Louis Armstrong was and still is one of the most unforgettable voices in jazz. Everyone knows him, even if that knowledge is the typical, passing, pop culture kind. A face on an old record. Your favourite uncle’s terrible impression of his singing voice. The mix-up between Louis and Neil Armstrong is common as well.
When I was nine, even I knew who Louis Armstrong was. I don’t quite remember how I became aware of him, but I did listen to radio a lot growing up. Quite obsessively, in fact. So much that my mother used to quiz me when a song came on: song title, artist, and off what album? I got it right every time. Not because I was particularly clever, but because I was always listening. I fell asleep and woke up listening to a hand-me-down Mickey Mouse FM radio. I listened to anything and everything I could. I went so far as befriending my favourite female radio DJ, who despite my attempts, told me that I couldn’t legally get a job at the radio station until I was sixteen.
After a while, I gave that dream up. Seven years seemed an eternity. My scholastic career brought other things into focus, like when I began secondary school and was able to choose between dance, theatre, music or sport as an extra course. I chose music, obviously. Band, as they call it in the states. It sounds cool, like ‘I’m with the band’ and ‘I play in a band.’ But, it’s really quite nerdy and most people in band only hang out with other people in band, because everyone else thinks you’re weird.
Still, the whole thing was very exciting to me. You began training over the last few weeks of summer. There at the music camp, they taught you the names of the instruments, how to keep a beat, and how to read music. Then on the second to the last day, you were to make a list of the three instruments you wanted to play most. Certain instruments require certain physical attributes so when the time came you sat in front of the directors, they read your list, analyzed your face and hands as if looking into a crystal ball, and then told you to come back the next day for your results.
Nerves got the best of me and by the time the next day had come I was more than ready for my results. I was convinced that I was going to get to the play the saxophone. I mean, look at these lips right? My choices had been saxophone, percussion, and flute. Lisa Simpson was my hero and she played the saxophone, so why couldn’t I? My plan B was percussion, because it seemed fun. Everyone thinks they can be a percussionist; all you have to do is bang some things together (ba dum dum tsss) and you’re done. Flute I threw in there as a joke, because I knew they wouldn’t give it to me. Flute is for people who have strong lungs and I struggled to hold my breath underwater for a minute.
So on the day, when we gathered outside the bandhall running our fingers up and down the black and white lists that announced who was assigned to what instrument. I struggled to believe my name wasn’t printed under ‘saxophone’ and stood there for a moment looking confused.
“You’re percussion, like me!” one of my new friends, Jenny, said to me.
“Percussion?” I repeated blankly, looking at my hands as though they held the clues to the mystery I couldn’t seem to solve.
It didn’t take long to get used to the idea and to actually love playing percussion. We were often told we were the heartbeat of the band, without us they’d be dead. We felt superior. We had our own practice room with our own wild array of instruments—from bongos to congas, marimbas to xylophones, kettledrums to gongs and all those other instruments you’ve only ever seen in experimental music videos. Our director once handed us sheet music that had a brake drum listed. By that point, we had been playing for nearly a year so we were baffled.
“What’s a brake drum?” I said.
“I’ll show you tomorrow,” replied the band director.
The following day he brought in what looked to be a piece of car.
“Did your car break down?” asked of the other percussionists.
“No, haha, guys this is the brake drum!” he responded.
Needless to say we learned to play a lot of unusual instruments. But, I felt I needed more. Soon after they started announcing tryouts for people who wanted to join after school bands. The options were mariachi and jazz. Truth be told, I had never been a fan of mariachi. I knew it was traditional style of music that should be cherished, but it always made me think of being at a Mexican restaurant where intrusive mariachis came up to serenade you as you ate your tacos. All they did was wail in your ear, make you spill your pico de gallo out of fright, and then stand there waiting for you a thank-you even though they nearly busted your eardrum.
Given the two options, I picked jazz although I hardly knew anything about it. Jazz had always seemed so exotic to me. Something you’re aware of, but can’t touch like tropical fish in a giant aquarium. We the three jazz percussionists took turns sharing the drumset, learning about brushes and classic jazz beats. I wasn’t the best, but I felt proud that I was trying to do something I knew nothing about and it wasn’t a total train wreck. We played classics like ‘Perfidia’ and ‘My Funny Valentine.’ Then, one day the director approached me personally.
“The spring concert is coming up and I was thinking we could do a more modern piece. Do you like Norah Jones?” he asked me.
I knew exactly where he was going with this. He was going to ask me to sing ‘Don’t Know Why.’ I don’t know why, but I said I would. We rehearsed like maniacs and on the day of the concert we went through all of our tunes like a well-oiled machine. The percussionists smiled and winked at each other after each song, our own secret language of encouragement. When the time came for me to sing, my face grew hot and I didn’t dare look past the director into the crowd as he set the tempo and counted off for us to begin. I can’t remember if I was in tune, if the microphone crackled or even if people liked the song. All I remember is when it was over, the percussionists winked at me and I felt that everything was okay.
It wasn’t until university that I returned to the world of jazz. The program I was in required a certain level of hours in a course-related internship. Having already worked for the local TV station and hated it, I decided to try the radio station. I’d heard the station was one of the biggest and best jazz radio stations in the state. The university itself was quite well-known for its music school, having had several Grammy-winning artists emerge from its loins. The stakes were high, but it was my last semester so I thought I’d give it a try.
After listening to plenty of jazz and watching Chicago more times than I’d like to admit, I decided I needed to cultivate a smooth jazz voice and an on-air persona. I went into my first day of work with this in mind only to have my attempts thwarted by my supervisor.
“What’s wrong with your voice? You can’t read the traffic report like that. Be normal,” she insisted.
Turns out being a radio DJ isn’t easy and when the station is as famous as this one was, there was no way they were going to let a rookie pick all the tunes. There was a formula, lists, lots of lists, countless promos, the occasional weather or traffic report and endless calls.
“Hey, what was the name of that Chick Corea song you guys played last night?”
“I don’t know. I wasn’t working last night.” I replied.
“Come on. Isn’t it written down somewhere?” the jazz fanatic urged.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know anything about a chicken from Korea!” I hung up flustered.
There was a learning curve and it was big and it was staring me right in the face. It wasn’t like I thought of myself as an expert, but I never realized how little I knew about jazz. Some of the others at the station talked about albums, performances, and covers with zealous and I just stood there, all of it flying over my head. In time, I decided to buckle down, do my research, and wow the others. When it came time to write snippets and tidbits to read on-air, I drew from my extensive research and obsessive googling.
“Not bad,” my supervisor said to me one day, playing back a recording of my last set.
Again, I wasn’t the best but I had finally fulfilled a dream of being a radio DJ.
Those six months DJing flew by and are now long gone. During that time, I listened to jazz nearly every waking minute. However, for a time after that I only listened to jazz at Christmas time. Because there’s something about jazz that warms me up inside when it’s cold out.
I turned away from jazz, because I felt like it wasn’t for me and at times I still feel like that. Some people take jazz too seriously. I’ve been shouted at in a jazz concert on two separate occasions for being “too loud.” Although I understand people being frustrated, I feel like that’s the not the real spirit of jazz.
The jazz I learned to love is by artists who are not afraid to get messy. Experimental. Afrocuban. New Orleans jazz with the wildest party in the streets you’ve ever seen. It’s loud, it’s in your face, it’s not going to put you to sleep, it doesn’t care about your technique or your knowledge or how nice your new guitar is. It’s the jazz you’d hear in the twenties; the jazz you hear now in the tiniest of bars. Jazz made by the first jazz musicians. Jazz that crushes rock 'n' roll. It’s real jazz. It’s wild jazz. It’s my kind of jazz. At least, that is the jazz I learned to love and listen to with the horns blasting so loud you might just think there’s live show in my living room.
I never have or ever will be a jazz snob. I never even thought of myself as a jazzy kind of person, but I’ve realized it kind of suits me. After all, jazz is a multi-faceted diamond which, like a diamond, maintains basic components like rhythm, harmony, empathy, individuality, some improvisation, and bit of percussion that keeps the beat moving, just like the beating of my own heart.
WRITTEN BY ASHUNI LUCÍA PÉREZ
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ASHUNI LUCÍA PÉREZ