I first began listening to music seriously when I discovered jazz at the age of nine, in Ithaca, New York, shortly after starting to learn to play the trumpet in Northeast Elementary School’s band program. My mother, a librarian, clipped a copy of Dizzy Gillespie’s New York Times obituary and gave it to me to read. Not knowing who Dizzy Gillespie was, but reading that he had been a trumpet player and a jazz musician, I accompanied her to the Tompkins County Public Library to learn more. Over the next eight years, I borrowed the maximum number of cassettes, then compact discs allowed every week (plus the maximum allowed on my mother’s account), starting with several that featured Gillespie. I would pore over the collection of recorded music, looking for names I recognized from the albums I had borrowed before. For example, having heard Gillespie playing with a drummer named Max Roach, I discovered recordings of Max Roach playing with Clifford Brown (my favorite trumpet player ever since) and in duo with Archie Shepp (less to my liking at the time). In the process of discovering new albums to listen to in this way, I built a reasonable concept in my young mind of the history of jazz through album personnel and the stylistic attributes of various players. I also borrowed and devoured the library’s less-impressive collection of books on jazz before turning to the annual Friends of The Library Book Sale and several of the town’s used book stores to supply me with a shelf of Bill Crow, Gene Lees, Whitney Balliett, André Hodeir, Stanley Crouch, Nat Hentoff, and more. It wasn’t until my high school years that I began to read more critically and to learn of the enmity and animosity between members of the jazz writing community. At that time, I was mostly interested in stories about the players I was listening to as a means of feeling personally connected to them.
By the time I reached high school, I was listening to music for between four and eight hours a day. This was not all focused listening - far from it. Often, I would simply have something like Sketches of Spain on repeat for four or five hours while I tried desperately and usually unsuccessfully to engage with and concentrate on my chemistry or global studies homework. Focused listening or not, it provided me with the opportunity to develop my own taste. If an album wasn’t doing it for me, I would simply switch to something else that did. Over a period of years, my taste evolved as some music spoke to me and other music didn’t. I should mention that I wasn’t listening exclusively to jazz, but I most assuredly was ignoring every musical trend of the era. I knew the names Nirvana, Green Day, Pearl Jam, and Sublime really only from t-shirts worn by other kids at school. It would be a couple of years until I was ready to listen to and enjoy rap music, having been poisoned against it by (guess who!) people who had never bothered listening to it. My favorite bands as I embarked upon my teen years were the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet, Miles Davis’s quintets, the Jazz Messengers, the Jazztet, and John Coltrane’s quartet. Still, in addition to being what I now can comfortably view as a “jazz nerd,” I was also a trumpet nerd. I borrowed versions of the Haydn trumpet concerto recorded by John Wallace, Maurice André, Wynton Marsalis, and others, then listened and compared. I listened to CDs by Håkan Hardenberger, Eric Aubier, Pierre Thibaud, and whoever else the library stocked, exposing myself to a wide range of compositions from the Baroque to the ultra-modern. Once, my father returned from a trip to Europe with gifts of albums by Miroslav Kejmar and Niklas Eklund. I enjoyed them both on repeat and Eklund remains one of my very favorite musicians of all time.
I could go on and on, but the point is this: I listened to a lot of music, discovered I liked some things, and learned to like others over time. In the process, I found that there were certain players and compositions that I really loved. In the years since, I have discovered many more. Now, of course, thanks to the wonders of the internet, it is theoretically possible for a young aspiring musician to listen to every single recording that I and everybody I know have ever heard, without even leaving home. And yet, almost without fail, each time I ask one of them, “Who is your favorite musician?” or, “What is your favorite album?” I get a blank or vaguely embarrassed look followed by the revelation that they don’t really have one. I know that I am far from alone in this experience. Time after time, I have to present a list of suggested performers to look into. I am happy to do it, but I would be much happier if today’s creativity-killing, “right”-answer-obsessed, standardized-test-dependent, pathetic excuse for an American education system would from time to time encourage young people to learn about things simply because they are interested in them. Still, it is easier to change the self than to change the system. Here is my advice for young musicians: Explore. Investigate. Pick favorites. Imitate them, and become yourself.