When the last, orange incandescent bulb in the last dark corner of America’s bars dies, and the janitor takes it out and replaces it with one of the new, environmentally friendly, antiseptically-white fluorescent tubes we’re already being told to buy, he will have done more than he knows. He will have killed, if not the form, then at least the soul of Jazz.
Jazz, once the rebellious music of youth, has mellowed with age. It can still excite, arouse, motivate; but it doesn’t. Not always. Good jazz, the kind of jazz I’m listening to right now, is old smoke in the walls. Good jazz is old men with old instruments playing old standards in new, old ways. Good jazz is feet up on the bench as the second pitcher of beer reaches me and my three friends, and I sit up and pour for them because this round is my turn to buy. I don’t mind the expense. A middle-aged man in a polo shirt is puffing his cheeks and twiddling his fingers and playing trumpet on the other side of his room in ways I wasn’t expecting, but am glad to be made acquainted with, and a $13 pitcher is just the price of admission.
Jazz belongs in this room, where we drink and laugh and watch and clap, because this room is old. The walls are old brick, and old wood too dark to identify, and the ceiling above our head holds up the pool tables on the second floor with huge beams that could only have come from the kind of old trees that Earth-lovers are sad to see felled. Even the musicians are old, older at least than poor young inexperienced me, playing in that comfortably confident way that old jazz and blues men have. The saxophonist and his instrument are not servant and master. They’re friends, old acquaintances that can visit with each other and, together, go over the comfortable old stories and jokes, putting new twists on them that the rest of us can hear, but only they can really laugh at. An exquisitely mournful note pours, invisibly, from the mouth of the saxophone and drifts up to the beams, soaking in and darkening the soul of the wood.
It occurs to me, sitting on the bench and basking in the spiritual glow, that none of this would be here for the tasting if we were lit by fluorescent bulbs, with that crisp, fresh light of theirs that says that the world never sees nighttime, never ages. A fluorescent bulb is a fresh sheet of white paper, waiting to be written on; an incandescent is parchment in an obscure book in the library, already written on, full of some idea that existed before you or even your parents; an idea which, when you first think it, is mysteriously new to you and yet comfortable, because you know it has been thought before. Jazz under hospital lights (for so they will always seem to me) is like an old book somehow printed on new paper. The nostalgic thrill of the thing is gone, and all that is left (or will be left when we have no choice but to try to enjoy it) is the gleaming thrill of the new without that glorious comfort of the old which balances it.
Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps I’m the fan in the front row screaming Judas as Dylan plugs in his guitar. Perhaps the jazz musicians will look at me as if I’m crazy and turn to the man at lights to say, Turn it up flipping bright (because jazz men are more polite than Dylan), and everyone else will wonder how they ever enjoyed saxophones being played under those dingy orange bulbs they used to have. I’ll be in the darkest corner I can find, acquainting myself with this new variation on the old theme, drinking my beer and watching the drummer play buzz rolls.