Sunday, January 31, 2021

On the matter of Criticism

Occasionally, either by collision or perhaps in the act of navel gazing, I’ve endeavored to resolve my feelings around criticism, something every artist faces and something that no one likes.  It never works, the best I could ever come up with was that critics should offer insight over opinion.  Sounds good sort of, but mostly I don’t like to think about it so I write it off as unimportant.  But that doesn’t work either so it sits there unresolved, perhaps to be grappled with another day.  

This week I’ve had occasion to appreciate that there may be some good in criticism after all and I’m tempted again to ask, what if this tension could be resolved?  I’m reminded of what a friend of mine would say in this situation, “if you ever thought that you came to the end of that road it might be time to check your pulse, you may be dead”.  At this point, after having deceived myself numerous times in the past I’m starting to feel that this kind of tension is simply built into life.  Perhaps what is required is to resolve oneself within that tension, to cease externalizing it.  Something does want to be resolved, to be at rest.  But not dead.  

Last week we had a family conversation about reading habits.  My son and I  started by discussing what constitutes a polemic, a form of writing with a long history that has taken on renewed energy, morphed into 280 character twitter-bursts and burned into our daily cyber-consciousness.  By the way, there is no way this does not affect our collective mental health.  In recent weeks there has emerged the clearest evidence yet of some of the worst effects, a mutating internet cult making it’s way into political life.  I have to think of it as a form of brainwashing made all the more effective by technology.  But I digress.

My wife is an enthusiastic reader, very open to entering literary terrain.  I’m inspired by her because I’m the opposite, sorry to say.  Somewhere along the line I became aware that there is a tacit world view or set of assumptions in anything anyone writes.  There is always a degree of self interest that would seem to infect what may otherwise be a sincere reach towards some kind of truth.  Attention to this fact on the part of the reader (me) often requires arduous work to counter the threat.  Sounds paranoid, right?  “Infect” and “threat” are exaggerations but it’s difficult to articulate the more subtle and hidden operations that take place under the surface when reading.  I asked the question “is it possible to read something without having any personal vested interest in what is being read”?  My wife immediately responded in the affirmative saying that fiction takes her somewhere, she is open to learning about another person, other people, other cultures.  This set the stage for a good conversation that has been resonating since then.  

I’m pretty deficient in the amount of literature I’ve read.  What I do enjoy reading are essays, interviews and news.  This morning I read an interview between jazz pianist Ethan Iverson and classical music critic Alex Ross (of the New Yorker).  I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy it, at first glance it seemed to be potentially dry, involving a somewhat detailed exploration of the academic tradition of criticism and classical music.  But I have enjoyed the writing of Alex Ross (whom I cited in a previous post on Passion and Etymology) and decided to go for it.  I’m very glad I did.  After pushing my way in, the interview gradually became more personal and alive.  By the end Alex Ross wound up fleshing out this tradition (by way of his recent book “Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music”) by illuminating connections between music, art and literature that I never fully appreciated, with Wagner being central and vastly more influential than I’d realized.  An investigation of Wagner is also problematic but you can read the interview for a better analysis than I can provide. In the final few exchanges Alex Ross offered some surprising connections from the late nineteenth century to aspects of popular American culture today.  Most importantly I am appreciating that the role of criticism has been an integral part of the western tradition, not just on the part of critics but on the part of composers, writers and artists, as evidenced from their correspondence with each other and even in the way they may teach. To know literature and academic study is to know something about criticism. I had been vaguely aware of this phenomenon and to be honest I never liked it, it seems contrary to the process of making art.  I recall years ago reading a book (I wish I could recall the title) which was a series of articles or interviews with contemporary composers in which they all trashed each other.  It really turned me off of the idea of criticism and I dismissed the whole thing entirely.  But perhaps I was not being quite honest with myself. 

Reading the Alex Ross interview put a light on my skepticism and intimidation around academic tradition while at the same time eliciting an undeniable attraction to it.  Critical thinking, while being essential to our survival and to our sense of meaning is also an essential skill for any artist in being able to gain a perspective (a form of distance) on their own work.  But in artistic practice (the creative act) it is often very limiting, distance being a liability.  I emphasize instead the virtues of intuition and direct experience.  Above all I’m an improvisor, but hopefully not a dumb one.  It’s easy to romanticize a degree of willful ignorance in the name of authenticity.  And it is equally easy to throw stones at the citadel but I still very much want to know what’s in there.  

Many years ago when I was still rather new on the scene I did a radio interview here in NYC.  Afterwards the DJ and I rode the subway together and chatted more about music, he also being a jazz critic and a sharp scholar of the music.  At one point I expressed my enthusiasm for Albert Ayler only to be told in no uncertain terms that Albert Ayler was “not part of the canon”, which floored me.  It had never even occurred to me that there was such a thing as a jazz canon (I was pretty naive) but I immediately knew I wanted no part of it.  It sounded too much like gatekeeping and exclusion by folks who were not musicians.  

What was most impressive about Alex Ross was that he was actually embodying the academic and critical path, coming to terms with it’s complexities and contradictions by coming to terms with himself in it.  In other words, it was personal and that is compelling.  I’m in no way drawn to that path myself but I begin to understand something of my attraction to it.  Still, it seems unavoidable that there is a conflict and an adversarial process at work, but what is it and where does it operate?

We all have a critical inner voice that we live with every day.  Reading news seems a good way to feed that critical voice but without some discipline and discernment there is risk of creating distress and outrage.  Who wants to live with that?  That’s just painful and whether you direct that distress outwards or inwards, either way it is you who will feel it.  This is not always easy to stop once it gets rolling and may require an antidote, deliberately practicing gratitude for example.  At the same time we can ask ourselves if our habitualized negative assumptions are true.  Critical thinking actually works well when it examines itself rather than feeding on itself.  You don't have to be an academic to do this.

I come from a working class background and was raised to an ideal that it didn't matter what you did in life as long as you did it the best you can. If you were a ditch digger, be the best ditch digger you can be.  That gave me the sense that it was possible to attain the fullness of one’s potential using just what you have.  A good education is important, no doubt, and the world is often unjust.  My parents instilled positive values and I was told to stay in school.  I was fortunate in that way.

I followed up the Alex Ross interview with another set of articles that I had also put aside for later reading.  The New York Times recently published an article titled “When James Baldwin and Langston Hughes Reviewed Each Other”   It recounts the discovery of a pair of overlooked reviews in the archives by Langston Hughes and James Baldwin from 1959.  I found them to be revealing.  If you subscribe to the Times you can access the original articles on their Times Machine

Coincidentally, one of the first books I remember loving was a children’s book by Langston Hughes called “The First Book of Jazz”, published in 1955.  He engendered a sense of respect and dignity for the music and it’s culture by not speaking down to his reader.  He was able to tap into a child’s natural creative ability to grasp how the music sometimes expresses sadness and other times happiness and yet it is the same music.  I still have this book.

Langston Hughes began his review of Baldwin by saying, “I think that one definition of the great artist might be the creator who projects the biggest dream in terms of the least person”, reaching millions with something they can understand.  He goes on to praise aspects of James Baldwin’s writing while detecting a quality of irresolution as needing to be resolved in order to qualify as great art.  

James Baldwin seems to endorse this irresolution or is at least willing to nearly sacrifice himself explicitly in addressing it.  That is my feeling having read some of his work, his pain is laid bare.  In his review of Hughes he speaks of a war between “social and artistic responsibilities” that are “all but irreconcilable.”  He’s speaking of Langston Hughes but also more broadly as well, perhaps including himself, I’m not sure.  But it may not be the indictment that it first appears to be.   Baldwin says “the poetic trick, so to speak, is to be within the experience and outside it at the same time…”.

What impressed me greatly was the fact that the pieces were rigorous but not adversarial or destructive.  There is empathy, each man seems to sincerely wish for the other to succeed and yet each are unafraid to put themselves on the line. It is a form of strength and vulnerability tied together.  Their topic is racism and they are speaking in deeply humanitarian tones.  The conflict, between artistic aims and with respect to the artist’s relationship to society, while handled differently by each, is not being externalized, rather it is lived.  The essays are specific to their experiences and the writers are acutely aware of the cultural dynamic that threatens to co-opt their language, style and more.  At the same time, I feel that they are by necessity speaking to everyone.  

Personally, writing about this feels fraught but it also feels like a responsibility.  I was born the same year these words were written.  The words do not belong to me and yet externalizing them puts the truth at a remove, just out of reach. But perhaps it’s not as difficult as it first seems. There are clearly differences between each writer, as well as differences between them and me, which need to be honored.  To honor these differences requires honoring our shared humanity, and to honor our shared humanity requires honoring every difference seen and felt in this life.  

The idea of “great art” has taken somewhat of a beating in intellectual circles since those articles were written.  I don’t know that I fully endorse the concept myself, it seems an interference to the artistic process as well as in fully understanding ourselves.  But that’s not the problem of art, it’s the problem of how we deal with it, ourselves and each other.  I don’t wish to play games of avoidance either, I’m perfectly willing to give it up when I encounter deep truths in art and I deeply respect the dedication that is required to achieve that.  But as an artist I can’t really concern myself too much with it, in a way it’s none of my business.  

I still don’t know what the role of criticism is, especially now when so much discourse is incendiary.  And I’m still unsure of my relationship to fiction.  I was heartened however when my wife pointed out that there are a much wider range of voices in the literature that is available today as compared to thirty years ago.  In addition to new writers there are also newly unearthed revelations of historical voices from outside the western canon.  Perhaps it’s time to catch up a bit.

Still, I’ve not resolved anything, but that would seem to be exactly the point.  Sometimes I really do worry that the pace of current events have overtaken culture.  But I am encouraged by what James Baldwin said about being inside the experience and outside at the same time.  And the ability and example of Langston Hughes to find a way to include everyone.  

I am not outside of either one of those investigations, nor can they be done alone.  To embrace this contradiction (which is itself a contradiction to be embraced) is to accept who we are.  

Friday, January 8, 2021

Tape is rolling…take one…

The cassette tape.
  A technology from the 70s.
  One in a long line of sound carriers with it’s own admirable and idiosyncratic qualities.  My parents gave me a portable radio and cassette recorder for my 16th birthday.  One of the things you could do with it was record the radio broadcast right onto the tape.  At the time, that was very new and very cool.  I tuned in that evening to WBJC, a local Baltimore station that hosted a show called “Helen’s Explorations in Jazz”.  I wish I knew who Helen was, her delivery was quintessentially 1970s.  “Vibrations beautiful people” was how she opened the proceedings.  She began with  Charles Mingus’ “Prayer for Passive Resistance” including a gut wrenching sermon on tenor saxophone from Yusef Lateef.  I recorded the entire program.  I still have this tape and every time I’ve listened to it it’s as if I’m transported right back to that night, enraptured with music that spoke to me simultaneously of the past, present and future.  

I have other tapes as well.  Hundreds actually.  Tapes of myself practicing the saxophone.  Tapes of jam sessions with friends.  Tapes of rehearsals, recitals and gigs.  And somehow miraculously, they’ve made it this far.  They are not well organized or labeled and I’ve been tempted to part with them many times knowing that they are slowly disintegrating the longer they sit on the shelf.  But I have some kind of archivist bug that won’t allow me to do that.  Or maybe the whole thing is simply a matter of obsessiveness meets housecleaning.  In either event I’ve decided to face reality and have taken up the charge to digitize each one.  It’s a weird psychological journey to take, being suddenly confronted with some long lost episode from the past.  The first few weeks were all day and night affairs just getting things set up and trying to find a flow, dealing with glitches and sudden problems.  That and questioning my sanity several times each day.  More than once I almost bailed, just wanting to heave the whole lot out the door.  

And in the end I really don’t know how much will be worth saving.  Even less will be worth sharing, we’ll see.  Some have great sentimental value, such as the recordings of my mother and I from 1974 playing tunes together like “Just in Time”, “Take the A Train” and “Here’s that Rainy Day”.  There is one of us playing “Night Train” (my favorite tune at the time) with the drummer and trumpet player from the band she had in Baltimore that worked in the early sixties.  Her organ playing had immense drive.  My wife heard me playing this recording from the other room and asked what it was.  What she could hear of it sounded good to her, she thought it might have been some early jazz.  That made me feel good but I told her that in spite of that I would never share it due to my embarrassment over my playing at the time.  Incredulous, she pointed out, “you were fourteen, people will understand that.”  “Embarrassment doesn’t have any rules”, I replied.  “So you’re still fourteen then?”  “Yes, and I don’t sound any better now than I did then!”.  That was my closing remark on the subject.  I don’t know what’s more embarrassing, my playing, my reaction to it or writing about it.  Things did get a little better though.  Of potential interest to jazz fans might be some of the sessions from The Closet in Baltimore, mid-eighties, where I played with the late saxophonist Arnold Sterling and another with fellow saxophonist Gary Thomas.  Whether any of this ever gets shared it will at least have to wait until everything is loaded into the computer and I can begin the process of cleaning up the sound which in the case of the earliest tapes is rather rough.  

A friend asked me if at the time I ever had any intention of using these tapes for anything or were they just for posterity.  Neither actually.  It was all done pretty casually just to listen to in the short term, as a means of assessment.  I recall a gig I did at Sweet Basil here in NYC (a club long since gone) with trumpeter Terumasa Hino’s band in ’84 or ’85.  Larry Willis was on piano, Ron McClure on bass and Billy Hart on drums.  Ron had a small tape recorder with him on stage recording the gig and during the break was playing it for the other guys trying to nail down something about a tempo.  At one point he says “the tape doesn’t lie!”  I remember thinking, actually it does lie, that’s exactly what it does.  It’s an approximation at best, especially when it’s some hand-held deal, recording from the floor of the stage.  

Now that this recording technology, sketchy as it was, was available to musicians it seemed to accelerate a certain process of idealization.  This went along with commercial recordings, radio and even PA systems in which the ideal of good sound changed from what was possible and natural acoustically to what was achievable through electronic means.  I recall a gig that saxophonist Jan Garbarek did at Fat Tuesday’s with bassist Eberhard Weber in a quartet.  What was amazing was that the sound coming from the PA system in this small club sounded exactly like their records on ECM, huge and expansive with that trademark reverb that ECM is associated with.  It was the first time I had encountered that and I was very impressed.  Having experienced everything that has transpired since then, I’m no longer so sure.  No fault of theirs, it’s simply the fact that the way we think of sound has changed and something always gets lost in such a process.  Incidentally I have a cassette in my collection of Jan Garbarek playing at Blues Alley in Washington DC from 1981.  Guitarist Bill Frisell was in the band.  I don’t think anyone had heard of Bill yet, certainly not my roommate and fellow saxophonist from Baltimore, Tom McCormick, who attended the show.  I remember him telling me about it when he got back.  We loved Jan Garbarek but Tom was equally enthused and effusive about “this guitar player, he didn’t play a single lick all night!”  I was trying to imagine what that would even have sounded like.  It was intriguing the way he said it and I think it actually had a formative effect on me even though I wasn’t at the concert.  It’s just as intriguing to realize that before recordings were widespread this word of mouth description of music and events must have played a much larger role in the development of the music.  It’s as if your imagination kicks in and the sky’s the limit.  Once we actually hear someone we tend to classify and qualify right away, even if we like it.  Ironically, while the role of recordings has been integral to the development of the music they can also be limiting.  However, Tom knew the sound person at Blues Alley and got a cassette of that gig directly from the sound board, and it sounds great!  I was probably supposed to give it back to Tom, maybe it’s not too late.

Fast forward (no pun intended) to today when owning or handling physical media of any kind has almost become an oddity.  But more than ever we still have this technologically induced set of sonic ideals.  The received wisdom I got from listeners back in the day was that “live” was always better, that recordings were never as good as being there.  They are certainly different experiences, that is for sure.  But I was also a bit uneasy about that declaration of superiority.  Certainly recordings do not replace live performance but they are their own mode of expression with enough differences to make the comparison a bit misleading.  I’ve greatly enjoyed making recordings over these many years as well as my experiences playing live.  But those live experiences have also changed due to technology and not in every case for the better.  Playing music without a PA system, without recording or video streaming is very rare and increasingly difficult to do.  It should be the easiest thing in the world, just show up and play but “live” is not so live anymore.  I’ve spoken about this at length and often wish that I could find something better to talk about.  It remains an unresolved and important aspect of how we go forward but in the past year that has all become moot.  The act of making music for one another in person has also become a rarity.

I’ve not done any live streaming during this time and have preferred instead to avoid as much as possible the simulation of personal interaction on line.  This blog and my e-mail correspondence are about it.  It feels good but I’ll have to make some decisions when things begin to open back up again.  I’m curious to see how folks will readjust to being together.  I know I don’t want to do things the same way I was doing them before but the social environment will certainly be a determining factor.  Streaming and interactive video don’t speak to me as a social medium let alone an artistic one.  Recordings I understand, I’ve always regarded them as documentation of a process born out of live performance and I think that’s as far as it goes for me.  I expect that coming out of this period artists and venues will begin to see these new technologies as a new normal, if we haven’t already.  I am hopeful that there may be others like me who are moved by interactions that do not require electricity, speakers and screens.  After a year without having played a single concert I’m beginning to understand a bit better what patience requires and what it may mean to create the conditions that invite the kind of experience I’m speaking about.  I’ve been quite content with playing the horn at home every day and feeling in no rush whatsoever to “make things happen”.  Lest I mislead anyone, there is no lack of inspiration or motivation in this and it all feels quite natural at this stage.  

I’ve also been thinking about the commitment that comes with being together in person.  I don’t know if I ever thought so consciously about it before but what it really amounts to is our willingness and need to take care of each other, something we might only think about in an emergency.  But beyond that, if someone is hungry you offer them something to eat.  If someone is lonely you spend some time with them.  If someone wants to talk, you listen.  Even the smallest things, such as a passing smile are truly a matter of life and death.  It’s our time, which we measure by a physical lifespan.  Spending time with someone is your very own life.  This is also how I hear music.  

I’ve spoken often about embodiment and have recently posted about meaning in music.  They are one and the same to my mind.  This embodiment is profound and yet simple, involving the simplest of means, the simplest of movements.  In talking about musical ideas we might understand that there is a physical basis for every idea we have.  Our bodies being the model of thought, this physicality is embedded in language, manifest in everything we do, make and see.  The sounds and movements we see and make are primary, the basis for everything in our world, our experience.  The fact that they can be arranged according to the imagination is fantastic.  And of course we have many forms of mediation, many ways in which to convey, amplify and disseminate our ideas.

Having said all of this I am well aware of the fact that artistic expression has found some measure of vitality in digital form even as I find my spirit largely moving the other way.  So I’m happy to share something with you that ideally might have happened in person but instead came about as a result of necessary physical distancing.  A few months ago dancer clyde fusei forth did a live streamed presentation as part of Zen Mountain Monastery’s 40th year anniversary using some music that I had written.  We had spoken some years back about a possible collaboration and this seemed like a potential first step towards making that happen one day.  She chose two short pieces from “Non Sequiturs” a suite I wrote in 2011 as a commission from Chamber Music America.  These pieces are very sparse and allow a great deal of space in which to work.  Later on she made a video version for me and I asked her if I could share it on the blog.  In seeing what she’s done I begin to wonder where the boundaries are between sound and movement.  I don’t think there are any.  

I've asked clyde to write something about the project.  These are her words, which I find to be as palpable as her dance...

Main North and Vertical Prose (or Enter Before Ready)
a project with Ellery Eskelin
October and December, 2020

At this distance
between signals and pixels,
Within bandwidth of variable strength
and dependability,
While yearning for that sweet living vibration
we may not hear until summer

Enter before ready.

I have listened to this music
Just enough to forget it
until this moment
So it arrives new as I arrive

to my self, one tiny awareness at a time
Awarenesses like microscopic birds accumulating within
my hollow form, whatever form enters I accept
Until I am fully present with all the things:
Then I let the flock move me.
I move the flock, moving
beside and within and at a distance
from the music also entering and arriving
and moving.

Enter before ready.
Every moment an opportunity to trust
that the moment will survive my entrance
and whatever comes after. 

In practice, what I did was enter into the work before any sense of preparation had set in. No time to feel confident or unconfident or have even a definitive pathway in mind. No time to try and hook up with the music. I did not know which part of the floor I headed for or what I would do there. I only entered and saw my entering one moment at a time until the entrance was complete. Then I arrived. The way I practice arrival these days is to close my eyes and feel the shape of my form in as much detail as possible. I visualize the shape of my form as hollow then see it filling with the accumulation of sensations and awarenesses that may take the shape of cells, or birds, or waves of light, etc. I never really know. I accept whatever comes but often it is crows. Go figure. Sometimes this takes a longer time, sometimes very quick. Doesn’t matter. I let myself arrive in this way until I experience my form completely full of the accumulated awarenesses moving in unison. Sometimes the flock moves the form, sometimes the form moves the flock. Sometimes the music and I enter and arrive simultaneously, sometimes not. Sometimes it’s too porous to separate one from the other. But every movement I enact as a body-form visible to a viewer I am experiencing as an internal flock in unison. This naturally breaks down and comes back, like a murmuration of starlings, somewhat leaderless. The image itself usually gives way to a physical experience within a few minutes, but when it’s useful I call it back up. Within this somatic process, I am composing and attuning to numerous influences (which in this case included Ellery’s musical composition). There are choices being made within the awareness; there are entrances into each “now” constantly happening and then raveling (or unraveling) out as they will. When I enter the exit, an ending develops. The ‘piece’ ends, and then (if all goes well) continues as the rest of the day.

- clyde fusei forth

clyde fusei forth, Artistic Director of Lokaspar┼Ťa Dance Projects is on Instagram and also maintains her own blog.  I especially enjoyed her most recent post “Do It Anyway”.  The video was done during her recent residency at Mount Tremper Arts on December 20, 2020.

Given all current events...

Given the events of this week I find it impossible to post any further without a certain acknowledgment.  There is much I could have said on many matters during these past four years.  While I find it necessary to speak, the overall commentary has been deafening, amplified and distorted as it is by social media. I’ve also been grappling with the tension and overlap between moral/ethical concerns and political action.  On this blog I’ve tended to emphasize universal values in music which have distinct parallels in everyday life.  There is always the risk however that without addressing the facts on the ground these universal truths could be seen as wishful thinking.  They are not.  To me they are more real than the things I see with my eyes.  Meaning that interpretation of what is seen allows for both understanding and misunderstanding.  That’s why I have largely chosen not to offer too many unsolicited opinions, of which I seem to have an endless supply and which inflame my own passions.

I was speaking with a friend recently about intensity in music.  I said that it’s almost more a matter of receiving that intensity rather than creating it.  We aren’t passive about it, when it’s time to raise the roof don’t hesitate.  But in truth it’s more the case that we create the conditions for this intensity to come about. It’s more an act of accommodation than force.  As applied to day-to-day life in these particular days, raw and explicit as they are, I wonder how it might apply.  It’s very tempting to want to tell other people what to do, proclaim what is right and what is wrong.  Substitute the word truth for intensity in this case.  We are all struggling to find the truth in our own way, distracted by our personal desires and too often willing to cause harm in the process, in large ways and in small.  I can only trust that what is true is true and that there is in fact no need for me to try and impose my view of the truth on anyone else.  At the same time I cannot hesitate to act.  Rather than an act of force the best thing I could possibly do is to try my best to cultivate the conditions by which someone else can see that truth.  In doing so perhaps it will be reflected back to me, so that I can see more clearly myself.

Wishing you all peace and sanity as we move forward.

Thursday, December 31, 2020


It’s almost midnight here in NYC.  I’ve wanted to post something before the end of the year and for whatever reasons that hasn’t yet happened.  There are a few things I’ve considered writing about and many more that I wish not to.  We’re almost at the end of 2020.  You were there, you experienced it.  And now we’re moving into 2021.  Rather than write an essay, I’m going to offer a simple set of words from Buddhist teachings often used for meditation practice, known as The Four Immeasurables.  As musicians we know something of these qualities.  But no matter what your orientation may be, I think these are worthy to concentrate on and expand upon for the coming new year…

The Four Immeasurables
Immeasurable Love 
Immeasurable Compassion 
Immeasurable Joy
Immeasurable Equanimity

As a recitation:
May all beings be free from suffering 
and the root of suffering

May all beings know happiness 
and the root of happiness

May all beings live in sympathetic joy, 
rejoicing in the happiness of others

May all beings live in equanimity, free from passion, 
aggression and delusion.

There is also a text many centuries old that touches on these, this exchange taken from the Vimalakirti Sutra.  

Manjushri asks: What is the great compassion of a bodhisattva?
Vimalakirti: It is the giving of all accumulated virtues to all living beings.
Manjushri: What is the great joy of the bodhisattva?
Vimalakirti: It is to be joyful and without regret in giving.
Manjushri: What is the equanimity of the bodhisattva?
Vimalakirti: It’s what benefits both self and others.
Manjushri: What should we resort to when terrified by the fear of life?
Vimalikirti: A bodhisattva who is terrified by life should resort to the magnanimity of the Buddha.
Manjushri: Where should one who wishes to resort to the magnanimity of the Buddha take their stand? 
Vimalakirti: You should stand in equanimity. You should just live for the liberation of all living beings.  
Manjushri: What should one who wishes to liberate all living beings do?
Vimalakirti: Liberate them from their passions. 
Manjusri: How should one who wishes to eliminate passions apply themselves?
Vimalakirti: Appropriately. 
Manjushri: How do you apply yourself appropriately? 
Vimalakirti: Don’t produce anything and don’t destroy anything. 
Manjushri: What should I not produce? What should I not destroy?
Vimalakirti: Don’t produce anything harmful, and don’t destroy anything good.
Manjushri: What’s the root of good and evil?
Vimalakirti: Form.
Manjushri: What is the root of form?
Vimalakirti: Desire. 
Manjushri: What is the root of desire? 
Vimalakirti: Unreal mental constructions.
Manjushri: What’s the root of an unreal mental construction? 
Vimalakirti: A false concept, a false view. 
Manjushri: What’s the root of false views?
Vimalakirti: Baselessness.
Manjushri: What is the root of baselessness? 
Vimalakirti: Manjusri, when something is baseless, how can it have any root? Therefore, all things stand on the root which is baseless.  

Best wishes to all of you, looking forward to 2021 and all of the music it brings...

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Passion and Etymology

Have you ever come across a common word that suddenly seemed peculiar, in that it's actually two words put together or a word within a word that you never noticed or paid attention to before? Like “before”, as in "be" and “fore"? That happened one day I as I looked at the word resist and wondered, OK, I understand the prefix “re” but re-what? What is “sist"? In looking it up it turns out that “sist” is actually a word. It comes from Latin and means “remain, stand or stay”. There are a good many words that contain the word “sist”; Absist, Assist, Consist, Desist, Exist, Insist, Intersist, Obsist, Persist, Resist and Subsist. Being an etymologist might be fun but at the same time there seem to be too many potential rabbit holes to chase down. You might think there is some hidden meaning to be found just because a word was once used a certain way or that two words seem related when they are not. It's often hugely complex but it's still sometimes compelling to wonder.

For example, the word compassion. It contains the word passion.

Because they have such different meanings and connotations it got me to thinking (and googling) and I was surprised at what I found. Passion comes from the Latin word “patior” which means “suffer”. Compassion uses the prefix “com” meaning “with”, as in “to suffer with”.

This being a blog about music, how does making music relate to passion and compassion? I’ve said before that music is a compassionate act. But what does that actually mean? Saxophonist John Coltrane titled the second movement in his Meditations suite “Compassion”. There is very much a spiritual dimension to the suite, as was the case with his previous recording “A Love Supreme”. While there is precedent in considering the relationship between music and compassion it’s not often discussed overtly in musical circles. I guess because it’s not an overtly musically associative word. Or maybe because nobody wants to sound preachy.

As for passion, that seems easier. A passion for music is what drives us. It’s a good thing and we don’t think of it as suffering. We do sacrifice along the way, it’s not a particularly easy path in life even as it is deeply rewarding. So in considering what we are willing to endure in order to attain our goals perhaps suffering is not so far off the mark. It would seem to be a balancing act but what makes this work? It’s not as if anyone expects to one day wake up and realize that they are completely satisfied with their work, have done it all perfectly and that there are no longer any problems. No, the drive is insatiable and there is always something to be improved upon, something new to be discovered. In this way passion can also be understood as desire, which is a double edged sword. It's a great thing when it takes you out of yourself and into something bigger. It's not such a great thing when applied solely towards self satisfaction. We suffer when we don’t get what we want (it's not enough) and we also suffer when we do get what we want (it's never enough). At the same time, if you are unwilling to be dissatisfied you will likely not achieve very much in the way of true satisfaction in life or music. It would seem we have to be willing to suffer.

That may sound depressing, except for the other word, compassion. Trouble is, it's kind of a big fluffy word as it stands there all alone. In order for it to do it's thing, it needs to be precise, according to real events, real people and real suffering. To “suffer with” is an act of compassion, not an idea about compassion. And so again, in keeping with the fact that this is a blog about music, what does this mean?

Music critic Alex Ross wrote an article for the New Yorker recently which ended with the statement:

“The ultimate mistake is to look to music—or to any art form—as a zone of moral improvement, a refuge of sweetness and light.”

Taken out of context it’s an odd thing to say, perhaps. It sounds amoral. His article was addressing racism as exists in the classical music world, particularly in the United States. I think he was saying that it is the nature of music to contain all aspects of human nature and that any notion of transcendence or transformation needs to accommodate what happens when a modern and diverse group of musicians takes on a musical canon, the historical roots of which contain troubling aspects. At least that was my take on it. But in looking at it as a standalone quote I think there is something worth considering in that it seems to acknowledge that we need to feel our pain, individually and collectively, in order to heal and move forward.

Another way of saying it is that a true morality must be whole. It can’t exclude the parts we don’t want. If we exclude them they can never be transformed. Yet another way of saying it might be, let it be true first and foremost. We may not know what that truth is until it's revealed in a process, an act of compassion. It may require letting go of every idea we have about it going in, which may seem frightening until we realize that there is also a responsibility that follows from that. It implies that the big picture and the facts on the ground are never at odds with one another. What if we took the attitude that we are never at odds with one another? It’s hard to share someone’s suffering by being opposed to them. Disagreement is one thing, opposition is quite another.

Having mentioned John Coltrane in this context I can’t help but also think of Albert Ayler. Both deeply spiritual people, my sense is that they did not ignore events nor were they limited by events. As intense as the times and conditions were they seemed to put everything into music. Mutawaf A. Shaheed was a cellist with Albert Ayler. He stopped playing in 1970 and these days is an imam at a Cleveland mosque. He was interviewed by The Wire about his time with Albert Ayler and said:

Albert is his music. His music is everywhere, touches everything.

My feeling is that’s because he was relating to everything, he didn’t leave anything out. Whatever his powers as a musician were, they also are everywhere. For a human being, in allowing those powers to flow, it’s limitless. In trying to hold on to them it’s destructive.

I don't want to paint a dark picture with all of this, it's just that the etymology of those words invite a different, potentially helpful way to look at music and at difficult situations. I don't think it would be worth talking about suffering in this way if it did not point to joy.

I would also like to point out that there are many musicians and many musics in this worldwide tapestry. Not everything need be seen through the lens of this music nor any of this terminology. As much as I increasingly speak about these things I’m averse to moralizing.

About ten years ago, in an interview, I responded to the question “what is spiritual” by saying “I don’t know, I don’t have a clue.”

That sounds dismissive, probably it was. My reasons for saying that at the time had to do with frustration around compartmentalizing or conceptualizing the experience of music and not knowing how to move forward except to reject the question outright. Since that time I’ve become much less phobic about the word and yet I might still give the same answer although for a different reason. That being, I think it is a mistake to take an idea of what is spiritual, moral or compassionate and make it into a prescriptive act in music and art as opposed to a receptive one.

We can and do move forward. It's not for me to tell anyone else anything about that, really. So in your own way, in whatever form it takes, I hope you will follow and share your passion.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

At the same time…

A couple of recent passings in the jazz world have got me thinking about the whole New York City jazz “thing”; the history, the mystique and the reality.  Many thoughts and memories come flooding in but it will be some time before I can really pull any words together.  Thinking about the past requires looking at the present in a different way.

That’s all the more challenging now.  The trajectory of the New York scene and it’s reach seems more uncertain than ever.  But we do have the chance to reconsider some basic assumptions.  Personally I’m realizing that I don’t miss the insane travel, one-nighters were always rough.  I can see that we often pursued opportunities to play with an undercurrent of unease, knowing that it might not last even as we scrambled to make a virtue out of busyness.  But in a way it doesn’t matter since that’s just how it was; I love to play and wouldn’t trade any of it away.

At the same time maybe it’s good to look at what seems difficult if not impossible about envisioning a path forward once things open up.  But any remedies for the music business in general or New York in particular require remedies for the entire country and by extension the world.  We are at that point and we have to see this as a chance to do things better.  I don’t know what will happen but on the most basic level we all know what needs to happen.  And it’s not what we’re seeing.  At the same time, being home thinking about all these big things pretty much forces me to see the ways in which small things add up.  It makes me want to take greater care.

In spite of uncertainty, our history is compelling and I take solace in knowing that there are dedicated individuals who made a difference in one way or another with their lives and their art.  It’s compelling to see an example of someone taking a path that we might aspire to.  At the same time it's unsettling to see folks on precarious paths, creating in spite of the challenges.

Here are two musicians who I was very much aware of even though any interactions were limited.  I’m in no position to tell their stories but in thinking about their lives and contributions quite a lot comes up.  I’ll try to keep the words short, at least for now.

Steve Grossman
I first saw Steve at the Star Cafe on 23rd Street one night in the mid-eighties.  He unexpectedly walked in and sat in with the band.  It was kind of frightening but also inspiring.  He really embodied the New York tenor “thing” to an extent that few others could.  Whether you liked it or not (and I did) he represented a level of playing that had to be dealt with one way or another.  If you weren’t going to do what he did, better than he did it, then you needed to find your own way.  Years later I ran into him on a train platform in Italy, I think he was living in Bologna at the time.  Just a short encounter but an affirmation of sorts, in spite of all differences, that we are in this game together.

Gary Peacock
I first heard Gary on Albert Ayler’s recordings “Spiritual Unity” and “Spirits Rejoice” from the 1960’s.  His playing on those sessions was like nothing I’d ever heard.  He also played with a vast array of other musicians with widely differing approaches to music.  But all the same really.  That was what was so impressive, that he could demonstrate the connections between things you might have thought were irreconcilable.

Pianist Marc Copland wrote a very moving tribute about their 37 year friendship.  I’ve known Marc since 1979 and he has been a mentor, teaching me quite a lot about music in those early days.  I was fascinated by his understanding and unique approach to harmony.  We even co-wrote a tune together, called “So Long Ago”.  Marc recorded the song on his first release, “My Foolish Heart” in 1988.  It features Gary Peacock on bass, John Abercrombie on guitar and Jeff Hirshfield on drums.  Being that it’s long been out of print I’ll post it here.

I did meet Gary a few times and had some stimulating conversations about…everything really, since that’s how he seemed to see it all.  As an example, he suggested I read this book by physicist David Bohm titled “Wholeness And The Implicate Order”.  The first half is about language and the second involves mathematics.  I failed algebra in school but the chapters on language reveal the ways in which false assumptions about reality have become embedded in the way we use language.

Here are a couple of quotes from David Bohm that feel appropriate to the moment:

“Suppose we were able to share meanings freely without a compulsive urge to impose our view or conform to those of others and without distortion and self-deception. Would this not constitute a real revolution in culture? ”
― David Bohm

“There is a difficulty with only one person changing. People call that person a great saint or a great mystic or a great leader, and they say, 'Well, he's different from me - I could never do it.' What's wrong with most people is that they have this block - they feel they could never make a difference, and therefore, they never face the possibility, because it is too disturbing, too frightening.”
― David Bohm

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Late August, 2020, NYC

My last gig was in December of 2019.  It’s been eight months since I’ve played music with another person. What’s surprising is that I’m pretty much OK with it.  I don’t know how I should feel about that, but that’s OK too.  Sometimes we need to learn how to be quiet.  Practicing my horn each day, it’s enough.  As I've said before, the saxophone has never let me down.

I’ve been listening to music.  A little.  Very little, actually.  Almost none really.

Otherwise we’ve been deep into the daily routine.  It’s neither good or bad any longer, it just is what it is.  I don’t have any stories to tell.  No adventures, no anecdotes to share, no exciting plans to promote.  I do follow politics.  Do you need me to tell you about that?  No.  You don’t.

If I was a skilled enough writer I could describe how beautiful Central Park is on a perfect afternoon.  What it smells like after a good rain, all of the different bird calls.  I could revel in the telling of how “the more you look the more you see” in the wild wooded areas.  Or I might try and describe what it’s like navigating Prospect Park (which I do not know well) on a bike, looking for a friend.  You already knew that I don’t carry a cell phone, right?  Lost, it took an hour and a half on a hot day, drenched in sweat, working out my frustration on each stroke of the pedals, wanting desperately to be “on time” before finally locating him, sitting alone under some massive trees facing a meadow.  We sat together for a few hours while the park changed around us.  How could I possibly describe that?  Speaking of parks, I celebrated a birthday with my family by having a take-out meal from our favorite Vietnamese restaurant in Chinatown, Nha Trang.  I’ve been going there since I don’t know when, maybe late 80’s?  It seems that every Vietnamese restaurant I’ve been to has a different approach to many of the same dishes.  Nha Trang has been absolutely consistent in their offerings and the place has barely changed over the years.  They have seen my son grow from a toddler to a young man.  He orders the same dish every time, they just bring it when he shows up.  We took our meal to Union Square park to meet up with his girlfriend and spread a blanket on the grass just as it was getting towards dusk.  There were a few other groups of folks on the lawn but I wasn’t totally sure we were supposed to be there, it felt a little transgressive.  In my twenties I might have been energized by that.  At this point there are some adult impulses that are starting to kick in.  Better late than never.  And there are rats in the park.  You knew that right?  It was a beautiful, if slightly menacing, evening.

Otherwise most of the interactions I have with folks are rather brief.  So I’ve been thinking a lot.  Probably too much.  Here’s this one thing that hung me up a little.  

A few posts ago I mentioned listening to Watazumi Doso.  Since then I’ve been in touch with trombonist Ben Gerstein who shared with me more information about this elusive figure.  Ben also pointed me to a blog he maintains containing  recordings of traditional music from cultures around the world.  It’s music I don’t always understand, yet I feel an immediate affinity towards.  You can sense there is wisdom in this music, something in the act of making sound in order to reach for what’s invisible, what’s inexpressible about being alive, that all cultures seem to share.  No matter what I may think of modern music by comparison, something seems very much the same.

This was all mulling around in the back of my mind when my son showed me a book he’s using for a college class called “The World of Music”.  I was eager to look at it and yet immediately disappointed by page two.  “Music: Universal Language or Culturally Specific Activity?”


It’s an old either/or argument of the kind I’m no longer interested in and yet I got hooked.  This is probably the “too much thinking” part.  I knew it wasn’t going anywhere and yet I wanted to understand why it upset me.  Maybe this time there would be some insight in seeing it through and coming out the other end.  Because this is not just a theoretical pursuit.  Being a musician trying to make sense out of current conditions, along with everyone else, it matters, in ways that reach beyond musical concerns.

The book made clear it was coming from the standpoint that no, music is not a universal language.  I’ve felt this myself, twenty years ago raising the same question (in the liner notes to Arcanum Moderne) but for a different reason, questioning my own assumptions about who might or might not relate to what I’m trying to do musically.  Ethnomusicology is an academic study and the book makes a clear and reasonable case for the pitfalls in assuming too much about intent and meaning.  To say that an intended meaning or cultural understanding is not precisely communicated may be true but that is not all of what music is.  Even when we have cultural or personal meaning, there is still mystery.  So while there is nothing I really disagree with here (except for the unnecessary negation of what gets to the heart of why we, meaning everyone, make and relate to music to begin with) there is an intellectual bias, an arrogance even, in the assumption that this can be understood and packaged in words.  Arrogance because power is at the root of it.  The drive “to know”, which is admirable, can become a tool with which to subjugate, even vandalize ourselves.  And I say that as someone who otherwise admires the scientific pursuit.

My son jokingly said that in looking through the book and seeing everything named and laid out, he wouldn’t even have to listen to the music.  You can imagine my reaction.  It’s like saying “I want to understand something without ever actually doing it.”  I’ve occasionally encountered students who seem to think they need to understand something before they can do it.  It’s a gross underestimation of experiential, ingrained practice.  But don’t get me wrong, intellectual understanding is fine.  I’m also a very strong proponent of misunderstanding as an essential creative element in making music.

There is something universal about music.  Clearly it’s not a language in the literal sense but it is a universal activity.  Then again, so is language.  Can we say that language is the universal language?  Not that there is one that everybody understands.  But we do seem pretty good at translation, using language itself to communicate across linguistic distances.  Reminds me of that joke about the United States and Britain being two countries separated by a common language.

What’s really at the heart of this is meaning.  Asking what music means from a scientific perspective becomes an exercise in science coming to grips with it’s own limitations as a discipline.  But let’s keep going a bit further.

And so the question I might ask is what kind of meaning?

The assumption, at least on the part of ethnomusicologists generally, seems to be intellectual, verbalized and measurable meaning.  But sound is just sound.  What’s touched in the listener is a recognition of something.  It might reflect something mathematical but it’s not math.  It’s sometimes like speaking but there are no words.  I am speaking largely about instrumental music, but not exclusively.  Even when we sing about a certain topic we’re really singing about something much larger.  That’s why we sing it!

What there is is a sense of movement.  Movement was required to make that sound and a sense of movement is conveyed in that sound.  Even stasis, such as a drone, carries  physicality.  The sustain is also movement through time.

So there may be a kinetic “meaning”.  A bodily action or a movement in nature corresponding in sound.  It’s not necessarily specific, but it’s fundamentally relatable.  Our physicality is the physicality of the entire universe.  When we make music we are resonating with the entire universe. That may seem like a big assertion but I see nothing standing in the way of it.  From simple elemental actions, immense complexity and richness can be created.  And it’s completely ephemeral.  In order for it to be sustained it has to be shared.  It has to be lived.  This can be interpreted as universal (shared among everyone), cultural (shared among some) and individual (your personal response) all at once.  Is it good music?  Is it bad music?  It doesn’t change anything.  We can interpret things however we like, for our benefit and to our detriment.

If meaning was fixed and music were culturally static there would be no sharing or understanding among people.  The book is correct to point out that cultural meanings are given to music by us and are not literally and specifically embedded or communicated in the music.  The book is misleading however in the implication that meaning can only be intellectual, verbal, literal.  It’s possible that I’m being too loose with the word meaning but we need to accommodate the effects of change with respect to meaning; intent, purpose and usage as well as misunderstanding, mis-use, distortion, appropriation, exploitation, theft, forgetting, loss and indifference.

So it’s impossible really, to break music down to some kind of meaning even as it feels deeply meaningful to make and listen to music.  And because it’s an action, it’s direct.  Not just the idea of an action but someone, a real person, has to do something.  You.  You have to do something.  A fellow musician recently asked how I would talk about swing.  My first response was “swing is you swinging”.  Might we say music is you playing music?  Or music is you listening to music?  The more I think about it, the more I think that’s true.

Music expresses the universal within the very particulars of our lives which are changing all the time.  It’s so easy to identify with music because it reflects who we are, what we are.  We assert our experience of it vociferously because it seems so deeply real and true.  Because there is no fixed meaning, even our conflicts can seem embedded in music.  Want to start an argument?  Ask a group of people if music is political.  This can be vexing but the more I think about it the less of a conflict I see.  To the extent that music might be seen as political we do not need to add or take away from it.  Life and music are ephemeral and fluid, moving, containing potential.  And we are nothing if not potential.  We intuitively know and feel that music can erase the sense of separateness that we feel from the world, from others and even from ourselves.  In this way music is a compassionate act.  It may not change the world or the immediate circumstances of your life in some direct, discernible way but it certainly has the potential to relieve a lot of suffering.  Just try and imagine a world with no music.

Understanding that what is universal is not opposed to what is relative might also help come to terms with what we think of as intellectual about music.  It’s undeniable that some musics, like certain kinds of jazz, may have a strong intellectual component.  Questions are often raised as to what you have to do in order to understand it.  I’ve always stood by the notion that you don’t have to understand it.  Everything you need is there, the very same sound, completely available to the “expert” and the “novice”, if that’s how you want to look at it.  At the same time it’s bottomless, endless.  The problem, if there is one, is that experts think they know and novices think they don’t.  The only real difference I can see is that of immersion. repeated listening, living with it.  When the conditions are right, your experience is transformed.

In researching this topic I came across a couple of quotes from composer Igor Stravinsky that seem to bridge the gap a bit between music and the study of music.

“For I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc. Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence. If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality. It is simply an additional attribute which, by tacit and inveterate agreement, we have lent it, thrust upon it, as a label, a convention – in short, an aspect which, unconsciously or by force of habit, we have come to confuse with its essential being.”  Igor Stravinsky (1936). An Autobiography, p. 53-54.

Years later he addressed and revised his statement:

“The over-publicized bit about expression (or non-expression) was simply a way of saying that music is supra-personal and super-real and as such beyond verbal meanings and verbal descriptions. It was aimed against the notion that a piece of music is in reality a transcendental idea "expressed in terms of" music, with the reductio ad absurdum implication that exact sets of correlatives must exist between a composer's feelings and his notation. It was offhand and annoyingly incomplete, but even the stupider critics could have seen that it did not deny musical expressivity, but only the validity of a type of verbal statement about musical expressivity. I stand by the remark, incidentally, though today I would put it the other way around: music expresses itself.”  Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft (1962). Expositions and Developments.

“Music expresses itself”

I would go along with that but perhaps not for the same reasons he did.  Or at least I’m not sure we need to take such an intellectual path to get there.  It’s not unlike the problem that every improviser faces; developing, practicing and executing great musical ideas only to find out just how awkward it is to try and fit them into a given musical space.  It’s backwards, contrary to the way music flows.

Perhaps we can cut to the chase…

If we think we don’t know the answers, we think we’re confused.  If you bring a confused mind to music, the result will likely be confusion.  It’s only necessary to listen.  I often say trust the music, which means trust yourself.  Which means trust what you are doing.   In spite of what we tell ourselves, we all know how to do that.  We do it every day of our lives, the rest is drama.  When I say drama I’m not talking about hardship, misunderstanding, conflict, injustice or the basics of survival, all of which are too real.

Trusting what you are doing is really a matter of simplicity. It doesn’t change anything, it doesn’t solve anything, it doesn’t get you anything.  But as in music, it’s your experience that is transformed.


Premise:  It's not so easy to let things be exactly as they are.

Prospectus:  The closer you get the more you can let go of.

Proposal: A simple act expresses itself, music expresses itself, giving and receiving expresses itself.

This is enough.  But don’t take my word for it.  Listen…

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 is what's called a 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.