By the end of my four years as an undergraduate, because I had taken a year off to study at University College, London as an “occasional student” (that was the official term, but I must admit that it was not an inapt description), I still needed to take a couple more courses in order to complete my B.A. degree. I attended Commencement with my graduating class in June, 1975, and was duly inducted into the “fellowship of educated men and women,” but the cardboard diploma folder that I picked up in the pouring rain that day was empty, pending satisfactory completion of the two outstanding courses over the summer. One of them was required to be a natural science course, so I simply chose a reasonably interesting-looking offering and that was that, but the other I had set my heart on, and it took some maneuvering to secure permission for it.
My last remaining General Education requirement was a social science course, but “Introduction to Jazz” was listed in the Humanities category. With the help of my friend Joel, a jazz aficionado and a master of words, I presented a petition to the Administrative Board making the case that the rich history of black people in the Americas—slavery, emancipation, migration, poverty, culture, urban social life—was all the stuff of social science, inevitably embedded in and embodied by this African American musical genre. The Ad Board didn’t buy it—or, rather, they foresaw a potentially dangerous precedent in allowing me to fulfil a social science requirement with a humanities course—but instead simply waived the requirement, leaving me free to take “Introduction to Jazz,” which was being offered by none other than John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet.
I came to Mr. Lewis’ class utterly unfamiliar with jazz. My only exposure to it as a girl had come from listening to my mother’s 45-rpm record, Ottilie Sings Bessie, with “St. Louis Blues” on the A side. To my uneducated (and un-American) ear it had sounded harsh and discordant, like tomcats fighting in the night (see Tell Me Another 34, His Master’s Voice. I was eager to gain an appreciation of this music but, ashamed of my ignorance and awestruck by my illustrious instructor, was content to sit quietly somewhere in the back of the room and drink it all in.
What a class! It was a rare privilege to be learning from a master practitioner—an artist rather than an academic—and the contrast between the earnest students anxious to make an impression on the great man, and the great man himself with his “quiet firmness … modesty, and a complete indifference to critical reaction” (Leonard Feather, The Encyclopedia of Jazz), made for some comical moments. A student would shoot up his hand and pose a long-winded question bristling with specialized musical terminology, not seeking an answer so much as showing off his own erudition. In reply, Mr. Lewis would say, “there’s only one way I know how to answer that,” mosey on over to the piano and start playing, rendering us all speechless. After some time, he would look up at the stunned student and ask, “Does that help?”
Although 35 summers have passed since I took that class with John Lewis, a few of his key concepts remain with me. He defined jazz as “Blues, Beat, and Instant Composition.” While it seems obvious now, his insistence that jazz was rooted in the Blues may have helped me more than anything else to place it in a tradition that I could recognize, for the blues and the blues revival were also the basis for R&B, rock-and-roll, reggae, contemporary folk music, and even bluegrass. His equal emphasis on the importance of the Beat in jazz protected me from getting lost in the meanderings of many of the avant-garde jazz artists, since it gave me confidence that, despite appearances, time and timing underpinned them all. And Instant Composition was a kind of controlled freedom, something I recognized from listening to Indian classical music, where the musician improvises within the frame of the raga, and yet in fully mastering its rules may paradoxically break free of them.
I can’t say I understood very much of the theory in that class; I spent it—and the whole of that summer—in a kind of dream. I listened with fascination to John Lewis’ stories of the development of jazz in the Midwest and Southwest, his deep respect for all his fellow artists and their accomplishments, and his insistence on reciting the names of all the personnel in every performance or recording he discussed. Outside of class I began to listen with growing appreciation to Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane, though I must admit I found my greatest pleasure in the singers, especially Billie Holiday, and the old bluesmen, especially Sonny Boy Williamson.
The last day of the class was also my last day at Harvard, though no one else in the class knew it. As the meeting drew to a close, John Lewis sat down at the piano to play one last piece—fittingly, Count Basie’s 1941 “Harvard Blues.” As I listened, all the poignancy of the moment, all the ups and downs of the past four years, seemed to be rolled out and wrapped up in that composition. I drifted out of the classroom and out of my undergraduate experience with the strains of “Harvard Blues” echoing in my ears, sat down quietly on the lawn, and contemplated my misspent youth.