Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Masters of the Universe


Who do you think of when you read that title? Perhaps Austin Powers or Russell Crowe or Robert Downey Jr. with their fancy weaponry, army of goons and occasional superpowers. Their goal is to rule over all, to feel the thrill of absolute power and to demolish any scrawny upstart who dares challenge them.

What a bore.

I met two of the true Masters of the Universe the other night at SF Jazz. Their names are Zakir Hussein and Josh Redman. Through a lifetime of unrelenting disciplined effort, rigorous training, passionate commitment, deep listening and prodigious imagination, they have gone further than 99.99% of humanity to master their respective instruments of Indian tabla drums and tenor/soprano saxophone. Zakir is the elder (my age!), Josh a wise 48-year old and they both appear to be two of the nicest, sweetest, kindest people you’d ever want to meet. This based on a few stories and stage presence. There could be, of course, skeletons in their closets, but their general vibe is not the tortured eccentric brooding artist, but the fully human radiant personality aglow with the fruits of their own efforts to master something worthwhile—profound musical expression. They are the masters of time and tone, fully in command of both and manipulating them to create music of astonishing virtuosity and tenderness. While at the same time leaving space for the unexpected and listening to each other with a precision and intensity that is comparable to a hungry predatory stalking prey, waiting for the moment to jump. Indeed, I remember the first time I saw Josh Redman, he entered stage playing and looked exactly like a hunter in search of the miraculous.

The audience was with them every step of the way and because they were playing either music unfamiliar to us all—new compositions on two instruments that have no shared repertoire together or familiar jazz pieces accompanied by the tabla and other percussion instead of the customary drum set—we were listening as well with all our might. And could tell when both pounced at the same time and landed together. And didn’t we feel uplifted just by being in the presence of these master musicians who made the right choices about how to feel the right kind of power that human beings possess? Merely being in the room lifted us up to a better version of ourselves and left us feeling that despite all evidence to the contrary, humanity is not God’s most grievous error, but His most magnificent creation. (Though I couldn’t help but remember, as I have to too often in these dark times, that one of these extraordinary human  beings could be deported for his last name and the other shot for the crime of driving while black. Aargh!)

Tomorrow I return to school to do my little part to help children feel their power through the mastery of and spontaneity within music. It’s likely that none will rise to such exalted heights, but the glory is simply in beginning the journey and staying with the beauty for as long as it refreshes you. As for this lifelong piano player, it’s back to the woodshed.

Changing the Narrative: Part I—Trespassing in the Hall of Mirrors

In an essay titled, Pain Won’t Kill You, Jonathan Franzen questions our growing narcissism enabled by social media like Facebook. He writes:

“Alongside our built-in eagerness to be “liked” in our Facebook posts is a built-in eagerness to reflect well on ourselves.…It’s all one big endless loop. We like the mirror and the mirror likes us. To friend a person is merely to include the person in our private hall of flattering mirrors. “

I plead guilty as charged. We all do. If I see 200 “likes” for a post, my sense of self-worth increases and my satisfaction that my message was worthy of reflection confirmed. (I try to include philosophical and political points of view alongside my visit to the grandkids or recent workshop experience.) It’s all preaching to the choir and the song is always soothing. Which is dangerous, lulling us into complacency and a view of the world in which everyone shares my hard-earned and in my mind, life-sustaining, values.

But occasionally, a “friend” has snuck into the choir who is anything but a member of my club. And then I see all of her or his friends in a very different hall of mirrors affirming each other’s point of view without a single alternative thought entering the conversation. This happened recently and shocked me into a disturbing awareness of just how deep our problems are.

I don’t believe its arrogance to judge this conversation. I don’t believe that all points of view are equally valid and we should just agree to disagree. Especially when such points of view allow for the ignorance about, subjugation of and purposeful harming and hurting of whole groups of people. You know who those groups are—people of color, gay folks, women, children, disabled people, people of non-Christian religious faiths. In the United States, we have a dominant narrative of white supremacy that runs the gamut from the Ku Klux Klan to white privilege of remaining ignorant of our actual history. What happened recently is the fear that that narrative is changing and that whites are the new minority who will be beaten down as they beat down others. In the exchanges below, please note the delusions: There was love between slave and master and yes, it must be so because a Southern white woman (Margaret Mitchell) says so! The Communists and Fascists have brainwashed our youth. We privileged white folks are now slaves and if we don’t watch out, we will suffer the extreme brutality of the Gone with the Wind DVD being banned!! “They’re” trying to take away our history! If you don't think like them, you are silenced, censored, fired or worse, killed. (This latter the most extraordinary. Haven’t you read the stories of policemen breaking into homes and massacring all the people watching Gone with the Wind?!)

So my first reaction, to be perfectly honest, is “These people are delusional idiots!!!” The second is “But it’s helping me to understand how what happened in November happened and why one of the most purposefully ignorant, pathologically narcissistic, incompetent Presidents in our entire history still has not been impeached. And the third is, “How can I talk to these folks (who are college-educated folks talking about consciousness and high vibrations) and help them escape this invisible narrative that has them in their grip and is causing so much harm? How can I enter their Hall of Mirrors and turn some of the reflecting glass into windows showing a different reality? So what follows is my attempt to do so.

But first their comments, starting with the original post showing a video of the Robert E. Lee statue in Dallas being taken down.

• I sit here in the bubble bath, daring to read Gone With the Wind, and enjoying every radical word, as Scarlett bats her eyes at the gentlemen, and Mammy fusses over her. Slave and master, and love between them for real. The history of Civil Rights, the progress, amid strain, difficulty and great odds, that was made, and suddenly Barack Hussein Obama lights a few matches of race war, and here we are taking down statues, as if statues are men, as if men are devils.

• Amen, sister!

• Yes It seems they want civil unrest .I recently watched the Gone with the Wind movie and thought that not all slaves were treated badly. 

• I'm thinking of buying a copy of the DVD, before it gets banned!

Disgraceful, no matter how many object, it is part of the nations history. Wiping them [ and the text books] clean doesn't change FACTS.

 Dallas has become very liberal the last few years. What a pity.

• It's all going according to plan. These statues have been there all this time. No one cared or even paid them any mind. The masters (ruling class now over us slaves), put it in the minds of college student radical progressives and they swallowed every word. For decades and decades all our institutions of learning have been filled with Communist/Fascist radicals. They are out to destroy our culture and replace it with Fascism and Marxism too. They are using the younger generations to sway thought. It is only okay if you think like them, if you don't you are silenced, censored, fired or worse, killed. If this treason isn't stopped we will be living a life like all those who came before us from every dictatorial country where in the end, millions and millions were slaughtered through one means or another.

• Agreed and it shows how easy it has become to brainwash humans--- weak minded ones!!! I for one keep my vibration high!!! To be conscious is to have a higher vibration. "Observe don't absorb"

• What this county needs is a good kick were the sun does not shine. Snow Flakes rule. Obama set race relations back 60yrs, and it was not by accident all in the big plan.

• A very sad day to see statues of history taken down. Nothing to do with present. folk died for every statue erected. For they are erected to remember the lives given.

• Like getting rid of giant evidence.. it takes hundreds of years... and we live an ant's age in comparison with time and real truth.

• So we have had the ACLU, Atheist and now snowflake therapy needing leftist removing more statues of American history! When is enough enough? What’s next? Removing the tombstone cross at Arlington national cemetery?

• Absolutely will happen! Crosses to be taken down nationwide! Hope I'm wrong.

Interesting, yes? So then I chimed in:

Before you continue the fantasy of love between slave and master, talk to a descendant of a slave or read some of the slave’s narratives or watch 12 Years a Slave.  As for statues, they represent a nation's pride, not disgrace. You don't find Hitler statues in Germany just because he was part of a nation's history.

One of the commentators wrote back in response:

Doug, my grandparents had been forced to take in Polish 'slave labour' during WW II. Farm help. They had been members of the family, NOT 'SLAVES'. My mom had remained best friends with one of the ladies and good friends with others, they had talked on the phone [ expensive] at Christmas time, every year. My dad had collected money for buying 5 harvesting combines and had taken them through formerly East Germany [ special permit] to Poland, hand delivering them! And did a second trip a few years later, collecting money about 3 years later with another convoy --- All of this has nothing to do with 'statue removal' but 'slaves'. And trying to help in the most practical way he could think of. --- Heck NO, our schools in Germany are named after resistance fighters!!!

And I responded:

Nice story. But note that "slaves" was in parenthesis. There is no parallel with actual slaves in the United States who were forcefully abducted, beaten, abused and no propoganda about the good ole days of genteel plantation life can whitewash the truth of how unbearable the slave’s lives actually were. Robert E. Lee was defending this institution of brutality, himself was involved in it and those who think he was a hero are supporting the notion that all of this was okay. We as a nation need to educate ourselves about the real story of slavery and talk to a couple of black folks about their experience. And listen deeply to their stories, not what Fox news reports about it all.

The person who posted also responded to my first comment with:

 • I wouldn't compare Robert E Lee, who was a great hero with Hitler.

That discussion in the next post. 

Changing the Narrative: Part II—Let's Talk About Statues

Changing the Narrative: Part II—Let’s Talk About Statues

Continuing the story of the Facebook caper. The person who posted the original concern about Confederate statues being taken down responded to my last comments with the following:

• Doug I was a history major and did graduate work on the spirituality of the slaves. I do not for a minute diminish the terrible ordeal of slavery nor do I support it. I also don't suppose the meta stance for us to even have this conversation. We agree about slavery but this agenda is intended to pit against one another based on new labels that are false. I am not a white supremacist, but I value my history and the complexity of many factors that go into seeing the good in someone like a Robert Lee. That's it for me. Over and Out. Thank you no harm intended.

I was astounded that someone who voted for Trump (she did) was a HISTORY MAJOR and did graduate work on “the spirituality of slaves.” The contradictions possible in the human being are simply beyond my comprehension. But having begun the conversation, I was obliged to continue, as follows:

• I know Facebook is a terrible venue for these much needed discussions. But here's something to consider. We all need to look at the balance of good and bad in public figures and then decide which side of the line we'll stand on. Hitler was an artist and a vegetarian and loved his dog, but his other deeds far outweighed all of that. Lincoln was not as enlightened about slavery as I would have liked, but his actions that helped end that inhuman institution outweighed his flaws. And we also look at who is attached to the continued idolizing of figures and what their motivation is. Like the Klansmen and Neo-Nazis in Charlottesville expressing their "concern" about removing statues. I'd like to think that these are group that you would hesitate to identify with.

I did a little research on good old Wikipedia and found out about a person who “opposed the construction of public memorials to Confederate rebellion on the grounds that they would prevent the healing of wounds inflicted during the war. Nevertheless, they were constructed and after his death, (people like) Robert E. Lee became an icon used by promoters of "Lost Cause" mythology, who sought to romanticize the Confederate cause and strengthen white supremacy in the South." I find it disturbing that over 150 years later, we’re still wondering about whether such statues have a place in our landscape and its obvious from the events in Charlottesville that so many are still romanticizing the Confederate cause and thus, strengthening the continuation of the white supremacy narrative.

But here’s the surprising thing. The person who warned about this and was opposed to these statues was… Robert E. Lee!!!! It doesn’t make him a hero in my book, but it does elevate his humanity in my eyes a few notches higher. I thank you for helping me learn about that and I hope you can pause and see that the person who would have applauded removing his statue was Robert E. Lee himself! Food for thought.

And then one more reply from her:

• I appreciate your thoughtfulness and care on this issue. Thank you so much for raising consciousness here. No easy answers certainly.

Well, there you have it. Civil dialogue that kind of worked. A Facebook exchange that went one inch beyond the self-affirming no-thought-needed hall of mirrors.

But beyond that, it made it clear that simply removing statues without the necessary dialogue falls short of the mark. There need to be conversations and education and actual facts that can slow down or reverse the fantasies of those fed by right-wing talk shows and the like that the “libtards” are trying to rain on their parade and take away their rights. It’s probably not too likely that any statue converted some innocent person to neo-Nazi or Klan membership, but it certainly is symbolic of a nation’s intention about what is worthy of celebration, what values the statue represents that we either want to continue to honor or re-think. The removal is necessary so people hurt by those values don’t have to pass them by. The people threatened by their removal need some images to help them understand what that feels like. (No woman domestically abused by her husband who goes to a shelter would be likely to put his photo in her room.) But what’s most important is that the next generation be wholly educated as to what values are represented by different icons and make a conscious choice as to which are worthy. Of course, I would highly recommend those that lean toward tolerance, celebration of diversity, justice, kindness, love.

Anyone want to argue with that? Well, yes, Klansmen and Neo-Nazis would. But my hope is that someone who paid money to a graduate school to study the spirituality of slaves might learn to connect the dots and reconsider her voting choices. I won’t count on it, but hey, I did what I could.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Back on the Soapbox


Tonight was the back-to-school night for Middle School parents. I had a too-short 10-minutes to describe my 8th grade jazz program, so I decided to write them a letter. Might be of interest to teachers reading this blog or jazz fans or social justice advocates. Or might not. But here it is anyway.


Dear 8th grade parents,                                                                     

How happy am I to be teaching this remarkable class of musical children? Well, happy enough to postpone any notions of retiring and lying around on a beach in Hawaii. No way was I going to miss working with these fabulous kids!! And truth be told, this school and this work and these kids are my Hawaiian beach and I imagine when June comes around, I’ll still sign on for another round.

I count my blessings every day that I was able to find work that uses all of me and always pushes me to discover more, work that seeks out the best of the extraordinary faculties human beings possess in seed form and need only good soil, water and light to bring them forth. What could be better than working the soil, watering the plants and shining the light on these beautiful young souls?

What am I hoping to grow here? Quite simply, as follows:

• to train the body as an instrument of knowledge and expression
• to awaken the senses
• to cultivate the mind
• to open the heart
• to feed the Spirit and embrace the Soul

I may be biased, but I happen to think that of all school subjects, music can do these most thoroughly because to be a good musician, you need a trained body, a sensitive and listening ear, an intelligent mind, a feeling heart and a healthy dose of spirit and soul. And though every musical style requires a balance of all these elements, jazz may demand the most from each. The technique required for jazz is formidable. The understanding of the harmonies and structures is profound theory in action. To improvise, with no notes written on paper, requires a deep listening and attentive presence in the ensemble. And if you don’t play each note with deep feeling, well, who cares about your technique and scales? In short, jazz is a perfect blend of body and soul, mind and heart.

And jazz is something more. It’s the history we have refused to tell and that ignorance has brought us to our present state of chaos and confusion. Jazz tells the story we need to know as Americans about who we’ve been, who we are and who we might become. It’s the story of our triumph and our shame, our joy and our pain, our happiness and our sorrow, our yesterday and tomorrow. Parallel with playing this wondrous music, the 8th graders learn the stories of how it came to be so they know who to thank. They learn of the struggles and injustices, the unearned privileges of some and the triumph against all odds of others. They discover what the music has to say to them and what they in turn might bring to the music to keep it moving forward.

Like I said, hands down better than any Hawaiian beach. Thanks in advance for the year to come.            -Doug