The ability to play jazz, to create spontaneous melodies and variations on a song’s structure and themes, is more than a talent – it’s a gift. Like any gift, it’s best when shared. And jazz musicians – standing on stage at Carnegie Hall or in a smoky basement club – share their gift with the audience, giving them the gift of their talent.

LouisArmstrongSure, you can take music lessons to learn fingerings, notes and timing, scales and chords. All these are elements of any music, and an aptitude for playing – with an ear for music – is essential to success. Having good material helps, of course.

But for some musicians, it doesn’t necessarily matter what the musical milieu is, they can elevate the dross of today into dreams.

“It’s always been a gift with me, hearing music the way I do. I don’t know where it comes from, it’s just there and I don’t question it.”
—Miles Davis

Miles Davis isn’t the only musician to realize that talent comes from someplace other than music class or charts. As pianist Benny Green said, “Anybody can learn what Louis Armstrong knows about music in a few weeks. Nobody could learn to play like him in a thousand years.” It took more than red beans and rice for the New Orleans orphan to become a living legend, the first and greatest international ambassador of jazz.

ella's christmasNo, we’re not going to get into “divine inspiration” when inspiration is enough, or talk about a God-given talent when it’s the gift that matters. How else do you explain the musicians who erupted out of nowhere and changed the music? Jazz isn’t real estate: If it was only about location, location, location, nobody would have ever heard of  Dave Brubeck (Stockton, Calif.), Dizzy Gillespie (Cheraw, South Carolina), or Billy Strayhorn (Hillsborough, North Carolina).

While most musicians must spend time learning the basics, some seem to spring fully-formed talents, prodigal. We can’t all be Mozart (who started writing tunes before he turned 5), but it is telling that not one but two recent guitar talents started showing their stuff in their teens, both in Sonoma County (Julian Lage and Kai Devitt-Lee). Surely they are gifted, if not as prodigiously as Mozart – and here’s the important part: Musicians like these make a gift of their gift, by sharing it with the audience.

 “Jazz does not belong to one race or culture, but is a gift that America has given the world.” —the late Kansas City saxophonist Ahmad Alaadeen

We are the beneficiaries of the generosity of the giants. Nearly all musicians agree that it’s in performance that their talent is most fully expressed, and playing with others on stage is literally the heart and soul of jazz. Of course, there are exceptions: just as classical pianist Glen Gould eschewed the concert hall for decades, his jazz counterpart Bill Evans never seemed comfortable on stage, and preferred isolation over performance.

Nat King Cole's Christmas albumSo when you hear a jazz performer or group, whether at the Dry Creek Kitchen on a Monday night or on stage at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival, or even the Kennedy Center, you’re enjoying the gift of jazz from the musicians for whom jazz is a gift… and sharing is their life’s calling.

Of course, when we think of gifts this time of year, many of us are thinking of the wrapped kind, CDs under the Xmas tree and gift certificates in our Christmas cards. Jazz has certainly given us some fine seasonal music – check out the All About Jazz list of the Top Ten Christmas jazz recordings of all time.

You’ll find Dexter Gordon’s “The Christmas Song,” Duke Ellington’s “Jingle Bells,” and even Charlie Parker doing “White Christmas.” Many jazz artists, like musicians in other disciplines, have made entire Christmas albums, including Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole.

Yule Be Boppin'There’s another kind of gift, too. The kind you can give when you donate to support the Healdsburg Jazz Festival. You’re making a gift not only to an organization (a non-profit organization, so your gift is tax deductible) but to the citizens and children of Sonoma county, whose lives will be enhanced by jazz in our schools and on our stages. It’s a gift to the future, too, to keep jazz a vital part of our musical landscape.

And like all gifts, it’s the giving that truly matters – like jazz musicians who share their gift on stage, you share your generosity with generations to come.

— Christian Kallen

Think you know what jazz is? Leave a comment on our page, “What Is Jazz?”