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