As a child, NPR listener Colleen Shaddox loved hearing her uncle play jazz piano. Now her son is developing a love for the music that she believes unites her family even in the most troubling of times.
Jazz is the sound of God laughing. And I believe in it.
I came to know jazz as a child, stretched out beneath my uncle’s baby grand. I would lie there for hours drawing while Uncle Charlie practiced. I could feel the vibrations go right through me, filling me up with jazz. I felt happier in that room than anywhere on the planet. A lot of that had to do with being admitted to the inner sanctum of my favorite grown-up. But in retrospect, I realize it was also about the music.
I believe in the fundamental optimism of jazz. Consider the first four notes of “Rhapsody in Blue.” Can you hear it? It’s saying, “Something monumental is going to happen. Something that’s never happened before. And you are alive to witness it.”
Jazz is always like that. Even the songs that take you to despair lift you. That’s because the music remembers where it came from, from people kidnapped and enslaved. It came from a humanity that was attacked a thousand different ways every day, but never defeated. It’s the People’s Music.
I remember my uncle’s hands on the piano. His fingers always had tiny burns on them, a hazard of his job as a welder. He spent his days at the Brooklyn Navy Yard building the ships that won the Second World War. He spent his nights playing piano and sax for couples who glided and gyrated across the city’s polished floors.
In jazz, anybody can sit in. It’s dogma-free, which allows the music to take more than its share of detours. This forces you to have faith. Faith that if you keep moving forward, you’ll get there.
As an adult, cancer tested my faith. I was not afraid of dying — after all, that’s only a key change — but I was terrified of leaving my baby without a mother. Walking in the woods with my son, who by no coincidence bears my uncle’s name, I was fighting back tears. Charlie noticed some honeybees and started imitating their sound. All of a sudden, he sang “Buzz, buzz buzz buzz. Buzz.” Those are the opening notes of “Green Dolphin Street,” a jazz standard that I’d wager few 3-year-olds know.
Thankfully, I lived. But even if I hadn’t, I learned that day that I could never leave my Charlie, any more than Uncle Charlie had ever left me. The three of us shared a treasure passed through generations. My baby knew jazz, which is the same as knowing that the universe carries us all toward joyful reunions.
There are some ugly noises in the universe today. At any given moment, I can turn on my television and watch people trampling over each other to gain the moral high ground. Sometimes, I despair. But on good days, I turn off the television and put on some Oscar Peterson. And I whisper a prayer for America to remember that we are “Green Onions,” “String of Pearls,” “A Sunday Kind of Love” and “The Dirty Boogie.” We are the people of Louis, George, Miles and Wynton. We are the jazz people.
We’ll get there. I believe it.
Colleen Shaddox says she is living proof that you can be tone deaf and still love music. She is a writer, editor and owner of a public relations firm that serves health-care companies and non-profit organizations. Shaddox lives in her native Connecticut with her husband, son and dog.
Independently produced for NPR by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick. Photo by Nubar Alexanian.
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