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United by our Love of the Music

Jimmy Greene's presentation at the 2016 Jazz Connect Conference

Jimmy Greene and daughter Ana, March 2011

Ethnomusicologist Paul Berliner offers this definition of the American jazz community in his book Thinking in Jazz (and I’m paraphrasing):

“Continually drawing sustenance from its fundamental ties to African American culture, The American jazz community cuts across boundaries defined by age, class, vocation and ethnicity. At its core are professional musicians and aspirants for whom jazz is the central focus of their careers. . . . Around its core of artists, the jazz community includes listeners with wide-ranging tastes. Their ranks include supporters with diverse national and cultural backgrounds who have adopted the community’s music as their own.”

I would add that universities, public and private schools, instrument makers and repair shops, record shops, clubs, concert halls, festivals, promoters, music stores, regional jazz societies, musicians’ homes, booking agencies, rehearsal studios, recording studios, record labels, radio, satellite and internet stations, critics, writers, bloggers, record and video collectors, all make up this diverse and interrelated web of people and places, all united by this music we love so much.

The community into which I was first socialized was one whose primary organizing force was Jackie McLean. As a student of JMac’s at the Artists Collective and later at the Hartt School, the teaching and learning model put into practice was largely centered on the building of community.

When I moved into town after graduating in 1997, it didn’t take very long to find community here in New York. A lot of those same people and institutions (the elder statesmen, peers, clubs, record labels, writers) I mentioned before embraced me as a young musician and made me feel as though I belonged.

After a decade or so, my family and me moved 1700 miles away to Winnipeg so that I could pursue a tenure track university faculty position. I found a small but energized community there, not surprisingly built of musicians, like George Colligan, Steve Kirby and Quincy Davis, who had spent much of there careers as a part of the community here. Funny, but despite the distance, I never felt “estranged” from the scene. Although technology has truly made our world “smaller” and enabled connection over distance, it was through personal relationships with musicians like Lewis Nash, Bill Charlap, Renee Rosnes and clubs like Smalls and the Vanguard that no more than a few months passed between gigs and recording sessions here in New York.

Upon moving back home three years later, the unspeakable happened. I was writing music in my new office at Western Connecticut State University when my wife called to tell me to go immediately to our kids’ school – there had been a shooting. I found my son as soon as I got to the firehouse next to the school, but minutes of waiting for information on my daughter Ana’s whereabouts turned into hours. Members of our community reached out from all over the world. In those horrible, confusing hours I got texts from Lewis Nash from Japan offering prayers, calls from Wynton and Branford and Dee Dee Bridgewater offering their prayers and support, and from loads of other musicians at home and on the road offering encouragement. Harry Connick, Jr. drove to my house and arrived soon after we told my son that in those horrific shootings that he heard on the other side of the school, his little sister – his best friend – had been murdered. He talked for a while with my son, shared sincerely from his heart and actually managed to coax a smile from my little boy.

In the weeks afterwards, over 10,000 communications – emails, voicemails, texts, Facebook messages – reached us, many from this community. One such voicemail, from the great Mulgrew Miller, encouraged me, saying, “Hang in there – we need you.” This was left just a few months before he himself passed away.

Funds were donated to support our recovery, dozens of touching tribute songs were written to memorialize my little girl and 2,500 people attended Ana’s homegoing service, including many musicians from near and far, some of whom I never got to thank in person, but all of whom left an indelible mark upon my heart. It was as if they said, “The fact that this happened to your little girl and your family means that it happened to all of us.”

Soon thereafter the Chesky brothers, Norman and David, offered to donate the production of a recording, whenever I could find the strength to do it, and assign 100% ownership of the masters to me – not one dime of profit would they make from their sizeable investment. Wait a minute; the recording industry is in decline, right? Who does that? This community does, that’s who. The musicians I contacted – all with a personal connection to my family and me (Lewis Nash, Renee Rosnes, Christian McBride, Kenny Barron, Anika Noni Rose, Javier Colon, Kurt Elling, Cyrus Chestnut, Pat Metheny, Jonathan DuBose) made themselves available and for a small honorarium made the music I wrote for my little girl come to life. Al Pryor advocated so strongly to Mack Avenue Records to release this project – Jimmy Katz donated the photos – everything was an outpouring of love from this beautiful community – one I am honored to be a part of.

So to you, the members of this vibrant, vital, supportive community – thank you. Thank you for loving my family and me through the worst days of our lives. Thank you for supporting our efforts to keep Ana’s memory alive, for purchasing Beautiful Life, for reviewing it in your magazines, newspapers and online outlets, for playing it on your radio/satellite stations, for nominating it for two Grammy awards. Thank you for supporting the Ana Grace Project, which does amazing work to encourage empathy and compassion in kids, schools and communities.

And a bit of encouragement to all of you who work so hard – although this business we’re in is very complex and often difficult, this music changes lives and needs to be heard! So many people have told me, “after listening to Beautiful Life, I was moved to tears and went and hugged my kids even tighter.” We all play a vital role in affecting people’s lives through this music, so again, in the words of our dearly departed friend Mulgrew Miller, “Hang in there – we need you!” Thank you.

Originally Published