Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Engagement…


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 ellery.eskelin@gmail.com

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

Housekeeping


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.  www.elleryeskelin.com

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…