June 24, 2024


Website about Jazz and Blues

Be that jazz or beer: Video

I’m more intrigued by the intangible nature of how something is expressed–be that jazz or beer. You can show me music scores or recipe sheets all day long–but really, that means nothing to me. I want the finished product and I want to discover the mystery of why the particular piece of music or glass of beer before me is what it is. I want its personality, not its report card.

As I type these words, I’m sitting here sipping on an Apricot Peach Orange Whip Mimosa Gose while listening to Derek Bailey’s Improvisation LP. If you aren’t aware of Bailey’s work, he was a British guitarist who championed the European “free” style. All improv, all the time-with no structure to speak of. Many have argued that Bailey and his angular screech and skronk have no place in anything labeled jazz, or even music for that matter. Purists.

Apricot Peach Orange Whip Mimosa Gose is a beer we make at Boiler Brewing Company—a small-batch craft brewery and tap room that I manage in Lincoln, NE. Gose is a mild German sour that has salt added. In addition to the base beer, there is a ton of apricot, peach, and orange. Think pulpy citrus fruit juice. The beer is thick-so much so that the pulp remains in suspension and coats the side of the glass. Again, there are plenty of purists who would cry foul on such a concoction—especially anyone who thinks the German purity law was a good idea.

These two things, and the worlds that they come from drip with correlation and I find myself drawing on their common ground more so than not. Admittedly, I think about these things more than the average person. As one who manages a craft beer brewery, I’m around beer, thinking about beer, writing about beer, and, best case scenario, drinking beer—a lot. I have no choice! I’ve tried making beer—once. And I probably won’t try again.

Since I was five years old, I have been thinking about, talking about, and infatuated with music. Being a small child driving in the car with my mom when Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock & Roll” came on the radio was all it took. That was the shot of heroin that started a life-long addiction that even if I tried, even real, real hard-could not kick. Like beer, I’ve also tried my hand at making music, more than once. I spent all my formative years, and then some, playing in bands as well as making music on my own. Part of success is knowing what you are good, and not good at. I was not good at making music. Or beer.

Therein lies a large part of my fascination with these two things—the mystery. I think the fact that I’m no good at making music or beer makes me all the more curious and respectful of the discipline it takes to do so. Those who can’t-teach. Or at least talk about it to anyone who will listen. That’s me.

Typically, there are two methods of advancement. There is boundary pushing, avant-garde ideas that force people to re-evaluate their ideas on something. The craft beer industry is currently experiencing a period like this. Then there is the endeavor of minuscule advancements of diminishing returns in the name of refinement. At this point in history, jazz is a lot like this.

I bought my first jazz record (actually cassette) when I was 17 years old and a senior in high school. It was Joe Henderson’s So Near, So Far. By that point in my life, I had spent plenty of time and money in record stores and had seen my fair share of jazz records in the bins. I remember being really drawn to the cover art; they looked so cool! So refined. So classy. But I resigned the music to being something that folks three times my age enjoyed. It had nothing to do with me—but for some reason, I kept finding myself intrigued.

I finally bit with So Near. I took the cassette out to my car and popped it in the stereo. I listened and tried and listened some more but the fact was, I didn’t get it. At all. It reaffirmed my inclination that this music had nothing to do with me. I was into punk rock. And hip-hop. The closest I had gotten to jazz at that point was Ron Carter playing bass on A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low-End Theory.

Over the next couple of years, for whatever reason I kept coming back to jazz. I bought a few more records with the goal of understanding what was going on. Gazillions of people before me had fallen in love with jazz so there had to be something there—and I wanted to know what it was! But if all else failed and I never caught on, at least I had the cover art to look at.

I remember once I started to figure it out a little, the songs I was drawn to were one’s that had a catchy melody. However, once the solos started, it was time to move on. I had a long way to go. Fast forward (pun intended) almost 20 years and the solos are all I want to hear. I don’t want to pretend that I have somehow arrived and am an expert on jazz, or music as a whole for that matter. But my taste, appreciation, and the way I hear jazz is on a completely different plain from where it was so many years ago-and it should be. Now, it’s not only what is played, but how it’s played.

When I first started dabbling in jazz, it all sounded the same. I mean, aside from the variations in theme, tempo, and melody—it was all just jazz. I could barely hear, or cared to hear the differences between different groups of musicians. Never mind the variation of different musicians playing the same instrument. Miles Davis was no different than Lee Morgan who was no different than Chet Baker. It was all trumpet and it might as well have been played by the same person. Of course, this is crazy. Now, the differences in tone, phrasing, etc. of a trumpet is not only incredibly noticeable, it’s what I am fascinated by.

So what does this have to do with craft beer? Over the past 20-ish years, craft beer has come into its own with an explosion of experimentation. The things that are being done today are things I never thought I would see. In my mind, it’s a lot like what jazz went through in the ’50s through the ’70s. Boundaries pushed and new styles created—to the point that many said this isn’t even jazz, or music for that matter. See Bailey reference above.

The funny thing is, beer is a beverage that has been around for centuries. It wasn’t until after prohibition that the faint, yellow, fizzy, sub-par flavor blah came to be accepted and known as “beer.” At least in the United States. The reasons for this are beyond the scope of this essay. The fact remains that there have been generations upon generations of people that lived their lives believing that beer, by and large, only meant one thing. And that one thing was faint, yellow, fizzy, sub-par flavor blah that was packaged in a can or bottle and relied heavily on the colors red, white, and blue.

Another moment of reflection. Upon the arrival of my early drinking years, I often wondered why all beer was just… beer? It all tasted the same. It all looked the same. It all smelled the same. Sure, there were the “imports” like Guinness or Heineken—but that was only reserved for rare occasions when you were feeling especially high brow. I wondered why things couldn’t be added to beer to alter the flavor profile. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one thinking such things. We can thank Jimmy Carter for lifting the ban on home brewing, which by doing so ushered in a whole new era of experimentation that eventually led to what we know today as craft beer. Thanks Jimmy!

So now we have all these beers, and there are A LOT of them, that taste almost nothing like the “beer” that generations had been programmed to accept. Take for example the Apricot Peach Orange Whip Mimosa Gose that I’m currently drinking. Here is a beer that is more like orange juice then anything. It looks, smells, tastes, and covers the side of the glass with pulp like OJ. There is a kiss of alcohol in there somewhere which gives it it’s Mimosa characteristic. This style of beer is the current hot-shot new kid on the block that all the craft beer geeks are after. We are only one of a handful of breweries to currently make this style of beer—so there aren’t many points of reference to compare it to. But we still do. We pick it, and all our beers apart. With each batch, we strive to make it better than the last. Sometimes with certain styles, like our New England-style hazy IPA’s, each batch has improvements that are small. But when compared to the bigger picture, the beer has come a long way. The devil is in the details and the details are where the advancements are made.

But to be honest, I don’t care about details. I mean, I do, but what matters more to me is nuance. I suppose you could argue the two are more the same than they are different. I’m more intrigued by the intangible nature of how something is expressed—be that jazz or beer. You can show me music scores or recipe sheets all day long—but really, that means nothing to me. I want the finished product and I want to discover the mystery of why the particular piece of music or glass of beer before me is what it is. I want its personality, not its report card.

Therein, at least for me, lies the beauty of any discipline of expression. Whether that be when a new creative movement within a discipline is forged or when the advancements are minuscule, I am thoroughly fascinated by the personality quirks that make the end statement talk.

Jazz has had moments of vast and noticeable changes followed by long periods of near stagnation. But even during those times of lull, there have been some great records made that do something ever-so-slightly different than anything you have ever heard. Or said in a way that has never been said. The funny thing is, with rock music, I get sick of the formula—the stagnation. Guitar, bass, drums, and vocals typically equates to a boring equation. But for whatever reason, the pursuit of slight variation and nuance within jazz continues to intrigue and fascinate me.

Craft beer is currently going through an explosion both creatively and financially. The industry has grown leaps and bounds beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Jazz has had these periods too. But when the dust settles, and the chaos calms is when the truth, the chops, and the nuance come to light. Personally, I love both phases of advancement. I love the rush and excitement of mass growth and advancement as much as I love the periods of slight improvement inching towards the concept of perfection. Or at least perfection as designed by the musician or brewmaster then confirmed or denied by the listener or drinker.

Whether it be craft beer or jazz, both are disciplines that have a dichotomy rooted in proven past procedure and a rule-breaking creative future. But more importantly, they both are expressions of their creator and are intended to enhance our time spent here roaming the earth. The end product should both show us a piece of the creator’s soul as well as articulate the world around us in a way that words cannot.

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