The soundtrack of our lives

The soundtrack of our lives

Jazz taught me to be a patient listener, and it made me understand that sometimes the things you have to pursue give you the most reward in life. The same is true for other forms of music that are not considered ‘pop’ or popular music, eg, classical, blues, and so on.

‘I never thought that the music called “jazz” was ever meant to reach just a small group of people, or become a museum thing locked under glass like all the other dead things that were once considered artistic.’

– Miles Davis

Nina Simone in 1965 / Ron Kroon

Straight out of university I applied for a membership at London’s famous jazz venue Ronnie Scott’s in Soho. It was a great decision and a sound investment in my musical education. I skipped the long queues at the door, got to see some contemporary greats in an intimate setting, and it enabled my taste to evolve. I even sat with Kenneth Clarke once, the former Exchequer of Britain, and in this context, a jazz aficionado with his own show on BBC Radio. In retrospect, though, I realise I had joined for a wrong reason or two, though it did me a lot of good at the tender age of 22. My enthusiasm for the club subscription stemmed from the very word ‘jazz’ – it sounded refined and sophisticated, and I wanted to be in with the cool crowd who had their little club, which was almost cabal-like at Ronnie’s – that is, not only everyone knew each other, they knew their preference in jazz. I longed to be a part of that select set of people who found it essential to visit the club every week. For them it was as quintessential as breathing in or drinking water. For me it was more or less a case of curiosity mixed with a certain kind of aspiration. The reason I share this with you, dear reader, is because jazz has to grow on you. It is somewhat an acquired taste, and though you will surely enjoy the playing of some musicians and hum along few eternal tunes, you do not really get to experience the love affair for it unless you immerse yourself in the music. I was fortunate to have stumbled upon jazz in school (only in text, and more on that later), which made me curious to dig deeper. It was fortuitous to get that much-coveted membership in my early 20s – for vanity’s sake or not – it was the perfect platform for me to explore the genre first hand.
Ronnie Scott’s gained in popularity and fame as early as the sixties. It was the place for jazz musicians to not only play music, but also to hang out, make friends, and it was the brainchild of two saxophonist friends – Ronnie Scott and Pete King. By the time I joined, Scott had passed away and King was looking for a wealthy benefactor to pass on the legacy. The membership form changed shortly after I joined. The new ownership took over – with theatre impresario Sally Greene in charge – making the club more contemporary and more importantly, a profitable enterprise. The form is now a simple online process— you pay and you get in. I had to fill in a slightly more rigorous one – aside from the usual information – it required two existing members endorsing me, and a paragraph to explain why I wished to join the club. I didn’t know anyone who was a member but I knew what to write in the reasons box. I remember starting my little note by triumphantly declaring that I came from the same country as Badal Roy and that I was interested not just in bebop – the purer form of jazz – but funkier rhythms too, and I had a penchant for guitar jazz, and there I cited John McLaughlin, Bill Frisell and Al di Meola. As for the endorsers, I got the doorman to introduce me to a couple and they were kind-hearted enough to put their names on a form even though they didn’t really know me. I like to think it was the kinship that we keep celebrating in the company of not just jazz lovers, but lovers of music, of life, literature and the arts in general.

Ronnie Scott’s exterior / Tom Morris

That opened the doors of Ronnie Scott’s for me, and thus began my journey of endless discovery, appreciating classics while simultaneously accepting newer and more experimental forms of a diverse genre that really do not conform to any rule or style. My relationship with the club’s music extended well beyond Soho, from the ever-expanding record collection in my living room to seeking out renowned clubs elsewhere: Blue Note and Village Vanguard in New York, Blues Alley in Washington DC, Café Central in Madrid, Sunset Sunside in Paris to name but a few. Jazz became an excuse to visit summer festivals, to read books on its beginnings, to lie in parks with earphones and sunglasses and to smoke the occasional cigar on a jazzy evening! Few years ago when I finally made it to the world renowned Montreux Jazz Festival, I paid a silent homage to my favourite singer Nina Simone who was – as online clips will tell you – astounding at their 1976 edition. Her rendition of Sinnerman remains my all-time highlight for the festival —it is one of the most energetic and ethereal performances of modern times and almost on par with her 1965 performance in New York, which appears on Pastel Blues. If you ever considered investing in one jazz record, may it be this seminal album. Nina Simone sang at a time when it was incredibly difficult being a black person in America, let alone become a prominent singer. It was her powerful voice that broke through the barriers and shattered all ceilings. She went on to become a leading Civil Rights activist and her involvement for the cause was impossible to ignore. America became a fairer nation, and jazz along with blues had an important role to play in the movement for fairness and equality for black people, although signs of regression are sadly in the air.

Miles Davis in his New York City home / Tom Palumbo

That is something true of jazz – most of the greats being African-American – it broke racial boundaries that were created by the white supremacists, and this really was my first introduction to jazz, while learning about Martin Luther King Jr in school. One learns quickly about two or three names that are almost synonymous with the genre: Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, et al. It was a matter of time before I picked up Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue in college and it felt really pretentious of me playing it in my dorm, and to be honest, it was only played when I felt bored of listening to my staple of rock music. However, I was interested in the music and invested time in learning about Miles Davis and his associates. I kept an open-minded, curious approach to the Miles Davis experience until one day I came across a tune, which featured the tabla. It was from Big Fun and looking up the liner notes, I found something that almost made me jump in joy: ‘Tabla – Badal Roy’ on a track called Ife. Instinctively I knew Roy had to be a fellow Bengali and someone to look up. I had also noticed some real heavyweights, each well-known in their own right, playing together on the next track Recollections: Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, John McLaughlin, Chick Corea, Billy Cobham and many more. This was a ‘superband’ of sorts, a dream team ensemble, and the result: if you ever wanted to listen to one jazz recording and effortlessly meditate, make it Recollections. Clocking just under nineteen minutes, it remains my ultimate chill-out track after a long day, week or month.
Badal Roy went from growing up in small town Comilla in Bangladesh to playing with Miles Davis all the way in New York. Miles had heard him play in a Manhattan restaurant and invited him to join in his jam sessions one day. They went on to record several albums as well as perform live. It was fusion for Miles, and jazz allows for various forms of fusion, as it allows for any number of instruments to be incorporated as long as the leader of the group knows his stuff. And Miles knew his jazz from back to front, radicalising the music, breaking boundaries and reaching a different level altogether. It may not always be easy listening when playing his records, perhaps unlike John Coltrane or Sonny Rollins, but it is definitely rewarding if you have the time and inclination. I went back to Kind of Blue and started exploring the rest of Miles’ repertoire and my particular fondness is reserved for Sketches of Spain, Porgy and Bess and Bitches Brew. They are concept albums, or as some would argue all of Miles Davis’ albums are conceptual, which means the serial of the tracks are laid in a particular order to tell a story, or communicate a concept. The narrative is, thus, in the tracks’ order, implying the listener is meant to play the album without skipping or pausing to fully appreciate the richness of the concept. To me it always made perfect sense, as it is akin to reading a novel—we don’t skip a chapter while reading, nor do we pick a chapter at random to start a book.
Jazz taught me to be a patient listener, and it made me understand that sometimes the things you have to pursue give you the most reward in life. The same is true for other forms of music that are not considered ‘pop’ or popular music, eg, classical, blues, and so on. I applied the same principle to reading books that are literary, to films that are considered art-house, and appreciating various art forms from ballet to opera. As my musical taste evolved, my taste in jazz explored other forms that are on the periphery or very much within, depending on who you speak to: jazz-rock, which is self-explanatory; acid jazz, which is a combination of soul, funk and disco; nu-jazz, which is really electronic jazz. This meant jazz became freer and more fluid over time, which is what Miles had prophesised. McLaughlin carried on the work along with Davis by forming Shakti, an all-acoustic jazz ensemble with L Shankar playing the violin and Zakir Hussain on the tabla, as well as The Mahavishnu Orchestra, which was jazz-rock, arguably at its finest and hardest. Jazz was never meant for a small group of people, according to Miles, and his wish came true; today you often hear jazz as the background music in films or plays, alongside nu jazz in a trendy bar.
In the day and age of music being primarily streamed from the Internet, however, I fear the concept albums may just be lost on the younger generation of listeners. Jazz, like literature, has to compete with incredibly popular social media applications as well as entertaining television serials, and they can become addictive almost effortlessly. These are antithesis to the idea of teething into jazz, which inevitably requires two things we seem to be short of: time and devotion. Whether the newer forms of jazz, like acid or club jazz can be the platform for experimentations to thrive remains to be seen. The future could be uncertain for the genre. Having said that, the queues outside the door of Ronnie Scott’s are even longer these days, small and big jazz venues and festivals get sold out very quickly, and jazz LPs are highly sought after. I don’t think this is a resurgence of the genre, because in reality, its appeal never died. It’s much like the threat bookshops faced at the wake of e-reader devices only to see a rise in the sale of hard copies. Perhaps we can put it down to stories of life, and whether we are aware of it or not, jazz forms a huge part of the soundtrack to our lives. As long as there is civilisation, there will be stories, and there will be musicians to interpret those stories. And as long as there are stories and music, jazz will remain the music for a diverse range of listeners. From connoisseurs who cannot enjoy bebop without a sip of their favourite Scotch, to young minds who are moved by stories of injustice and segregation, jazz will be with us, giving us the much-needed tonic to everyday living.

Ahsan Akbar is a Director of Dhaka Lit Fest and Governor of The Working Men’s College, UK. For more information:

December 2017

Jazz taught me to be a patient listener, and it made me understand that sometimes the things you have to pursue give you the most reward in life. The same is true for other forms of music that are not considered ‘pop’ or popular music, eg, classical, blues, and so on. ‘I never thought that…

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