This is a tale of wild places, deadly animals, perilous darkness, and high adventure. And jazz.
1. Bushwalking, and how I learned to love the wild
When I first started bushwalking (hiking) I was afraid of many things. Getting lost, of course, didn’t bear thinking about. Even getting off the track or losing sight of the path was cause for anxiety. Becoming “benighted” was an horrific possibility (getting caught still out when darkness falls). Add to these worries about running out of water or food, getting too hot or too cold, having an accident, snakes, spiders, wild pigs, unexpected cliffs, falling, climbing, steep hills, and river crossings. I even worried about being mocked or silently looked down-upon by experienced bushwalkers.
All my fears inhibited my freedom to explore. I huffed and puffed my way along the well-worn tourist tracks and the clearest of fire trails. I was so afraid of hot/cold/thirsty/hungry that I always carried far too much stuff. Of course, as well as being afraid, I also lacked the experience to know what I should bring or when. I was walking alone or with similarly green friends, so we had no one to mentor us.
Then one day, it happened. I became benighted. I was walking with a friend along a popular, clear track. We had even scoffed at the warning from an older walker that “it’s very late to be heading out”. I had a torch with me, it was fine. We didn’t think it would get dark when we were out, but sure enough it did. There was a shortcut out of the bush available that would have taken us out onto suburban streets quickly and easily: safe, well-lit, but ‘boring’. I wanted to take that safe option, but my friend insisted we stay on our original track. So, we crept along with my tiny, and inadequate, torch. We passed by moonlight over a large section where the track had been obliterated by a landslide. It was hard going and painfully slow but, surprisingly to me, it wasn’t frightening. In fact, nothing bad happened. We made it back to safety and had a fun adventure. And it was a revelation.
I went and bought myself a proper headtorch and from then on darkness was never a concern again. I laughed at nightfall; it just didn’t matter anymore. If it got dark, I just turned on the light – easy. What happened is that I had a solution to the former problem and that, for me, opened up a multitude of new possibilities. I could start earlier, finish later, walk all night, camp out in the bush, go further, and walk for longer. I did all these things with relish.
I also learned to read and navigate by topographical maps using a compass. Suddenly, no more was I restricted to the well-marked tracks. They weren’t a prison anymore but comfortable pathways to harder routes, little-seen wonders, and a boundless world of exploration and adventure. Quickly, I learned how and when to go off-track and find my way back. This newfound freedom was a revelation and made the world a wider place. No longer intimidating but exciting and inviting.
Inevitably, I encountered and overcame each of my other fears and none of them led to disaster. I saw snakes, pigs, wild dogs, wild cattle, and wild horses. I avoided confrontation with them. I found unexpected cliffs plunging down into unknown depths. I navigated around them. I experienced thirst and hunger, learnt how little or how much gear I needed in different condition. I overcame injuries and learned to take the intrusive questioning and observations of other bushwalkers in the right spirit of concern for a fellow walker that it is intended.
I also joined my university bushwalking club to benefit from the guidance of some of the most experienced walkers in Australia. With them I could safely join even more audacious adventures. I also learnt to abseil, a bit about climbing, more about navigating, making safe campfires, and more. I also gained extra confidence to find my own way.
What really happened is that I developed knowledge and skills that made it possible for me to safely, comfortably, and creatively explore the wilderness. I got to where I can choose which path to take and when or can forge my own path if I want to.
2. Jazz & finding freedom: conclusion
It has occurred to me that this is very similar to what a good jazz education should be like. We start out nervous, uncertain, without knowledge or tools to move beyond the very safest, most mundane tunes and ways of playing. With the guidance of experienced teachers we can efficiently develop those skills and become comfortable and equipped to confidently explore music as we wish. Experience too is important and being part of a like-minded community where we can draw on the insight and support of others is invaluable.
Like my headtorch, just one simple but important thing can open whole new worlds and grant previously unimagined freedoms. In jazz, it might be how to negotiate chord changes, how to comp, how to keep track of the passing bars, how to interpret a lead sheet, how to recognise patterns that underlie many tunes, or one of many other useful skills. If we stay afraid and resist knowledge or, worse, are denied knowledge, then then we can never really know the confidence, freedom, and joy of really playing and improvising jazz.