I: One Note Samba
I envied them, the kids in the high school jazz band. I was the misfit pianist in the ninth grade orchestra, a player that didn’t belong: unless it’s a piano concerto, there’s not supposed to be a pianist. They accommodated me anyway, letting my jangling chords ring in the background as the violins, cellos, and brass slid and swooped into the 1812 Overture, the Indiana Jones theme.
Where else was I supposed to go, though? I’d been taking classical music piano lessons since the age of five. I knew my scales, arpeggios, and cadences, and I knew how to read music from a sheet. I tried, and sometimes failed, to follow the metronome in the quest to not only play all the notes correctly but keep them on the beat. “You’re always too fast,” my piano teacher, and my mother, would often complain. I never learned how to play from anything that didn’t have both treble and bass clefs and all the notes written out to tell me exactly where to go. The orchestra was the only place for people with my kind of training, but still, I didn’t quite belong there.
But the pianist belonged in the jazz band. Heck, sometimes he even had a solo. Other times, he filled the rhythm with the bassist and the drummer, diminished and ninth and suspended chords placed just right on and between beats. Fills would slink in from time to time. The reeds and the horns would shout and the sax would croon, but the piano was cool. Understated. Sophisticated.
So sometime in the summer after my freshman year in high school, I asked my piano teacher: teach me to play jazz, so I can audition for the jazz band. Luckily, he knew both jazz and classical, so he started me on a new book, and told me to beef up my scales and cadences. “You’re going to need it.” It’s a different way of thinking, a new world.
II: It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)
Being early trained in classical piano or violin, of course, has become part of the Asian stereotype. An entire book was just published by a Chinese-American “Tiger Mother” who proudly forced, belittled, and punished her daughters to become musical prodigies. It’s always classical music, never any other kind; the famous Suzuki method is founded upon repetition after repetition of famous pieces by famous composers. The Tiger Mom denied her daughter bathroom breaks until she played a piece exactly right.
What jazz means is something else entirely. It is not as respectable. It is not as suitable, perhaps, on some cultural level. “It’s black music,” my mother once said, with the implication that it wasn’t for anyone else. In the 1950s and 1960s, when the new anime Kids on the Slope is set, jazz had yet to acquire the upscale/yuppie association that it carries today. There was still the stench of urbanness, of drug addiction (reading a list of famous jazz musicians is like reading a list of junkies), of avant-garde beatniks and rebels and dive bars and underground clubs.
Kids on the Slope (Sakamichi no Apollon) captures this divide perhaps too obviously: Kaoru is the bespectacled honor student who plays classical piano. He encounters Sentaro, the roof-dwelling, free-spirited, delinquent jazz drummer. There is a reliance on shorthand and stereotype here that hopefully will become more complex later, which the careful pacing of the show seems to promise. But for now, the shape of the story is a familiar one: uptight kid learns to relax and live a little through the power of rebellious music, while perhaps falling in love at the same time. Not that great stories can’t be made from stock elements, but it’s not a particularly unique one.
The perceived rigidity of classical training is taken to such an extreme, in fact, that it manifests itself as nausea-inducing social anxiety whenever Kaoru encounters unfamiliar situations. He is the player confronted only with a lead sheet and not a full bevy of treble and bass notes, of exact instructions. Sentaro, on the other hand, finds rhythm whether he’s behind a drum kit or whether he’s just tapping out a rhythm with twigs on a handrail. The music is in his head, not on a page. And when Kaoru tries to correctly play the chords and notes of “Moanin,” Sentaro insists there’s more to the song than just the notes. He practically quotes Duke Ellington: “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” The musical session then abruptly ends, but not before an intrigued Kaoru decides to embark on a new journey, the way all music is really taught: by listening to the masters (on record or live) and by playing along with someone else.
III: Kind of Blue
This is too broad, of course. The classical composers themselves were masters of improvisation, and the best classical orchestras and players interpret the pieces with as much feeling and passion as the great jazz soloists over a lead sheet.
But as I began to learn jazz, I saw just how different not only the playing style, but the mentality, was compared to classical music. One only gets to be individualistic in classical music after one has learned to play all the notes correctly, from memory, and with the exact tempo as written. In jazz, as in all things genuinely American, individual expression is the whole point. Right away, you are presented not with a full bevy of treble and bass notes keeping the hands busy with all the notes to follow. You get a lead sheet with a melody line and chords on top of the single staff. The melody line is played through only twice: at the beginning, and the end. In between the soloists surge forth into the unknown, using the chord sequence as a foundation for their own riffs and phrases. You’re on your own.
I couldn’t handle this. As I struggled through my audition piece, the ballad “Autumn Leaves,” I would play the melody line with my right hand and try to play the chords with my left. The metronome ticked. I got the notes right, but the chords seemed plodding, thudding even. I was playing whole three note chords, with no major sevenths, suspensions, or blue notes: the things that actually made things “jazzy.” And I had no swing. I would try to add some flourish here or there, but then everything went off completely. There was so little guidance. These pieces—standards, as they’re called—were supposed to already be familiar, so familiar that you could just take the melody line as a departure point. But I was still trying to learn the melody.
Bit by bit, I improved. It took hours of listening and playing, sometimes with eyes closed. I tried to hear the tap of the cymbals, the slow thrum of the bass player in the silence. I tried to emulate the effortless cool and sophistication of the chords I heard the pianist play in the recordings, but always came up short.
Still, when I played it in front of the band director, I somehow made it in. I started playing in the jazz band in my junior year of high school, 1997.
IV: Giant Steps
There was already a pianist in the jazz band, Chappell. He wore round spectacles and his shaggy, long blond hair flew all around his head when he tore up and down the piano. He was also really into progressive rock, the only other person I knew who knew about the bands I adored at the time: Yes, King Crimson, Genesis.
I was in awe of Chappell from nearly the beginning, in awe of his ability to play classical music just as well as he could play jazz just as well as he could compose his own pieces for woodwinds. The band director told him to mentor and train me in how to become a better jazz pianist, and essentially to be his understudy whenever he wasn’t available for concerts and other band performances.
Kids on the Slope gets this right: the way popular music, as opposed to something like classical music, is really taught and passed down is from person to person. It’s not just the mentoring that listening to good records has, though that’s essential: I still couldn’t play “Autumn Leaves” that well even after I heard the song dozens of times. Someone usually has to show you the ropes. Chappell would tell me: ok, here’s some different scale modes that sound good in this context. See how adding a seventh here or a lowered fifth makes it sound jazzy? Try learning a pentatonic (blues) scale and add a blue note here and there to the solo. Little by little, I began to hear it enough that I could play it, at least sometimes. Chord sequences, not just individual chords, came alive. The right kind of repetition became riffs.
I was learning to not just hear, but to speak jazz.
My guess is that this is the role Sentaro is going to play in Kaoru’s life. He’s going to get him to swing, to put all that dull exercises we all learned as classical pianists to use by showing how they free you, not constrict you. He will learn that all that music theory actually has a purpose, and once it’s not just something to parrot back on a test but internalized, then the solos will come, and they will sound great. He will learn to follow and weave himself in between the drumbeat.
All musical training is ultimately about that, even classical: all artistic training really. You learn the rules so you can know when to bend and break them as a master. For masters there is no such thing as a mistake: it just rolls into the whole and can even be endearing. That’s ultimately the problem with the way music is sometimes taught: the whole point sometimes seems to be trying to avoid mistakes. Be just a little off-rhythm or off note, and it’ll sound obvious. Rote mastery of classical music is suited for those who desire correctness in all things, which is perhaps why it appeals to certain kinds of parents. But that’s not art, that’s mimicry.
Kids on the Slope, then, promises to be a show that talks about how craft can become soul. Perhaps Kaoru will teach Sentaro that precision is important too: even in jazz, you can play off-rhythm or off-key in ways that sound less than pleasant. But for a lot of us who were raised by “Tiger Parents” and for whom our greatest fear was messing up a note during the recital, it’s a welcome reminder that music, art, is ultimately about freedom and pure expression, the kind that even words can’t say. It was that for Mozart (the movie Amadeus portrays this beautifully), for an increasingly deaf Beethoven composing the Ninth Symphony. So it can be for even the humblest player who submits not so much to rules and notes, but to the spirit behind them.
How funny that the first episode is called “Moanin'”. “Moanin'” is also the one song where I have a recording of myself playing jazz in high school.
We were at the 1998 jazz invitational hosted by our local university. Our set was six songs long. I played the first song, “Manteca,” and played and soloed on “Moanin'”; the rest were handled by the far superior Chappell. The credits aren’t marked on the CD, but I can tell when it’s me: when I play, it’s always a little bit off rhythm.
The version of “Moanin'” we played isn’t the Art Blakey one that is featured in the anime; it’s a totally different piece by Charlie Mingus. It’s a messy piece by design, made messier by the slightly off-key way high school musicians play, a jumble of sounds that are barely held together by the rhythm section. Professional, it is not.
When it was time for me to solo, I waited for the sax player to finish, closed my eyes, and took off. This is the result: the whole song (solo begins at 3:18).
It felt a whole lot better playing it than it sounded in retrospect: frankly, it’s pretty bad, off-rhythm and sometimes obviously off-note. I was far from a master then, and I’m still not.
But when we finished, I heard the applause and the cheers. The band director said my name. I stood up and took a bow, and then let Chappell take over for the rest of the set. I’d said my piece.