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Rhapsody in Gray

A Jazz Symphony

By Nicholas S. Racheotes

Boston Symphony Hall, May 2017. Guided by one of the expert ushers, he arrives bent and shuffling behind a walker. I stand for him as he squeezes by on the way to his seat. Over the past seventy years, he has seen and applauded them all, conductors from Koussevitzky to Nelsons. If you ask him, he can compare Yo-Yo Ma to Pablo Casals, Joshua Bell to David Oistrakh, and Martha Argerich to Arthur Rubinstein. I don’t dare ask because he is holding the program close to his thick glasses and reading every word.

Let’s change scenes. Elegantly dressed, another man fixes his gaze intently on the stage from his regular table in the back corner of the hotel lounge, occasionally brushing at the gray fringe of his thick, otherwise black hair. For decades, he has fought to keep the Boston jazz scene vibrant. The masters of yesterday and today have been his friends and employees. Miles and Dizzy, Max and Buddy, Mingus and Monk, Bags and Satchmo, Wynton and the once young and now middle-aged lions all called him mister.

For these men, who may appear to us as cultural bookends holding up a row of old volumes nobody wishes to read, something has changed, and nothing has changed.

Both men might reflect on the not-so-golden days of yesteryear. Listen to the thin applause on the recordings as the giants of jazz played to tiny audiences in the legendary clubs of New York and Los Angeles throughout the 1950s and ’60s. Wonder, but be sure to keep it to yourself, as to what portion of the elite in what was known as the Big Five orchestras—New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and Cleveland—was there for the music or the sake of appearance. This group of elite ensembles has certainly expanded to San Francisco, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, and beyond, despite losing recording contracts and radio outlets. There may be over a thousand symphony orchestras playing schedules of varying lengths in the United States today; although I doubt this figure, I am also inspired by it. Someone must be attending.

As for jazz, if it isn’t dead, is it “over”? In my not-so-little town, remote broadcasts of live jazz from the hottest spots could once be heard on AM radio. Now you either have to hit the morning shift on a single college station or be an insomniac to catch the latest and greatest output of the genre. Still, there is anything but a shortage of colleges and universities offering degrees in jazz performance and jazz studies. So, if there is a problem, where is it hiding?

The eyeball test holds the answer. Audiences are disproportionately gray-haired visitors from Europe or Asia versed in high culture and young performers knowledgeable about repertoire. We may be flirting with the danger that “classical music” and jazz ensembles are taking on the status of museums—to be visited occasionally, quietly supported by uncertain public funds, and, for the most part, out of sight and out of mind. Hold on, though! In the few remaining paragraphs, you will not be pummeled by a rant on how the eclipse of these complex, demanding, and worthy forms of human expression heralds the end of civilization. Given the cross-pollination of musical forms, this is hardly the case. For centuries, popular songwriters have pillaged the melodies of symphonic composers on the way to Hitsville. A brief survey of interviews by members of rock bands who fill stadiums would show how many of them grew up with jazz in the house. I have a different worry.

Are we losing the ability to devote our undivided attention to just one thing over a long period? Watch the audience members at a sporting event dually watching the action and their phones. Are you reading this while music plays? If so, is it jazz or opera, a symphony or a concerto? Check with a teacher to learn whether the long, careful, evidence-based presentation has given way to bite-sized information packets, slogans, rituals, and pedagogical comedy. Check with the preacher who needs to confine the Good Book to a ten-minute window. There may be much more than the need to peddle antiaging products that causes broadcasters to give us the nightly news at a rate of five-minute bursts.

If you want to get the current and next generations reading with deeper comprehension, writing the best essays in their courses, exposing the vapid huckster, and penetrating the flummery behind a political address, get them into jazz and symphonic music.

Finally, we have come to the coda or final chorus. If you want to get the current and next generations reading with deeper comprehension, writing the best essays in their courses, exposing the vapid huckster, and penetrating the flummery behind a political address, get them into jazz and symphonic music. As their ears develop, their concentration will grow. Then, automatically, will come their understanding of virtuosic genius, the rapture which music inspires, and the ability to appreciate what makes the fine arts fine. However, there are risks, such as the temptation to snobbery or to being labeled a nerd. The cure comes in the form of humility before true greatness.

Maybe America’s symphony orchestras will never fill stadiums and will have to content themselves with the thousands who subscribe to their annual programs. Maybe the exponents of jazz will have to live on the proceeds from their teaching, studio gigs, and summer festivals. Perhaps never again will there be prolific radio outlets dedicated to their music. Nevertheless, there is always the web, and all we have to do is follow the example of those profiled above, and listen.

— V —

Nick Racheotes is a product of Boston public schools, Brandeis University, and Boston College, from which he holds a PhD in history. Since he retired from teaching at Framingham State University, Nick and his wife, Pat, divide their time between Boston, Cape Cod, and the Western world.

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