PianoI was well into my fourth—and last—year of piano lessons when I showed my dad John Coltrane’s Giant Steps. His initial reaction, an unresounding “turn the noise off.”
Like my dad, I was a self-appointed music critic with a peculiar interest in math and science. Unconventionally fluent in modern beats and chromatic melodies, my musical training was limited to Chinese ballads and the few sonatas and etudes my piano teacher selected from the classical canon. My father’s came from childhood tunes. Needless to say, he was left unimpressed by Tommy Flanagan’s disjointed improvisation to seemingly dissonant and unrelated chord changes.
To my surprise, however, I was hooked. The music was different. Faster tempos. Notes much more colorful and random than their classical counterparts. Absence of traditional dynamics. Melodies that meandered spontaneously. Seemingly misplaced accidentals and off-beat riffs, entire sections of improvisation, reviving the music with a new richness and energy.
In an effort to understand these unfamiliar sounds, I stumbled upon the circle of fifths. Unknown to me at the time, this was music theory’s most basic concept, a tool musicians used to craft journeys, evoke emotions, and guide their listeners home. In Coltrane’s own Circle of Tones, I saw connections and relationships between keys expressed in geometric patterns and graphs, the diagram a beautiful enigma that connected musical expression to structure. And in his Steps, I saw his genius, able to improvise effortlessly over chord changes situated on key centers furthest apart on the circle, subverting centuries of traditional technique and classical convention.
I played the song again, this time listening for musical nuances.
That day was a humbling experience. Sitting beside my piano, I had a self-conscious epiphany: that I knew nothing about music. At fifteen, I was used to being the piano man, acing Hanon exercises, learning new songs without much practice, four years of feeling “musically gifted” overturned in less than five minutes.
At the same time, my confusion brought a completely different realization. Not understanding any of the music felt almost free, untethering me from my preconceived notions. It left me wondering about other possibilities, forms of music I’ve yet to discover. Somehow, listening to Steps rekindled my natural intellectual curiosity for the unknown. Coltrane’s music and ideas had sparked within me a hint of unconventionality, an appeal to explore beyond what I thought I already knew.
Though my first experience with jazz seemed insignificant at the time, it was the first—and perhaps the most defining—moment of my intellectual journey, initiating a cascade of events in the subsequent days and years that followed: days where I pushed boundaries, asked questions no one thought to be asked, ventured beyond my comfort zone towards new knowledge and experiences, days where I fumbled across the keys over and over again until I arrived at new melodies. Before I knew it, these guiding principles would cement themselves into my subconscious and drive my pursuit of passions in other aspects of my life.
My fascination in jazz is rooted in its idiosyncratic beats, its complexities too abstract to be interpreted in any single way, and the underlying theory and patterns that are waiting to be discovered. And although it’s odd to say, it is this avant-garde musical style and mentality, the subversion and reinvention of traditional ideas that I found my first time listening to jazz, that I hope to bring to Harvard.
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