I just recently (as in about 10 minutes ago) finished up watching the documentary miniseries Jazz by Ken Burns. For those who are unfamiliar, it is one of Ken Burns' many documentaries, which focuses on the history and development of the musical art form called jazz. Although its roots are somewhat shrouded in mystery (thanks, of course, to the ongoing passage of time), Burns does a great job of encompassing much of the history about the music, from its humble beginnings to the many offshoots that occurred over the course of its development. It's a very good documentary (like all of his, from what I understand) and worth the time and effort if you are at all interested in jazz.
There are several reasons why I wanted to tackle this topic, as jazz itself represents an important component in my life and a metaphor for many of the things that I do (both personally and professionally). Let's start at the beginning, shall we?
First and foremost, I love jazz music. I have been a fan of it for many years, although not necessarily due to my upbringing. As a kid, we listened to music like everyone else, but I distinctly remember having a focus on one particular type of music - soundtracks. I have some inkling why (my parents, having friends in NYC, would often visit and see Broadway shows at they came out), but it was always odd to me that this particular genre of music was chosen by them, as opposed to any other. Both of my parents were (and still are) quite musical, but we never had an extensive music collection at home. Some records, but many of these (again) were soundtracks. Kind of odd, but I had enough exposure to music through radio, TV, and those soundtracks that I was able to get by.
My first real exposure to jazz came in high school - I had been playing in concert band since a young age, but was forced (in a sense) to begin participating in the jazz band. Through happenstance, all of the trombone players from the previous year of high school had been seniors and, thus, had graduated, leaving a void in the entire section in the jazz band. Luckily, there were a handful of us who were starting as freshmen, so we all got to be in jazz band. It was so cool! Listening to and learning the music of big swing bands was exciting for me, and gave me the opportunity to try new things musically that I had not done before that time. Over the next four years, we would listen to and play new pieces, begin a long-running big band fundraiser dance, and be, most likely, some of the only teenagers shuffling over to the Dakota Jazz Club on the weekends (before it moved to its current location). Although exposure to small groups at the Dakota suggested otherwise, my mindset at the time was that jazz was primarily big band swing, the likes of Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman, among others.
After high school, I spent a year of college playing only in concert band (as I felt I only had the time for one or two musical ensembles, not three or more) before returning to jazz band the following year. Luckily, during our January term I was able to play in a jazz combo course that put together a handful of players into a smaller group ensemble. This gave me a much broader idea of what jazz was all about, and exposed me to other artists like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. Like before, it expanded my horizons and gave me the opportunity to try (and I really mean try - it was difficult!) to emulate those kinds of players. Over the next three years I played in one of the jazz ensembles, again trying to combine the big band jazz with more intimate, jazz combo type settings.
Since college, my playing has fallen off because of the strenuous schedule associated with graduate and medical school, but my love for jazz has not dwindled. The music I study to and have studied to since I came here is jazz music, whether it be from the collection I put together during college or a jazz Pandora station. As a heavily instrumental type of music, it's not very distracting, and the various changes in the style and composition can help get me psyched up or calmed down, depending on what the mood necessitates. Having watched this documentary (and still wading through a summer of way too much free time) I'm encouraged to pick up my horn again... we'll see if that happens.
Getting back to a broader context, I think jazz as a genre is highly representative of the many other activities that I participate in, both personally and professionally. In particular, the combination of tight, well-controlled music with the freedom to improvise is probably the best metaphor for both science and medicine. We learn in both areas that there are many, many well-known facts and figures that we should know and commit to memory, so that we can operate from day to day. Being able to perform a purification or identify a particular bacteria through a Gram stain is a matter of knowing and following the technique, in the same way that one can read and perform a chart in a jazz ensemble. However, within that framework there is the opportunity for innovation - a new purification process or catalyst mixture, or a new surgical technique, can spring from the known procedure when someone takes the opportunity to use the components of the system in a new way. It's not always successful (nothing like bombing a solo, right?) but it's always possible, and when done correctly represents a great leap forward in our understanding and appreciation of the thing that we're doing.
Many years ago (cripes) I wrote an essay for an award (for which I was a finalist), and one of the things that I focused on in particular was this metaphor of jazz as means of living life and acting to the best of our abilities. I still think that this holds true today:
"Knowing when to lead, when to follow, how to handle disappointment, how to build relationships and how to persevere are lessons I have learned through participation in fine arts and athletics... Through jazz, I have learned about leadership, freedom, and the importance of listening to others..."
So, I am now quite "jazzed" at the possibilities I have in front of me and the opportunities that I will have to both learn and improve in my career. I'm not sure what types of improvisation and improvement I will bring to my field, but I know that my previous experiences will help me to make what I'm doing better than it was when I started.
At the very least, I'll have some good music to listen to while I'm working.