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.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

The One Sound…

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

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

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

“Visceral Connection to Sound”

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

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

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

Here’s a good example…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 20, 2020

The act of remembrance…

On April 15th, 2020 saxophonist Lee Konitz passed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We can safely call this love.