Sunday, June 14, 2020

Delirium and Unity

In a recent post I mentioned how long it’s been taking me to finish “A Distant Mirror”, a book by Barbara Tuchman about the “Calamitous 14th Century”.  This morning, victorious, I finished it.  And in this immersion of history; a cavalcade of upheaval, pestilence and violence—merging in my consciousness with the present moment and present events—I am delirious…

This is a blog about music and the medium is words.  I’ve written about politics and social issues to some degree but I’ve always felt it wise to keep the focus on music.  While I have strong opinions I have no expertise in politics.  And while there have been many words shared on the subject of social justice it’s clear that actions are the force by which the world is shaped. 

Music is what I know.  I don’t actually understand it, but I seem to be able to do it nonetheless.  What I “know” about music comes out of the creation of it, out of not knowing.  In the fifty years I’ve been playing you’d think that some measure of disillusionment might creep in.  And yet the saxophone has never let me down.

In the previous post, Why Do You Play?, I was inspired by the words of saxophonist Sonny Rollins to look deeper into this process of music and life.  Since then another piece with Mr. Rollins came out, an interview “On the Pandemic, Protests and Music” (The New Yorker June 11th, 2020)   

In it he says…

“It’s not about your music—it’s about what makes your music your music. You’ve got to have a feeling like that. You have to have a reason for your music. Have something besides the technical. Make it for something. Make it for kindness, make it for peace, whatever it is. You know what I mean?”

Words like kindness and peace can easily be taken for granted.  For them to have any depth of meaning there has to be an awareness and acknowledgement of their opposites.  As I reread some of the things I’ve written lately I’m appreciating that they come from a growing and unavoidable recognition of pain, individual and collective, mine and yours.  What is difficult to fully appreciate is that this pain comes out of the very interconnectedness and unity that we rejoice in as musicians.  There are tragic events occurring in the world, in our nation, in our neighborhoods.  I have seen tragic events right outside my window.

“A Distant Mirror” opens with this:

“For mankind is ever the same and nothing is lost out of nature, though everything is altered.”
- John Dryden, “On the Characters in the Canterbury Tales,” in Preface to Fables, Ancient and Modern

What is “ever the same” that also allows for “everything is altered”? 

It’s interesting that conflict and pain, the qualities screaming out the loudest for our attention, are two of the things we would most like to rid ourselves of.

What is it about the act of music that looks the truth of pain straight in the eye and transforms it?

A friend of mine recently brought to my attention a Rahsaan Roland Kirk video, a performance of “Volunteered Slavery” from 1972 and said to me “This music is honoring human life as a whole”.

This is not at all abstract.  It is honoring life out of a specific history, specific issues and experiences, real people and real events.  At the same time, honoring life is universal.  It’s an invitation for all of us to participate and embrace our humanity.  It’s truthful and therefore a compassionate act.  It is transformative.

Art and music are able to address immediate needs and concerns yet they occupy a unique space.  We often ask, are music and art political?  I can’t fully say yes and I can’t fully say no.  I’m beginning to wonder if it’s even the right question.  Perhaps a better question is how do we take up this invitation to participate in honoring our humanity?

We are each being called upon to act.  To be honest, I don’t always trust some of these calls.  I’m cautious around self-righteousness, positioning or signifying.  I recognize those things  because I see them in myself.  But when we hear a true call, someone speaking their own truth, it’s evident.  How do we respond?

With respect to political action it is often difficult to know the right course to take, difficult for us to even agree on what that is.  Within political groups there is often struggle, mistakes and disillusionment.  And yet that is not an excuse to sit back, awaiting perfection.

If I were to say to a student something along the lines of what Sonny Rollins said, inviting them to widen their perspective and allow the music to reflect and express more than some abstract self-contained set of values, I might rightly be asked “well, how do you do that?”

That’s what I call an active question.  Meaning it needs to be enacted.  You can’t do it by yourself, in your head, wondering whether it’s right or wrong, good or bad and "what are people going to think of me?"  Enacted means it involves other people.  It has an effect on your life and the lives of other people.  Granted…easy to say, not always easy to do.

In music I often look to simplify the process.  I ask questions like “what does the music need right now?”  If I get stuck, not knowing what to do, I stop worrying about myself and listen more intently to the other musicians.  And then I know what to do.  There are endless parallels between improvisation and acting in the world.  It’s basically the same thing.  So how might I translate this into something relatable for addressing our time, our selves and our world?  I might ask…

1. Am I willing to look directly into my own pain and meet it with compassion?

2. Am I willing to take responsibility for the effects of my speech and action, unconditionally?

These questions must be enacted, we don’t do this alone.  As with music, you find the answer by doing it.  What’s vitally important is to know that it matters greatly how we do what we do.  Whatever we want to bring to bear in the world has to come from within, embodied and embedded in every action we take.

This is what I hear in Sonny Rollins’ statement…“It’s not about your music—it’s about what makes your music your music.”

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Why Do You Play?

I’ve read a lot of interviews with Sonny Rollins…I really appreciate this most recent one…

It’s actually not an interview but an essay, written by him.  The New York Times ran it on May 18th as part of a series called “The Big Ideas”.  He’s addressing the question, “Why Does Art Matter?”  It’s a short piece yet it seems to encapsulate much of what he’s spoken about over the years.  He begins by prefacing art in relative terms, the concerns of the world we live in; ownership, judgement, money.  But he addresses the big picture head on, speaking of art as infinite, outliving those kinds of concerns.

Here's the link...Sonny Rollins: Art Never Dies

I feel moved to write something about it, which is risky since the article speaks for itself, completely.  It doesn’t require any further commentary from me.  But it’s inspirational and I feel something of a responsibility to take it as seriously as he clearly does.  I should point out that Mr. Rollins is no longer playing the saxophone due to health reasons.  And of course, none of us are able to be out in the world playing our instruments either.  He’s speaking now in a very direct way, still developing his themes, still reaching, even without his horn.  I’m listening and I want to learn something in this present time, about this present time.  And just as in music we have to find ways to internalize the lessons we receive.  I’m going to give it a try…

Reading it brought to mind the question, why do you play?

There can be many answers.  At the same time there is no answer, no reason.  The question itself assumes that music is about something else.  Dependent, conditional upon some greater or lesser reason.

That leads to another question.  Can you make a sound that is not about something else?

Sonny Rollins speaks about playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and developing it improvisationally into something new that stands on it’s own.  He’s played many well known songs over the years.  Regardless of whether you know what his performance is based upon or not, if you’re listening closely, you’re hearing something for the first time.  Even if you think you’ve already heard it.  Is it really about anything else?  Or perhaps it’s about everything else.  Is there a difference?

When I first read his piece I thought he was preferencing the big picture at the expense of the relative, the everyday.   After all, he’s 89 and his perspective is broadening.  These polarities are often seen as being in conflict or at least out of balance in our lives.  So it would seem important to shift from the prevailing emphasis on short term concerns.  But I was still uncertain.

He’s certainly not wrong about the relative state of affairs.  And yet he's speaking more from the big picture than ever before.  He states “Art matters today more than ever because it outlives the contentious political veneer that is cast over everything.”  That speaks of unity between the two.  To me this says art matters, in the relative world, because it’s not beholden to it.  Because it contains the wisdom we need to make it through this life.

Towards the end of the article he says “We’re not here to live forever.”  I haven’t heard him say this before, not quite this way.  It got my attention.  What does this mean?  What’s the small picture in the big picture, or vice versa?

I might venture, that there is something in the act of music.  To identify and address our own pain in this world (which we all have in our own ways) so that we might know something of the joy in being alive.  And to share that.

Sonny Rollins has brought a great amount of joy into this world.  We’re fortunate to be able to hear him, especially now.

Photo of Sonny Rollins Credit American Routes

Sunday, May 3, 2020

An admittedly peculiar post from out of a dream…

Last night I had one of those dreams, the kind you wake up from in a sweat.  On the road in Europe, one night after the gig, with my horn and a few things.  I’m heading to the train station in order to get to the next town.  It's kind of weird and funky, more like a subway.  It is completely impractical in its design and certain junctures are dangerously impassable. Looking at a map of where I need to go I realize I have no itinerary and no information for where I'm supposed to stay.  It dawns on me that I'm not even supposed to be at the train station now.  The gig is over, we are staying in this town and the hotel is right up the street.  I look down.  The cement floor is grimy and I need to find my shoes.  There are some not far away in a pile. There are some very nice ones, perhaps my size. Some others have holes in them. Maybe I should just take the good ones.   Hmm…

I don't remember how I solved that but I'm on the street, walking toward the hotel.  It is large, the streets are wide with many shops. Old Europe.  I go into the carpeted, spacious lobby and orient myself.  A man at the desk is directing someone, perhaps to the restaurant.  I’m very hungry.  Walking in the direction he was pointing there is another large room, full of people and a buffet table full of food.  There’s a container of large kosher dill pickles.  I need to have some.  Getting to a table is hard.  There's not enough room for me and my horn to squeeze around.  I'm stuck back where the waiters and waitresses are and can't find my way out.  I see an opening, wait for some folks to move and finally sit down.  The waitress comes straight away immediately suggesting something very particular and peculiar. I have no idea what it is. I should just relax and say yes to whatever.  I take a breath to settle in and wait for my food when I notice we’re moving.  I have to look away from the windows because I'm starting to get motion sickness.  I've heard of these restaurants that slowly rotate but this is too fast.  I just look down and concentrate on my table, grabbing a big salty pickle.

There are a few guys sitting nearby looking at me and talking.  They probably think I’m weird.  I try and ignore them but now we’re moving much faster and in one direction.  Where the hell are we going?  I want to finish my meal and go to bed since we have to be up early in the morning to drive to the next town.  One of the guys mentions the name of a musician.  I jump in, “Yeah, that's a friend of mine, I know him”.  Now they seem happy and are trying to talk to me.  I'm more interested in figuring out what the deal is with this whole moving restaurant thing.  I'm getting worried.  I make several attempts to ask but I'm not understanding what they are saying.  I try and make it simple.  “How long until we arrive at where we're going?”  The answer is “Twelve hours”.  I’m stunned.  That means I'll miss getting back to the guys on time.  I don't know where we’re headed.  How will I get back?  Will I have enough money?  I ask one of the waitresses the same question, hoping to get a different story. “How long before we arrive at our destination?”  “Thirteen hours.”  It's getting worse!  Everyone else is fine with this.  I didn’t ask for any of it.  There’s no way out and I’m pretty freaked now.

Sometimes when things get this intense there is a sense of, “Maybe this is a dream.  If you try very hard you might break through and get out.”  It's going to take all the effort and strength I can muster to do it. I never know how.  Just one big push…AGGH!  And I'm out.  Laying in bed, breathing hard, heart pounding.  I have these once in awhile.  Stress dreams.  You wake up and your body is reacting as if the entire thing was real. Who asks for this?  Jeez...

Then comes the search for meaning.  Does it relate?  Sometimes it doesn't.  Maybe it's just stray anxiety that has to come out. Then I realize, tomorrow I'm supposed to get on a plane and fly to Vienna.  Wide streets, hotel lobbies with high ceilings, old world restaurants.  It is not unusual that I’ll have a stress dream around the time I have to travel.  Thing is, this tour was cancelled awhile back.  I've known I wasn't getting on any planes or trains and it was all seemingly out of mind.  But with so many years of traveling, by now an unconscious conditioning has been installed.  The show must go on.  No matter what, you get to the gig!

Some of the details in that dream actually happened.  Not the moving restaurant part, but being on a train and not knowing the destination, only being told it will be many hours before we arrive.  It was in Italy, involving a snow storm, getting sick, de-training in some small town at 3 am, wandering around, twenty four hours of delirious travel. But let me see if I can get back on track.  I’m not even sure where this is all going but I really do love dill pickles, that part is true.  Too bad we’re out.

So is it about travel then?  There was a similar dream a few weeks back.  I was to have played in Baltimore with my friend, pianist Bob Butta.  I first met Bob when I was 19.  We haven't seen each other or played in many years and this was to be a reunion gig of sorts.  In the dream we’re arriving at "The Jazz Closet" a club on West Franklin Street.  We played there many times back in the day.  It was run by a man named Henry Baker.  A lot of wonderful people hung out and a lot of great music took place there.  It has been closed and boarded up for twenty, maybe thirty years.  That whole block has remained abandoned, quite sadly.  You can imagine what it must be like inside.  In the dream we are setting up to do this gig in this abandoned building and of course it's a pandemic so no one is going to come out.  We begin to play and my reed is just completely out to lunch, an ordeal to get any sound out whatsoever.  It’s dangerous and deserted.  Going outside is no better since you're liable to get the virus.  Just play the gig. This is what we know how to do.

Now what?  I'm awake, having my coffee and looking out the window.  43rd Street and 10th Avenue, always active.  Now and for the past forty-five days as still as some deserted small town.  Every night at 7 pm people clap and yell, otherwise not much is happening.  I watch folks moving about.  There is one fellow who stands on the corner each day for hours, watching.  I don’t know who he is or why he stands there.  There are some homeless folks and some addicts.  I recognize many of them from over the years.  I don't know how they manage.  But they have some kind of routine, certain rituals.  Otherwise it's folks wearing masks, carrying phones and looking into them as they walk.  My dream state is wearing off slowly and while I know this is all real it is very easy to drift.  These phones, people looking into them as if they were windows or mirrors.  Another kind of ritual.  I imagine what incantations might be involved.  Does the oracle tell them where to go, what do do?  What would happen if they looked up?  I’m being a jerk.  But the thing is, it’s as if they and the homeless folks around them are in two different worlds.  They don’t see the homeless.  But the homeless folks see everything.

And I am in another world, in my accustomed role as observer.  What kind of mirror am I looking into? I’m mesmerized.

And there is another group, another world.  The workers, risking themselves every day, delivering packages, repairing the street, working in the grocery shop.  Once in awhile there is someone in medical garb, the hospital being just blocks up the street. I read about what is happening there. So do you. It is all too real.  My sense is that they do not have much time to reflect on it.  But this is not a domain for my speculation.

I've written about sitting in my room with the saxophone, vibrating sound. Sound that I know does not have boundaries, transforming and connecting to everything.  I know this to be literally true, I just don’t fully know what it means.  I think it’s life and death.

Now what?  No traveling.  Being in place, accepting that and yet my body is still dancing to some other kind of rhythm.   As a teenager I yearned to get out of Baltimore.  And when I got to NYC I yearned twice as much to travel out of the country.  And I've traveled every year since then, somewhere for a gig or tour, since 1983.  My first trip was to Brazil.  Such a very different rhythm there both musically and in the way people live.  Sensuous and aware.  I wrote previously about the one sound, but it could just as easily be called the one rhythm, in all its infinite variation, life itself.  That was a real experience…but I’m dreaming again…

And so again I ask.  Now what?  What do these reveries and observations have to say?  What rhythm is this that we are now experiencing?  I'm listening…


Long, imposing, massive silence.  A waterfall of silence.

Over time there is even a sense of rhythm, a much slower rhythm than I’ve ever imagined.  As if stillness and movement have come together.  Whatever this is, I sense it underlies everything.  Perhaps it is everything.

In the things we do, our ideas and dreams…what happens?

Is this silence and stillness a canvas that we paint on?  When we dance or make music, can we still feel it?

What happens when we connect to machines and technology?  Are these machines anywhere near sensitive enough to detect stillness and silence?  If they could, how would they convey that to you?

Pause.  That’s what we’re calling this period, a collective pause.  The particular song we’ve all been dancing to has suddenly stopped, its relentless tempo abated.  Sudden withdrawal.  I’m craving the movement, the interaction that seems lost.  My computer mimics many of these rhythms but it actually has no rhythm of its own. Just an algorithm.  It doesn't stop, it doesn’t breathe.

There are a lot of reactions in the arts community to this pause.  It's not easy and we are working it out in different ways.  Most of them seem to involve the internet as a means to simulate the connection we are missing.  To keep money coming in.  We do need to function and we seem to have many tools at our disposal.

Music and art have long been a means to directly encounter truth, to be truth, to be complete.  It has only been a relatively short time in history in which this has become separated and extracted from the fabric of life and squeezed into forms and shapes that become things.  Things to be picked up and set aside.  Even the activity of experience can be captured and contained. Labeled and made into a thing.  Conversation, looking at someone’s face, being together.  It seems to be a jumble.  What’s the rhythm?   What’s real?  What’s the dream?

Now what?

Music, like silence, just is.  We call it music.  We make it an idea.  But what if you didn’t?  What if you just danced?  Just played?  Just listened?  Would you lose yourself and vanish?  That’s also an idea, a limitation.  But if you could, what would happen?  What would you see, feel and hear?  Take music out of the conversation.  What might all of this mean for the way we experience each other?

I received a newsletter from The American Classical Orchestra, an organization devoted to period instruments and performance.  Tom Crawford, the artistic director, spoke as much about gardening as music.  And how unique performances result from being in tune with the seasons.  How the instruments themselves are part of that cycle, reacting to the weather.  An appreciation of the time it takes to develop a challenging piece of music over a period of years.  The fact that this season will be fallow due to the virus.  We will miss a season, a harvest.  He spoke very directly and unapologetically about the reality of this moment.  He spoke poignantly about young people.  “They will be robbed of a genuine organic experience – live music by groups, the warm embrace of family, friends and classmates.”  There was no mention of live streaming or videos to tide you over.  He didn't talk about all the ways in which we must adapt by means of simulation.  He simply accepted these conditions as fact and spoke from the perspective of time and patience. To next season, which could be richer by giving the soil time to regenerate.

This is real, and it hurts.  We musicians are programmed to make the gig, no matter what.  My stress dreams are telling me that.  And somehow, we need our dreams, even the strange ones.  Coming out of them I may better understand what I know to be true yet am afraid to fully admit.

Silence is an essential part of music.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

The One Sound…

One of the pleasures of this time at home has been writing.  That’s something that I was ambivalent about during the last year but it’s an important means of basic communication.  My ambivalence was likely due to an underlying desire to use writing as a means to figure things out.  But I really don’t think that words ever really clear anything up.  They can describe and they can point.  And they can sometimes be beautiful.  I think that happens when we read something that seems true.  Not stated as factual information, but as an act, alive, set into motion yet not fully resolved.

The answers that I always seem to be looking for are like moving targets.  And even if you manage to snag one it doesn’t seem to remain viable for very long.  And so I keep looking, expecting that one day perhaps I’ll find what I’ve been looking for.  But during this time spent within four walls simple communication becomes paramount.  I don’t want to think about what would happen if the electricity went out.  So I keep focused on the task at hand, whatever it is.  Right now it’s writing these words.  They are a reflection of what is happening on my little corner of 43rd street in NYC.  I’m not even sure what they mean but it seems important to write them and send them out in this electronic form, completely ephemeral.  I really don’t know who reads them nor how the words land.  I have to let go of the whole thing.  Then maybe tomorrow there is something else to write.  Or just be quiet for a few more days.   I guess I’m asking something but I’m not sure what.  The content seems less and less important.  Maybe the asking is enough.  In reading that back it sounds like someone who has been inside for a little too long without speaking to too many folks.  But that is in fact the reality of the situation.  Fortunately I’ve been able to carry on some one-to-one written correspondence with a handful of folks and I’d like to thank each of them very much for sharing something in this form.  It brings some welcome warmth to the simple process of reading and writing.

So here’s the thing…I’ll start with this phrase…

“Visceral Connection to Sound”

This came up in some correspondence recently.  A friend mentioned a book by Madeline Bruser called “The Art of Practicing”.  I have not read the book and will likely not, only because I am ridiculously slow in my reading.  I am in the final chapters of “A Distant Mirror” by Barbara Tuchman.  I started this book when I was in college.  It’s great and I’m determined to finish it.  My wife just laughs whenever I bring it up.  Anyway, I was curious and looked at Madeline Bruser’s website and saw five things that she felt were essential in her approach to teaching.  One of them mentioned strengthening your visceral connection to sound.

I noticed the other day that I started this blog on April 28th, 2010.  That’s exactly ten years to the day.  In that initial post I mentioned becoming “almost obsessed with sound”.  In the ten years since then I’ve tried again and again to come at this notion of sound in order to better understand or perhaps as an assist in getting a better sound on the horn.  And yea, “better” is a lame word so what’s a better word than better?  How about complete?  A complete sound.  I’ve grappled with this notion of a “complete sound” for some time now.  The act of making a sound, from your body through an instrument.  Maybe your voice.  Maybe striking an object.  Vibrating a string or setting air in motion through a tube.  And you might ask yourself, where does the sound come from?  Where does it go?  Why do some sounds make me cry?  These are not just theoretical questions.  It is the visceral experience of vibration, including your body, mind and everything around you.  I realize this may sound like too much.  It certainly is possible to make too much out of just about anything.  But I know I’m not alone in this.  Perhaps most folks don’t feel the need to talk much about it, they know that all that is really required is to just make the sound.  To just listen.  It speaks for itself.

Still, it does sometimes require a bit of a push, in words, perhaps on a blog.  To say to folks, “hey, please don’t forget to listen”.  Or maybe just “please don’t forget”.  Or even just “please”.  I’m reminded of this by virtue of the conversations I’ve been having.  Folks sharing what they’ve been noticing and experiencing.  We do call attention to things, teachers do this all the time.

Here’s a good example…

This particular person I don’t know a lot about.   It seems he did not actually consider himself a musician.  A teacher perhaps.  Or someone who just did what he did.  Coming out of a particular tradition he went his own way.  Something of a character, sometimes mischievous, he often spoke about the “one sound”.  Saxophonist Steve Lacy spoke of him as "one of the greatest improvisers I've ever heard in my life, maybe the greatest."  In hearing him play I’m immediately captivated by the ever changing texture of his sound.  It has something of the same quality I hear in the early rural blues singers whose voices were almost symphonic in the variety of textures and sounds coming from just one person.  In some ways I can’t help but think about multi-woodwind master Rahsaan Roland Kirk who I’m sure knew this “one sound”.

His name was Watazumi Doso Roshi.  He was not a jazz musician but like certain jazz musicians he used his persona as a vehicle, a means to directly convey a lesson that would only be burdened by the use of too many words.  I first heard of him when I came across a story he told a group of musicians at the Creative Music Studios in Woodstock in the early eighties.  These are his own words, through a translator…

Yesterday over at the Zen Arts Center in Mount Tremper two students approached me to be taught the flute.  One of them was as I understood an internationally famous poet, quite an old man.  And he asked me, that when he plays his flute, of various delusions and hallucinations and thoughts appear and he plays his flute out through those delusions and thoughts and “what should I do about it?”  And so I answered him “when you're playing the flute why are there necessarily such delusions?”  So actually I figured out that this person was talking about something else.  I told him that he is playing the flute with his mouth but his body was going somewhere else.  And I told him that what we are doing, the way we are living, is not something that is to be talked about, it is something that is to be actually lived.  

So I said to this fellow “I bet when you sit in front of a plate of food you are not deluded and so why are you deluded when you pick up a flute?  Are you deluded when you eat or when you sleep or when you go to the bathroom?  If you're still deluded then take your flute and hit yourself over the head.  If you can't hit your own self over the head give me the flute and I’ll hit you over the head with it.”  And so he said that he had not come here to ask Doso Roshi to do that.  So then Doso Roshi said “shut up!”

That person had come from New York the day before and stayed overnight at the Zen Arts Center.  Being internationally famous, for him, was nothing.  This person had written poems but all of these poems were surely nothing but deluded words.  He walked away from that interview unable to look this way or that way and unable to see what was around him and so I think that probably he was even more deluded then, when he went back to New York City.

This story has a humorous aspect in as much as he is trying to help someone who is perhaps being a bit too willfully helpless.  It also reads as harsh to be saying that the poet’s work must be deluded.  I’m reminded of my early days in NYC, playing a steady gig in Harlem with organist Jack McDuff.  Sometimes during the evening he would roll his eyes and yell across the stage at me in front of everyone there, “you call yourself a musician?”   I knew what was being conveyed to me in no uncertain terms.  That this whole thing was larger than me.  And larger than him.  This was known as “old school”.  I don’t think this is necessarily an appropriate way to teach these days but I do understand it.  The teacher is not being malicious or arrogant, they are simply using their position to impress upon you that we are not f***ing around.  We might sometimes wonder if this person is abusing their power, that’s always possible.  In any event you had better get over yourself in a hurry and figure out what to do.

But the longer view is this.  It’s up to the poet to know whether their words are deluded or not.  No one else can tell you, not even someone you admire.  The teacher is providing a catalyst for you to gain a perspective on things, to know yourself better, to break away from what you’re holding on to so as to be able to trust yourself and stand on your own two feet.

There is a video of Watazumi telling this story himselfThe title of the video mentions Allen Ginsberg as being the poet in question.  I was curious if that was true since Watazumi never mentions the name.   I contacted the videographer, dug deeper and found two other persons who were also there.   No one could say for sure and my feeling is that it was most likely not Ginsberg.

There does not seem to be much more information about Watazumi but he did record a number of LPs.  Trombonist Ben Gerstein has collected these recordings which I believe are otherwise completely unavailable, and presented them all on one page.

There is another short video of Watazumi speaking and playing.  He describes his methods and training and speaks a bit to the “one sound”.    I watched it again today and was struck by a particular phrase that escaped my attention previously.  Given what I wrote at the beginning of this little essay, it seems to resonate.  In being repeatedly asked by some famous composers “what is the one sound” and repeatedly trying different ways to address them he finally says “You fools! Have you not understood your own question?”

Monday, April 20, 2020

The act of remembrance…

On April 15th, 2020 saxophonist Lee Konitz passed.

It was January of 1977 and I was in the practice room at Towson State College, my first year there.  I was playing through a John Coltrane transcription of Giant Steps when there was a knock at the door.  It was my saxophone professor Dr. Briscuso and he said that someone wanted to see who it was playing.  He opened the door wider and there was Lee Konitz.  He was at the school as a guest artist for the Single Reed Workshop which Dr. Briscuso had organized.  I don’t remember exactly what he said but he was positive and offered encouragement.  The masterclass he offered later that day left a lasting impression, a story that I often tell.  Confronting a large roomful of people, he introduced himself.  After making a few awkward comments he kind of shrugs and asks “well…are there any questions?”

This seemed to indicate a downward trajectory and I don’t recall much of what was said afterwards.  Seemingly at a loss he decides that he will demonstrate to us how he practices.  It’s a rather simple process in which the melody is stated and restated until he’s satisfied.  Then in beginning his improvisation he restricts himself to whole notes only.  He plays a few choruses in whole notes impressing upon us that when doing this at home it may be at least twenty minutes or however long it takes to get a good chorus in just whole notes.  He won’t move on until he’s ready and then it’s choruses in half notes.  Same thing, as long as it takes to get a good one.  Next, quarter notes.  Finally eighth notes.  By now I don’t know how long his demonstration has gone on but there is a palpable sense of fatigue among my fellow students.  They are finding this interminable to listen to let alone entertain any idea of actually doing it.  Personally I’m fascinated.  The first thing I want to do is get to the practice room.  As the class breaks up I’m already hearing complaints and griping and in the hallway as I’m waiting for the elevator comes Dr. Briscuso.  “He didn’t even have a lesson plan!” Dr. B. says, incredulous.  I laughed and headed upstairs.  Devoting the next hour to the exercise I’m amazed at the freedom I’m experiencing when I finally get to my eighth notes.  It’s as if I couldn’t make a mistake if I wanted to.  Taking all that time in hearing the note you want to play before you play it leads to a space in which every note offers every possibility for every other note to come next.  I didn’t really understand why it worked at the time but the effect was powerful.  It was also elusive, providing a taste of freedom that would require many years in further cultivating.  In looking back I see that it afforded an entrance into any and every aspect of improvising that I might consider today.

On March 1st, 2020 Dr. Joseph Briscuso passed.  When I arrived at Towson I didn’t know that I was entering a classical music program.  I enrolled because of the jazz band and assumed that the musical training would be that.  There was to be an audition and I practiced the required etudes feeling quite assured I was going to nail it and knock it out.  I enter the audition room and there is Dr. Briscuso along with some other teachers.  I can already sense that there is something he’s noticed but I don’t know what it is.  But no worries, I just plow straight into it.  It’s pretty short and now I sense something in the silence after my impassioned performance.  Dr. B asks me to step outside and wait.  Now I’m uncomfortable.  After a long few minutes I’m called back in.  I’m given an exceptionally brief but potent rundown of the difference between a jazz approach and a classical approach centering largely on the bright metal “Berg Larson” mouthpiece I’m sporting and how that’s not going to work at all.  And I’m being put on probation.  I haven’t been denied into the program but I have six months to get with the program, as it were.  I was shocked.  This is how I learned that there was even such a thing called classical saxophone.

Fortunately it didn’t take long before I was operating from within an acceptable distance from the ideal.  And I enjoyed it.  Still, I’d come into my lessons with Dr. B. thinking that I had the concept down only for him to tell me I sounded like Stan Getz.  I was surprised and a little disappointed.  It’s not that he didn’t like Stan Getz, it was just not what he wanted.  But still, it was a little confusing since inside I’m thinking “that’s great, he said I sound like Stan Getz!”  My time as a student was generally very positive although fraught with a certain amount of emotional confusion over the fact that I knew what I needed and sensed that what was available from the school and the program at the time was not going to give me that.  It was mostly geared towards training music teachers to enter the school system.  But there were enough of us who wanted to play.  Dr. Briscuso and some of the other professors in the department were responsive and supportive.  But still this tension was frustrating and not all of my day to day decisions were good ones.  I’m very grateful to Dr. B. for navigating those waters with me.  He was a relaxed, humorous and laid back fellow but at the same time, totally candid, realistic and no-bullshit.  He didn’t have to lean on you for you to know what was most important.  He expected something from you.  He was going to be OK no matter what, you were the one who was hanging.

As for our lessons he laid a foundation that has been in place all these years.  I almost take it for granted since it’s hard to know exactly what it was.  I just soaked it up.  It was sound, technique and musicality as a given.  And knowing how important it is to bow properly to the audience.  Somehow that sticks out to me, I’m not sure why.  We can be somewhat oblivious at that age but I sensed this was more than protocol, this bowing.  He was the kind of teacher who tended to stick to the simple point.  But I could see it on his face, there was something important he wanted us to know.  You had to see it in his eyes.  I still see it.

Somehow I made it through school, went on the road and moved to NYC.  While I was always self-assured and full of drive, sometimes I think I made it by the skin of my teeth.  But certainly with the help of many dedicated people who themselves helped countless others, not just me.  I didn’t see Dr. B. except for a few times after graduation.  The most recent was a few years ago at his home.  He’d been retired for some years but he still had all the same energy and enthusiasm.  His horn was set up and ready to go in his music room.  He had his students that came to the house.  He wife taught piano and his son also taught saxophone.  It was wonderful to catch up and I’m so glad I had that chance.

Sitting here thinking about all of this is a welcome and necessary break from dwelling on current events.  Almost as if these worlds were separate, a respite from anxiety.  But they’re not, they can’t be.  This is the part that requires some attention.  

It must have been around 1985.  I was living on the upper west side at the time, near Manhattan School of Music.  I needed to get some flyers made for a gig I had.  This being way before computers, you had to do the artwork yourself and then go to the copy shop to get cards and flyers made.  This was a summer day, pretty warm and I’m running around doing errands that I’d rather not do, wanting to get it all done and over-with.  I get to the copy shop and there’s a bit of a line, moving slowly.  People are fanning themselves, a little hot and bothered.  I’m a bit too full of nervous energy, impatient and can’t quite stand still.  I accidentally bump into the guy ahead of me who turns around with an unpleasant glare.  It’s Lee Konitz.  I’m mortified and unable to say a word.  He turns back around.  Now I’m even more nervous.  Here we are, in line together at the copy shop, a perfect opportunity to chat.  And I kind of blew it.  I considered whether I should just be honest and say “sorry, but I recognize you and in fact we’ve met.”  I could tell him how much I admire him and maybe have a normal conversation.  I’m so lost in this that I inadvertently bump into him again.  Again he turns, his gaze no more inviting than it was the first time.  Now I’m just humiliated.  Total fail.  And a very long wait to get to the front of the line and get the hell out of there with my copies.

There would be other opportunities although each would be brief.  I heard him play a number of times over the years, occasionally saying hello.  I think I once gave him one of my CDs.  I remember seeing him in the large crowd of folks filing out of an Evan Parker show at the Knitting Factory.  He saw me and said, about Evan, “best damned bagpipe player in the world”.  While that may sound pejorative I knew he was impressed.  It had been a great concert and no matter what you may have thought there was something undeniable that took place, larger than anyone’s opinions about it.  I was glad to see that he had been there and heard it.  Incidentally, I recall Andrea Parkins also being there, saying “pre-verbal” and leaving it at that.

Speaking of Andrea, that reminds me that our friend and colleague Jim Black had some direct experiences with Lee Konitz.  Jim stopped by my apartment late one afternoon before a gig at Birdland led by Lee.  It was a week long engagement and he’d already played a night or two.  Apparently Lee could be a bit hard on drummers.  Jim was doing his absolute best to fill the gig properly, giving Lee exactly what he needed.  Jim is very conscientious about serving the music but there is also no getting around the fact that he hears music and his role as a drummer in a rather different way than most.  He’s filling me in on the night before saying “I’m just playing completely normal and Lee stops playing during the music, comes over to me and starts shouting “play time!”  At another moment it’s the same thing again, Lee walking back, standing in front of the drums saying “we’re in FOUR”, holding up four fingers.

I came later in the week to check it out.  There was Lee on the low stage.  Around and behind him are Tomasz Stanko on trumpet, Dan Tepfer on piano, Thomas Morgan on bass and Jim at the drums.  There is a microphone on everyone but Lee is standing well back from his, actually not even using it.  Plus there’s a rag in the bell of his horn.  Birdland is not a small room.  The sound through the PA system is fine but he sounds amazing.  He’s not coming through the PA at all but his sound is permeating every inch of the room with a clarity and warmth that feels like the healing embrace from a well loved friend.

His stage manner was true to his somewhat gruff and irritated persona but it was mixed with something else.  At one point he announced to the audience that they were going to play “All the Things You Are”, beginning with a duo between he and Dan which he described with something approaching affection.  Suddenly and dismissively he remarks, “and then those guys” (pointing behind him) “are going to do…something”.  But even in this odd moment there was an awareness, a mischievous humor, subtle as it was.  Reminds me, somewhere on Youtube is a video of Lee on a television program from the early seventies in which he’s about to play along with something on a tape recorder that he’s brought with him.  He’s explaining to the audience how it’s supposed to work and trying to get the microphone stand raised properly and coordinate all of this but it’s not working.  He might have made a great stand up comic.  Found the link.

Lee had a great sense of intensity tempered within a wonderful balance of simple musical elements.  I was struck by a comment he made that was cited in one of the pieces I read last week.  “It’s possible to get the maximum intensity in your playing and still relax.”  I think this demonstrates just how he got straight into the heart of the matter.  He didn’t have things all worked out.  And yet his playing could be unbelievably clear and concise.  I felt a relentless passion from him.  It just burned in a different way than many of the players I more closely emulated.  That you can detect the workings of his mind is to experience a unity of mind and body that transcended either.  He just played.  It’s a complete investment of one’s self in which the result is truly selfless.  We can safely call that beauty.  

I’m not sure if this was always appreciated during his career but it demonstrates that you must go to where the artist is if you want to truly hear them.  You can’t put yourself at a distance and expect to fully get it.  He was certainly not operating at a distance.  But he wasn’t going to grab you and say “listen to what I have to say.”  And yet what he had to say was impossible to convey without your involvement.  He may have sometimes seemed aloof to that but I think he absolutely trusted the music.  And he sustained it for more than seven decades.

I just took a break from writing this to play a little bit.  What I struggle with in words comes easily on the horn.  Suffice it to say that Lee was an inspiration, in ways that I still don’t understand.  It's not unlike that initial experience practicing the technique he gave at his masterclass.  It's still unfolding.

The last time I saw Lee I kind of felt like this might be my best chance to try and covey my admiration and respect.  He was a hero to me and I wanted to let him know.  I forget what I said but when I finished he looked me right in the eye and barked, “Well, I’m a jazz master!”  I was momentarily taken aback until I detected a glint in his eye, his finger pointing to the hat he was wearing.  Indeed, there was an insignia saying just that, “Jazz Master”.  It’s given to awardees of the National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Masters program.  I hadn’t even noticed it, involved as I was in my revery.  He laughed a good laugh.  But yes, it was certainly true, that.

And so…reading about his life, considering his music, all in the confines of my room wondering what is happening, along with everyone else.  It almost seems incongruous.  But in fact his life, having reached the age of 92 was ended by this virus that is of global concern.  And I cannot avoid expressing during this time my own frustration with the theater of the absurd coming out of the White House.  I don’t say this out of divisiveness since the events that have led to this moment are vast.  Best to simply take responsibility for my own abilities and inabilities and appreciate that there is much work to be done.

In some ways it would seem impossible to correct everything that needs addressing at this stage.  But as I play the horn here in this room, I feel very directly what is needed to even begin.  I hear it in the playing of Lee Konitz.  I felt it in the teaching from my professor, Dr. B.  I hear it in the entire music we call jazz, or black american music.  It’s the truth.  It’s the only thing that can hold up and withstand the impossible.

We can safely call this love.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Giving Form…

Today I gave another one of these on-line “is it a lesson or what is it?” things.  I don’t mean to be flip about it, it’s just that it’s weird.  And I think the best thing is to just let it be what it is.  I don’t know.  But I try my best with it.  Anyway…

The emphasis would seem to be how to convey to a student a means to carry on by themselves under these conditions.  Being in isolation during a pandemic forces things.  And we feel a tension around how to be a musician when there are no gigs, no way to play with someone else.  No way to interact except through artificial means.  These means help, no doubt, to be able to speak to someone or write down your feelings for someone to read or share some music.  My sister is a writer living in Italy and she sent a short video from her rooftop greenhouse overlooking the small village she lives in.  She wrote “And yet today, for the first time in weeks, the church bells rang.”  Just a thirty second video and it was painfully gorgeous.

During the lesson we spoke about interaction as an aspect of improvisation.  It’s essential.  And right now we feel an absence of interaction.  That goes straight to the core of what the act of music is.  And suddenly it seems we can’t do what we do.  A big part seems missing.  How long will this take?  How long can I distract myself?  What will things be like once we begin to move a little?  Will it be the same?

And if you or someone you know or have heard about is not feeling well, perhaps are ill.  Or perhaps has passed.  How does this change your feelings about what you do?  Do we even talk about music under these conditions?

This morning I was reading book by Dainin Katagiri called “Returning to Silence”.  There was this phrase that jumped off the page…

“Form is the total functioning of all beings.”

He’s speaking of form as phenomena.  All phenomena, any and all things.  We speak about form in music in several ways.  The form of a composition or improvisation.  How to form a sound.  The form your instrument takes.  Usually we think of it analytically, after the fact.  As in form and analysis.  But he’s conveying that form is action.  And not in an abstract sense, but in the very real sense of all beings.  Meaning…all beings.  You, me, your friend, the person you love and the person you hate.  The person you know exists and the person you don’t know exists.  It doesn’t exclude anyone or anything.  It’s form as in what you yourself are doing.  Right now.  At any time.  This moment, completely personal and known only to you, is the precise and perfect result of everything that has happened, everywhere.

This may sound philosophical but the next time you pick up your instrument appreciate that your instrument is perfect.  It responds perfectly to what you put into it.  This is not an opportunity to complain about your reeds or the fact that the horn is leaking.  It’s still perfect.  It’s telling you what to do.  It’s telling you how to respond.  This is interaction.  So who or what are you interacting with?

“Form is the total functioning of all beings.”

Where do we draw the lines around this?  Or do we?  This is not an idea, unless that’s all you make out of it.  I can find no place to draw a line of separation.  And yet I realize that playing the saxophone is one thing.  Cooking dinner is another.  Working at the computer yet another.  They are all form.  And they are all ephemeral.   Just as ephemeral as music.  Here one moment, gone the next.  But not gone really, just moving.  Always changing.  No boundaries.  Inhalation, exhalation.  Upbeat, downbeat.

So in those difficult moments I might ask myself…

How stubborn do you want to be about how you normally think this works?

Reality will force the issue.  But does it always require hardship to appreciate?

So when I’m alone in my room playing the saxophone.  No other tools, just the room and the chair I’m sitting on.  The sound coming from the horn, vibrating my body, the air, the walls.  Completely alone.  Pure interaction.

“Form is the total functioning of all beings.”

You might also ask yourself what a being is.

Yesterday I went out on my bike in the early evening, through the streets, mostly empty.  I could ride slowly and take in the city, right through the heart of deserted times square, lonely but never alone…

Our hearts go out to each and everyone, particularly when facing the loss of life.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020


What does that mean?  I see the word being used a lot.  It seems to have as many meanings as there are forms of engagement.  In the simplest of terms it may mean saying yes.  It may just as easily mean saying no, depending on the circumstance.  When you say yes to something, consider that you’re also saying no to something.  And when you say no to something you’re also saying yes to something.

That may sound silly but I ask myself, what is it?  In specific terms, in each seemingly solitary choice made, what are the multiple choices being made?  I’m not trying to complicate the situation, I’m actually looking at how this really functions on an elemental level.  Are choices a set of fixed options, as in right or wrong?  Why do too many choices lead to indecision?  What is it about a questionable decision made in the past that feels irrevocable?  Or a looming decision in the future, is that a barrier?  There are certainly challenges and regrets involved in making choices.   Dealing with these challenges and regrets becomes the means towards our survival.  I think that’s very keenly felt right now.  But current events are forcing simplification and clarity.  Combine that simplicity with life and death implications and you can’t help but feel a sense of connectedness.  Each simple common sense act becomes a form of engagement.

As musicians we intuitively recognize this dynamic, ongoing and ever changing process for what it is.  Music falls away as soon as you make it.   Putting frames around the process is a means to differentiate and communicate, in order to function.  But we know the frames are fluid, temporary.   To experience the movement of this framing is perception, of life.   As perspective changes, thoughts and actions change.  Perception of life includes awareness of death although we tend not to speak too much about that.  When you hear Albert Ayler, he’s playing as if his life depends on it.  I think any serious musician of any kind of music knows this.  I feel it when I pick up the horn but when writing about it I don’t know what to say.  We generally live in a world of ideas but I don’t think life or death are ideas.  Ideas are ideas, regardless of their content.  I might say that the breath that we take in, the life force that breathing is, knows life and death, is life and death, every moment.   I don’t want to be overly heavy, but rather to alleviate some of the apprehension around what we are doing and how we are doing it.  Especially now, when the stakes are high and many folks are enduring great hardship.  There can be clarity.

I think we actually do know many of the things we “think” we don’t know.  Across the street from our apartment building a neighbor has a large sign in the window saying “You Got This”.  I think that’s true.  

Having said all that, I want to bring up a specific and practical issue concerning artists and musicians…

I’ve been asked occasionally whether I offer on-line lessons by skype.  The short answer is no, I don’t.  I don’t think it’s possible actually, at least for me.

My thoughts and feelings about the use of technology have been expressed in this blog and elsewhere.  In short, I regret that so much of our activity and experience in and of the world has been replaced by the use of screens and speakers.  The words effort and resistance come to mind as I write this.  Do those words have a negative connotation for you?  They might, since so much of our culture seems to appeal to the idea that we might apply less effort in our lives and experience less resistance in getting what we want.  It’s pervasive actually.  Saxophone players know very well the appeals made by mouthpiece manufacturers, more (sound, power) with less (effort, energy).  But that does not actually work.  The saxophone is all about resistance.  Too much and you can barely get a sound out.  Too little and the sound is thin and wildly out of control.  We need something to work with, some resistance.  The resistance requires effort to counteract.  It’s that dynamic that we use to shape our sound.  It’s the reason the sound of a saxophone is so personal and vocal.

I remember well the yearning and angst I felt around getting the information and opportunities I needed when I was coming up.  It took some effort to buy records or books or to get a music lesson.  I wanted to come to New York but it took much time and effort to make that happen.  There was a lot that felt like resistance, even insurmountable resistance.  But the beautiful, simple and sometimes painful reality was that I could only do things one at a time, one day at a time.  There was simply no alternative.  Fast forward to today…you want a book?  Takes a few minutes and it’s on the way.  You want to find a recording?  Mere seconds are all that is required.  You want to take a lesson?  Take your pick…everyone is offering…

This morning I was asked by a fellow saxophonist if I would be willing to give them an on-line lesson.  Under the current circumstances it’s difficult to say no.  When someone reaches out I don’t want to come up short.  

Going back to the first paragraph, when I say “no, I don’t teach on line”, what might I be saying yes to?  Perhaps I’m letting you know that this is not what it seems.  Perhaps I’m saying dig a little deeper, feel your desire a bit more acutely and think about what it may take to get yourself to someone who can help you.  Perhaps this takes a different form than you expected it to.  Dare I say that back in the day, when we got motivated enough either from boredom or urgency, we got out of the house and found other people to live our lives with.  This is the essence of community and community engagement.  Of course that’s not at all possible at the present time.

So I am proposing something a bit more…engaging…

Let’s start by recognizing what the technology is and what it is not.  An on-line exchange in any form is not and will never be a replacement for a music lesson.  The aspects of music-making that I most emphasize require our physical presence, full senses and ability to respond spontaneously to the smallest detail.  Otherwise there is a risk that the lesson is reduced to information rather than being an experience.  Even in my day to day teaching I often feel that students have the tendency to present their idea of what a musician is, rather than being the musician that they are.  I can work with that very easily in person but not so well on a computer screen.

But the technology does have certain strengths for a different way of working.  Rather than trying to figure out how to do a music lesson in real-time at a distance I propose working together over a longer period of time, some days or weeks.  Using that time as a positive element you can go a little deeper and put in the effort involved in articulating in words what your questions may be, what your experience of certain issues in music making are.  My role will be to listen, guide and challenge you as part of a process that unfolds more slowly.  We would rely upon writing, sharing audio files and at certain key moments utilizing a phone or video call as a means of checking in and expediting the process.  This is asking a bit more of you.  But it affords the opportunity within a certain amount of time to be a bit more thoughtful and bring out greater clarity of intention, to better know what you want to do, why you want to do it and how you might proceed.

I’ve always emphasized process in teaching.  Content is not some external element to be plugged into your practice sessions.  Your practice sessions are part of a process in which content is revealed, experientially.  Even when we are practicing a given, tried and true set of materials, something is revealed, assuming you are paying attention.  It’s never the case that certain elements of practice are “creative” while other aspects of practice are not.  To think this way is to put yourself at a distance from what you’re doing.  Let’s close that gap…

As to the practicalities and specific shape this may take for you, please contact me via e-mail at

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

NYC, March 2020

The feeling is almost enormous.  The relative stillness and quiet of New York City.  For how many days now?  Not really that many but a far greater length of standstill than I’m guessing has ever happened here.  And because it’s so different and seemingly impossible it begins to take on a kind of inverse quality of the power the city usually wields.  The outward becomes inward.  But still here, always reminding us that this is New York City.

I know this is happening far and wide.  Checking the news regularly although less frequently.  Business and communication slowing to a trickle.  Making no real effort to avoid the discomfort or otherwise distract myself.  Just taking care of the day to day, just like everyone.  The silence and simplicity is starting to speak.  What’s unnecessary falls under it’s own weight.  The experience is direct.  I can do nothing to stop it.  Nor is there any need.  It’s shared.

So this is an entry from an ambivalent blogger.  Not sure why I’m writing.  Not sure what there is to add.  But I know that what I’m feeling is not mine alone.  Even solitude does not belong to me.  It too communicates; receives and transmits.

I spoke about words at some length in a previous post.  I still don’t know.  I’m not even sure what I was expecting after that analysis.  So this is simply a post without a reason, without a commitment.  It could be some kind of acknowledgement.  I can’t help but think about the city since 1983 when I moved here.  And about many of the people I know and knew.  Of those in the latter category, there are a few that I would have mentioned here had I been writing more regularly.  I want to do so now.

I offer these as affirmations of life…

Jeff Andrews 
Jeff and I were roommates in the mid-eighties.  We shared a small apartment in Chelsea with another musician.  The whole place was $350 a month and included all the story-book elements that create that oft-romanticized telling of the artist’s life.  I will spare the details.  You can use your imagination.  And all the things that accompanied the bohemian lifestyle.  Again, I invite you to think about it.  But we were there for one reason alone.  To practice, to hang, to create a life in music.  Jeff was extremely talented and dedicated to the art.  He spent hours practicing his electric bass during the day and hours spent out at night.  Sometime around 1984 he got a call to play a duo gig with a guitarist at a dark, dank old bar on Christopher street.  It was a depressing little joint inhabited by mostly alcoholics, a fair number of whom seemed to be ex writers and painters.  There’s a whole story about how this place slowly transformed into the jazz bar we now know it as, the 55 Bar.  In fact, there are a lot of stories I could tell about NYC from those days but I should probably give it more time.  Either that or I’d have to use pseudonyms.  Anyway, the point being that it was Jeff’s efforts that turned the tide for that place.  I know because I was there and saw it.

Jeff used the 55 Bar and the scene it created to launch himself into the larger scene, soon playing in bands led by Mike Stern, Michael Brecker, Wayne Shorter and a whole bunch more.  I left that apartment around ’86 and our paths began to diverge musically.  But we shared our early days deeply.  We both had shared roots in Baltimore as well.  Jeff passed a year ago, in March of 2019.  I know he was battling pneumonia in the months prior.  He had a large spirit and he knew what to do with it.  Still, I know there were challenges.  And I mention that out of deepest respect.  This person that you may or may not have known, had an effect.  Those who did know him understand from experience and those who did not can still know by virtue of what I mentioned in the opening paragraphs of this entry.  It's all shared and there is nothing that can hold it back.  Thanks Jeff, for everything.

Brian Sjoerdinga
Brian was a fellow tenor saxophonist and we met in 1982 while on the road with trombonist Buddy Morrow.  Same age, same influences, same aspirations.  Brian studied music at Berklee and could really play.  I couldn’t help myself from stealing anything I could glean from his solos.  He had a goodnatured saltiness about it all.  Very bright and understated sense of humor.  After our road years we also became NYC roommates after I left the Chelsea pad and moved to Inwood (otherwise known as “upstate Manhattan”) in a largish apartment serving as a home for itinerant musicians.  Guitarist Ben Monder was also there in that period.  One of the great pleasures of that time was hearing Ben’s uncontrollable laughter at Brian’s relentless and often ruthless stream of critical observation.  He’d be doubled over and laughing so hard nothing would come out.  But Brian was a sweet guy really.  He left NYC after a year or so and wound up near Chicago.  The last time I saw him was in 2010.  He came to a gig I was doing and we had a chance to catch up.  He was happily married and genuinely happy in a way that I’d not quite seen before.  It really touched me.  It was also about a year ago that I received the news that Brian was ill.  He passed a matter of days after that.  I always wished that more people might have known Brian’s musicianship and spirit.  But over time I begin to trust that what may be lost simply takes other forms and energies.  Just like they do when they come together in a particular person at a particular time.

Steve Dalachinsky

Steve was a poet and a large figure in the downtown NYC scene.  I can’t even really express it.  If you were around you probably met him.  Even if you didn’t, you did.  Trust me.  I’m just going to post the text that I wrote in September of 2019 after I heard the news...

A Remembrance…for Steve Dalachinsky

It was a Saturday evening, the 17th of August to be exact. Maybe 7:30 or so. A perfect New York late summer day.
We were returning home, Michelle and I, from Chinatown.
On our bikes, we entered the west side bike path turning north. There was Steve, crossing the path at Spring street, just as we were passing. I yelled out “Hey” and we stopped right there. Within seconds immediately engrossed in conversation. Had to be warned out of the way by passing cyclists. Pulled to the side, gave a hug and continued, catching up, seeing, hearing what’s what.
Steve. Fully animated, all smiles, telling stories, what’s happened, what’s coming up.
One of many similar unexpected meetings over many years.
He was often everywhere, sometimes I saw him, other times heard that he had been there. He is on his way to the Stone to hear Ben Goldberg but first,
he says he wants to catch the sunset, from along the Hudson, from just the right spot at just the right time. He knows where it is, and he wants to get there in time. So we wish each other well, secure in the knowledge that we’ll be seeing each other soon at some point. Just like always. We close up the conversation and offer our salutations.
Several times in fact, there’s always one more thing…
But the sun is setting and he wants to meet it. So on he goes,
still talking, still gesticulating, smiling, laughing, while walking towards that moment.
We take our bikes up a block, I have to check mine into the citi bike station. And we hear Steve. He’s walking along, farther away now, seeing us and talking some more.
I can’t make out what he’s saying but he’s very enthused.
And I’m loving the fact that he hasn’t skipped a beat.
Still walking, still talking, still gesticulating, still smiling.
We wave back…

That’ll have to be the last time, I guess…
But I can still see his arms flying. I can still hear the sound of his voice. And I can imagine him standing in his spot, watching the New York sun set over the river…

Sunday, March 15, 2020


Given our current shared situation I suspect house-holding has probably gotten just a bit more real for all of us.  So…a big chance to really notice every little detail…

Being something of a news junkie it takes some effort to regulate my intake.  That’s something I noticed years ago and technology has made it even more challenging.  But it’s designed to do that, to keep us coming back.  And even when I’m not on it I feel the pull.

So today, rather than continue complaining about this (to myself and the folks around me who are probably tired of hearing it) I’ve deleted my facebook page.  Not that I used it all that much but still, I checked it regularly in the name of keeping up with business.  It has it's uses but I’ve known for quite awhile how it affects my mind.

I’m very happy to receive e-mail and correspond with you one to one.  My website remains up and active.  You’ll find the address there.

And I suppose I may be inclined to use this blog a bit more perhaps.  About a year ago I felt it had run it’s course.  But I’m not quite ready to become a complete hermit just yet.  So…we’ll see…

I feel a bit lighter already.

Take good care…

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

"Trio New York" & "Trio New York II" now available on Bandcamp

"Trio New York" (2011) and "Trio New York II" (2013) 
were CD only releases on my label (prime source recordings) and are officially out of print. 

Now, for the first time they are available in digital form (streaming and downloads) from Bandcamp.  

Please have a look / listen...

PS There are in fact a small number of CDs remaining of “Trio New York II”.  For those of you who value the collectable, physical musical talisman please contact me.  While I’m no longer shipping many single CD orders I am happy to offer discounted prices on orders of multiple CDs.  Have a look at the list of what’s available.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019


Just a short announcement…

In 2019 I will be placing more emphasis on teaching and somewhat less on traveling.  With teaching becoming more personally and artistically rewarding these past years this is a natural shift towards a more balanced mode of activity all around.  I enjoy working with students towards their own personal musical discoveries and I find myself learning from them in many ways.  Read a bit more on my approach here.

If you are planning to be in Manhattan or need another reason to visit please consider contacting me to discuss what’s on your musical mind.

send me an e-mail

Friday, March 29, 2019

House Cleaning…

In my previous post I spoke about the trajectory of this blog as being more or less complete.  Since that posting I was forced to move my main website to a new server and in the process gave it a re-design.  You might have a look as I’ve taken advantage of the opportunity to create an audio archive of selected tracks going back to 1987.  However, there was some archival material on the previous incarnation of the website that I have decided to post here since this blog now stands as a sort of archive in itself. First things first…

The new website is up and running at:

When I designed my first website I created a page on The Left Bank Jazz Society of Baltimore (my hometown) concert listings from 1964 to 1967.  I have simply taken that page as it was and created a pdf file of it.  You can see and download the pdf file here.

I also had a section devoted to archival material concerning the jazz scene in Baltimore that is available from the Friedheim Music Library of the John’s Hopkins Peabody Institute.

Sounds and Stories - The Musical Life of Maryland's African-American Communities. This site is a collection of interviews with musicians and people associated with the Baltimore music scene in the early days. I recommend starting with the Henry Baker and Reppard Stone interview. Henry ran a club called "The Closet" that I played at for years when I was living in Baltimore. I met a lot of great musicians there. Bob Berg and Tom Harrell, Gary Bartz, Clifford Jordan. I even got to sit in with Woody Shaw. Henry has stories that go back to his days hanging with Lester Young and Charlie Parker. There's also an interview with Ruth Binsky. Her husband Mike ran a club called "The Bandstand", another place I played at. I once sat in with Pepper Adams and Philly Joe Jones there when I was about 19.  You can access the collection at this link.

Finally, there was a section devoted to Bobbie Lee & Rodd Keith, my musician parents.

I’ve written about my mother Bobbie Lee on the blog, (here) particularly about her musical life and early development in the Pentecostal church.  Since posting that entry I have come into contact with a dear friend of my mother’s from that time in her life.  She is also a musician (pianist) and her family was deeply rooted in the church.  She’s given me quite a bit more insight into how she and my mother learned to play and what the environment was like at that time.  At some point I will probably update that post accordingly.

At one time I had created a Rodd Keith website, which is now unavailable.  I’m not sure whether or not I will create a new one, at least not in the near term.  So for now you can read the 1996 article I wrote on Rodd Keith for the WFMU Radio magazine “Lowest Common Denominator”.  It’s on the WFMU website at this link.

In 1997 the long running radio program, “This American Life” interviewed me about Rodd Keith’s work.  You can listen to that here, on their website.

Also, on February 11, 2003 PBS aired "OFF THE CHARTS: The Song-Poem Story" on the series "INDEPENDENT LENS". The film explored the "send us your lyrics" music industry and profiled my father Rodd Keith as well as some of the song-poets themselves. I was in there too, being interviewed. You can view the documentary on Netflix.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Backwards / Forwards

It’s February of 2019…wow…

I guess “wow” can be applied in just about any way you want.  What’s your outlook?  How do you articulate it?

Here's a photo from 1966, taken at one of those in-between moments.  Before I knew too much...

I started this blog in 2010 in order to help clarify some things.  About process, music and doing this today, in 2019 as it currently stands.  Before that I had written articles, liner notes and done many interviews all starting around 1996.  Before that I guess I didn’t really have much to say or a platform from which to say it.  Somehow the whole internet thing seemed to coincide with a need to say in words many things that I used to think were not possible to say in words.  I recognize that need to say things as the need to speak to what you know, take a stand, define or even defend one’s turf.  That’s important.  But there is another side of that which is essential to understand.  There is no turf to defend.  Knowing, standing for, defending, let alone talking about those things is only possible because of that fact.  That’s because there are no things, there is only activity.  And that includes the activity of speaking and naming things. 

What are words?  What do they do?  They point to something, call attention to something.  They refer to something.  Refer.  What does that word mean?  The Oxford Dictionary gives this bit of information: 

Late Middle English: from Old French referer or Latin referre ‘carry back’, from re- ‘back’ + ferre ‘bring’.

To bring back.  To bring back what?  Anything, it would seem.  And the reason that works is because there is no fixed meaning with respect to words.  There are only situations which require the need for expression.  Why?  For functionality I suppose.  So we do need to agree on some baseline definitions of words.  But in order to reflect reality in any kind of way those agreed upon definitions need some flexibility in order to accommodate perspectives.  And who has perspectives?  People.  You and I. 

In spite of all this preoccupation with speech I’ve always been intuitive when it comes right down to it.  I figure out how to say things after the fact.  And the process of verbalizing seems to make the music clearer and more direct.  Then I can let it go and move on. But it’s that direct, intuitive encounter with music (or whatever you’re doing) that reveals everything, before you really know what you’re doing.  That happens even when you think you know what you’re doing.  Even the basics, the well worn prerequisites for learning your instrument are encountered by someone who doesn’t yet really know what they are dealing with.  You, me, everyone.  All the time in fact.

In my own musical practice these days I feel as if I am starting at the beginning again, with those basic fundamentals only this time I’m going backwards.  What does that even mean?  I think it means taking an even more careful look at “I don’t know.”  Learning to articulate in words what we’re doing is important.  But the trick is not to lead from that.  Better to lead from “I don’t know”.  “I don’t know” is completely wide open.  No need to think about the little that you know when there’s so much “I don’t know” in front of you, all around you.

I’m noticing this in teaching as well.  Over the years it’s gone from me thinking that I have to impart some kind of knowledge or information to realizing that it’s all about the student’s experience of encountering what they don’t know.  Acquiring the skills and knowledge they need and then letting it go.  That’s done by learning how to build a line of inquiry, meaning simply, how to ask questions. How to see what it is that’s being taken for granted. 

So what do you do with these questions once you find a good one?  Simply ask yourself the question and then respond on your instrument.  Like, "can a saxophone be ... ? (fill in the blank) Can I take the movement I see out my window and bring it into sound?  In looking at that building down the street is there any difference between that and the sound I'm making?  The more impossible the question, the better.  But it should come from a real need.  Try it.  Ask yourself a question and answer it on your instrument, without thinking anything out.  Take your time and really try and answer it.  Because it’s impossible.  Be open. Listen. Feel. The result might be subtle or it might be jarring.  Or it might not work at all or do anything whatsoever.  But it’s open.  And the response, whatever it is, good, bad, or indifferent, is definitely coming from somewhere.  You can always work with that.  Because you don’t know.  Because you’re encountering these things as they happen. If you think you know what they are, you may have missed an opportunity. 

Back in the day an upcoming musician wasn’t really told too much.  You had to get it by being there.  Listening with everything you had.  Pick it up and learn by trying, doing.  Practice, discipline and common sense all play a role.  But nothing was handed to you, you had to want it, need it.  And it was only made real by getting up on the bandstand and not knowing for sure what was going to happen.

Appreciating this anew, after all these years, seems to be very much related to the fact that I don’t seem to have much to say these days when it comes to writing about music.  It’s been almost a year since the last post! Playing music is it’s own experience, for the musician and the listener.  Teaching music is it’s own experience, for the student and for the teacher.  The deeper and richer that experience becomes, the less there seems to be to say about it.  And yet I’m not giving up on words or writing.  I just want to see it for what it is and not try and use it as a substitute for the experience of what the words refer to.  Meaning that I want to experience more directly what is happening, before things are named.  And things are named very quickly, almost immediately, in the name of understanding and knowing what we’re doing.  In fact, here is a little thought experiment…

Whatever you “think” is after the fact, after the experience.
“Awareness of thinking” also comes after the fact (the fact of thinking).
By the time a thought registers, it’s a memory, a reflection.  
That’s the speed at which this happens.  
So if I say, pay attention to the experience itself 
(meaning what you are doing), rather than thinking about it, that would imply that 
naming the experience comes after the experience that is being referred to.  
But if thinking is an activity (rather than a thing) then 
the naming of a thing comes before it’s named.  
Meaning that it happened before you were aware of it.  

So of what use is this little excursion?   For me it’s a way to let go.  We can compare it to music.  As soon as it’s there it’s gone.  It has no meaning, therefore it might mean anything.  And you can’t hold on to any of it.  Why?  Because it’s life.  Not just part of life, but life.  There are no parts of life, there is just living.  So thinking is alright.  It’s more than alright, it’s amazing.  But we have a choice of where to live.  We can live in our thoughts or we can live in our actions.  Our actions include thought.  Thought sometimes thinks that it includes actions, includes the world, includes reality.  But that’s probably just a false thought.  So what’s next?

Oh right, I was writing about language.  And the point?  Well, perhaps I’m suggesting that there would be far fewer conflicts in the world if we were able to see the mistakes in our thinking, which I suspect are often due to linguistic errors, especially around ideas like "I", "me" and "mine".  At the same time, I also notice more and more how the collective scene (people doing things together) seems evermore scattered and diffuse, due largely to the way we use our phones and computers.  Even when we’re “here” we’re not really “here”.  Social media seems to have some kind of pull on us.  And I want to point out that I cannot truly criticize this because I am just as much a part of it.  I may not like it, that’s for sure.  I don’t use a smart phone and I don’t like the intrusion when people around me bring them out.  But I’m on the computer too much at home.  It often affects my thinking in negative ways when I could very well be doing other things. That has to change.  So in addition to seeing thought for what it is I also want to be very clear about what it is I’m actually saying and why.  There is always some kind of self-interest involved.  Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but seeing it is a good thing.  Because what is it really?  Perhaps a form of ownership. 

Ask yourself what you can really own.  And then play your instrument.  

Ownership tends to lead to the need to protect or defend.  It is true that we do need to protect ourselves (and others).  There are very real threats in the world.  Most of them can be traced to a misunderstanding with respect to thought.  And it becomes entrenched.  So while we work to see it in ourselves we also need to work to see it in the larger society, the larger system.  We create it and it creates us. 

Here’s another thought experiment.  If I have something (you name it) and give it to you, do I not have it any longer?  Seems obvious.  But what might I give that does not take anything away? 

Or put another way, does my ownership of something come at someone else’s expense?  Probably so, if you look deeply enough.  But if I give it away, does that come at my own expense?  It may well feel that way.  What to do?  I have my thoughts on that but I won’t say.  You might pick up your instrument and ask.

Writing an article like this tends to evoke ideas relating to freedom, liberation, good feelings.  Thing is, that so easily becomes a “thing”.  And you know what we do with “things” in our culture.  We package and sell them!  But I think you can see that the activity of going a bit deeper, in continuing to ask more questions and assess what’s being taken for granted we’re likely to meet resistance.  In ourselves or from others.  That can be very challenging, maybe excruciating at times.  But in music, I’ve never met a challenge that did not also invite a positive action. I might not have known what that action was, how could I?  But that doesn’t mean that it can’t be done. 

One of the things I find myself saying a lot is “trust the music”.  That extends to everything really.   What does the music need right now?  What does the current situation need right now?  What do you need right now?  It’s 2019.  Wow.  Does it need more commentary?  More of anything?  We should know what we’re doing to be able to speak the truth, which is that we really do not know at all, as we speak.  And there is plenty to be done.  It’s happening right now.  We can pay attention, or not.

With all of this I’m prepared to say that this blog may have largely served it’s purpose.  Perhaps there will be something to share here or there but we’ll see.  As for practical matters, the website will continue to be updated with news of concerts and recordings.  In fact, there will be a new recording to talk about later in the year.  But the music is moving stronger than ever and I do look forward to sharing that with you sometime, somewhere, before too long.  And I trust that all of you will be moving things forward in ways that we can’t even imagine.

If any of this sparks anything, feel free to drop me an e-mail.  And I’m happy to set up music lessons anytime you’re in town (NYC) and interested.