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A Zen Approach to Jazz

Oscar Peterson, Munich 1977 (Photo by Hans Bernhard)

I was sitting, looking out the window in Brooklyn a couple of weeks ago, writing the jazz genre introduction for Arts America when Oscar Peterson’s rendition of the Gershwin classic “I Loves You Porgy” pops up on Spotify. I remember that I was writing the section on the debate over what jazz “is”.

Peterson was a master of the piano and watching this great hulk of man with his fingers flying across the keyboard with such effortlessness had a certain kind of magic that I’ve never forgotten. The way his improvised solos, especially, sounded like they were carefully crafted note-by-note by some masterful composer got me thinking that perhaps that’s what jazz “is”. It’s both being present in the moment and transcending the here and now with the timeless elements of a great song.

On “I Loves You Porgy”, there are moments of pure virtuosity, but more than anything, it’s the quiet, reverent approach that makes the song transcendent.

Look at other genres of music and you might find one or the other of those elements fully realized, but I think you’d find yourself approaching the ‘jazz’ label with almost anything that embodies both the present and the transcendent. (I’m sure I’ll get someone chiming in with a searing cadenza in a Baroque concerto, and you may have a point there!)

I leave you with that to chew on the next time you’re sitting in some dark club, pondering the philosophical nature of whatever avant-garde, electro-fusion outfit happens to be on the stage.