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.