I used to think Jazz mattered.

MARK SWARTZ FOR TVD | That’s my six-word memoir. Allow me to elaborate. In my 20s, I lived for jazz—specifically, the jazz avant-garde that flourished between 1959 (the year Mingus Ah Um was released) and 1970, the year Albert Ayler committed suicide). My tastes also encompassed the seeds of this renaissance as well as its latter-day echoes.

My free time was spent hunting for Ornette Coleman LPs in places like Chicago’s Jazz Record Mart and reading books like Graham Lock’s Forces in Motion. Unlike any other period in my life, I listened to music without doing anything else. Positioned between two speakers, I’d sit there, without a book, magazine, or laptop (which didn’t exist), absorbing the rhythms and timbres.

This actually happened: Ann Arbor, 1991. I come home with Spy vs. Spy, John Zorn’s Ornette Coleman tribute album, put it on the turntable, and took a seat. Two tracks in, my nose starts to bleed. Correlation is not causation, but still.

What majestic names my heroes had! Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Anthony Braxton. Was there, perhaps, a touch of reverse racism to my reverence? Undoubtedly, the blackness of these geniuses provoked the fear, guilt, and ignorance I felt toward a group of people with whom I had practically no social interaction. Myths of soulfulness and rhythmic genius fed my ardor, but I was not unaware of the irony of a privileged white guy grooving alone to the sound of black America.

The music had changed the world, and the repercussions continued to imperceptibly ripple throughout society. I took this stuff seriously and wrote serious essays like this one. I believed that my heroes, especially Coleman, were using jazz to reinvent social norms. They were toppling hierarchies, subverting paradigms, and offering new models for human interaction. “In the music we play,” he told Atlantic Monthly in 1972, “no one player has the lead. Anyone can come out with it at any time.” He called this approach harmolodics, and I earnestly conferred with a few select friends on how it could be implemented in literature, politics, and economics.

The thing is, earnest wasn’t a word that would describe the young man who listened so hard his nose bled. In nearly every other facet of existence I was irreverent and lackadaisical. It’s the fact that I was capable of such earnestness that stays with me today.

Earnest also fails to capture the deep, perhaps even spiritual, pleasure that jazz afforded. It was thrilling to hunt for, buy, and play records like Coleman’s The Unprecedented Music of Ornette Coleman; the one and only release by the Creative Construction Company (Anthony Braxton, Muhal Richard Abrams, Leroy Jenkins, Steve McCall, and Leo Smith); and Julius Hemphill’s Dogon A.D.

These are just three of the albums that I unceremoniously donated to the Northbrook Public Library in 1998 in a fit of de-cluttering. I suppose I could re-purchase them on eBay for $35, $19.99, and $29.99, respectively, but I’d have to buy a turntable, too, and find space for it. Not gonna happen.

The people who have come into my life aren’t jazz fans. I rarely listen to music alone anymore, and never without doing something else.

Today, what I feel for this music (a sampling of which can be heard on the 8tracks mix I created in conjunction with this short essay) is nostalgia, as it was described by great 1960s thinker Don Draper:

In Greek, “nostalgia” literally means “the pain from an old wound.” It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards and forwards, it takes us to a place where we ache to go again.

Draper is talking about the slide carousel, but of course a phonograph is another kind of time machine.

Part of me still believes that Coleman et al.’s idealism and zest for rule breaking still applies to other realms of life. But jazz hasn’t been the music or metaphor of choice for fifteen years or more.

I have digitally recaptured a select few favorites, including Don Cherry’s collaborations with Ayler, Coltrane, and Steve Lacy. Much of the music I dumped is unavailable for download, and though fragments of Unprecedented, CCC, and Dogon A.D. can be found on YouTube, for all intents and purposes it exists only in my memory. And for now, that’s where I prefer to leave it.

Mark Swartz (@swartzmark) is the author of two novels, Instant Karma (2002) and H2O (2006). He lives in Takoma Park, MD.

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  • Sterno

    Well, to have mattered, I fear, will not be said of you. I was waiting for the point, some epiphany, not this “I dumped my records and gee, some you can’t even download any more.” Track Dogon AD down and crack it across your head, it’s still the absolute shit. I think the problem is maybe you were just playin’, is all. These are living folks making this music. You ever think of watching it breathe? You didn’t have heroes, you had toys, and an angle, and it got old. Don’t blame that on the music.

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