Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Jazz of Rumi


I celebrated Rumi’s Wedding Night yesterday by giving a workshop at SF Jazz Center. Of course! Rumi was an improvising jazz poet, spontaneously riffing his poems that were then notated by a scribe. I once made a list of his poems that relate to jazz and came up with some 30 poems!

But before getting into that, I shouldn’t assume that everyone knows Rumi. Short story:

Rumi was born in Afghanistan, which was then part of the Persian Empire, on September 30th, 1207, and later fled from invading Mongol armies to Konya, Turkey where he lived out his days. He was a respectable religious scholar whose life turned inside out when he met Shams, a mystic teacher. Studying about God dropped away and he turned to seeking union with the divine. His poems were spontaneous records of his spiritual journey, an ongoing jazz solo that built on existing knowledge, but never hardened into dogma. He also began the practice of divine dancing that became the whirling dervishes, spinning with the unchangeable core Spirit at the center.  He died on December 17, 1273 and the Sufi mystics who followed called this his Wedding Night, married at last with the Beloved.

Thanks to the spirited, jazz-like translations by Coleman Barks, Rumi has become one of our most popular “contemporary” poets, his poetry often performed live with music, recitation and dance. Below are select quotes from Barks The Essential Rumi that relate to jazz. Comments in italics mine:

Description of inspired improvisation, letting the notes lead you

Do you think I know what I’m doing?.....that I belong to myself?
As much as a pen knows what it’s writing
Or the ball can guess where it’s going next.  (p. 16)

As if Rumi heard Coltrane’s saxophone playing

Hear the love fire tangled in the reed-notes,
as bewilderment melts into wine.

The reed is a friend to all who want the fabric
torn and drawn away.

The reed is hurt and salve combining,
intimacy and longing for intimacy one song.

A disastrous surrender and a fine love, together. (p. 18)

 How the blues works and how Monk’s limitations of accepted piano technique become an essential part of his expression

What hurts you, blesses you.
Darkness is your candle.
Your boundaries are your quest. (p. 20)

On playing the notes between the notes, on looking for the silences to fill

Every craftsmen searches for what’s not there to practice his craft…
Workers towards something of emptiness, which they then start to fill. (p. 24)

On playing jazz with no recording of the performance

Don’t worry about saving these songs!
And if one of our instruments breaks, it doesn’t matter.
We have fallen into the place where everything is music. (p. 34)

Why play music at all?(Or ‘the courageous decision to be a full-time jazz musician.’)

Today like every other day, we wake up
Empty and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.

Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.  (p. 36)

On developing your personal musical voice

Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things
have gone with others. Unfold
your own myth, without complicated explanation,
So everyone will understand the passage
‘We have opened you.’  (p. 41)

Don’t play to be popular (Or ‘message to Kenny G.')

The knowing I have…wants to enjoy itself.

Knowledge that is acquired is not like this. Those who have it
Worry if audiences like it or not.
                                    It’s a bait for popularity.
(it) wants customers.
It has no soul. (p. 46)

On the fierce discipline needed to become a full-time musician

Work. Keep digging your well.
Don’t think about getting off from work.…
Submit to a daily practice.
Your loyalty to that is a ring on the door.

Keep knocking, and the joy inside
Will eventually open a window
And look out to see who’s there. (p. 101)

On learning the solos of the great jazz masters

Learn about your inner self from those who know such things,
but don’t repeat verbatim what they say. (p. 108)

A good jazz soloists knows when to stop and I see there is simply too much material here. I’m just getting warmed up! Maybe a future book. Meanwhile, my little nod to this remarkable poet whose songs have echoed across multiple borders and down eight centuries to still be swingin’ today. Happy Rumi’s Wedding Night!

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