Some events from the past week made me smile and reflect. They were unexpected and started me thinking about how much some moments juice up one’s life.
Jazz has as many definitions as there are people to answer the question “What is jazz”? I have always thought that jazz was the musical version of life, We improvise constantly throughout our days, in our conversations, in our sports and in our creative endeavors. As much as we plan, make schedules and chart our course we are most alive when we surprise ourselves and enter into unknown places. In jazz we have a form of music that celebrates these spontaneous excursions from the expected. Like jazz our lives take unexpected turns. This past week was full of life imitating jazz with some high notes and some unexpected low notes.
A life full of jazz ended when “Mama Jazz” Midge Ellis passed away Jan 9. She was a gift from Kentucky to Detroit and generations of jazz musicians. Her dad instilled a love of jazz in Midge which she carried with her for 91 years. She got seriously hooked on big band jazz working as a booking agent for bands in Louisiana and Mississippi before coming to Detroit. She had many friends in jazz and she enticed them to participate in her jazz program in the Clarenceville School District. During the 70’s and 80’s she created a series of jazz concerts that always included young musicians enrolled in her jazz programs. Bands that she booked included Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Stan Kenton, Maynard Ferguson and Chuck Mangione. Most of the players remained friends and confidants with this gentle and energetic lady.
Midge was a catalyst for getting the music out there. Her endearing manner and organizational skills were called on when our major festivals needed a champion. She traveled to the Montreux Jazz Festival with the group that went on to shepherd the initial Detroit Montreux Jazz Festival which continues to be the world’s greatest free jazz festival. She then became the principle organizer of the Michigan Jazz Festival which exclusively features local musicians. This petite bundle of caring cajoled, changed course, provoked and charmed those around her always to make more available the music she loved.
She lived jazz and jazz loved her. Her life couldn’t be scripted. She understood jazz and knew it’s more about the way a song is played than what song is played. Her song will last as long as we listen.
I can’t imagine Detroit jazz without Charlies Boles. Last week I blogged about Charles, and he told us one of his stories. I received a comment from Herb Davis in response. He told about the times when his dad and uncle played with Charles at the Top Hat in Windsor. They didn’t get paid much, but they got all the food they could eat. This was good until his Uncle hopped onto the stage and a chicken leg jumped out of his pocket. These stories confirm my take on jazz and life.
I started a painting of Nina Simone this week and then found this piece of hers from one of the Montreux Festivals that Midge might have attended. When anyone asks what jazz is, have them watch this.