Sound As Memory: A Jazz DJ's Métier

The essay below was inspired by an article I read about Traditional Irish music by musicologist/anthropologist Steve Coleman. The ideas in his piece, "Nonsynchronism, Traditional Music and Memory in Ireland,"  resonated deeply for me with regard to Jazz and improvised music, the traditions of both Irish music and American Jazz seem to have shared common ground: an importance of interpretation and how it evolves over time. All quoted material, except where otherwise noted, are from his article.

"[N]ot all people live in the same Now...Rather, they carry things with them, things which are intricately involved."

Marc Bloch (1886-1944), French historian; from his work "Strange Defeat"

Sound, photographs, stories, movement, scent: each can embody or trigger a memory which, in itself, tells a story. Just as you can identify a player by their tone, or hear ( more like “feel” in this case) the difference between the Basie band or Ellington’s, sound is a powerful conveyor of history and meanings. Musicians, particularly Jazz musicians, spend a lifetime in this swirl of sound and meaning: With “...many years apprenticeship as a listener” to the musicians who have come before them: “... larger then life characters who inspired [them], taught [them], and brought light into [their] lives.” These players, more often than not, embody “the principle of care and of respect for the shape and form of the music that was a gift from previous generations, a gift of great significance and value, a gift that was freely given...”

Each of us carries our own history and that of many others within as we move forward in time. Jazz musicians most certainly “carry things with them.” Those “things,” as musicologist Steve Coleman puts it, are “...other people, carried as living memories and presences in the here and now.” Who are these “other people”? For someone like Duke Ellington, he might say the kings of stride piano, James P. Johnson or Willie “The Lion” Smith. Every single Jazz musician has at least one, if not several, of these people that they carry with them and with whom they are “intricately involved,” despite era or location. Listen to Jackie McLean and you hear his love and deep respect for Charlie Parker; Sonny Rollins carries Coleman Hawkins; Carmen McRae carries Billie Holiday. Jazz is a beautiful living history of sound; it is the interweaving of stories/sounds with those that have come before us: it is an intricately involved suspension of time and place that happens in the moment.

Some Traditional Irish musicians claim to be “haunted” by the performers they “carry” with them. Their sounds and stories lend the backbone to these musicians’ craft, who seemingly reach back into time to make their music all the while leaning forward into the New Millennia. Think of Mingus and his works paying homage to Duke Ellington, and there are countless others whose music is infused, consciously or not, with those that have come before them.

“He split my darkness open...” is a phrase that one Irish musician used to describe hearing, for the first time, an elder musician that brought to sudden and brilliant light, this younger man’s musical destiny. I think many Jazz musicians could relate to this. I do. For me, it was being eleven years old and hearing a record by Marshall Royal, lead alto saxophonist for the Count Basie band. What do you do? You’re defenseless. Thirty years later I still think of his sound, and its inherent swagger, each and every time I sit in the middle of a saxophone section to play lead. But let’s not talk about Julian Cannonball Adderley and what he did and continues to do me as a player. 

All of this, is really a lead up to Jazz radio and all that it is. In particular, one man who has been behind both the mic and a tenor saxophone for a lot of his life: Bob Parlocha. He weaves sounds and memories for thousands of people each night. It is a magical craft he practices, one that could not be done if he hadn’t been an “apprentice listener” of the highest order or a practitioner of the music he spins. He “carries” many master musicians with him each evening: Mingus, Coltrane, Getz, Bill Perkins and so many others and not to mention whole ensembles, like the Clarke-Boland Big Band.

Bob is in constant dialogue with the memories, the contexts and the histories behind almost each and every note played. Sitting behind his desk, like a musician, he plays each song as it comes to him, in “real time.” He weaves unexpected things together, making new connections or allusions. What does Stan Getz have to say that’s so way back when but “now” when Bob spins him after vibist Joe Locke, a current player nested in the New York scene? Or putting Coltrane’s “Dahomey Dance” in front of Helen Merrill’s “I’ll Be Seeing You”? Juxtaposition of history and styles are balanced like fine China and a dialogue is created amongst these musicians who may no longer be “with us” but are certainly with us in the room, at that moment. He, like any great Jazz musician, is a deft story teller. Bob “splits [the] darkness open” and what have you? A "shock of recognition", an indulgent several minutes of reverie, a conversation of the mind with memories and feelings, sometimes resulting in that shock that brings you back

Jazz is time traveling; a supple craft to explore the outer and inner reaches of memory and history. It helps to give context and perspective to events large and small. When presented by either a master musician or a masterful DJ like Bob Parlocha,  it is a perfect medium for these kind of excursions; it splits the darkness open and helps you to be fully you:  a light for the darkness that sometimes binds our worlds too closely; or perhaps as Billy Strayhorn would say, a light for that journey “ever on and upward.”


You can hear Bob Parlocha almost nightly. His syndicated show, "Jazz with Bob Parlocha" is streamed to over 200 stations nationwide from WFMT, Chicago. Check your local or nearest Jazz station for schedules.

"Nonsynchronism," Traditional Music and Memory in Ireland." [Published in Oona Frawley (eds.);Memory Ireland: Explorations in Irish Cultural Memory, Vol. 2, Syracuse University Press: Syracuse, NY