Thursday, April 27, 2017

History Lesson

1921. On this day 96 years ago, my Mom was born. Notable events of that year include:

• The De Young Museum in San Francisco opens.
• Women get the vote in Sweden.
• The first Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City is held.
• Charlie Chaplin’s full-length movie The Kid is released.
• Warren Harding begins his Presidency.
• World War I ends and the Allies decide that Germany has to pay 33 trillion dollars in reparations for World War I. (It was finally paid off in 2010.)
• Hitler becomes the Fuhrer of the Nazi Party
• White Castle hamburger restaurant opens, the first of the fast-food chains.
• Albert Einstein wins the Nobel Prize.
• The vibraphone is invented.
• Donna Reed, Carol Channing, Betty Friedan, Errol Garner, Steve Allen, Jon Hendriks are born (my Mom outlived them all except for Jon Hendriks, still alive at 95 years old!)
• D.H. Lawrence publishes Women in Love, Langston Hughes his poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers.
• Picasso paints Three Musicians, Mondrian Composition in Red, Yellow, Blue.
• Schoenberg composes Opus 25 for Piano.
• Hit songs include Irving Berlin’s Say It With Music, Zez Confrey’s Kitten on the Keys (part of my Pentatonics Jazz band’s repertoire) and April Showers (a song I played at my Mom’s Memorial Service in 2014).
• Louis Armstrong goes to Chicago to play with Joe Oliver.
• A pound of bacon costs $.52, a pound of coffee $.47, a pound of cheese $.38.
• There were 7 million cars in the U.S. (now 263 million).

That was the world my Mom was born into. Growing up in Coney Island, she was 8 when the Great Depression hit, 12 when Hitler rose to power in Germany, 24 when World War II ended, 28 when my sister was born, 30 when I was born, 71 when she moved to California, 87 when she moved into The Jewish Home for the Aged (thanks to those Liberals who gave us Medicare) and two weeks short of her 93rd birthday when she left us. The world changed more in her lifetime than it had in the previous 500 years.

Yesterday driving to school, I listened to a recording of a concert I gave in her honor. Titled “Flowers for Florence,” it was all jazz tunes that had to do with flowers—April Showers, Lotus Blossom, Passion Flower, Blue Orchid, Menina Flor and more. At the end, I told a story to the audience of coming to visit her when she was in one of her belligerent “I’m-old-and-tired” moods and I managed to soothe her with some ice cream and conversation. Then I wheeled her over to the piano and asked her, “What would you like to hear?” and without missing a beat, she replied, “That you love me.” And I ended that little story with “Easier words were never spoken.”

So Mom, I’ll say it again. I miss you pinching my cheek and showering me with your praise and conducting at my side while I played piano. Tonight I’m going with Ginny to see a show about Irving Berlin and I’ll let him say those words “I Love You” with the song he wrote the year of your birth: Say It With Music. That’s what I’m trying to do, every time I sit down at the piano, at least part of the time, I’m playing a love letter to you. No more counting the years when April 27th rolls around, but still and always, I’m so happy you were born and I had the privilege to be your son. Your name won’t make the Wikipedia list, but for me, the most important event of 1921 is that you were born. That’s my history lesson for today.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Nice Neighbors to the North


Despite my difficult entry, once in Edmonton, relationships with my neighbors to the north were, as always, not just cordial, but hug-worthy. Arrived in snow, settled into a hotel with character and set off the next day to work with 60 kids with some 60 teachers watching.

The theme was Jazz and of course, that’s my home territory. Got both groups swingin’ and singin’, tappin’ and clappin’, swayin’ and playin’. By the end, we put together a full-blown performance with body percussion, partner clap, dance, drama, Orff instruments with solos. Sometimes we let the adults join in and wasn’t that fun, to just be embraced in a vibrant musical community with mostly strangers. (The kids came from some 10 different schools and didn’t know each other at the beginning. But they certainly did by the end!)

The day was capped off by a fun Italian dinner where I dared to try a Caesar Bloody Mary—Clamato juice with vodka, a spoon full of horseradish, a pickle and olives and a shrimp perched on the glass’s rim and salt/pepper around the rim as well. I suck at drinking, so naturally couldn’t finish it. But it was pretty good! Not needed for the laughs with these vibrant Orff Board members, but probably didn’t hurt.



The next morning, off to an impressive Arts School from elementary through high school—over a thousand kids and this a public school. In general, Edmonton has an impressive arts commitment, 90 minutes a week for all school music programs and a Senator who is a local jazz musician! (Tommy Banks). Taught a long class to 60 4th graders, followed by another with 60 3rd graders. Fun! At the end, I shared my new favorite song, “Gonna Build Me a Mountain” with them and started with,

So here’s a song about having a dream and what it takes to make it come true. For example, I always dreamed of traveling around the world with a rubber chicken and getting paid for it and …well, here I am!”

That got their attention. But what’s more interesting is how sixty 3rd graders listened in rapt attention as if I was a poet or a preacher saying exactly the words they needed. I think that kids, like adults, are starved to hear something authentic, heartfelt, real, true. I don’t want to claim too much for myself here, but I did feel that quality of listening that is rare and precious, the kind a poet once described as a “hushed silence of an audience listening as if their lives depended on it.” And then from the words to the song, the thoughts given both feet and wings by the notes and the collective singing. A perfect way to end a lovely day.

And my rubber chicken liked it too.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Story Not Told


At 32-years old, my daughter Talia has mostly stopped rolling her eyes when I talk. Except for one circumstance. Whenever I tell a bad travel story.

So in honor of her perception that these are the most boring first-world-problem stories ever, I’m going to show remarkable restraint and not burden the reader with my tale of awakening at 4:30 am in the Carmel Valley, driving two-and-a-half hours to the airport and settling myself in Seat 2D in an unexpected Business Class with an enticing new book that I couldn’t find in San Francisco, but picked up at the airport, one copy left. I won’t go into the details of how that opening promise of a seamless and pleasant journey to Edmonton suddenly went horribly bad when the Customs guy in Calgary told me to go to Secondary Inspection because I answered honestly on the form that the purpose of travel was business. I won’t describe how I knew that it was perfectly legal for me to teach many groups of children from different schools gathered together in a special Children’s Day, but suffice it to say, I’ve been down the road to Secondary Inspection too many times before (and always in Canada! Great country! Horrible Immigration Officers!) and knew that I didn’t belong there. No need to get into my worry that with 45 minutes until my next flight took off that I might miss it because of this bureaucratic bullshit and missing it would mean my luggage would go without me and the person picking me up at the airport would be confused and I’d have to re-book another flight and it would generally be a big pain in the ass. And I won’t mention how being told I would be called when the officer was ready and I was number three and I saw two people go before me and suddenly there are five available officers just chatting away with each other and when I went back to the guy at the desk and suggested that perhaps that they could be a bit more sensitive to my pressing timetable, especially since I knew I didn’t belong there, one of them got offended and brought me over and started pulling up all past entries to Canada and looked at my contract on the computer and told me that if I was going to one school, I’d need a work permit and I told him I knew that and these kids were coming from many schools and I know perfectly well I don’t need one and he told me that they (for there was a group now) would be the judge of that and then they all ganged up on me for daring to question someone in a uniform and disrespecting them and it concerned them when I told them that the last time this happened last year in Toronto, an immigration officer just told me to lie next time and that they couldn’t answer for that officer, but lying to them would be a serious offense and I pointed out that’s why I was so honest putting down “business” and look where it got me. No, I certainly don’t want to go into that. And I know it’s not that interesting to hear that finally after many faked apologies on my side, the officer said he used to be a music major and what instrument did I play and now we were supposed to be buddy-buddy, but God forbid they admit I had actually been right that I didn’t belong there and they regretted any inconvenience it would cost me. And I’m sure that no one is waiting on the edge of their seat to hear that I rushed to Information and she wrote down the gate number for my flight and assured me I’d be able to make it in time, but then again, she didn’t see the long, slow line at Security. And how boring it would be to hear that I walked fast to the gate and 45 seconds away, heard my name paged and ran to the gate only to find it closed and no one behind the desk and I started pounding on the doors to no response and frantically looking around for someone official to help me and finally spotted someone at Gate 53 and ran over there and she said, “Ah, this is your flight. You’re the last one” and so no time to write back to the person who was going to pick me up (who I had written to while held hostage in Secondary Inspection to warn her not to go to the airport until further notice), so she would either have seen my message and stayed at home or read it at the airport or not read it and just been there. Had I told this fascinating story, I’m sure the reader, often envious of my travels, would have been secretly pleased to find out that my luggage didn’t arrive because I was supposed to pick it up in Calgary and re-check it even though no one ever to my knowledge told me that, so now I had to go to Baggage Claim Services and my ride indeed was not there and I didn’t know the name of the hotel I’d be staying in to send the bags to and this guy was nicer than the entire Canadian Immigration Officer population and called my ride on the phone so I got the hotel details and was able to tell her I actually arrived so that 20 minutes later, she picked me up (without my luggage, which may or may not arrive tonight) and drove me to the hotel. Oh, and I also would have mentioned it was snowing. On April 23rd.

I am so proud of myself for not telling that story! And, dear reader, eat your heart out! I’m a traveling music teacher having fun in all the world’s exotic places! 

The Art of Variation


A donkey’s jawbone. A wooden box. A gourd with beads around it. Two small gourds with seeds inside. These amongst the instruments featured in our recent Orff gathering with a Latin accent. The quijada, cajon, maracas and shekere played by musicians from Mexico, Peru, Venezuela and Cuba. Simple tools brought to a breathtaking level of virtuosic expression by master musicians who have dedicated the time and intelligence to “extract the utmost information from the simplest apparatus” (Alfred North Whitehead’s advice for inspired education). How do they do it?

First is attention to sound. How many different sounds can one find on each instrument? Then technique. What is the most muscularly efficient way to release each sound? Then rhythm. How can I start from the center of a groove and circle around it, swoop under and above it, pass through it and take it on a side road or two? Finally, variation. How can I travel to the edge of imagination, armed with coherent knowledge, efficient techniques, full use of 360 degree possibilities of telling a story? It’s a wonder to behold—and behear—what a simple tool in the hands of a master artist can express.

Meanwhile, we get so distracted arming the students with the complex tools of i-Pads, giving them Smartboards and Smartphones, but often neglecting smart children prepared to do something important and interesting with them beyond text the next inanity to their friends or gorge themselves with pop fluff and the constant addictive stream of sensation. Might everyone be required to express themselves artistically with a wooden box before composing with Garage Band? Write a beautiful poem with pencil and paper before learning the word processing program? Draw 52 still lives with charcoal before delving into the cool graphic design program? You get the idea.

But I’m not just talking about the choice of tools. The deeper question is how do we cultivate human intelligence? A quick look reveals that it has much to do with the art of variation. Artists develop their craft through those 52 different versions of a bowl of fruit. Bach, Handel, Mozart and Beethoven honed their compositional skills with countless themes and variations, using both intelligence and imagination to ask and answer, “How else can I express this theme?” Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and John Coltrane did the same as they circled time and time again through the changes of the 12-bar blues or the harmonic progression of I Got Rhythm.

Such variation is only possible in the human world, a gift of the neo-cortex that has the capacity for choice, for stating one thing one way and then re-stating it another way and yet another and yet another. Animals driven by hard-wired instinct don’t have this flexibility, though it does increase as you climb the evolutionary ladder. If we are to be worthy of our species, we would do well to live our thoughts and our lives with the cultivated craft of variation, whether it be playing a donkey’s jawbone or writing a daily blog.

Have I said this before? Certainly, but here is variation number 612, inspired by the beads wrapped around a gourd in the hands of John Santos, a pair of maracas brought to life by Jackie Rago.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Where's the One?


The spiritual problem of our times is that too many people are asking “Who’s Number One?” and not enough are asking “Where’s the One?” Having just come from a Cuban rhumba workshop, I found myself as often, playing a pattern on the drum without clearly understanding the grammar and syntax of the whole language. “How does this fit with the song? The dance? The other percussion parts? And for God’s sake, where the hell is the One?!” (Meaning the first beat of the patterns that establishes a sense of home. The rhythmic equivalent of key in melody.)

The teacher was patient and first tried to relate it to the clave pattern. Clave is both a simple instrument (two sticks struck together) and a crucial function in the music, the short pattern around which all the other patterns are built. The teacher explained the clave is the key to the lock and if you don’t have the key, you’ll break down the door.

And there you have it. This man comes from an extraordinary tradition of spirit and soul and harmonious relationship expressed through carefully cultivated (over centuries) music and dance that coordinates the various rhythms in the body, the various feelings and emotions, the different faces of Spirit. It connects one not only with one’s own breath and pulse, but with the fellow players and dancers as well and also with the natural world and also with the spiritual world. In short, the whole glorious pageant of creation made audible and physical and visible through music, song and dance. You could feel all the long line of fellow musicians and dancers and spiritual beings behind this man and that’s where his vitality and humor and radiant joy came from. He has the key and can not only open the door, but invite you in as well.

When I look at the pale jowled faces and lifeless bodies and unhappy expressions of the Republicans with all the money and power who think they are the winners. I can’t help but feel pity for the state of their bodies, minds and souls. They have the money, we have the joy. By we I mean the convocation of these poorly-paid but rich- with- the- privilege-of-teaching-children teachers gathered in one of my sacred homes, Hidden Valley Music Seminars, with a special accent on getting a taste of the rich traditions from the Hispanic diaspora and beyond. Why do people spend so much time envying the rich, when paradise is right around the corner in the Rhumba dance class?

So yes, these people with the outward political and economic power need to be held accountable so they stop threatening the actual lives of those of us who just want to get on with the party, but let’s do it from a place of strength. Since they’re missing the key to open the door to their own soulful promise, they are breaking down doors everywhere. How can we stop them? How can we help them?

I believe they need to go to prison for their crimes and kept locked away to stop them from doing so much harm and hurt in the world. But in my prison system, they’d be learning drumming and dance from the African diaspora, singing Bach, Mozart and Bulgarian folk songs, dancing until they have discovered each part of the body below the neck. Once they learned the key to their own happiness doesn’t lie in money or the power to hurt others, once they learn to ask “Where’s the one?” more often than “How can I be number one?”, they could be released on probation and sent to teach children. All of this funded by the money they stole from the people.

Off to my next class.