“How Jazz Changed My Life”
Music entered my life when I was twelve years of age. Of course I had had some exposure to music before that but it never touched me. I listened to popular music – the Hit Parade – on the radio, but it didn’t mean very much. I had heard some light classical music such as the Poet and Peasant Overture without its interesting me particularly either. We had an old piano at home and my father would occasionally play popular music on it. I used to love to hear him play, but he did it so rarely. When he was young he had played the piano a great deal, but he had lost his love of music many years before.
I took a few piano lessons but nothing ever came of it. And then suddenly at the age of twelve I discovered jazz. I was on vacation, and a boy who was staying nearby owned a wind-up portable gramophone on which he was playing jazz records, and suddenly something gripped me. I became extremely excited by the music, and I knew this was what I wanted. I wanted to listen to it so intensely. I listened to those records over and over again throughout the holidays, and many of them I can still hear in my mind although I doubt that I have ever heard them since.
As soon as we got back from the vacation, I pestered my father to buy a gramophone for me, and eventually he bought a wind-up portable one like the one I had heard. It took a steel needle that had to be replaced after every 3-minute side. With whatever money I could put together I began to buy jazz records. I started to haunt all the second-hand shops looking for old jazz records which I would frequently buy for sixpence or a shilling. Within a short period of time I got to know all the record shops in the inner parts of Sydney, and every month I would wait for the new releases from the record companies. I had one book on jazz which I had bought at a sale for two and sixpence – Dave Dexter’s This is Jazz – and I read it and re-read it until I knew almost every page of it by heart. I memorized what he wrote about all the jazz performers and those were the ones that I primarily looked for when I went buying records.
Over the next year or so my collection grew until I owned about 300 records which, considering that there were very few in print at the time, was quite an accomplishment. Many of them were very old and very worn, and many of them were cracked though still playable. I would spend hours and hours playing them and cataloging them and listing all the musicians.
My life became involved more and more with jazz. Even at the age of twelve and thirteen I was going to jazz concerts and listening to whatever jazz I could hear on the radio, even staying up until 3 a.m. to hear being played over the Voice of America what was said to be Jelly Roll Morton’s greatest recording – the “Black Bottom Stomp,” which was completely unavailable in Australia.
Every Saturday morning I would listen to the jazz program on the radio, and even now, although it is many years later and I have since become so involved with classical, ethnic and folk music as well, still on Saturday mornings I find myself playing jazz records. The habit is deeply ingrained in me.
I remember when I had just turned thirteen, I was scheduled one Saturday morning to play on the school cricket team. The match started at 9:30 a.m. I had seen an advertisement in the paper the same morning that a few copies of some recordings of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band – the first jazz band ever to record back in 1917 – had just arrived from England and were to be sold that morning at one shop. I raced into the city with my seven shillings – a large sum of money for me – in my hand. I bought the record, caught a tram and managed to get to the cricket match on time. I could hardly wait for the match to finish, because for the first time I was going to hear the first jazz record ever made.
It is not so much the depth of my enthusiasm or excitement that I wish to tell you about, but the difference that it made to my life and the particular way in which this occurred. I soon found after I started listening that I could easily identify the performer. I could tell whether the trumpeter was Louis Armstrong or Cootie Williams or Rex Stewart or King Oliver. I knew that that clarinet player was Omer Simeon and not Johnny Dodds. I could identify Fats Waller at the piano or James P. Johnson or Jelly Roll Morton or Jess Stacey or Joe Sullivan. And I knew that the only person who could be playing that trombone was Kid Ory. To some extent this was, of course, a question of sheer logic. There were certain characteristic sounds of each performer. But there was something much more than that. It was something that I believe the true jazz process of improvisation encouraged; it helped to reveal the personality of the performer. And that is what I found, as I look back, that I was really listening to and responding to. I felt as if I knew these musicians. I knew them as well as I knew anyone in my real life, even though many of them had been dead years before I played the recordings. They each had a musical presence, an existence, which came frequently from an other time and certainly from another country and most certainly another culture. But they were real, and they were in the room with me, and they were my friends. Omer Simeon and George Mitchell and Jelly Roll and Fats Waller, Herman Autry and Eugene Cedric and Sidney Bechet – all of them were living real people existing in my room. They were my great, dear friends and I knew them and I loved them.
My life changed. Before then I had always felt extremely isolated and removed from my family and in a sense from all people. My dearest and most strongly held wish was just to get on a little boat (I still see the boat, a little 10-footer with a pair of oars and a small engine. It was moored near our house.) with my little dog and go off to an island and be by ourselves, just the dog and me, safe from the rest of the world, and alone. In a sense, this was the way I thought then my life would be and there were many many nights I went to sleep with this thought in my mind. I saw myself as being isolated, lonely and alone. Just me and the dog on the boat.
Music changed all this. Now I had all these friends. Anytime I wound up the machine, put a new needle into the sound box and lowered it onto the record, I had a room full of friends. They were living and they were loving – and I was able to love them. For this change in my life I am eternally grateful. Thank you Louis, thank you Bix, thank you Bunk, and all of the others – many of you dead then and all of you dead now – who helped me come back into the world.
Excerpt from The Life Energy in Music, Vol. 3
 Later I would find the same experience in classical music. I found myself able to feel the personality, the living essence of the composer and of the performer. This has been my main love in classical music and is what has led to all my research on the life energy in music.