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Growing into jazz: A 23-year-old embraces the iconic, ever-evolving genre

 From left: Duke Ellington in 1967, Harry Connick Jr. in 2017, Samara Joy in 2021 and Laufey in 2024.
Ellington (Marty Lederhandler/AP), Connick, Jr. (Amy Harris/Invision/AP), Joy (KNKX File Photo), Laufey (Chris Pizello/Invision/AP)
KNKX Graphic via Canva
From left: Duke Ellington in 1967, Harry Connick Jr. in 2017, Samara Joy in 2021 and Laufey in 2024.

I’ve always associated jazz with the essence of being a full grown adult. That consuming jazz correlates to having everything in your life together. Picturing jazz at exclusive fancy dinners and parties, and a certain level of sophistication which only came with age.

But as I’ve actually grown up, and my friends and I turn 23, I’ve realized jazz music was born out of creating something beautiful from the daily struggles of real life.

From heartbreak to joy, jazz has grown on my friends and I as we face our own milestone challenges. Whether that’s living on our own paycheck to paycheck, or the small things, like spilling coffee on ourselves a minute before we need to jet out the door. Beyond exclusivity, we find serenity in jazz and what it offers us during commutes, in the background while we work, and in times of reflection.

I wanted to ask my friends how they feel jazz has been a part of their early adulthood, and these are the stories they told me.

“I’ve liked chaos, and I think that’s what jazz is,” said my friend Sam Perry. “You can't ever play a wrong note, because it's all about providing perspective.”

During a night drive, Sam insisted we listen to “Dreamer” by rising star Laufey.

“I loved singing [Dreamer] which made me put it on more. A lot of her music I really relate to, because it relates to a feeling of missing out,” Sam said. “There are all these wonderful things always going on, and it's her battle of understanding it.”

There is a deep pressure to do everything at once at this young age. As we try to find the balance of working the extra hour, resting, and trying to see all our loved ones, we struggle to show ourselves grace when we fail. Laufey's beautiful lyrics and angelic voice, mesh these anxieties together.

These regular life problems may sound decades old, but the novelty of these challenges now play into our lives as twenty-something Gen Zers. Laufey captures it, just as the jazz musicians of the 20th century did for our parents and grandparents before us.

As Sam put it: “Jazz isn’t about one thing, it ranges from Laufey’s emotions to her love life. She has a song called 'Best Friend,' and it's about the fun quirky relationships of having a best friend. ‘It's not your fault your hair looks like sh—.’ You know what, sometimes you have those pushy relationships with a best friend.”

Laufey’s approach to jazz speaks to so many of my peers. I’m so excited to grow into adulthood with her music.

Young artists like Laufey, and one of my favorite listens Samara Joy, have brought jazz to the attention of more young people. Through the versatility of their range, their lyrics, and their experiences, they bring a new wave of jazz and expression to my generation.

Joy's stunning “Lush Life” echoes the deep harmonies of artists of the past. With her vocals, she creates a heartbreaking song about loneliness, something so many of my peers understand well. From the pressure since our teens to show the perfect life on social media, to isolation during COVID-19 in our early college years, we may feel lonelier than ever. And yet, this music reminds us of the range of human emotions, from love to despair, and how they connect us across generations.

“I first discovered jazz when I watched When Harry Met Sally. It was the Harry Connick, Jr. soundtrack my dad and I would listen to all the time, and it was a way we got to bond and a time we really got to connect over music,” another friend, Lauren Hapgood, shared.

When describing her favorite jazz songs she immediately went to "In a Sentimental Mood" by Duke Ellington:

“If you listen to the first five seconds of ‘In a Sentimental Mood,’ the horns that are being used in that song instantly calm you down tenfold. And I think in moments where I was really nervous, just putting on jazz music did so much for me to become grounded and get back to who you are and what you need to do.”

Eager to learn more, Lauren has been reading A History of Jazz by Ted Gioia which tells the evolution of groundbreaking musicians like Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, and so many others. They used jazz as a form of experimenting with new sound, and as a tool of resilience throughout racial segregation, playing at clubs across American cities.

Their music in the 20th century connected young people. As musicians demonstrated unique melodies, and what even the wrong note could accomplish, they allowed listeners to break free of confines and truly take in songs that had no limit.

Eager to experience live jazz like generations before us, my best friends Hannah, Evelyn, and I went on the search to attend a local event of our own. We visited the Wonder Ethiopian Restaurant Sport Bar in Seattle, home to live jazz on Fridays. The three of us split Injera bread family style, enjoying our lamb tibs, as we took in the music in front of us.

“It's a good way to rest from the craziness of life. It doesn't have to be overwhelming, and has so much history.” Evelyn said as we closed up for the evening. “It's not even the slow tempo of jazz, because jazz can be upbeat. But it feels older, more mature. Jazz does feel like a different maturity level. It makes you slow down, and come to the moment.”

Hannah reflected on our night saying: “I didn't used to appreciate it when I was younger because I couldn't relate to it, but now you kinda want life to slow down a bit and want it to feel more relaxing. Life feels so anxiety-inducing, but jazz brings you to the present.”

Jazz offers us so much, grounding us in saxophone, piano and bass to make peace with the chaos of our young lives. My friends and I are all twenty-somethings in completely different points of our journeys. Yet it feels good to walk into the chaos of adulthood with something like jazz.

It reminds us that despite the constant uncertainty, we can lean into all the experiences and emotions. From those first grown-up heartbreaks to quitting a secure job and leaning into something new, even though you have no idea where it will take you.

Jazz shows us that even when it doesn't feel like it, we can take a minute to process, and we will be okay. With the music alongside us, we are capable of making our lives beautiful and authentic.

Copyright 2024 KNKX Public Radio. To see more, visit KNKX Public Radio.

Rea Karim