I sat at the keyboard, hands touching the keys but not yet actually pressing them down, thinking about the first notes I would play. These were essential notes, as they would set the tone for the many notes to follow, just like the first words and sentence of an essay sets the tone for the rest of the piece. You would think that once I had picked the song to play, I would know what notes the corresponding notes of that song would be, but that is not the case. I’m a jazz musician, and therefore, every time I play a song, it is different.
My left hand started to play a familiar, bluesy bass line. I moved into a rollicking kind of rhythm, “bam ba baam ba, bam ba baam ba,” accenting the third beat of the riff, a sound any audience would recognize as sort of a boogie-woogie, bluesy bass line. I started it in the key of C, and then moved it up to the F, and then up to the G, which is part of the simple, typical blues progression. Most people will recognize this as the blues, even if they don’t know it intellectually, because they have heard it a thousand times before in their lives.
The audience responded, moving their heads up and down and tapping their feet. I eventually added my right hand with chords, and now they really recognized the pattern. They started moving their bodies even more. This was a great audience. They were so appreciative of the music and really felt it. When I started adding some cool blues licks they were right there with me, oohing and ahhing.
After I finished the melody, I started soloing over the form of the tune, as jazz musicians do. I started playing a different song, a short, simple one, then left some space. Space is good. It leaves the brain some room to appreciate the next phase.
However, I was surprised to hear the space taken up by another musician. I looked around instinctively, although I knew no one else was on the stage with me. In a second, I realized the sound was coming from the audience.
“Ba ba de ba do ba de dom!,” the sound said, echoing one of my riffs. I played the same riff on the keys. “Ba ba de ba deedala de dom!,” the sounds said, echoing the first riff, but adding a few more notes. I repeated that riff on the keyboard. We kept doing this. Now the musician from the audience was leading me, and I was following him!
We kept this up for a while, and I looked up to see who was jamming away, scat singing to my tune. It was a man off in his own world, moving his head up and down, beating his left leg on the ground like a drummer, and singing like he was in a jazz jam session on 54rd street in New York City in the 1950s.
Except we weren’t in New York City in the 1950s; we were in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in the year 2019. And we weren’t in a blues or jazz club. We were in an assisted living community called Vibrant Life Senior Living. The audience’s average age was 85 years old, and some of them had dementia.
But I didn’t care, and neither did they. I was playing, and the crowd was enjoying the music.
The guy jamming with me was an 87-year-old guy named Bob. Bob is a former music teacher, and he is a Musician with a capital M. He plays all sorts of instruments and has a mandolin and guitar in his room, as well as other percussion instruments. We’ve talked about music, and when I talk to him, Bob speaks, acts, and thinks like a musician. It doesn’t matter that he struggles to walk, and sometimes struggles to get the words out. It doesn’t matter that his fingers sometimes don’t work that well, and he can have a hard time playing his mandolin. When I go to his room, we talk tunes and musical styles, and about other musicians, and anecdotes about audiences and joke about what musicians joke about, just like I’m talking to my music buddies my age. We are part of a club, the musician club, and I know he knows what he’s talking about just like he knows I know what I’m talking about.
Because we were in such a familiar setting, I felt comfortable just stopping the tune mid-stream. “Ok, hold on here,” I said. “This is too good. Bob, come on up here on our stage with me. If you’re gonna be a part of the band, scat singing like that, you may as well join me here up on the stage.”
I got up and went over to Bob, who was in his wheelchair. I rolled him over next to the keyboard, and then maneuvered the mic-stand, so the mic was right at his mouth. “Bob, let’s keep doing what we were doing, but this time, sing into the mic. You’ll be my sax player.”
Bob was all for it, so I started the tune up again. I started riffing away, leaving some space, and Bob began to riff as well, scat singing into the microphone. He was getting into it, emphasizing every other beat of the riff. And the audience was getting into it, too. They started banging on the tables with their hands and stomping the ground with their feet. They had become my rhythm section – they all just became drummers! I kept playing and singing, and Bob kept scatting away, really sounding like a saxophonist, and my drummers kept pounding the beat for another five or ten minutes. Bob ended with a flourish, and I got up off the keyboard and led my audience/rhythm section to a big finish like a conductor with his orchestra.
When it was over, there was silence. We all realized that we had just experienced something magical. For a few minutes, we weren’t in an assisted living community any longer. For a few minutes, they weren’t “residents” any longer. For a few delicious moments, we were all transported, all of us just people, all of us just musicians, riding on the magical wave of jazz. For a few delightful minutes, “saxophonist” Bob didn’t feel any pain, didn’t feel trapped inside his own body, and instead was jamming away being a real musician, as he had been for the past fifty years of his life. And for a few special moments, all of my “audience/drummers” forgot where they were, both in place and time and instead as the sounds of jazz flowed through the air, we were all in a late night jazz club on 54th street in New York City.