Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Pleasures of Nova Scotia

One day left in my Nova Scotia Jazz Course and what a pleasure it was been. Instead of a hotel on a strip mall with a view of a parking lot, I’m at the lovely home of James and Kathleen Jackson in Ketch Harbor. Great company, great meals, great view of the harbor and after four nights of evening fog, our first sunset. Shared with course members who came for a barbecue and practiced body percussion on the deck and played bocci ball on the lawn. Alongside the two days of late afternoon swims and yesterdays visit to the touristed Peggy’s Cove, complete with a Fish ‘n’ Chips dinner, this is not my usual post-workshop experience of returning to my hotel and playing Solitaire! Tomorrow night will go to downtown Halifax and on Saturday, a late flight will allow a farewell swim in the lake. I love it!

Life seems good in Nova Scotia. Tranquil, friendly, calm, schools in pretty good shape, a tradition of “kitchen music” at parties. There have been some odd facts that make the place distinctive—this year the 100th anniversary of the accidental giant explosion of a munitions ship that destroyed much of the town. On the way to Peggy’s Cove we passed the Memorial to Swiss Air Flight 111 that crashed nearby. And in the gift shop was a book about the burial grounds of Titanic victims. For a place that seems mostly happy, odd events to commemorate.

The people in the course have been lovely, eager and pleased to learn how to play the 12-bar blues, making up fun “silent movies” to ragtime and one of my most appreciative audiences viewing the clips I show from Singing in the Rain, Stormy Weather and other Youtube treats, most of them new (and thus fresh) to them. They are more than willing to hear my stories behind the stories of jazz, the inspiring anecdotes and the tales of grief. They understand the need to change the demeaning narratives that still fuel decisions and attitudes and get that this is the dues we pay to be able to enjoy this uplifting music called jazz.

There is an invitation on the table to return in two years to teach a course of my choice and no arm-twisting is needed. I could get spoiled. And I’m curious about venturing up further, to Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton and maybe New Brunswick. There’s a lot to see and hear here that I’m just beginning to uncover. Thanks to all for this lovely time together.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Message from Maria

The jazz work continues to unfold with fun, ferocity and freedom and isn’t that the point?
I care not so much about cultivating expert jazz musicians or merely understanding the harmonic structures and rhythmic qualities of an extraordinary music, but care deeply about what it can uncover of the human spirit. At any age. But particularly important are the young children, whose have been given to our care and who we owe the height and depth of our intelligence and nurturing capabilities. Our job is simple: to unleash and cultivate their powers, to elongate their vision, to feed their mental and physical vigor, to train their elegant and expressive bodies, to strengthen their independent will and determination so that they are spiritually free. Then when their school life is finished, they are prepared to accept and responsibly use the gift of democratic freedom that our country has been slowly trying to create and preserve.

But because families and churches and schools and media culture fail to do so, we have created a population unworthy of freedom’s demands. A population that has chosen a man who consistently lies and cheats and encourages and forgives others around him to do the same, a population that has become more and more accepting of the most serious transgressions (Don Jr.’s admissions?) that a mere 50 years ago would have the police at the doorstep to lock them away.

We have to work with who we have, but for far too many people over 40 or even 30 or 20, it is too late. We need to turn our attention to the young ones and finally do the work the world requires, right here, right now, starting in the schools. The preschool teacher can and should be the most powerful person on the planet, creating a life that teaches true freedom for the wee ones so that they can blossom into that elusive model citizen. Almost a century ago, Maria Montessori neatly summarized the whole deal. Pay attention:

“How can we speak of Democracy or Freedom when from the very beginning of life we mold the child to undergo tyranny, to obey a dictator? How can we expect democracy when we
have reared slaves?

Real freedom begins at the beginning of life, not at the adult stage. These people who have been diminished in their powers, made short-sighted, devitalized by mental fatigue, whose bodies have become distorted, whose wills have been broken by elders who say: “your will must disappear and mine prevail!”—how can we expect them, when school-life is finished, to accept and use the rights of freedom?” *

The antidote? To give young children what I suggested above:

To unleash and cultivate their powers, to elongate their vision, to feed their mental and physical vigor, to train their elegant and expressive bodies, to strengthen their independent will and determination so that they are spiritually free. Then when their school life is finished, they are prepared to accept and responsibly use the gift of democratic freedom that our country has been slowly trying to create and preserve.

And remember that though jazz rightly taught is just one of the many strategies to cultivate those powers, it is an important one and not to be neglected. And so I turn to tomorrow, Jazz Course, Day 3.

* From Maria Montessori’s Education for a New World. Boldface mine.

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Country Mouse

After working at The Arthur Morgan School nestled in the Black Mountains of North Carolina, I was convinced that the country life was for me. In the year 1973, the back-to-the-land movement was underway and my romantic notion of living the Walden dream, but in the company of like-minded teachers in a school, was starting to form. But a shake-up in the staff and the clear decision not to re-hire me and some fellow radical young hippy teachers led me to a city where I’ve spent the last 44 years. And happily so. Turns out that the city life was good to me and is good for me and I’ve never looked back since.

But having a passed a lovely week on the shores of Lake Michigan and now nestled in a somewhat rural region near Halifax, teaching the Jazz Course by day and then swimming in a beautiful lake at the end of the day, has been pretty sweet. The water temperature near perfect, the lake virtually to myself and my host, then sitting in his living room looking out over a Bay while trading favorite jazz tunes— well, one could get spoiled.

And this Jazz Course. The third this summer and one more next week and on paper it would seem I would get tired of it and start to teach a bit mechanically, just going through the motions. But not so! First off, the euphoria of teaching without coughing, with full energy and in fact, a bit more than usual from the swimming and biking exercise, the ease of teaching in English rather than Spanish (as I did in Brazil and Colombia), the amazement of being in full voice and actually getting to sing with the power the music demands all help to make this so darn fun and satisfying. But then there’s the material, the gift that just keeps on giving, the sequence that I’ve developed that moves seamlessly from one treat to another and accents a different facet of the human psyche, moving from the toes to the hands to the hips to the heart to the head and back again—well, I just never get tired of it. It’s a life that is hard to explain to others, but a glory to live.

So happy to be a country mouse for one more week and will be equally happy back in my city mouse San Francisco self, though perhaps longing for a lake to jump in. (I’m one block down from the UCSF pool, but it just ain’t the same.) Meanwhile, on to Day 2. I said a boom chick a boom, baby!

Sunday, July 16, 2017


Just listened to a podcast by Malcolm Gladwell about the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954. By all standards of people who actually care about human progress, this was a landmark decision that started tipping the scales toward justice. No one questions that the integration of schools was a step toward equal rights for all citizens.

But in his customary way, Mr. Gladwell shows us “Not quite.” Turns out that families like the Browns were encouraged by the NAACP to try to enroll their black children in the neighborhood white school in Topeka, Kansas so they could start in motion the lawsuit that made it to the Supreme Court. And that the Supreme Court affirmed that separate was not equal and that the black children were disadvantaged in their segregated school.

But closer investigation reveals that the all-black Monroe school in Topeka was actually a good school and black children had black teachers who cared for them, understood them and educated them. When the order to de-segregate came down from above, the local boards of education in places like Topeka chose to close the black schools and more importantly, not re-hire the black teachers. The missing piece was moving black teachers to previously all-white schools. In the years following the decision, more than half of existing black teachers in the country were “laid off.” Since a student’s success often comes from the interest the teachers take in them, the understanding of their needs, the dream of their future, this was a blow to black kids in schools, now in the hands of white teachers who could not wholly know them, often didn’t care to and held somewhere in their mind that powerful invasive narrative of difference and inferiority.

Were the white superintendents casually laying off black teachers “in this period of adjustment” (as they wrote) consciously stacking the deck to protect white privilege or simply unaware of the hold that damaging narrative had on their thinking? Probably a bit of both. But the deeper lesson is that when evil forces get set in motion and become part of a national psyche, it takes tremendous effort, intention, reflection, intelligence and open-heartedness to recognize their impact and root them out. And clearly we are doing terribly at the moment, with so many consciously denying even the need to do so.

I often show these twisted convolutions at work in the story of minstrelsy, where poor whites in the early 1800’s began to imitate the song and dance of blacks in a weird mixture of mockery, admiration, parody in the black-faced minstrel shows. Then some 50 years later, freed blacks began to join minstrel shows and blacken their black faces to pretend to be white folks imitating blacks. Then they would all do the Cakewalk dance, which is a dance black folks made up to mock white folks (without the white folks suspecting). So you can have a black man pretending to be a white man pretending to be a black man doing a dance that the black man invented to make fun of the white man. At which moment, my students say, “HUH?!!!”

It was also possible for Al Jolson, who actively admired and helped out black folks in the entertainment business, sing in black-face without feeling the contradiction. Likewise, Fred Astaire dancing a tribute to Bill Robinson in the movie Swing Time trying to make public his admiration—while dancing in blackface.

Brown vs. Board of Education was simply a question of the right to have the choice of school, not have the patriarchal white culture decide that black schools were inherently inferior and shut them down and fire the teachers. However well-intentioned, the Supreme Court ended up “whitesplaining” to the black folks and sending in motion bad decisions by local school boards that had a bad impact on teachers and kids alike. Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell for telling the story. Now who is capable of hearing it? Who has the courage and intelligence to start to unravel the twisted narrative that still has our nation in its grip?

Third Childhood

Five summer days on the shores of Lake Michigan and this is what I’ve been doing:

Jumping rope. Jumping in the waves. Playing Frisbee. Playing cards (War/ Go-Fish). Playing clapping games. Singing songs. Flying kites. Working in the Phonics Workbook. Reading out loud Charlotte’s Web. Baking cookies. Going out for ice cream sundaes. Watching videos of Peter Pan and The Shaggy Dog. Climbing up a big sand dune and running down. Doing jigsaw puzzles. Burying people in the sand. Getting buried in the sand.

My excuse? A blessed nine days with granddaughter Zadie, the last five in Northern Michigan at the summer cottage. Lake Michigan 100 yards out the back, Lower Herring Lake a ¼ mile out the front, the world all ours to romp freely in. Besides the above with me, she’s sewing and painting and baking cookies with her Grandma Mima and doing all of the above with her beloved Aunt Tita. 10 days away from her Mom, Dad and little brother and at 5 ½ years old, that’s a bit leap. But here in Summer Heaven, she’s thriving and it doesn’t hurt to have the undivided adoring attention of her doting grandparents and her Aunt.

Not that it’s all peaches and cream. Zadie is an explosive firecracker, perfectly capable of turning a lovely moment into a torrent of tears from impulses that seem to come from nowhere. Almost makes me believe in the old saying, “The Devil made me do it!” We’re having a fun breakfast conversation while I’m playing Solitaire and suddenly she grabs some cards and throws them up and they land in my cereal. One moment, her aunt is complementing her on her spontaneous guitar playing and the next I hear the stern command to go to her room followed by the scream of refusal. What happened? Oh, just that she got caught lifting a $50 bill from my wallet. All things that will make cute stories at some future gathering, but right now, call forth all our long history of parent and teaching skills to help her understand how to participate in human society with a bit more elegance and appropriate behavior. Three teachers, some 160 years on her, you’d think she’d be hopelessly outnumbered. But never underestimate the power of a 5-year old!!

Because her Mom and Dad had schedule conflicts and my own summer schedule changed somewhat, it looked like I wouldn’t spend any time with my grandchildren this summer. But some good Plan B thinking helped us arrive at 5 days with my daughter’s whole family in Portland and these additional 7 (counting travel time) with Zadie. How lucky was that?! I loved being a parent and I love being a grandfather and part of it is that I just love being a kid again. I’m just as happy jumping rope and playing clapping games as I am going to the Symphony— and perhaps more so!

And splitting it three ways with my wife and daughter, still time to bike 10 to 20 miles around Upper Herring Lake, swim ¾ of a mile of so in Lower Herring Lake, walk the beach and climb the dune just to make sure I still can (I can!), read, write a bit and even sit on the deck watching the sun set with an uncharacteristic gin and tonic. Life is sweet!

Tomorrow back to work, my 3rd jazz course this summer, this one in Halifax, Nova Scotia. But first a delicious dinner out on the deck and a shared sunset.