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The Language of Jazz 

Race flags and Christmas lights drape the walls of a hidden slice of Massachusetts Avenue. An old jukebox sits in the back, unattended as the 20-person crowd inside the Chatterbox Jazz Club listens attentively to the improvisations of a young trio--a bass player, a pianist, and an electric guitar player--squashed together on a small stage at the front of the room.

The guitar player, a young white guy with a mop of curly brown hair, bends intently over his chords. His eyes register that he's somewhere else, perhaps absorbed in a secret story.

When Joel Tucker speaks, however, he is fully present, cheerful, polite.

"When you're playing, you forget everything you know," he explains. "You're living in that second that's happening; nothing else matters . . . you want that second to last forever."

The road to jazzdom

A recent grad of IU's Jacobs School of Music, Tucker fell in love with jazz on the day he walked into Indy CD & Vinyl in Broad Ripple.

click to enlarge Wes Montgomery was a Jazz legend from Indianapolis who often played at Madame Walker Theatre.
  • Wes Montgomery was a Jazz legend from Indianapolis who often played at Madame Walker Theatre.

"I walked into a section that was so foreign to me: Jazz."

Intrigued by the art on an old Wes Montgomery album, the then ninth grader purchased the recording, took it home, and popped it into his CD player.

"I'd never heard anything like it," he admits. "It was kind of like looking at a television screen for the first time . . . It was something completely new to my ears. I spend a lot of time trying to listen to things around me, and if something I like gets put into my ears, I'm a very happy person."

What Tucker would later learn was that this new thing--this jazz music--wasn't any new thing to Indianapolis.

In fact, jazz legend Montgomery was born in Indianapolis and got his start on the renowned Indiana Avenue, a strip of at least 30 jazz clubs--including the famed Madame Walker Theater--in the heart of Indianapolis' then middle class African American district. Also known as "the Avenue," the strip was an incubator for a slew of rising jazz stars, including names like Freddie Hubbard, J.J. Johnson, and the Hamptons.

Young Tucker honed his obsession with jazz music, learning from these greats, often playing along to their recordings.

"The only reason younger people can play [jazz music] is because of older people," Tucker says. "Everything we know is from people who've done it, so you 'steal' from them. Someone once told me, 'Good musicians borrow, the best musicians steal.' "

As in high schooler at North Central, Tucker took his trombone with him to every musical opportunity he could find: orchestra, marching band, concert band, pep band, jazz band, even show choir (although he left the trombone at home for that one). All the while, he was taking guitar lessons from Indy Jazz Hall of Famer Bill Lancton. After graduation, Tucker enrolled at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music as a trombone major, but soon discovered that spending four hours a day in a practice room with just a trombone "wasn't [his] thing." Around that time, he learned that the school was starting a new jazz guitar program, and decided to focus his efforts there, trading in the trombone for his beloved guitar.

"Different instruments give me different feelings," Tucker explains. "Guitar is the best . . . It's the one that gives me the highest sense of gratification. It makes me feel confident. It's part of me."

It also gives him a way to communicate. In a way, jazz guitar has become his language.

"Classical music is like a speech written out, and jazz is like a conversation," he says.

click to enlarge Joel Tucker views jazz as the casual conversation medium of the music world. - NAAMA LEVY
  • Naama Levy
  • Joel Tucker views jazz as the casual conversation medium of the music world.

Unlike a piece of classical music, which has a precise prescription of what should be played, and a definitive beginning and end, jazz is much more fluid. Tucker explains that the melody line is the only element that remains constant; everything else is variable: the rhythm, the harmony, even the length of the piece.

He points out that most jazz songs are based on common song forms, like the 12-bar blues. You can repeat those 12 bars as many times as you like, and then pass the melody off to another instrumentalist who will then repeat the bars as many times as he or she likes, finally giving a signal that they're ready to reel the song in. That signal can be a musical signal or a simple head nod.

The give and take, back and forth, is for the jazz musician as meaningful as sitting down and sharing one's thoughts over a cup of coffee.

"You have this vocabulary and you're speaking to each other, kind of like a common language," Tucker explains. "When you're playing with someone who knows jazz, you can have a meaningful conversation."

A new generation

David Andrichik, proprietor of Chatterbox for the past 31 years, has intentionally made the place a hot spot for jazz musicians of all varieties: black, white, old, young.

"Jazz has always been a [racially] integrated bandstand, and that's what we still see," Andrichik says. "It's music. Close your eyes and you can't tell [who it is]."

Recently, Chatterbox has been opening its doors to more and more musicians from the twenty-something crowd. Of the gigs that play Monday-Saturday at the club, Andrichik estimates that about 35 percent are "mature" or "veteran" groups, and about 65 percent are younger musicians.

"We skew younger, partly because we're tiny and we can't pay much," Andrichik explains. "But also, we offer a place [for younger musicians] to experiment, to play their own music."

While jazz tends to be associated with an older generation, steady numbersof Hoosier millennials like Joel are making their way to the genre, both for pastime and profession.

Since 1968 whenIU launched its jazz studies program, the major has grown in popularity. While still a small contingent of Jacobs School's overall population, at any given time there are somewhere between 60 and 75 students majoring in jazz.

click to enlarge Joel Tucker pieces together his career with gigs at night and teaching a few students during the day. - NAAMA LEVY
  • Naama Levy
  • Joel Tucker pieces together his career with gigs at night and teaching a few students during the day.

"There has certainly been an increase in jazz education nationwide over the last 30-40 years," says Tom Walsh, associate professor of music at IU. "The methods of teaching jazz have improved, including at the high school, middle school, even the elementary school level. . . . More and more colleges and universities have started up jazz programs. It's being disseminated more effectively."

While IU's program is the largest in the state and indisputably the most prestigious, Ball State, the University of Indianapolis, IUPUI, and Butler all have jazz studies programs, with other universities, like Purdue, offering more casual opportunities, like club jazz bands.

According to Walsh, this generation of jazz musicians tends to think outside the box.

"They're very comfortable blending styles of music, anything they've heard," he explains. "They're doing very creative things with blending pop music with jazz." Or classical, or funk, or rock.

"There's a really positive energy around the music they're creating, and around the people they're playing with," he adds. "The long-term challenge is translating that into 'How do I make a living?' "

Harry Miedema, Director of Jazz Studies at U Indy, says that those who "make it" as jazz musicians are those who are content with a moderate income.

"For most jazz players, they don't look at money that much, except to make sure that they have enough food to eat."

"Some kids [who come from more privileged backgrounds] have this idea that they can do this or that--drive a nice car, live in a nice neighborhood--but they soon discover this won't be possible."

Especially when you think you can make it entirely as a performer.

For most, the privilege of getting to play jazz as art usually requires a willingness to do a variety of other musical activities to pay the bills. Teaching, composing music for commercial use, playing for weddings, etc. Some young graduates opt for a cruise ship gig, for the perks of a regular paycheck and free room and board. Some move to Chicago or New York to try to break into the scene. Others go to grad school, perhaps to work toward a professorship.

Blood, sweat, and people skills

As for Tucker, last spring he graduated and moved back to Indy to begin piecing together a career. It's been sporadic, some weeks having as many as six gigs, others having none. Depending on the venue, he makes somewhere between $75 and $300 a night. He teaches guitar lessons during the day.

Although some of his contemporaries may simply tolerate non-performing jobs, Tucker says he loves teaching.

"It's one of my favorite parts about being a musician. To teach it, you have to be in tip top shape."

As for the gig life, he doesn't mind the non-sexy jobs either, the weddings, the times when you're just playing background music. It pays the bills, so he can focus his free time on writing and playing at places like the Chatterbox--places where the art of jazz is celebrated.                               

In the process, he's learned that even his favorite gigs require the professionalism of any other job.

"It's all about networking and being genuine to people," he says. "A lot of people get this misconception that you have to be this prodigy player, but it's really about your presence outside of the gig; if you can treat someone with respect and nicely."

Similarly, it's crucial to be punctual.

"If you're not on time or you don't show up to a gig, you're not going to be hired, no matter how good you are."

For now, Tucker is content with the Indy jazz scene, but he's not opposed to taking a stab at a city like Chicago or New York, should the opportunity arise. As long as he's playing somewhere, perfecting new sounds, and helping others appreciate the language of jazz, he's happy.

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About The Author

Zoe S. Erler

Zoe S. Erler

Bio:
Zoe S. Erler is a freelance writer and editor based in Indianapolis, Ind. An Aussie by birth, she has spent her adult life writing about interesting people and redemptive movements around the world. Over the past eight years, she has written for Prison Fellowship Ministries, The Washington Times, World Magazine,... more

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