I believe it was Louis Armstrong who said, "If you don't know what jazz is, don't ask."
To the novice jazz fan this can be a pretty discouraging statement.
Jazz demands a lot more attention than, say, putting a Wu-Tang CD in your car and driving 90 miles an hour because it makes you hyped-up. Whitney Balliet, a critic for the New Yorker, once wrote that jazz is the "sound of surprise." And after listening to "So What" by trumpeter Miles Davis a thousand times, you know you've heard jazz because you can still hear something new with every turn of the table. (Another hint: Kenny G does not play jazz.)
If you've got a hankering to find out for yourself the true meaning of jazz or to simply strengthen your love of it, look no farther than Boulder, Colo. this fall. Four concerts featuring the best of classical jazz will take the stage there starting the end of September and winding up in November.
The Mingus Big Band takes the stage first. The late, great bassist and composer Charlie Mingus, after whom the band is named, was one of the most important contributors to the jazz avant-garde of the '50s and '60s. Along with saxophonists Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy, and pianist Cecil Taylor, Mingus helped to shape the aesthetic of a movement that was focused on giving complete freedom to the artist. He composed songs that were often deceptively simple and always very passionate. He wrote with so much soul, and would play his pieces with such energy that audiences could hardly contain themselves. Mingus' widow Sue Mingus now runs the 14-piece band that plays only from his repertoire.
The Pat Metheny Trio is next on the list. Metheny has recorded well over 25 albums, scored numerous films and has played with almost everyone who means anything in jazz over the last 30 years. Best known for his forays into fusion jazz -- basically a melding of jazz and rock, which started in the late '60s with Miles Davis as one of its pioneers -- Metheny's trio will be playing traditional jazz rather than fusion during their Boulder gig.
Another great guitarist, Bill Frisell, will show up nine days later. Frisell spent most of his childhood in Denver and studied music for some time at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. He took guitar lessons from the legendary Jim Hall, and has played on numerous albums as a sideman, and recorded quite a few of his own, including one where he played guitar, bass, ukulele, banjo, and clarinet. His melodic style of improvisation and original way of looking at composing and arranging pieces is well worth a listen.
The Dave Holland Quintet takes the stage on Nov. 1. Holland, a British bassist who first made a name for himself around London in the mid '60s, was picked up by Miles Davis and stayed with the master for two years. He has recorded a number of albums under his own name and as a side man, and has formed quite a few groups, including the quintet he plays with now.
Finally, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter round out the series. Both were part of Miles Davis' classic second quintet that operated in the late 1960s. Hancock, on piano, has done work over the years with movie scores, fusion, traditional jazz, and even funk and hip-hop. Some of his best piano work can be heard on the album Miles Davis: Cookin' at the Plugged Nickel. You can really feel the wheels churning in Hancock's head as he explores the keyboard in his solos. Shorter plays both tenor and soprano saxophone and has a resum nearly as impressive as Hancock's. The two rely heavily on the intuitive relationship they've developed over many years of playing together.
All the cats playing at the Boulder Theater have made very important contributions to "America's only art form," and deserve attention for that alone. But seeing them play, like experiencing any true work of art, can change your life if you let it.