I used to be embarrassed about my introduction to jazz and soul, for mine was a strange passageway: romantic comedies. Although I don’t remember it vividly, I apparently watched Runaway Bride and Pleasantville somewhere around grade 10, and there discovered first Miles Davis and then Etta James. Davis’ music appeared in the former, while James’ music appeared in the latter, and something about what I heard made me ask for their albums for Christmas. At 14 years old.
It also happened to be the same Christmas when I asked for—and received—an aquamarine manual typewriter. I’d sit in my room, listening to the compilation album Miles Davis: Love Songs or Etta James’ 1960 debut At Last! and typing away, yearning to channel something grander and more historical than I’d discovered from writing on the page or on a computer.
With James, I’d fallen for the titular song on At Last!, but I quickly came to adore the stories that unfolded across her album, including the tender-hearted “My Dearest Darling,” the daydreaming “Sunday Kind of Love,” and the badass “Tough Mary.” Her music was transportive, her voice a conduit of desire and strength. I typed faster.
With Davis, his instrument unfastened an entirely new perspective on love before I’d even gotten an inkling of what that verb truly meant. Just listen to his opening croon on “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” which sits somewhere between a resignation and plea. I’d grown up on songs overflowing with lyrics, singers verbosely attempting to capture and convey the emotion, but Davis’ trumpet embodied something more honest, something that needed to be expressed rather than explained.
Since that early foray into jazz a la Davis, I’ve come to adore the genre and its heavyweights: Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Duke Ellington, Donald Byrd, Thelonious Monk, Wes Montgomery. The list could go on. I tend to gravitate toward traditional jazz or bebop and hard bop jazz, their fast tempo and elaborate tangle of instruments. People adore Davis’ Kind of Blue, and it’s undoubtedly glorious, but I’ve always been fond of his mad dash Prestige recordings with his First Great Quintet: John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and, my personal favorite, drummer Philly Joe Jones. When a jazz mood strikes me, which tends to be early in the morning despite the genre’s archetypal setting in nightclubs, I go for something in that vein.
What I’d like to know, what I find so strange considering my hokey-pop listening tastes up until that moment of discovery was what in the ever-loving bleep did I hear? What was it about Davis and James that set off sparklers in my chest, their soft, starry glow illuminating something so accurate as to constitute a kind of otherworldly recognition? Explain to me how a 14-year-old who had largely preferred the innocuous sounds of Boyz II Men, John Mayer, and Barenaked Ladies came to find and abide within the meditative and magical phrasing of “I Thought About You” and the swaying supplication of “Trust in Me.”
Perhaps it had more to do with the movies than anything else. I’ve always been drawn to music’s visual quality and how crucial a song can be to a moment—the way it can save a trite scene by infusing it with thrust and implication and beauty. (Oh, to be a music supervisor!) Throughout my teens, I was more of a movie buff than a music nerd, consuming every classic and canonical film I could and then some. And in those films I heard songs, all kinds of them.
I’d go on to have questionable taste (cough cough, Dave Matthews Band) for the next few years, but in between my preferences I came across so much variety. Jazz folded into that experience. Maybe it even signaled an ability to listen beyond sheer pleasure, to engage deeply with complex songs beyond the pop fare I heard bleating over the radio.
Every music writer comes to know the wide berth of musical genres in their own unique way. My origin story with jazz and soul just so happens to be tangled in cheesy romantic comedies from the late ’90s. As I was imbibing the questionable messaging about love, relationships, and self-worth those movies put forth, I was also learning about an array of storied musicians. And that education compiled a soundtrack that would come to be uniquely mine—eclectic, varied, always chasing some meaning or gut-punch of truth. A sparkler lighting up the dark.