Jazz in New Orleans

When you play, play for someone: thoughts for International Jazz day

As the world prepared for the celebration of International Jazz Day, I found myself remembering my first trip to New Orleans in 2013. It was a bewildering experience that created such a strong emotional impact on me, that it remains as vivid and alive as it was during that unforgettable summer.
Growing up, I watched my dad fiddle around at the piano sometimes, and wondered what he was playing. He had a particular favourite piece, and it always seemed like he was having so much fun with it! Definitely much more fun than I had when practising my Czerny or small Bach preludes. To my understanding, it had something to do with the “funky”-ness of the left hand octaves and the weirdly colourful harmonies. My piano teacher told me that’s jazz: funky and colourful! She was also the first to introduce me to this magnificent musical universe by giving me (as a gift) a  photocopied (and probably illegal: but in 90’s Romania original music was very hard to come by) collection of piano transcriptions of old-time jazz classics by the Dixieland band and other famous jazz musicians. It was my first encounter with, for example, The Tiger Rag. (Confession time: years later, when I came across an original recording of the Dixies doing the Tiger, I realised I had been playing it at half the speed it should have been…)
So for years jazz has been my “guilty pleasure”. I have never had any proper training, and I certainly never learned to improvise. But I’ve always come back to it, listening to recordings, opening my (photocopied) book of transcriptions… hungrily diving in the wealth of jazz arrangements of Christmas music, for example, which I discovered on my first ever visit to London, when I came to audition at the Academy (December 2007). However, no other experience with jazz has marked me in quite a similar strong way as my trip to New Orleans did.
Europe can claim ownership of a lot of different musical styles and genres. However, it can’t do that with jazz. Jazz is fundamentally American. It belongs to the turbulent history of the continent from across the Atlantic. I am lucky enough to have friends living in New Orleans that offered me the amazing opportunity to spend a few days in the town. It felts exciting right away – an opportunity to go to the homeland of jazz! It was only a few days, but the experience was so intense that the whole trip felt a lot longer. It began with a fascinating trip to the Louisiana State Museum, where I could see (and hear) Maestro Louis Armstrong’s bugle, as well learn more about the history of jazz. But the entire present-day New Orleans bursts with music! During day-time, I got absolutely mesmerised by improvised on-spot performances given by musicians (most self-taught) who all share a passion for this music. New Orleans absolutely radiates music! No exaggeration. There is music coming out from everywhere: bars, cafes, restaurants, parks, street corners, street-cars (!)… you name it! The pleasure that these street musicians get from their performances, and (most importantly) from sharing their music is indescribable.
By night-time, the French Quarter becomes a huge jazz club. We (literally) lost count of the hours listening to infectious jazz music-making in this old and historic neighbourhood. You come out of the club to give your ears a little break, and you meet the bustling world of street vendors selling their own creations, paintings, drawings, bracelets, various house accessories… all home-made. It is home to people who explore and enjoy their creativity, without much care for social constructs or rules. Then you go back in for more scintillating jazz. I have to say that, personally, I preferred the old-school jazz, where improvisation goes beyond ricocheting up and down your instrument, and is a powerful expressive tool used with care. Also, some of the clubs were over-amplified – as if volume was a competition. Thankfully, the majority used the mics as a means to reach more people rather than blast our ear-drums out. I found the freedom of expression of these amazing musicians incredibly inspirational for a classically-trained musician. The best jazz I heard, however, was the following morning.
Still quite tired and sleepy after a very long night out in the French Quarter, we took the streetcar to the town centre and went into an open-air café to have a much craved coffee, and also one (or more) beignets, a local traditional sweet pastry – delicious! As we were having our treats, live performers came on the little stage: one lady singing, accompanied by a guitarist. They literally gobsmacked me! Listening to them was almost like a revelation. There was something so pure, so deep in her singing – so direct, so much speaking from the heart. I am ashamed that I cannot seem to remember her name, but rummaging through my old drive, I found the picture I took, and you can see it here with this post… So if you recognise the picture, use my contact page to let me know who she is!
I am normally not so bold about approaching people I don’t know, but this lady’s wonderful singing gave me the courage to go and talk to her. I had to tell her how much she touched me that morning. Once we got talking, it was all too obvious why her music was so heartfelt. She was such a warm, wonderful person. She immediately asked me about my life, wanted to know what I do. When I explained I was also a musician, she asked me to sit down at the piano and play something for her (and the rest of the café…). I shied away at first, but she convinced me with just one comment, as honest and as soulful as her singing: “This is a special meeting. I will probably never see you again in my life. Please play something for me.” I was really quite nervous, so I think I gave a rather shaky rendition of Chopin op 27 no 1, but that is a moment I shall never forget.
That extraordinary lady taught me an exceptional lesson: that no matter how much you practised, how well or not-so-well prepared you are, how worried about some passages, difficult jumps or fast semiquavers you are, when you play music, you must do it from the heart. Sing/play and speak from the heart, because you are playing FOR SOMEONE. Music achieves its true greatness only when it is shared. It’s not great on the paper it is printed on, or in our little practice cubicles. It becomes great when it finds an echo in other people. The more profound and deep we delve into our music when we practise, and the more sincere we are when we share it with our audiences, the more likely we are to touch hearts. It is perfectly possible. I’ve experienced it first-hand! And it is so wonderful, it is hard to put into words. I am sure it doesn’t happen every time we perform, but it is a sublime goal to aim for, and it is what makes our craft worthwhile. Happy International Jazz Day!


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