How the Atlanta Jazz Festival Changed My Life

Memorial Day weekend has meant primarily one thing to me throughout the majority of my life – The Atlanta Jazz Festival.

Now, I do realize that it is actually a day of remembrance for those that have died in our Nation’s service – and that is indeed a part of the equation and experience. The City of Atlanta has been paying homage to those that fought for our freedom – allowing America to develop a unique form of cultural expression -- for the past 33 years by throwing one of the best parties in the world over Memorial Day Weekend . . . it’s free, and everyone is invited.

I owe a lot to this festival, because it changed my life on at least two occasions . . . the first time when I was in my teens; and the second time as I was undergoing a mid-life crisis. I consider both occasions to be “Eureka!” experiences.

We all have these Eureka experiences at various points in our lives. For our first few years, almost everything we see or hear is a Eureka experience . . . “Look at that bright circle in the sky. Hey, what’s that? It’s furry! Water is wet! Snow is cold! Red is . . . red! See Jack run! “ Everything is pretty amazing.

After an initial Eureka experience, it’s rather hard to generate the same feeling on the second or third viewings . . . “Oh yeah, that’s a squirrel -- seen it.” Thus, we can start to become slightly jaded by the age of 3.

As our lives progress, we cease to be amazed; rarely feeling the sense of awe or excitement that early childhood seemed to generate on a daily basis. However, Eureka experiences continue to surprise us with transcendent moments such as . . . when you figure out how a hula hoop works, or how to blow a huge bubble with your bubble gum; when you finally figure out how to whistle; when you discover how to ride a bike without training wheels; when you learn how to read or write for the first time; when you discover that the opposite sex has different parts. These are huge things in the life of a child . . . but such learning experiences, and our excitable reactions to them, grow less frequent as the year’s progress.

By the time we hit adolescence, our most profound Eureka experiences are behind us . . . or so it seems. What we once considered to be the “best day ever” is now reduced to an embarrassing childhood story told by your parents. As a teenager, we assume that such extremes will never occur again . . . because when you already know everything, discovery of something new and exciting seems doubtful.

Some of the biggest Eureka experiences of my childhood involved films -- starting with “Mary Poppins” and continuing on to “Willy Wonka” and beyond. I was smitten, and knew before I even entered school that I wanted to be an actor. Every film I viewed added to this desire and stoked my imagination. Since new films continued to be made, and new plays continued to be performed -- it kept me open to experiencing and learning new things, and passionately connected to creativity and imagination; something many of my peers seemed to have left behind somewhere between the age of 6 and 13. It earned me quite a lot of abuse because it just wasn’t cool.

Eureka experiences do indeed continue, no matter how jaded we appear to become – every time we experience something new, our mind opens just a little bit more. It can be intellectual, emotional, spiritual, psychological, physical or a combination therein . . . but such experiences leave their mark, and often lead to a new way of seeing and being.

One such experience for me came the first time I heard the music of Earth, Wind and Fire. I had never heard anything like it, and it changed the way I listened to music. The group had an intensity that moved me emotionally, a profundity that moved me intellectually and spiritually, a positive vibe that moved me psychologically, as well as soul and groove the moved me physically . . . these things came together to create a musical experience that far surpassed the pop music that I had previously heard on the radio. It was as if I had never heard music before that moment – and I could never go back to hearing music the same way again.

Instead of simply turning on the radio to provide passive background music, I started sitting in front of my stereo and listening to records intently from start to finish (while reading the liner notes of course). My ears had opened, and I had caught the groove. This created a desire within me to learn how to dance, and even DJ so that I could make others dance; heck, it even changed the way I dressed. In hindsight, I may have just been a victim of the whole 70’s vibe . . . but it started with a singular Eureka experience brought on by Earth, Wind and Fire.

Surprisingly, what can initially be a mind-expanding experience can lead one to become very close-minded about everything else. I had found “real” music, and I wasn’t interested in hearing anything else. I knew what was good, and what sucked – and if you didn’t agree with me . . . well, you sucked, and so did your music.

During my first year of college, someone suggested that we go to the Atlanta Jazz Festival. I wasn’t particularly interested because of a certain word found in the title of the festival . . . “jazz”. I thought that I knew what jazz was all about it. My parents listened to it. Old people dug it. It wasn’t cool. Therefore, I was pretty sure that I knew everything I needed to know about jazz.

Well, I went -- somewhat against my will – and had one of the biggest Eureka experiences of my life up to that point. I saw and heard musicians collectively explore every rhythm I had ever heard, and introduce me to several new ones. It seemed as though they took bits and pieces of every melody the ever existed, and built something entirely new out of stale ingredients . . . bringing new life to songs I thought I knew, and playing them in ways I couldn’t even imagine.

I saw musicians MAKING music on the spot – not simply playing songs that they had learned and rehearsed, or recreating songs in the exact manner that they were previously recorded or written . . . but rather, they were involved in the act of spontaneous musical creation. Instead of playing notes off of a page, they had to watch and listen to each other in order to know what to do next – it was a musical conversation that went far beyond just playing a song. It was much more akin to what I loved about the process of creating theatre.

I also realized that the things I liked the most about Earth, Wind & Fire was the “jazz” that served as their musical foundation . . . the syncopation, the improvisation, the melodic counterpoint, the multi-cultural musical essence that arose from the church and built a groove on the back of the blues – this was jazz. I discovered that I LOVED jazz!

So, I became a certifiable “jazz head” . . . and actually was quite obnoxious about it for the next 10 years or so. The Atlanta Jazz Festival had changed me, for better AND for worse. My ears and eyes had opened wider . . . but my mind also narrowed, and turned me into a “jazz snob”. I actually looked down on those that didn’t listen to jazz, and lived my life in quiet superiority. It eventually faded and my taste became far more inclusive, but I’m sure that I was fairly insufferable to those that dared to express negative opinions about any form of jazz during those years.

During this period of jazz snobbery I also built a career as a theatre professional, living the unpredictable life of an actor, director, writer, teacher, and minister. Things changed daily, and I rarely knew what would happen from week to week. There were only two constants in my life – my faith, and my music. They went with me wherever I went, and I embraced them both daily. God and jazz were my two constant companions . . . and I shared them both with anyone that cared or dared to listen.

The thing that drove me to do theatre was a desire to bring Eureka experiences to others. I believed (and still believe) that theatre can simultaneously effect the mind, heart, and soul . . . communicating to one’s intellect and emotions in a unique way; it can produce tears and laughter simultaneously; it can educate and entertain in a visceral manner, allowing one to physically and presently experience different eras or travel to any time and space via the imagination; it can enliven old memories, and create exciting new ones; it can hold a mirror up to the psyche and allow one to see oneself in a whole new light; it can also create a Eureka experience – being a catalyst for change in both the participant and the observer . . . and indeed, have a profound effect on an entire culture.

As I strove to bring about these Eureka experiences for others over the years through theatre, jazz was my source of solace. Music traveled with me over the years via cassette tapes recorded from old records; I listened to them over and over again as I drove, wrote, played, prayed, and as I went to sleep each night. However, my musical experiences were all pre-recorded - I rarely had the opportunity to go out and hear live jazz in any of the cities I toured. I was only able to attend the Atlanta Jazz Festival once or twice after that initial Eureka experience, because I was always on the road or involved in a production. Jazz grew into a private passion that I primarily enjoyed in solitude.

The lifestyle of a working actor and entertainer can wear on you. Thus, as I was nearing 40, I thought that a change in my circumstances might do me good. I had noticed that the Eureka experiences were not as common for audiences as they had been in the past. There were too many options, and theatre was getting pushed to the side as a cultural frill . . . existing for the sole purpose of light entertainment. Audiences were not looking to be challenged, educated or changed; and that can be quite frustrating for someone that lives and works with that particular purpose in mind.

At a rather low point in my life, I was working in a restaurant in Florida and evaluating my life options. I came back to Atlanta for a vacation over Memorial Day weekend to attend the Atlanta Jazz Festival. I needed some pleasant diversion, and I just wanted to hang out in the park and hear some jazz; however, I got more than I bargained for.

I had one of the biggest Eureka experiences of my life at the age of 37, sitting at the Atlanta Jazz Festival . . . and I've never been the same since.

The weather was perfect, and the atmosphere was cool. The bands were swinging, and I was thoroughly enjoying myself. I started to watch the crowd that surrounded me, there were hundreds if not thousands of people within my view. I watched their reactions to the music. Many were chatting, drinking, eating, and not paying a whole lot of attention to the music – but those that were listening were riveted. I don’t even remember who was performing, or what style, or what song . . . I just recall a sea of emotional reactions. Some were subtle, others were intense; some were smiling, others seemed to be praying; a few were almost in tears – all listening in one accord, as one community, to live music in the park.

The next thing I knew everyone was on their feet – the band had turned up the groove and the crowd started to move. I saw children, teenagers, young adults and senior citizens moving together. I saw whites and blacks, Asians and Hispanics, rich and poor – all dancing together. I saw a very nicely dressed elderly white woman dancing with a young black man that was quite dirty and appeared to be homeless . . . and they both had huge smiles on their faces. She faltered and almost fell, and the man caught her and helped her up as they both laughed together.

For that shining moment I saw America for what it truly is . . . and I experienced jazz as I had never experienced it before. I began to cry due to the beauty and depth of this Eureka experience . . . and I knew, THIS is IT . . . THIS is what I’ve been trying to accomplish my entire life. This sense of awe and celebration, this sense of community and unity, this sense of joyful expression . . . this was the experience I wanted to give to others.

I realized that jazz is not just a style of music, and it isn’t simply a singular genre – it is the collective voice of America. This is what freedom sounds like . . . and this is what so many lived and died to protect. This is what we express when we pledge to be “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”. Jazz is the sound and soul of our nation. It is our only indigenous form of cultural expression, and only original art form. So, what better way to celebrate Memorial Day?

Jazz is more than music – it is really what I was trying to do all those years in theatre. It is a constantly occurring Eureka Experience! It is a sense of community that goes beyond color, creed generation, era and culture. It is not just a genre - it is the unifying rhythm and soul that emerged from the multicultural soul of America, spreading to the four corners of the world, and influencing every source of musical expression created over the past century.

As you can see, I’m pretty passionate about the art form . . . which is probably why they call me the “Jazz Evangelist” ☺

This little Eureka experience led to quite a life change for me. My private passion was transformed into an overt evangelism of the art form . . . leading to the creation of the Atlanta Jazz Group on Yahoo for local musicians to network and promote themselves. I was then given the opportunity to do my own radio show, which led to leaving theatre and working in jazz radio for the majority of the past decade. I am currently promoting jazz via various social networking sites, and producing weekly podcast on SoulandJazz.com.

However, I can’t forget that it all started because of the Atlanta Jazz Festival.

So, do you need a Eureka experience in your life right now? Do you want to celebrate who we are as Americans without all the political, racial, socio-economic and cultural divides? Have you lost your sense of wonder and excitement? Do you think you’ve pretty much heard it all, and your musical tastes are firmly established beyond hope of experiencing something new or unique?

Then get yourself to the Atlanta Jazz Festival this weekend, and get a taste of who we all are when we strip away the pretense . . . and allow the jazz to shine through. Find someone completely opposite of your age, race, and culture – and ask them to dance. You’ll be glad you did!

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Scott Fugate