Thursday, January 18, 2018

A Day in Court

I was called for jury duty yesterday and actually had the day off from school anyway. All these years, I have never served on a jury and truth be told, I would love to. But not now, one week before I begin my work as a traveling music teacher. I actually made it to the first round of 12 people, but whether it was my pin that said “Make America Human Again” or a comment I made about the crime of “driving while black,” I was dismissed before I had to make my plea for hardship at work.

But I was duly impressed anew by the whole system of our courts. And while the fake President tries to tweet America down to its knees, I feel this shameful year as the true test of the strength of our democracy and one that strangely enough, we’re passing.

I, like many, have seen and been terrified with the parallels between what’s happening with the rise of Nazi Germany in 1933, but am more and more convinced that the bid for tyranny is failing because of three important pillars of our history. As follows:

1) Our Legal System:  The radical concept of “innocent until proven guilty,” the right of trial before one peers and the President swearing to uphold a legal document called The Constitution are three things that are helping prevent the re-appearance of a Hitler and his like. Is it flawed? You betcha. Mere accusations firing the likes of Garrison Keillor, black folks in the South with all-white juries, 45 crapping all over the Constitution with policies like the Muslim ban and (temporarily) getting away with it are just some of the ways the system is broken and imperfect. But imagine our country now without it. Imagine “guilty because the government says so,” no trial with impartial juries, no allegiance to the Constitution and the power to change it at will. None of that would be good news. Flawed as it is, the accountability our legal system demands and the possibility of a fair trial through the jury duty process of the guy or girl next door helping decide guilt or innocence “beyond a reasonable doubt” based on authentic evidence that must be provided and proved—well, let’s not take that for granted.

 2) Free Speech and Freedom of the Press: Fresh on my mind as I just saw the excellent movie The Post about the publishing of the Pentagon Papers. Nixon and his cronies came very close to hiding the lies to the public of all the decisions made by Presidents from Truman to Nixon about sending our young men to die in Vietnam because they couldn’t admit or accept that we were losing a dubious war. It was the courage of Katherine Graham and Ben Bradley that felt their responsibility to speak truth to power over hiding power’s agenda that helped bring Nixon down. In Hitler’s time, in China or Turkey today, one couldn’t wear T-shirts that said “I’m with the Resistance” and post criticisms on Blogs or Facebook or write editorials in newspapers. Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah would be in jail and the book Fire and Fury would not be a NY Times bestseller. All of that makes a difference. Our long history of such free speech is not one even the most conservative amongst us are likely to freely give up.

3). The Electoral Process: The fact that we elect leaders to represent the people rather than have them self-appoint or select their own is a huge roadblock to tyranny. It creates an accountability that lets politicians know that their decisions matter and are being considered when re-election comes around, hold them to some standard if for no other reason than political survival. Again, the system is mightily flawed. From voter suppression to incarcerating black folks for dubious felonies to gerrymandering to the ridiculous one-day to vote and release from workplace to people like the Koch brothers buying elections to downright tampering with machines (the infamous chads) to the Electoral College. All of that needs to be fixed. But nevertheless, someone like Barack Obama can be elected and serve for 8 years. (And again, someone as clearly unqualified, hopelessly incompetent and morally bereft as you-know-who can also!). 

But one of the most important policies in place is term limits. Hitler ruled for 12 years and had not he lost World War II, would have continued on indefinitely. As long as our system doesn’t entirely collapse, we have a guarantee that we merely need to survive 4 or 8 years before there is the hope of turning things around yet again. Once more, we should not take this for granted.

And so I was happy for practical reasons and disappointed for citizen-participation-reasons that I wasn’t selected for jury duty. But that morning spent in court with the everyday folks from diverse neighborhoods participating in a system aiming for fairness and justice renewed my faith that we will survive of all the travesties of such justice that are being thrown our way. There are countless modern-day Ben Bradleys and Katherine Grahams amongst us refusing to be silent and I have great hopes that the Democrats can take back the balance of power in the House and Senate and stop (or at least continue to slow down) the daily assaults on the Constitution. These three venerable institutions that aim for checks and balances to unbridled power are what’s keeping a semblance of democracy going. While we have them, let’s use them to the maximum. While you can read these words without fear of being thrown in jail, please read them. And add your own. 

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

A Day at the Zoo

I had a quick visit with the grandkids in Portland on Sunday after my workshops in Eugene and we decided to go to the zoo. When we got to the chimpanzees, I told 6-year old Zadie that they were her cousins. She gave me a kind of “what are you talking about?!!” look and I had to give a brief lecture on Darwin.

Now the Homo-Sapien-Centric reaction to Darwin’s idea back then—and remarkably, still now in some backwaters of intellectual capability—was that it was an insult to pair us with monkeys. A wider view would not only acknowledge that every living form has its own dignity and its proper place in the ecology of sentient beings, but also suggest that perhaps the chimpanzees were far more evolved than us humans who constantly foul our own nest, mindlessly kill, maim or sue our own family members, waste our lives chasing after dollars and vote for idiots, for starters. But the one thing we have is the power to put chimps in cages and gawk at them to entertain ourselves and to pat ourselves on the backs to see how much further we have evolved.

So that got me thinking about the zoo of the future and my fantasy that my grandkids will take their grandkids to see the (thankfully) endangered species on their way to extinction. Here’s what I hope they will see locked in cages:

1)    Homo Racistiens— This weird species sometimes dresses in white hoods and shouts angry slurs to people with different skin colors. Their faces grow red from hate speech, their hearts are ten sizes too small and many have the intelligence level of dirt.

2)    Homo Greediens—This group dresses in suits and ties and spends their day stealing money from each other and everyone else. Watch them connive and plot when the zookeeper throws in a barrelful of dollars.

3)    Homo Sexistiens—Watch these males grope and grab the female mannequin in the cage and say mean and demeaning things to her. Women visitors, be prepared that they may hurl out catcalls.

4)    Homo Silenciens—Watch these animals sit silently by while those in neighboring cages commit their unspeakable acts.

5)    Homo My-God-Is-Rightiens—This group will pray to the altar of the God who lets them do any evil thing with excuses from Scripture—including killing others worshipping at the altar of their different God.

6)    Homo Ignoramusiens—This group thrived on the notion that their ignorance was as good as (or better than) their neighbor’s education—and they were proud of it! And allowed to vote!

7)    Homo Trumpien—This is the lowest life form in the entire history of evolution. A specimen that evolved with a human brain and refused to use it, a human heart and refused to open it to love and compassion, a human body and gorged it with nighttime cheeseburgers and used it only to steer his golf cart. And he was supported in all of this by his friends in the other cages.

All you have seen here once roamed the earth and almost brought human life to extinction. But thankfully, real human beings saw the danger, educated themselves and others and now all that remains of that dark time are these last remaining survivors, safely locked away in cages so they can cause no more damage to others and displayed as a reminder that they should never come back again.

We hope you enjoyed your visit.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

A Day of Service

Our Lower School Head likes to remind the kids that Martin Luther King Day is not a vacation, but a day of service. Some people serve meals in a soup kitchen, some people clean the beach, some people visit an old folk’s home. Me, I went to Fantasy Studio in Berkeley to begin recording my first album with my jazz group.

Sounds self-serving, but consider:
1)    The album is geared toward children and is a child-friendly invitation to enter the magnificent house of jazz.
2)    It may help generated work for our group to give yet more shows for kids, performances in which they get to participate and realize that jazz is within their reach.
3)    Every show comes with stories about the musicians that created this remarkable music, with child-size lessons about their struggles in a racist society and their triumphs.
4)    The music and the stories hope to show children how grief can be both necessary and beautiful and always lean towards the joy and happiness and hope that permeates every note of jazz well-played.

Shall I go on? In short, this project was not more important than serving soup but neither was it less important. We need to feed people’s souls as well as their bellies, need to help both one meal at a time and one story at a time that can change the narrative that impedes social justice, need to show children how they can cook both their own meals and their own music. I think Martin Luther King would approve of time spent this way in his name.

And meanwhile, Fantasy Recording Studios!! A place soaked in extraordinary history, framed album covers on the walls of musicians from politically marginalized groups descended from “sh*thole” countries who gave so much happiness to the world and put America firmly on the map of exalted cultures. In the recent “Hall of Shame” entry by the people trying to bring America to its knees, the welcome mat to Norway immigrants was spread out. Given the disparity between health care, maternity leave, gun control, standard of living, sane leadership, that is not an invitation that any Norwegian in their right mind would even consider.

But in a Facebook entry, one did. And she explained, “I came here for the jazz.”

PS After writing this, saw this quote from Martin Luther King. Remarkable serendipity!!!

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Future of Music Education

Jazz remains my north star of what I consider a life well-lived. Particularly the quality of being fully present in the moment and prepared and ready to respond intelligently and artistically to whatever is in the room at that moment. One does the necessary discipline and practice to be prepared—the hours of stitching together theory and technique, of learning 500 tunes, of working alone in conversation with your own voice—and then brings all of that to the bandstand and stays alert and listening and in genuine conversation with the other musicians, the audience, the music itself.

Of course, I haven’t been on the jazz club bandstand enough to speak authentically about that. But it is the quality I strive for in my teaching and indeed, a good Orff teacher should carry that same jazz skillset. And if you are working with preschool kids, even more so, as those explosive, unpredictable, quirky little creatures will test to the maximum your capacity to respond to the impulse of the moment!

So yesterday, I was in some inspired zone leading three workshops at the Oregon Music Educators Conference and had the added good fortune of being in a beautiful, light, spacious room with a sprung wood dance floor with some 100 enthusiastic teachers ready for something different from the Powerpoint Presentation. Each workshop had us up playing, singing and dancing, making satisfying music built from simple materials with a musical flow and not a single unnecessary word of explanation. There were opportunities for individuals to improvise, for groups to create, for variations to be explored in a vibrant mix of poetry, dance, body percussion, Orff instruments, recorders, drama and more. Each workshop was shorter than I prefer (60 minutes instead of 90), but each managed to develop with the clarity of a Beethoven sonata or Coltrane improvisation and reach a satisfying climax right at the stroke of the 60 minute limit. There were tender and quiet moments, high-spirited and boisterous laughter, soulful jazz grooves and yet more.

The highlight was Boom Chick a Boom with some folks playing the instruments in a circle, more outside that circle singing and dancing and a saxophone that appeared out of nowhere finding its way into the mix. Just as it all was reaching a high point, I noticed someone off in the corner with her 2 ½ year old daughter playing maracas. I rushed over and brought them into the center of the circle and danced with the little one while she played maracas and sang Boom Chick a Boom.

And there it was, the whole deal compressed in a few short minutes.  A child in the center of a circle of playful childlike adults playing a killer groove, her joining in modeling my workshop title, Play, Sing & Dance and everyone just so happy. And for an extra perk, the child was mixed-race and her name was Naima, named for a beautiful song by John Coltrane written in honor of his first wife. A lovely little girl carrying on the legacy gifted to America from that continent so recently grossly insulted by our so-called leader. These the kind of victories that lift up our hearts. If someone told me that my entire life's work purpose was to prepare me to create this moment, I would be satisfied with that reading of why I was put on the planet. The whole thing lasted two minutes, but it was glorious.

Over in the exhibit hall were companies trying to sell their slick, marketed, Smart-Boarded, must-have music lessons so kids can identify a quarter note and sing a Disney song looking up at screens, but for my money, 2-year old Naima playing, singing and dancing in the center of a circle of adults playing soulful jazz on Orff instruments and more is the kind of future music education I’m voting for. And that’s why I’m willing to keep returning to airports and go through security lines and sleep in strange hotels, just putting' on my shoes, paying my dues, to spread the good news, the jazz and the blues.


Friday, January 12, 2018

Stars in the Dark

The world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around.

You might be thinking this is an editorial in today’s newspaper. And why not? It applies perfectly to what just about anyone with their eyes half-open, a few brain cells firing and a heart that does more than just pump blood must feel. But it might surprise you that this is a quote from 50 years ago. And it could have been London 150 years ago or Paris 250 years ago or Rome 2,000 years ago. And the speaker above? Martin Luther King. In a speech he gave the day before he was taken out. He goes on:

But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that people, in some strange way, are responding.

The stars shine brighter in the dark. He doesn't mean the movie stars, though given the Oscars and Golden Globes these last two years, many of these courageous and good-hearted people are indeed shining brighter. He means the light in all of us that we carry inside, the one that only shines bright when we speak out and are stirred to action on behalf of justice.

Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee -- the cry is always the same: "We want to be free."

Yep, you got it right. He’s talking about people from those, according to POTUS (President of Tweeting Unbridled Shame), shithole countries and cities. I felt the 4.4 earthquake in San Francisco last week and I think it was Martin knowing what was coming and rolling over in his grave. Well, Martin and Rosa and Frederick and Medgar and W.E. and Harriet and Sojourner and Malcolm and a long glorious host of our heroic ancestors who came from that distant “sh*thole” continent and saved America’s soul by showing what’s it like to have one.

Every single day of this extraordinary shameful year, the guy keeps showing us he’s even worse than we thought and the bar gets lower and lower and lower yet. And yet he’s having trouble dismantling the nation because of the history of resistance and free speech and our legal system and the courage of all those who are speaking up. Not enough yet and not loud enough, but rising up is a slow process and one that builds slowly its own momentum. Hoping we’ll see some of that in the next women’s march in January.

Meanwhile, join with me in the mantra: “Stars in the dark, stars in the dark…” Theodore Roethke said the same in his poem, “In a dark time, the eye begins to see…”

Dr. King, we had our annual celebration of your work at our school and it had a different tone because of the increased darkness of this last year. We’re not tiptoeing around social justice anymore for fear of insulting people who think differently (or refuse to think at all). It’s not about politics and sullying the neutral ground of school, it’s about teaching the children what common decency looks like in a time when the leader of the land shows so little. We’re not facing fire hoses or Bull Conners’ with clubs, but there is some measure of bravey and courage that is rising up. Stay with us!