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Alone Together

By Sandy Asirvatham | Posted 7/18/2001

I've been back a few days from a week-long jazz camp in Kentucky, and I'm still trying to recover from the sleep deprivation, the musical and social overstimulation, and the nearly cultlike euphoria of being around all sorts of people--engineers from Paris, psychologists from Santa Fe, high school marching-band leaders from Dubuque, union organizers from New York, info-tech specialists from Ottawa by way of Linthicum--who have devoted themselves passionately to an art form the world generally finds aggravating, boring, or at least easy to ignore.

This was my second year at Jamey Aebersold's summer workshop at the University of Louisville (, a renowned event among the tiny international subpopulation of jazz students and thus completely obscure by most standards. Last year I considered my week at the camp a life-changing event, a transformation I'd be lucky to experience just once in my life--so I was pleasantly surprised to have an even better time this year.

The camp is fun, but all business, all about teaching players what they need to work on next. From 8:30 a.m. to midnight (with a few meal breaks), our days were filled with theory lessons; master classes with top players; rehearsals with small combos, six or seven students with similar skill levels but of widely varying ages; and performances and jam sessions late into the night.

Fatigue set in on the first day and didn't let up. Nonetheless, some of my new friends and I found a dive called the Granville where camp faculty hung out after their teaching and playing duties were done for the day. Who needs sleep when you've got the adrenaline rush of clinking beer glasses with young hotshot recording artists from New York and Chicago?

Last year in combo rehearsals I was rudely awakened to my own deficiencies as a beginning jazz pianist, particularly my shaky knowledge of chord voicings. It's a bad weakness for a pianist or a guitarist, because it means you can't provide the kind of harmonic support the rest of the players are counting on. I'd since corrected the problem, and several others, by practicing and by playing with other people every chance I got. This year I did well enough at my camp audition to leap into a much more advanced combo. New York-based saxophonist Jim Snidero was my teacher in a beginner combo last year, and when I told him that this time I'd made it into "high intermediate" group he seemed proud, if a little shocked--I'd been one of the weaker members of his band last year. It's addictive to have your accomplishments acknowledged in this way, and I plan to return next year, to see if I can surpass myself again.

But the ongoing competition with myself is only part of my motivation for going back. After years of talking about it and trying to work up the nerve, I finally started playing jazz about two years ago, first by joining a community-college ensemble, then by taking every possible opportunity to play with student or amateur bands small and large. And I realized that, after years of envisioning myself as a writer --and therefore, on some level, a loner--I really loved the collaborative nature of musical performance. I remember the very first time I played a blues in B-flat with a band. As the teacher counted us off, my hands shook. But on the first upbeat I instantly felt the reliable harmonic and rhythmic support of the drums and bass, and I knew that if I ever got lost in the song I'd be able to find my way back by listening to the musicians around me. For someone who tends to be almost pathologically self-reliant, this was no less than a conversion experience.

Jazz has helped me figure out that, at least in this stage in my life, I'm not the person I'd always imagined--a solitary being, a thinker/observer rather than a doer--but someone who really enjoys working with others toward a common goal. Spiritual skeptic that I am, I have to admit there's something mystical about being in a group of total strangers who, as soon as someone calls out a standard tune--"A Night in Tunisia," or "So What," or whatever--fall in on their instruments as if they've been playing together for years.

It's more than just the thrill of spontaneous collaboration that fuels my appreciation for this music and this experience. I've always considered myself a person who fears and even loathes "community," who has pretty much forsaken any close ties to blood relatives, any deep connection to ethnic heritage, any childhood loyalty to religion, any collegiate bond to a particular brand of politics. What jazz camp taught me is that I actually love being part of a community--it's just that I've wanted to

choose the club I belonged to, not have it forced upon me by accidents of birth, geography, and history. I hate having to fake common interests with people just to avoid conflict or loneliness. Painful as the process has been at times, I feel very lucky to have figured out for myself where I belong, and to have a chance to go there.

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