My epiphany (that I had when I was around 9 but didn’t realize until I was in my late 30s): When I was around 9, I was at a jazz concert of my brother’s. (Everyone in my large family was required to do both sports and music up to high school, and then continue with either sports or music; consequently, I come from a very musical background.)
I’d already been to a zillion shows of all kinds, mostly choral and orchestral. But here was this casual group of guys up there, with some frizzy-headed “conductor” in a sportcoat and casual shoes. And the scruffy conductor just said, “One…two…” while snapping his fingers. Then silence. Then WHAMMO—the sound kicked in. And the conductor walked off the stage!
I could see him setting in the wings, bopping his head in time to the music, but my brother’s group wailed along just fine without him. Near the end of the song, he wandered back on stage for a lackadaisical but perfectly executed cutoff, then gave the cue for the next piece and walked off again.
In that moment, I knew with all my being that I wanted to be that good. I wanted to be such an accomplished musician that I didn’t need a conductor (I’d never seen such a thing before). I wanted to perform with other top-notch musicians who would know how to perform, with room for improvisation and total creative support. I wanted to reach the level where music was not only internalized to the Nth degree in myself, but where I was able to connect with musicians just as accomplished and respond in the moment to whatever they were doing—and in so doing, create art.
While my formal training is firmly rooted in the classical tradition, jazz remains the ultimate expression of musicianship for me. Structured spontaneity, creative excellence, supportive competition, and total acceptance of any performer who’s got the chops. Music trumps all.