Thursday, January 30, 2014

Swingin' in Fresno


Sometimes a dream comes true. Sometimes your hard work pays off. Sometimes everything you’ve cared about and paid attention to and worked to master finds a place that welcomes it, that needs it, that appreciates it. Sometimes you’re in the right place at the right time with the right people and the door opens to the right opportunity.  And that’s how I got to Fresno with my first jazz-band ever (now almost two years together), The Pentatonics.

Early Saturday morning, four of my now-favorite people on the planet and I loaded ourselves and our instruments in a mini-van and began the three-hour road trip to Fresno. Great conversation, good humor, good snacks. Quick check-in at the Fresno hotel and drive on to neighboring Sanger for an afternoon of workshops. We began by transforming 15 shy and timid Middle Schoolers in a jazz band into smiling, energetic and confident performers, then worked the same magic with the High School band. Both groups put away the chairs, the music stands, the jazz charts and at the beginning, their instruments and came to the circle to express everything they knew (and much they didn’t know they knew) in their bodies, voices, ears and imagination. Jazz as conversation, jazz as storytelling, jazz as the energies of the body given a voice. Then they brought out their instruments and guided by the expertise of each Pentatonic member, transferred all they had done to their particular instrument and put it together with movement choreography and a form that developed organically from our explorations. By the end, the Middle School was playing a swingin’ version of Count Basies “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” and the High School a crazy New York City traffic jam choreographed version of Thelonious Monk’s “Little Rootie Tootie,” both without a single note of written music. I had never done the latter with a group before and as one student noted in a reflection period, “At the beginning, it seemed like a random group of activities, but then everything came together into one coherent whole.” Nice observation!

That evening, we performed a short history of jazz complete with an African xylophone piece, an African-American body percussion piece, a spiritual updated, an ragtime novelty tune with a live “silent movie” mime shtick, a medium tempo “happy song” from the 30’s, a time-stopping ballad, a burning jazz tune ending with a poignant modern hymn. The music spoke for itself, but why not also give a little historical background and put it into context? And I did. In the middle, the two bands performed what we practice and at the end, we called them up again for a wild ride through the C-Jam Blues, with every one of the 30 plus kids and their teachers soloing!

Their have been many memorable moments in my career when I’ve stopped and thought, “This is the culmination of my life’s work.” That’s what I felt again here— all those hours spent alone in the living room working on jazz piano without knowing why, all the work with kids and adults exploring every corner of the Orff approach, all the determination I’ve had to put feet on my winged dreams, all the gratitude I’ve felt for the help of seen and unseen hands, the grace and the just plain good luck to meet these remarkable musicians, caring teachers and superb human beings (that’s you guys— Joshi, Marty, Sam and Micah!). My cup runneth over. And to end as I have before:

Happy. Thank you. More please.

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