I first encountered the history of jazz in the car, on the way to school in Dallas, TX. My dad would listen to the jazz radio station, hum along or tap out rhythms on the steering wheel. He always seemed to know the tune. When I asked him about the songs, he told me stories from college: trading records with his friends, hearing Dave Brubeck’s “Time Out” for the first time, playing piano transcriptions of the great Bill Evans’ sensitive ballads. The stories made me wish I’d lived 40 or 50 years ago – my dad was a part of jazz culture, autobiographing an era, and I admired him.
I wanted to play piano like my father. I toiled away at Mozart during twelve years of lessons. But, eventually, the rhythm and harmony of jazz compelled me to join my high school big band. One afternoon after rehearsal, my band director handed me a thick tattered book, all dog-eared pages and worn plastic binding. THE REAL BOOK, read the cover in cartoonish letters.
“If you wanna be a good jazz player,” he said, “you gotta know the standards.”
Inside The Real Book were the handwritten transcriptions of hundreds of tunes by various jazzmen, with footnotes listing where each song had first been played. The standards. I marveled at the depth of history bound into this book of musical shorthand: each page represented a story like my dad’s.
So, I kept playing. I listened to my dad’s Bill Evans and Chick Corea albums, memorized standards from The Real Book, learned the technique and language of improvisation. Eventually, I moved to Oklahoma and joined the University of Tulsa big band. At my first college concert, however, I looked out into the concert hall and saw, not an audience of new, young players, but row after row of elderly faces. When the band launched into an exuberant 40’s-era swing number, those faces lit up with recognition and knowing nods—a wave of nostalgia. These melodies felt fresh and new to me, but they were old favorites to this senior crowd. Seeing that nostalgia, realizing that the audience knows the music I’m playing better than I do, gave me the profound feeling that I had missed out on something. Standing in front of a room of people who really understood the meaning of jazz, I felt like an impostor.
Two years later, I’m playing some light swing and bossa nova with a quartet in Ciao, a tiny modern restaurant in Midtown Tulsa. An old man starts to tap his foot, nod his head, close his eyes as he listens to the band. Afterward, he drops a bill into the tip jar.
“It’s great to see a bunch of kids like you respecting the old tunes,” he says.
The compliment tastes bittersweet.
Every music lover feels a pang for the past. Classical musicians will never hear Bach or Beethoven live. The long-haired rocker who grew up with the Beatles or Pink Floyd had to watch his favorite bands age out of popularity, banished to the nursing home of the classic rock station. When I play, some of the last living people who saw Miles Davis perform, or swooned over Sinatra, come up to the stage and thank me for reminding them of something I never knew, even though it’s not quite the same. I can’t relive an era, but I can recapture the music.
Later that night at Ciao, I grinned at my bandmates and called up the classic Dave Brubeck song “Take Five.” Like my dad, I’ve listened to Brubeck’s 1959 recording until I knew it by heart. But, as the snare drum tapped out a modern funk beat underneath the familiar bassline, the tune felt fresh again. It popped, it danced: it was full of life. I felt the piano keys under my fingers, and it didn’t seem to matter whether the faces at the tables were young or old – the melody was in me, timeless as jazz itself.
Steven Schrag is a college student studying communications and new media at the University of Tulsa. He also plays jazz piano professionally in the Tulsa area.