Monday, May 8, 2017

The Reach Beyond the Grasp


“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” —Robert Browning

“Where does the temple begin and where does it end?
There are things you can’t reach
But you can reach out to them and all day long…
And it can keep you as busy as anything else
And happier…”          -Mary Oliver 

It has been an intensive four days of concerts. Jazz pianist Gerald Clayton, the SF Jazz High School All-Stars, Mary Stallings with Cyrus Chestnut and Warren Wolf and my own solo piano house concert.

When I go to a concert—or to a lecture, poetry reading, play, etc.—I hope for two things:

1)    That some part of my own thinking and struggle for coherent self-expression is affirmed. Some boost of confidence that “I can do that.”

2)    That the above is challenged and I leave feeling I just got my butt kicked. Some stern reminder, “I need to get back to work.”

Those two were amply fulfilled. The High School All-Stars were especially sobering, hearing these kids half-a-century younger than me both compose and flawlessly perform work of such complexity with such precision at such high-octane tempos. Yikes! But then some small consolation as the Mary Stallings concert reminded me that art is not just virtuosic pyrotechnics, but intimate, relaxed, soulful. Of course, she and her cohorts were also virtuosic in technique, but always in service of soul.

My own concert had a few satisfying moments— a re-working of Cole Porter’s Get Out of Town with our President in mind allowed me to express anguish and power in the bottom half of the keyboard. And my own-re-conceived version of Old Man River that allowed grief to be redeemed in the beauty of thoughtful harmonies.

But always the question, “Why am I doing this?” I’ve maintained a faithfully erratic practice of trying to absorb the language of jazz to express things both personal and collective in our swamp-bogged-lotused-beauty American culture, putting in some 45 years of woodshedding in my living room. But why? I’m not going to join the ranks of performing jazz musicians—not enough hours put in, not enough talent, not enough musical neural pathways carved out in my childhood and even if the above were fulfilled, not likely the opportunity to be the Grandma Moses of jazz and burst upon the scene at 65 years old. (Except for the Family Jazz scene! Still knocking at that door and it’s opening a crack.)

But connecting this inner work with the affirmation of outer work —ie, jobs, gigs, recognition, etc.—is missing the mark. The glory is the constant reaching for something beyond what I can grasp. And thank you Mary Oliver for the distinction between reaching and reaching out and the reminder that beyond any outer standard of success or failure, it can keep me as busy as anything else—it has!— and happier. Yes, indeed.

Back to work.

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