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An Introduction to Jazz: A Novice’s Tale

Friends of JCMC
Erin X. Smithers

It was a cold night in December 2018 when I first experienced live Jazz music for the first time. The venue was Northeastern University’s Blackman Auditorium and when I entered, I didn’t fully know what to expect. As I milled through the isles to find my seat, I couldn’t help but stop and take in the stage that was laid out before the audience. The peach and apricot hue backdrop vibrantly stood behind a wall of chairs, a Yamaha piano, a bass, and a number of instrument stands that I lost count of. From the setting alone, I could tell that I was in for an event to remember.

Before the house lights flickered informing the audience that the show was about to start, I reviewed the program booklet. The concert entitled “My Favorite Things!” was a holiday celebration and the 41st annual Friends of John Coltrane Memorial Concert (FJCMC). The concert is a dedication to the musical and spiritual legacy of the critically-acclaimed Jazz saxophonist and musician.

I only knew the song “My Favorite Things” in the context of The Supremes rendition from “A Motown Christmas”. I was surprised to read of its Rogers & Hammerstein and Julie Andrews origin. The booklet revealed a litany of things that I didn’t know took place in Boston:

  • A 40- year memorial concert that has become a tradition in Boston featuring an incredible cadre of local musicians
  • The history of the Friends of Great Black Music Loft, a performance space for creative arts established by master percussionist Syd Smart
  • The memorial concert’s educational outreach program, existing for over 25 years committed to bringing live creative improvisational music to Boston and Cambridge educational institutions
  • Stan Strickland, Bill Pierce and so much more.

As the show began, the stage filled with the 14-member multiracial, multi-generational ensemble each giving a wave to the crowd. The musical director, Dr. Carl Atkins, provided background information on what the audience should expect. Even with fair warning, I couldn’t have anticipated the result of the ensemble’s joint efforts.

In today’s music industry, many artists thrive off of production, a heavy bass line, some autotune, a ghostwriter (if their lyrics aren’t up to par,) and all of these extra bells and whistles to capture our ears. To my surprise, this was not the case.

Out of the ten song set list, the only track with any vocal accompaniment was the jazz standard created by Mongo Santamaria, but best known for its arrangement by Coltrane entitled “Afro Blue”:

“Dream of a land my soul is from
I hear a hand stroke on a drum
Elegant boy
Beautiful girl
Dancing for joy
Elegant whirl
Shades of delight
Cocoa hue
Rich as the night
Afro blue”

I was blown away by how the cadence of instruments flowed and how each of them blended forming new elements creating a completely new construction of sound. What stood out for me was the manner in which each song had a completely different tone and feeling and how resonant each could be without hearing a single lyric. The compilation of the rhythm section, the piano, bass and drums featured on each song, paired with a blend of bass clarinet, multiple flutes, saxophones, trumpets, trombones, and tuba intonations. The way the musicians would scat and adlib to interject feelings into the set gave each song a uniqueness that communicated louder than most words could.

The memorial concert is more than just a night of great Jazz music. It is truly, as co-founder Leonard Brown, PhD put it, “a collective or commitment to the legacy of a great musician, African American people and these artists seeking space for self-expression and opportunity to develop mastery”. While I’ve always considered myself to be a music lover, I had never experienced the true commitment that Jazz artists make when they step into their artistry and create an experience.

Much like Jazz music, musicians like those who performed this evening are bold enough to keep the music alive and doing so out of necessity. The roots of Jazz trace back to the blues, ragtime and cities like New Orleans and Kansas City. The concept of storytelling as a space for artists of color to heal was not created yesterday.

The life and the legacy of John Coltrane has been kept alive for 41 years by this group of musicians even as Coltrane himself passed away at the age of 40. The passion, the inspiration and the community that Jazz, Coltrane’s legacy and the FJCMC ensemble fosters, rang true this winter’s night.

Reginauld Williams is a writer and creative consultant in the Greater Boston area