The Notes Dad Left Me

One of these days, I’m gonna write a book about my dad and the best gift he ever gave me: the appreciation of jazz.

It was his tradition to play jazz records every Sunday morning. I’ve been doing the same thing for years now. Dad took me to my first jazz show (Delfeayo Marsalis c. 1992). We’d buy each other records for birthdays and Christmas. Jazz will always remind me of him, and I’ll cherish those memories forever.

It’s funny — I recently retired from a 25-year career in law enforcement. I played music wherever I could get away with it while working (and that was frequently), and eventually brought Jazz Sunday to patrols, particularly when I was working alone or training a rookie. It got to the point where my sergeant and lieutenant would advise anyone I was teaching that they would not only learn how to do their jobs, but they “were about to learn a LOT about music, especially jazz.” My car, my rules. The probies adapted.

The funny thing is, now that I’m a couple of years removed from it, I can see how my job operated in much the same ways that Jazz does. Seriously! It’s all right there! Don’t believe me? Well, here are eight rules that apply to both jazz and law enforcement. In fact, you can use them for just about any aspect in life.

1. SEE THE BIG PICTURE. Jazz starts out with the “head,” or melodic theme. It determines the mood, tempo, and direction for what comes behind it. Cops receive a call from the dispatcher, make an initial evaluation based on the information at hand, and determine a possible course of action before arriving on the scene. I can see this working in business, as well.

2. EMBRACE THE UNCONVENTIONAL. Life throws you curveballs. This is especially true on a lot of the calls I went on. Jazz musicians will change key or time signatures (sometimes both) at the drop of a hat. It’s up to you to keep up. Every now and then, the call I was on would undergo a “Law and Order twist,” which is a goofy way of saying something comes from out of left field. You’re not allowed to complain about it. All you can do is make the necessary adjustment and roll with it. So, do just that.

3. IT’S MORE IMPORTANT TO LISTEN. People often tell me that the most important part of being in a band is being able to play. While that is important, I think it’s even more essential to listen to what’s going on around you. The only way to achieve true understanding between all parties is to take the time to hear what’s being said. Only then are you ready to add your voice to the fray, hopefully offering a solution satisfactory to all involved. Jazz musicians who play for the sake of playing walk all over everything else, making the band sound like a convoluted mess. The same thing happens if you try to just talk over people on a call. It’s a disaster waiting to happen. So, shut up and take in what’s being said.

4. BE PREPARED TO IMPROVISE. No two “911” calls are alike, regardless of how many times they fall under the same heading. While you may come to the call with a boatload of knowledge, you’re still gonna have to be able to think on your feet after your initial plan fails. (And believe me — it WILL fail now and then.) In Jazz, you’re expected to play a different solo every time a particular tune is played. Repeating yourself is considered boring and uninspired. Shift gears and take things somewhere else, particularly when Number Two above applies.

5. SHARE THE WORKLOAD WHERE NEEDED. On some calls, you’ll be assigned a partner if you don’t already have one in the car with you. Your partner is there to help you, so let them help you! A musician struggling with a solo might look to someone else on the bandstand to help carry the load for a few bars before regaining control of the situation. There’s nothing wrong with this! Let it happen until you find your footing again. The end result will be much better for it.

6. THERE’S MORE THAN ONE PATH TO SUCCESS. With experience, you will find that there are several ways to handle a situation. In time, you’ll arrive on the scene with three plans of action in hand. Once you listen to what’s going on, you can determine which plan is most appropriate. Or you may need to come up with a fourth option on the spot. (See Rule Number Four.) Musicians facing a solo will have more than one idea in mind when their time comes. After getting a feel for what the band is doing, they can determine which approach works best. Or head somewhere else altogether. Both cases are like a conversation: you may not say exactly what you planned to say, but you get your point across. And that’s more than good enough.

7. GIVE CREDIT WHERE IT’S DUE. Sometimes, the solution won’t come from you, but from your partner or even the people involved. Don’t get wrapped up in your ego. Acknowledge whoever help the situation reach a successful conclusion. On the bandstand, my solo may not go exactly where I want it to go. Or it may run out of steam altogether. When another band member picks up the slack, acknowledge him for saving the day. No one ever got upset for getting credit for doing the unexpected successfully.

8. MAKE THEM GLAD YOU CAME. In the end, all the “911” caller wants you to do is solve his problem. If you do everything right, you’ll be thanked for coming and making life easier for them. You can leave the scene knowing you won’t have to come back. A good jazz band will show off the kind of chemistry that thrills the audience and leaves them wanting more. Both results are true successes.

I don’t know if this is the thought process Dad wanted me to absorb, but here we are. And it works! Give it a go, and see where it takes you, even if you’re not out on patrol. I think you’ll like what happens.

Thanks, Dad.


Please follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (cirdecsongs) My book, I Can’t Be the Only One Hearing This: A Lifetime of Music Through Eclectic Ears, is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other fine book dealers. I’m currently working on my next book, The Wizard of WOO: The Life and Music of Bernie Worrell.

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