One Saturday night several years ago, Hazen Schumacher's program, "Jazz Revisited," came on the radio while I was washing dishes. I didn't think I liked jazz and would have switched it off if my hands hadn't been wet. But Hazen played a familiar big band tune, and as the horns blared from the radio, I thought: Swing music is jazz?
After that, I saved up dishes to wash each Saturday while I caught Hazen's show. His commentaries intrigued me. I brought jazz CDs and books on jazz home from the library and began to learn more about improvisation.
I'm not a musician, so the theories were beyond me, but I understood enough to appreciate the talents of the composers and players. My studies carried me from ragtime to swing to bebop, from Jelly Roll Morton to Duke Ellington to Dizzy Gillespie. Then I stumbled at John Coltrane.
I knew "Trane" was considered a genius, and I enjoyed his early ballads. But I couldn't understand the breakneck, convoluted rhythms in his later pieces - in particular, his masterpiece, "A Love Supreme," the suite he recorded in December 1964 as a tribute to God. Was God pleased with this music? I wondered, the first time I heard it. Actually, I heard only the first minute of it. Coltrane's sax droned like an airplane losing altitude, and I shut it off.
Yet I kept reading about Trane, fascinated with his work in modal improvisation and his intense dedication to performance. I played a tiny bit of "A Love Supreme" each day - a minute and a half, then two minutes, then two and a half. I must have played the CD in this way a hundred times. My daughter wandered into the kitchen during one of these sessions and asked, "What is that?"
"John Coltrane," I said, proud to be listening to such an acclaimed musician. She quickly left the kitchen. I watched the clock, and as soon as the prescribed amount of time was up, I shut off Coltrane and put on a favorite swing band.
Then one evening, as I stood washing the dishes in the quiet of the kitchen, a jazz riff swirled through my mind, a riff that seemed to rise and fall like a nighthawk gliding over hills.
Ba-dwaaa-n-da-dahh. Suddenly I realized I was humming a riff from "A Love Supreme." How did that happen? My mind had finally connected to the patterns in the music - but more important, so had my heart.
I quickly dried my hands, put on "A Love Supreme," and waited breathlessly for my riff. Once I heard it, I kept listening. I stood beside the kitchen counter for 33 minutes and listened to the entire suite, finally and irrevocably enraptured with John Coltrane.
Years have passed since then. I'm still learning about jazz, working my way from Coltrane to Charles Mingus and now to Ornette Coleman. I won't ever catch up, and that's the thrill of it.
Talented new musicians appear each year, springing from the giants that have come before, and contributing their own gifts to the world. Though I may take a while to understand, I treasure those "aha!" moments when rhythms and patterns click into place. Jazz truly is a music of discovery and surprise. After all these years, it still takes my breath away.