Show Your Feelings:Restoring Joy to the Music

Show Your Feelings :Restoring Joy to the Music

Brian Torff

A funny thing happened on the way to modernization. In the beginning, seminal artists like Louis Armstrong defined American music as a combination of artistry and entertainment. He could play the most inventive solos while emanating all the joy that came from inside. The audience filled the dance floor and the result was infectious. Armstrong traveled the world sharing a music that he deeply felt, saying, “You’ve got to love to be able to play.”

Things changed in the modern era and Armstrong began to look archaic to a younger generation immersed in the struggle for civil rights. Understandably, they did an about face; cool was in. No longer did most great jazz musicians show their feelings on the bandstand. Enthusiasm took a backseat to a funereal demeanor that provided protection from a public they did not always trust.

Times change and soon rhythm and blues (later dubbed ‘Rock and Roll’) stole the thunder from jazz. It gave the audience a driving beat music that connected to the inner rhythms of the body, and it put on a great show. Little Richard and Chuck Berry became the icons of a musical generation that welcomed the audience into a new community.

When I first came to New York City in the mid 70’s, I never understood why so many jazz musicians were so grim on the bandstand. I loved the music so much that I couldn’t help but smile broadly when the music started; performing was a joy. Yet that wasn’t cool. If you love it why not show it? My tours with the jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli taught me one thing, love every note and so will the audience.

We need to combine artistry with an engaging performance that invites the audience to come along with the musicians. It is basic human communication, call and response. When I arrange and compose music for New Duke, I have both a musical and an entertainment effect that I hope to achieve. I expect the band’s wonderful musicians to deliver not just the notes but the feeling behind the music, and we should have a great time doing it. Every performance must be a celebration.

I love Miles Davis and the modern jazz sounds and will always find inspiration in a multitude of musical approaches. Call me naïve and Midwest, but I believe that playing music should be an act of many emotions and the first one is joy.

One night I was backstage with the pianist Erroll Garner in the kitchen of Mister Kelly’s, a famous supper club back in the day. He turned to me right before we were to go on before the last set of the night and with that wry smile said, “I try to make every night feel like a party.” I never forgot it.

Maybe Louis Armstrong was right after all.

Joy to the world.