Fishman: The unknowable mystery of music 

Do you understand jazz?

I don't.

Do you get how out of the blue the bass player knows when to straighten up and wail away? Do you understand who tells the drummer, "OK, dude. It's your turn. You're on."

How about the saxophonist? How he or she knows when to pick up where the pianist left off and can let it rip and dip.

When I'm watching jazz I might as well be listening to people speak Italian or Greek.

I can appreciate the mood. I can catch the drift. I see the way the musicians wink at each other, the way they nearly double over in sudden laughter (What? I think. What happened? Did I miss something?). I can spot a head nodding, a finger pointing and then a change in the dynamics.

But don't pin me down on the specifics. Because I'm not there. Not even close.

Rain barrels I get. The way an elbow of aluminum extending off the gutter and through the lid of the standing receptacle can direct accumulated rain water -- minus chlorine, fluoride or other chemicals -- into a standing vessel that has a faucet at the bottom for releasing water into the garden.

I get the dynamics behind throwing a baseball ball or hitting a tennis ball. How you extend the opposite foot forward and whip the hips around at nearly the same time you either release or strike the ball.

I understand holding a baby and creating a lot of movement and distraction so the little thing won't cry. That I get.

But not jazz.

I like jazz. I love jazz. But don't ask me what it means or how it works.

And don't bother asking a musician to explain. That is the wrong way to go. That's like asking an artist to explain color theory. It's not going to work -- not unless you're on a long car ride and you have plenty ot time and space to wonder about matters opaque, transparent, complementary or contrasting.

But that doesn't mean I donít like picking up a paint brush and moving some color around on a tablet, however amateurish it is.

It doesn't mean I don't love being up front and center to any form of live music -- but especially jazz -- however ignorant I am of what the heck they're doing.

So when I got a chance to usher at Orleans Hall during this year's Savannah Music Festival, I grabbed it and didn't let go. For two weeks I dovened rabbi-like to rhythm and blues, danced to Zydeco (everyone can dance to Zydeco), swayed to traditional jazz, waved a homemade umbrella to a New Orleans brass band and drank up every sentiment, every note, every emotion of the blues.

I saw the real and wacky Terrance Simien of the Zydeco Experience toss Mardi Gras beads with his bare feet (I knew something was up when I saw the soundman wearing flip-flops), heard the broad-shouldered Wycliffe Gordon play his trombone off the chart (this from a 16-year-old trombonist who confirmed my notion that Gordon was making sounds no one else came close to) and waited like everyone for the visiting Bill Clinton to come to the Friday night show. (He didn't).

At bassist Ben Tucker's 75th birthday bash, I hugged, by mistake, his identical twin brother.

I talked to the trombone player of Walter "Wolfman" Washington and the Roadmasters, Saturday night's main act at Orleans Hall. He said the band left New Orleansí Monkey Hill bar on Magazine and Webster streets at 3:30 a.m. Friday night, pulled into Savannah at 3:45 p.m. after running into traffic in Jacksonville and bounded the stage at 6 p.m.

I heard the sad, romantic music of the tango, gained a new appreciation for the "squeeze box" (definitely not the accordion we saw on the Ed Sullivan show), which sounded at times like a clarinet, and watched a masterful Bob Masteller from Hilton Head Island's Jazz Corner play the heck out of the trumpet.

Masteller, like many others, started playing the horn at age 11. Lucky the people whose parents pushed them and pushed them again to practice. Now all he has to do is "keep his lip."

As a venue, the former J.C. Lewis car service building (now a SCAD property) converts beautifully into a makeshift cabaret. For the 5:30 p.m. shows -- the first of three performances -- thick black curtains helped sustain the illusion of a jazzy nightclub. The sales of beer and wine -- something other venues sorely lacked and should consider selling -- didn't hurt one bit.

Neither did the knowledgeable and affable introductions of jazz fan Skip Jennings who through the week donned neckties featuring the piano, clarinet, trumpet, sax and guitar. He's still looking for one with a violin.

Neither did the infectious ways of room manager Kelli Pearson encouraging people to dance. I'm telling you -- people love to dance. Any age. Any time of day. Next year I'd like to see more chances, more venues where people can dance.

But will I ever understand jazz? Doubtful. And that's OK -- as long as I can hear it.


About The Author

Jane Fishman

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