Tuesday, April 28, 2020

The One Sound…

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

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

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

“Visceral Connection to Sound”

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

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

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

Here’s a good example…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 20, 2020

The act of remembrance…

On April 15th, 2020 saxophonist Lee Konitz passed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We can safely call this love.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Giving Form…

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

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

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

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

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

“Form is the total functioning of all beings.”

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

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

“Form is the total functioning of all beings.”

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

So in those difficult moments I might ask myself…

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

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

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

“Form is the total functioning of all beings.”

You might also ask yourself what a being is.

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

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