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When you’re a jazz fan, you’re accustomed to being a minority. Popular musical tastes run in other directions.
So it was on Saturday night, when my wife and I attended a jazz concert at Harris-Stowe State University in St. Louis. We were among a decided minority of whites in a predominantly black audience. But it wasn’t uncomfortable in the least.
In fact, race didn’t seem to matter. What bound us together in color-blind unity was our love of music. And there was plenty of that to love.
Tabbed as “The Statesmen of Jazz,” the collection of musicians on stage that night crossed all kinds of divides – men and women; black and white; American and European; rising star and elder statesman.
The man that drew me to the concert was Houston Person, an astonishing tenor saxophonist from New York City. He has one of the most beautiful, rich sounds of any tenor player I’ve heard. He has said that he approaches a song from the perspective of a vocalist; and he can make his sax “sing” like no one else. In his hands, even the most intricate runs sound effortless.
I first heard him play on the jazz station (WSIE, 88.7 FM) out of Edwardsville, and then was fortunate to be able to hear him at the Sheldon Auditorium last spring. I figured that was my one shot to hear him in concert, since he lives on the East Coast. This weekend’s performance was an unexpected treat. I even had the good fortune to meet him backstage during the intermission.
Person got me to the concert, but what a surprise I received as the others in the all-star cast stepped to the microphone! One after another, they put on a display of musical talent that was incredible. Of the dozen musicians sharing the stage throughout the evening, each was capable of headlining any show.
St. Louis native Clark Terry, now in his 80s, was honored for a lifetime of contributions to the genré. In his career, which spans more than six decades, he’s played his trumpet for seven U.S. presidents and received two Grammys.
His health has been failing in recent years, though. On Saturday, he was wheeled onto the stage in a wheelchair and required supplemental oxygen. But he still played a few tunes with the admiring musicians on stage. The master still has chops. He even did his trademark “Mumbles” vocals. Terry was presented a lifetime achievement medal by Dr. Henry Givens, president of Harris-Stowe State University.
So why am I drawn to jazz? Why the fascination?
Perhaps it’s because I’m totally in awe of the way the music is created. As a high schooler, I played trumpet in my school’s concert and jazz bands. I know a little about playing written music on the page. But the ability of jazz musicians to improvise – to depart from the score and explore a melody – is a gift. They know something I don’t. They can collaborate to make music that comes not from a piece of paper, but from their hearts. I can only stand back and marvel.
Maybe that’s why music is so powerful. It draws us together…regardless of our differences…and touches us in such a way that the differences don’t matter.