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Solo: Jazz and Basketball

Excerpted from On The Shoulders of Giants by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Excerpted from On The Shoulders of Giants by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

There can be no doubt that jazz has made me a better person than I would have been without it. The music inspires my passion to participate fully and richly in life. And the jazz greats I’ve known, from Miles Davis to John Coltrane to Louis Armstrong to my dad, have inspired me to be disciplined, ambitious, caring and dedicated to my community.

But jazz has also made me a better basketball player.

Now, if that statement motivates a bunch of young basketball hopefuls to rush to their computers and download classic jazz tracks onto their iPods, then I’m pleased. Because the values I learned from jazz to apply to basketball are values that apply off the court as well.

Many people unfamiliar with jazz think the music is all about the solo riffs. A single player suddenly jumping to the front of the stage, the spotlight shining brightly on him, while he plays whatever jumble of notes that pop into his head. But really, jazz is just the opposite. True, there are magnificent solos, but those moments aren’t the point of jazz, they are all part of the larger musical piece. Each person is playing as part of the team of musicians; they listen to each other and respond accordingly. When the time is right, one player will be featured, then another, and so on, depending upon the piece. Indeed there is improvisation, but always within a musical structure of a common goal.

Same with basketball. When you play basketball, everything is timing, just as with a song. You must be able to instantly react to the choices your teammates make. You must be able to coordinate your actions with your teammates’ and you must understand when you need to take over the action-when to solo-and when to back off. The timing of group activity is a major part of basketball, as it is with jazz. A team of basketball soloists, without the structure of a common goal, may get TV endorsements for pimple cream, but it doesn’t win championships.

Many athletes listen to music while they train, whether it’s jogging, lifting weights or just stretching. The type of music depends upon what motivates that individual. For me, jazz not only motivated me, but also helped me perfect my footwork on the court. Unlike some other types of music, jazz has a unique combination of being explosive yet controlled, measured yet unpredictable. The exact virtues necessary for effective footwork while in high school. Before every Saturday practice, I would listen to Sonny Rollins for a little motivation. Then I’d hit the gym floor with his music in my head and in my feet.

Jazz has also provided a valued source of camaraderie with other players. During my career with the NBA, some of the loneliness of those long road trips was eased by sharing my love of jazz with other players that were jazz enthusiasts, including Walt Hazzard, Spencer Haywood and Wayman Tisdale. Wayman was also a bass player and released a few records himself. Most of the other guys also enjoyed pop, rhythm ‘n’ blues and reggae, but I stayed pretty faithful to jazz, listening to other genres only if jazz wasn’t available.

I was also excited on those occasions when a jazz great sang the national anthem before one of our games. Cab Calloway, a major jazz star from the Harlem Renaissance, sang the national anthem several times at Warrior games in Oakland. Grover Washington Jr. performed it, and Earth, Wind & Fire have played it both at the Forum and the Staples Center. My favorite jazz instrumental version of the national anthem is Wynton Marsalis’ performance at the 1986 Super Bowl XX. My favorite vocal version by a jazz singer was sung by Al Jarreau. I don’t know if hearing a jazz artist perform the national anthem made me play any better, but I like to think so.

“The memory of things gone is important to a jazz musician,” said Louis Armstrong. “Things like old folks singing in the moonlight in the backyard on a hot night or something said long ago.” The memory of things gone is important to all of us, because the more we know about the past-our personal past as well as that of the rest of humanity-the better we can choose which direction to go in the future.

In the large scope of things, that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar likes jazz is pretty insignificant. But what isn’t insignificant is the impact jazz has had on African-American history as well as American history. The men and women who created and refined the jazz sound during the Harlem Renaissance had America dancing and moving to a sound it had never heard before. And they had white Americans appreciating black artists as they never had before.

Certainly we are not obligated to listen to jazz just because it has historical significance. All the jazz greats from the Harlem Renaissance such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong would be horrified if they saw children being spoon-fed jazz as if it were some bitter-but-good-for-you medicine. I feel the same way. I hope that through your exposure to the history of jazz and through my history with jazz, you’ll be curious enough to play a few tunes by the artists discussed. But if you don’t, jazz will endure. Because, in the end, jazz isn’t about musical theory or historical significance or even personal memories.

It’s about toe-tapping.

It’s about head-bobbing.

It’s about wanting to get up out of your chair and move your body just because you’re alive and the world is fat with possibilities-and because it just feels so good to swing. Originally Published

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played for 20 seasons in the National Basketball Association with the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers. He won six championships as a player, was a six-time Most Valuable Player and a 19-time All-Star, and has been voted by ESPN the second best player in NBA history (behind Michael Jordan). Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.