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It’s Hard to Define ‘Jazz’…but this is Pretty Darn Close​

Mark Altekruse

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Jazz Guitar Today welcomes a viewpoint of ‘What is Jazz?’ from guitarist and music industry veteran, Mark Altekruse.

Now that I am retired from the corporate world I find myself thinking back to my days in the musical instrument business. Sometimes with great angst followed by a sigh of relief that those days are behind me. Yet as I think back, I remember the lessons learned from the people I worked with and the plethora of learning moments. This is one of those moments.

A number years ago I worked for a company that designed, manufactured, and distributed products used by musicians and sound reinforcement pros. One day I was eating lunch with the president of that company and as we hurriedly shoveled food into our mouths we chatted a bit about the business and the industry, and other things like family and hobbies. He knew that I was a guitarist and asked, as he couldn’t remember, what kind of music I liked to play. While I believe there to be, as Duke Ellington said, only two kinds of music; good and bad, I told him I truly enjoyed playing as well as listening to all types of music and that I was especially partial to playing jazz.

When he heard the word ‘jazz’ he rolled his eyes back in his head and let out a groan saying, “I hate jazz. It’s just incessant noodling.”

Have you ever had the feeling that you’re the deer in the headlights? I was so stunned by his flippant remark that in that moment I could not think of a response. I just sat there staring at him. It was in the hours after his ‘noodling’ comment that the words I should have said in response dawned on me. But the moment had passed and I thought that going back to him with my poetic retort would fall on deaf ears that he just wouldn’t care. Or both.

But in reality the moment hadn’t passed. It was worth it to write it down. To cement it into my memory so that the next time someone says something similar I would have it at the ready.

So here it is. My poetic dissertation to this man who – although highly intelligent and well read on so many other matters – believes jazz to be the domain of musicians who incessantly noodle.

Do you ever take a long walk in nature and think about being in the moment? Have you taken a breath so deep that it clears your mind for what you are about to experience? As you walk, do you stop to take in where you are?

When I walk in nature I listen. I listen to the sounds water makes as it meets the banks, or flows across rocks, or careens over rapids or falls. I listen to the wind rustling through trees and plants.

I listen to sounds birds make as they fly overhead or the sound of large hawks and eagles as their wings rip through the air. I listen as birds sing their songs in the trees. I listen as squirrels and other tree creatures make their percussive sounds as they jump from branch to branch and chatter at each other.

I listen as bees go about their business. I listen as tree frogs and crickets sing their songs or as tiny flying insects make high pitched whirrs as they go past my ears. I listen to the sounds my shoes create as I walk along paths – the soft, muffled sounds of the sand or the crunch of tiny rocks.

In the early evening I listen as nocturnal life begins to wake. The hoot of owls, a coyote howling in the distance, the soft thumping of bat wings as a swarm take off for their evening feeding.

I also watch. I watch as the sun goes across the sky caressing the surroundings creating ever changing shadows on the ground while pushing clouds into shapes sometimes recognizable. I watch as wildlife do their dances of survival. Bees darting from flower to flower. Butterflies doing haphazard dances. Beetles and other insects running for cover as I approach. The occasional snake crossing the path seeking shelter.

I hear it all. I breathe it all. I watch it all. It is symphonic.

And as with all great symphonic works, there is a fundamental order to what the music written on pages is supposed to sound like. At first hearing an untrained, passive ear, might interpret those scribblings on the page and the music the scribblings produce as chaotic. Yet after a few listenings familiarity will begin to settle in. And that is where the beauty of order begins.

But unlike written music performed by an orchestra where conductors instruct musicians how to interpret the notes on the page (until or unless there is a cadenza), there is inconsistency in the sounds and sights of nature. Sounds that are in a constant state of change never repeating in the same patterns yet each sound is identifiable. And if you are not alert you’ll probably miss something special. 

The fundamental attributes of these individual sounds in nature in combination with all the other sounds become an improvised journey.

The wind, the water, the wildlife all on ever changing divergent and convergent courses, each trying to get back home. In many cases a home that will never be reached.

And that is jazz. It is a journey that you can begin but it never ends. Songs do not end – there is only a pause before you continue on another path.

To play and love jazz is not noodling. It is to experience life. 

So there…

Guitarist Mark Altekruse

About Mark Altekruse: Mark is a guitarist whose career has spanned working in music and music-related fields. He began his career in the music products industry working for RolandCorpUS as a clinician, then moved into sales and marketing. He has also worked for Korg, Marshall and then a very long stint at Apple as their head of marketing for pro audio here in the US and in Europe.

Mark studied composition and arranging at Berklee College of Music and then moved from Boston to LA to attend the Musicians Institute (then called GIT). He studied with the late Howard Roberts, Ronnie Eschete, Don Mock, Tommy Tedesco, and he took two very inspiring lessons with the late Ted Greene.

Mark resigned from the corporate world in 2016 and now spends his time composing music for film and media with his brothers in arms Lee Groves and Pete Marrett who go under the name Hex Orchestra. He also teaches and gigs around the Boise, ID area where he lives with his wife, two sons, three dogs, and a cat while waiting patiently for his daughter to come and visit every now and then.

And he loves good music.

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