Diamonds Are Forever

“There are only three things that America will be remembered for 2000 years from now when they study this civilization: The Constitution, Jazz music, and Baseball. These are the 3 most beautiful things this culture’s ever created.”
— Gerald Early, Professor of English and African and Afro-American Studies at Washington University, St. Louis

Whether or not the weather complies, depending on where you reside, rest assured, Spring will be here on time. March 30 is the date.  Parsing the situation further gets you two additional dates for the arrival of Spring in case you're otherwise occupied: March 22 is the Opening Day for Major League Baseball in Australia; March 30 is Opening Night; March 31 is Opening Day. 

How does this have anything to do with Jazz, you might ask? There are many avenues from one to the other vis-à-vis players of both and, in a personal vein, a teacher I once had. Jazz, like baseball, requires strategy and an "in the moment" collaboration with your group, or team.  A player--of music or baseball--has to develop a set of skills, and in particular, strengthen the things that make them unique. Some are everyday players, like a Phil Woods or a Derek Jeter, and others astound with their clutch efforts off of the bench. 

Art Lande, a pianist/drummer/composer, first introduced this link of the two when we were talking one day; he described the activities of baseball and Jazz as being "an enactment of community." Lande is a prominent performer in the Jazz world and as an educator, he is equally revered. Lande teaches Jazz improvisation through the use of games to replicate a "real time" feel for deploying your skill set, or getting the hang of a concept.  Lande is a master of developing such games.  

Having studied and performed with Lande, my own take on his teaching approach is that it probably had its genesis in a board game of his own devising that he has played religiously since the 1950s: The League.  This version of the game is played with a deck of cards and a magazine (a baseball publication acting as the diamond). Intricate rules written in pencil accompany each outing of "The League.". This game goes everywhere with him during the season and many Jazz players know of his pastime. Michael Brecker, in the middle of doing a clinic and not having seen seen Lande for a decade or more, called out to him from the stage, "Hey Art, are you still playing The League?"

Lande, being a pianist and a drummer, listens intently from either an offensive or a defensive position when he plays. As a matter of fact, in talking with him about his teaching method, he instructs students to use four ways of listening when approaching a musical situation. These go from being a benign team player to an outright contrarian, a Ty Cobb of the sternest sort. It is an interesting way in which to approach being an ensemble player in a small group setting. You can listen and blend, assisting every note played to have a seamless presence; you can play in a supporting way, using contrary motion, or other devices that help to underscore and support the music; you can instigate a contrary position on the proceedings; or you can ignore everything and hold forth with your own story to tell. This latter approach tests the mettle of any performer. Denver trumpeter Ron Miles once told me that, by ignoring the chord changes for a chorus or so and eventually resolving into the correct changes,one can add a lot of tension or anticipation before "getting to something good."

Each year, as Spring training winds down and the days to the official start of the season are fewer and fewer, I always think of Art Lande, The League and Jazz. I also remember a trip we went on one summer: Eleven games in Eleven Days. Me, Art and some other musician friends of his, following undulating ribbons of asphalt across the midwest in a VW van: From Denver to Toronto and back; Negro League baseball museum in Kansas City and brunch at The Magnolia, where an Ahmad Jamal-like pianist played; a jam session in Cincinnati after a game; a bar in Chicago with wonderful Jazz after a White Sox game. And all the while, we all played The League, and talked about music. It was a halcyon summer full of diamonds that were green.