us loved Jazz. And all of us took to the concept of an improvised life.
30 years later, from those 5 people, one is a university music instructor, another is involved in Canadian wildlife conservation in British Columbia, another is an Engineer and another is the senior political editor of Canada’s largest national news magazine.
Jazz of course is not responsible for all of our career paths, but, I believe that this rewiring of our brains that a dedication to jazz at an early age accomplished let each of us see how to apply the rules we learned and to combine them and interpret them into a life that was made from our own tastes.
So, my fellow toastmasters, I cannot convince you to go home and listen to Charlie Parker or Miles Davis, but, I hope I can send you on your way with a fresh look at how to interpret the chart of your life.