There is a legendary jazz story that Fats Waller was playing in a club and noticed that Art Tatum walked in. He stopped playing, turned to the audience and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I play piano, but tonight, God is in the house.” Tatum’s technique was so remarkable, his command of the keyboard so all-encompassing, his prodigious musical ideas flowing at such torrential rates, that after hearing him, many aspiring pianists simply shrugged their shoulders, exclaimed “Why bother?” and called it quits.
Well, after going to a solo Bobby McFerrin concert in Helsinki last night, I could have said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I try to embody the ideal of playing, singing and dancing, model flexible thinking and improvisational response, balance a soulful seriousness with spontaneous humor, make complex music from simple close-at-hand materials and invite all students to explore their own musicality, but tonight, God was in the house and I mean the omnipotent all-powerful and awe-inspiring kind (minus the harsh judgement and plus the crazy Zen humor).
The man is simply extraordinary. He has it all. The discipline, the spontaneity, the range of musical style, the control, the release to where the music wants to go, the ability to respond instantly to the demands and suggestions of the moment. He improvised over his own bass lines, with a dancer, with other solo singers, over patterns given to the audience, over patterns he created given to a volunteer choir assemble on stage. He sang Bach’s Prelude No. 1 and counted on the Finn’s musical literacy to know the Gounod melody over the top and they did, turning the beautiful new concert hall of Sibelius Academy, with its state-of-the-art acoustics, into a cathedral. He sang a spiritual-like Psalm from the Bible that turned it into a different kind of church, astounded people with his car sound effects during the Beatles Drive My Car, astonished me yet further with his arpeggios following the complex chord changes of the jazz standards Smile and Somewhere Over the Rainbow while singing the melody on the top in the spaces. And he responded with humor to the interruption of Chick Corea’s Spain by not one, but two cell phones, stopping, smiling, imitating the phones and resuming. When he realized he had continued in a different key (influenced by the phones), he worked that sentence into the improvisation. Keith Jarrett would have thrown his water pitcher at the audience, but it was impressive the way Mr. McFerrin commanded the same seriousness about the music he was making, but was able to respond with humor.
One man, a bottle of water, a stool and a microphone showing for almost two hours what the human voice and imagination is capable of, with the spirit of three-year old and the accomplishment of a dedicated genius who devoted six years of practicing two or three hours a day before he attempted his first solo concert back in 1983. I often cite Bobby as the model of the Romance, Precision, Synthesis cycle that characterizes all learning and human growth. We must always begin any enterprise with a playful spirit freely exploring, like the baby who babbles before arriving at coherent speech. After sufficient play and exploration, we are hungry and ready for the precision of work, the long discipline of technique, grammar, syntax and classified knowledge. While too much of the world stops there, the final step is to synthesize the techniques and systematic knowledge with the playful spirit exploring freely within its structures. That’s Bobby McFerrin.
I was able to meet Bobby backstage with my Finnish friends because I had the good fortune to know him in the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s as a school parent, teaching two of his kids for six years. He was surprised to see me in Finland and even though I had just seen him backstage a few months ago with my 8th graders in San Francisco, was warm and generous with his post-concert time. It was yet further revealing to discuss some details of the concert and my friends were impressed by what a humble and accessible warm-hearted man this man is, defying all stereotypes of the socially misfit artist lifted above human convention by the force of his genius.
Thank you, Bobby McFerrin, for showing us yet again what a human being is capable of and giving us yet another soul-stirring evening. Last night, God indeed was in the house.