One of my favorite standup bits is called “Jazz.” It’s from the comedy album Impersonal by Paul F. Tompkins, who, FYI, is a national treasure.
For those of you who have three-and-a-half minutes to spend on hilarity, go ahead and take a listen:
For those of you who don’t, here’s a quote from the routine that sums it up: “Jazz music is all about making the common man feel dumb. It’s just a bunch of dudes playing solos at the same time. It’s like a genre of music that is defying you to like it.”
That quote also sums up how I used to feel.
Something about jazz got under my skin in the worst way. So much of what I’d been exposed to sounded unnecessarily complicated and embroidered, like when I was a teenager and wrote poems filled with the biggest words I could find in the thesaurus. Songs with irrational rhythms (that’s an actual term!) make me feel physically weird. It's show-off music, I felt; esoteric by choice, and barely palatable.
Even though music has always been one of the most important things in my life, I couldn’t muster more than unenthusiastic, obligatory respect for jazz. I didn’t even tolerate it; I avoided it.
I wasn’t alone in feeling this way, and I know this because I asked my Facebook friends in a highly scientific poll, “Hey, how do you feel about jazz?” Here are some of the answers:
- “Not enjoyable to me to listen to.”
- “It’s so daunting to even begin to explore.”
- "Musical wanking."
- “Guys that are into jazz are gross.”
- straight-mouth Emoji
I would’ve answered similarly a couple years ago. But that was before I moved into my current apartment.
When the broker first brought me to the location, I noticed two things as I walked up the stairs to the third floor: the sushi smell from the restaurant on the first floor wafting all the way up through the building, and the sound of a jazz band rehearsal coming from the apartment across the hallway from the one that I would soon call home.
I don’t know why, but I didn’t run away screaming. Even though it wasn’t music I’d voluntarily listen to, I could tell it was being played by talented professionals, and for some reason, I wasn’t worried that they’d be playing at all hours of the night; maybe because I saw the mezuzah in the doorway and assumed my neighbor would be a little, old Benny Goodman type with an 8 o’clock bedtime.
I was wrong -- at least about who lived there. It was a handsome, young Israeli guy named Dan Pugach. I soon learned that he’s a gifted drummer and an award-winning jazz composer with his own nonet, which is a word I hadn’t heard before but accurately assumed is a band of nine people.
Even though I was decidedly not into jazz, I went to see his ensemble play shortly after I moved in -- supportive new neighbor and all. I was genuinely surprised how much I enjoyed the set; the talent was undeniable.
It was there that I met Dan's girlfriend, Nicole Zuraitis, a gorgeous singer-songwriter who moved in across the hall a few months later.
Over the next few months, at completely reasonable times of day, I was treated to the muffled but lovely sounds of Dan and Nicole rehearsing. At no point did their playing annoy me, even though the vast majority of it was jazz. It probably didn't hurt that they're awesome neighbors who buy me wine just for occasionally walking their angel of a pitbull, Bianca, but I chalked up my lack of irritation to some sort of growing sea change in my jazz-resistant brain.
Last summer, when Nicole released her album, Pariah Anthem, I went to her Rockwood Music Hall show -- actually, she gave me a ride there -- not really knowing what to expect other than that Dan would be playing the drums for her as he often did. I hadn't been to any of her or Dan's shows since that nonet performance the previous year, and although I'd warmed up to what I was hearing through the wall, I was nervous that I'd be squirming in my seat, having an adverse reaction to the jazziness of it all.
Instead, I was drawn in by the creativity, the quality, and the way this specific style of music gave Nicole a distinct platform for her amazing voice in a way even the other genres of music she dabbles in -- from pop to opera -- would never be able to. Does she sound phenomenal singing other kinds of songs? Absolutely. But there's something about the way she sings jazz -- perhaps the techniques unique to it -- that's really special.
And I don't think I'd be able to appreciate that if I truly disliked jazz music.
So, am I suddenly a jazz enthusiast? No -- I can't get excited about some of the sub-genres that inspire the ridiculous caricatures so many of us think of when we try to explain why we don't like jazz. But the intimacy of having talented jazz musicians as my next-door neighbors has opened my mind to it, and made me realize that I've been liking a lot of jazz all along.
George Benson, Anita Baker, Chuck Mangione, Herb Alpert, even Fiona Apple -- they're all in my music collection. And even though it might have never occurred to me that they represent jazz music, I now see they absolutely do. And I can thank my neighbors for helping me understand that, and that I never really hated jazz in the first place.
And if Paul F. Tompkins is ever feeling open-minded and needs a place to stay while visiting Brooklyn, I have an extra room that shares a wall with Dan and Nicole's studio.