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

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