Thursday, September 20, 2018

Jazz and Democracy

                                 Journalist: “What do you think of Western civilization?”
                                 Mahatma Gandhi: “I think it would be a good idea.”

                                  Langston Hughes: “Oh, let America by America again,
                                         a land that has never been yet–
                                                                 and yet must be.”

                                 Wynton Marsalis: “Jazz is what America could be if it ever became itself.”

If we’re speaking of America as a democracy, we can’t say “Make America great again” because
it has yet to fulfill its promise. A government “of the people, by the people, for the people,” one that guarantees “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” one that promises “one nation…with liberty and justice for all” has never existed in our entire history. But step by step, it has been walking toward that promised land. And now the forces have gathered to send us reeling backward, the shameless folks in power doing everything in their power to shut down public education, repeal the ERA and gay rights, restore racism, shut down freedom of religion, keep Wall Street deregulated, serve the rich, disdain the poor, spend precious money on military parades, limit the free press. The sheer number of threats is staggering, many highlighted in Michael Moore’s new film Fahrenheit 11/9. Seeing that film gave new urgency and force to things I’ve been concerned about for decades But now the stakes are higher, the dangers more present, the need for action more pressing.

Ever hopeful that clearer thinking about what democracy is can help move us back toward sanity, I remembered a graduation speech I gave some 16 years ago. So I’m going to be my own guest blogger and revisit it here. It follows Wynton Marsalis’ quote above by using jazz as the model of what a healthy and functioning democracy might look like. I think it holds up. See if you agree.


This is my third graduation in three weeks—first my daughter from college, then my daughter from high school and now, these marvelous 8th graders. I've heard a lot of graduation speeches and most were very similar. People gave thanks to families, friends and teachers, they encouraged the graduates to pursue their dreams and be true to themselves and all those lovely ideas that have been spoken at countless graduations from time immemorial. But I had the nagging sense that one crucial thing was missing and I finally figured out what it was—a sense of a collective purpose, a common goal, a unified meaning.

As a music teacher, this is easiest for me to describe in musical terms. For if music is anything, it is the joining of strong individual voices in a collective and coherent whole, a whole greater than the mere sum of its parts. And this is what makes music unique. When two or more people are speaking at a time, the words clash and we can't make sense of them. If I give a direction like "take out your recorders" while Ted is asking "what time is recess?," the effect is disturbing. But if I put my direction into a rhythm and Ted puts his question in a counter-rhythm, not only can we understand both, but a third thing is created. That is the unique pleasure of musical conversation and musical thinking—not only can two or more people talk at the same time, they frequently must to create coherent music. Listen to a whole concert of just drums or just bass or just melody or just piano chords and you'll want your money back. But when the four are in conversation, each offering their point of view in service to the whole—well, that's music.

I think The San Francisco School has done a marvelous job recognizing the gifts and genius of each and every one of you and you have done a marvelous job working hard to learn all that we had to offer. Each of you is a finely tuned instrument with a special timbre, technique and even your own song. But what orchestra or band will you play in? What kind of music will you play?

In this year of September 11th, I'd like to suggest that the piece we should playing is called Democracy and all our practicing should lead towards fulfilling its promise. The right to "Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness" is a brilliant idea, but it has yet to be played well— too many instruments are left out, too many are playing out-of-tune, too many people are just reading the notes without really hearing the music, too many are just listening to their part and not hearing how it fits in, too many are cranking up their expensive powerful amps and drowning the rest out. Where we should be hearing a beautiful blend of contrasting parts, it's a formless cacophony out there. It's going to need you, the next generation, to figure out how to bring the music together and you're going to need some guidance.

Since you all are fresh from the jazz course, I want you to imagine democracy as a jazz ensemble. A good jazz ensemble—and by extension, democracy—requires eight things.

1) Every instrument must contribute. The rhythm of the drums, the harmonic outline of the bass, the piano chords and the saxophone melody are all needed for the music to be full. In the democracy yet to be, no voice can be left out.

2) Every instrument must come prepared to the rehearsal. To be a functioning jazz citizen, you have to do your homework before you have your say—learn your instrument, learn your parts, know your theory. In jazz parlance, you've got to pay your dues to earn the freedom to express yourself—and that means disciplined study.

3) A contribution in the background is as important as one in the foreground. Though each voice is equally important, some are more in the background in a supporting role and some in the lead. Both are equally honorable and necessary.

4) Every one gets a turn to solo.  The bass may not solo as much as the horn, but it will have its moment to speak alone. That means as democratic musicians, you can't simply read the notes or follow the conductor—you must develop a personal voice that says something that no one else can say in quite the same way.

5) Every one must support the soloist and listen and respond in every moment of the music. When you guys saw the Dave Brubeck group play, many of you commented on the interplay between the musicians. That's where the real pleasure and excitement lies—speaking for a common purpose that is unraveling as it goes along. Every moment in which the give and the take, the call and the response, click, the meaning is revealed.

6) The group should stay alert to the times and place and continue creating new music.
"Things Ain't What They Used to Be" says Ellington's tune and that means that every musician who plays it doesn't play it the way it used to be played, but makes it new, makes it now
 We need new solutions to old problems and that means keeping your minds fresh and alert.

7) No matter how wonderful the music, we need to share the stage with other groups.
Jazz musicians from the beginning didn't just listen to jazz—they opened their ears to every style of music that crossed their paths, enjoyed it for what it was and absorbed it into their own way of talking. Here at The SF School, you don't just learn jazz—you also come to know Mozart and Beethoven, gamelan, samba and Bulgarian bagpipe. Democracy shares the stage equally with all musics and keeps its ears open to what they might have to contribute.

8) The purpose of musical teamwork is to bring beauty to the world.
I chose a musical metaphor rather than a sports, corporation or engineering one because the group is not working to merely win the game, make the most money or build the most useful bridge—it aims to bring harmony to the discord that surrounds us, to bring healing to our afflicted souls. Democracy's new song will need to be practical, but it also must be beautiful.

We live in an age when people can buy multi-track synthesizers to make music with themselves, where bands can hire drum machines, where kids can sit at parties each plugged into their own Walkman, where three-year olds have their personal Website. On the last plane I rode, everyone had their own private screen with their personal choice of four movies.  We live in an age of excessive individualism at a time when we need common purpose. Democracy cannot work with everyone pursuing the own personal dreams and fantasies in isolation. Democracy cannot work when we depend upon machines to entertain us. Democracy cannot work when we only talk to the people we put on our speed-dial cell phone.

It's time to get back to what is tried-and-true— solitude in the woodshed getting your chops together, group experimentation in the after-hours club and communion on the bandstand, sharing the beauty with a world that needs to hear what you have to say.

8th graders, we send you out confident that you'll strengthen your voice through disciplined practice, speak out in every institution you enter with courage and conviction and use every opportunity to heal the world with beauty and love.  Go forth!  

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Day of Atonement

It’s rarely a good idea to write in the grip of deep emotion. Or rather, it’s not a good idea to write publicly. The writing itself is a good way to wrestle the emotion down to some manageable and understandable form. And after just seeing Fahrenheit 11/9, Michael Moore’s new movie, I need to do something. Piano playing would be good, but it’s 10:30 at night.

So I’ll just share this much. My inability to form a coherent response is not from the next outrage from Trump. It’s from the clear evidence presented in the movie that we somehow deserve Trump, the Democrats and voters and non-voters and of course, Republicans, all paved the way for his rise by all that we did and all that we didn’t do. And that even my (and perhaps yours) beloved Obama and happy-with-him-at-the-time Bill Clinton come off as part of the collusion.

I expected to be bombarded by Trump rallies ad infinitum, but Moore turns the movie in many surprising directions. One of the most positive ones and hopeful ones was the West Virginia Teacher’s Strike. And one of the most extraordinarily looks at human evil disguised as the game of politics was the segment on Flint, Michigan. What Governor Rick Snyder did there and what the people around him allowed and even Obama weirdly endorsed, or at least let slide, was an unpardonable sin even beyond the Emmett Till story, the school shootings and NRA story, the tearing children from their families ICE story.

But all of these stories have one thing in common—we, as a nation, are willing to harm mentally and physically and even murder innocent children in the name of profit, power, privilege. The children at the Mexican border are suffering from traumatic separation that will haunt them their whole life. The children in Flint are suffering from lead poisoning that causes brain damage and physical issues and can be passed down to their grandchildren. The children in Parkland, Sandy Hook, Columbine and countless other schools are suffering from life trauma of seeing their friends and classmates gunned down with the NRA’s weapons of choice. And those children murdered suffered by having their lives ripped from them. As did Emmett Till, whose murder was part of the fanatic insanity of upholding white supremacy. Is this the plan to make America great again? What have we become that we endorse, ignore or stay silent about preying on our own children?

Today is Yom Kippur and it was the right time to see this film. If ever we needed a reason for atonement and repentance, it is now, in our shameful time when our future is being determined by shameless people and we are playing around sending cool emojis on our new i-Phones. But we're also taking to the streets, as we did in the recent climate change march, we are spending Sundays writing postcards to people in power, most of whom don't care, but some of whom will vote for the right thing if they think their re-election depends upon it. This is the last hope to begin to move toward the democracy we have never been, but most good-hearted people sincerely want and all people deserve.

Please see this film and take notes. The warnings are dire and real, but so are the hopeful signs and November is coming soon. We will need the 100 million people who didn’t vote in the last Presidential election (compared to some 130 million that did) to get to the polls and help stop this madness. Please. 

Business Plus

Growing up in suburban New Jersey, I knew the names of many of the people my parents and I did business with. There were the grocers Sam and Andy, the corner store folks Debby and Irv,
the barbers Nick and Jack. When you went in for peaches, candy or a haircut, they delivered the goods plus more. You got a little slice of convivial conversation— sharing news back and forth, neighborhood gossip and of course, speculation about the weather. And it was that little bit more that made it such a pleasure to do business with them. Some were memorable characters, like Uncle Louie, the ice cream truck driver or Walter the mailman. But most importantly, they all had names and faces that we knew and they knew us.

Raising my children in San Francisco, we got off to a promising start. There was Heidi at the bakery, Bill at the corner store, Rex who took care of our Saab and my kids got to know their names as well. Yet later there was Janille who did our taxes, Walter who fixed our appliances, Greg who handled the plumbing and electricity.  And even if we didn’t know everyone’s names, we recognized the folks working at Sunset Stationary and Le Video and the Post Office and the bank, knew some of the workers at the local book store and the local record/ later CD store and the waiters at Narai or Stoyanoff’s restaurants. And they recognized us.

But then that all began to change. Mom & Pop pushed out by the corporate bullies and now young sullen pierced employees who didn’t know the book inventory or great new jazz releases were the ones we did business with. On the phone, it was folks far away in India or robotic-like people who didn’t love their work just doing their job or actual robots talking to us. Business now was just business and often frustrating at that. Certainly less pleasurable.

But hope is not lost. Last night, I found out that Connie, my travel agent is retiring at 79-years old, but in a long and warm telephone conversation, she told me she was keeping a short-list of her long-term favorite clients to keep working with. And I was on the list!

I first “met” Connie some 10 or 12 years ago when an International School Music Conference in Asia suggested I use their travel agency. She negotiated some tricky flight itineraries for me and after that Conference, I asked if I could keep using her services. “Of course!” she said and there was the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship. I’ve travelled a lot since then to every continent and as I combine different workshop opportunities, the itineraries are never simple round-trip flights. Often I begin with Connie like this: “I need to go from London to Glasgow and then to Iceland and from there to Spain and then to Salzburg and a train to Budapest and then back to Munich and then home again.” And off she sets to work, like a grand chess master putting this intricate puzzle together and emerging with all flights intact—and good prices at that! Sometimes I begin, “Okay, this is the ultimate challenge! Work your magic!” and she does. Unfailingly.

The word “met” is in parenthesis above because though I feel great affection and appreciation for Connie, I’ve never actually met her. She lives in Utah and in fact, have never even seen a photo of her! But whether by e-mail or phone, our exchanges are always delightful. Yesterday I found out that she’s dealing with a cancer, but the treatment seems to be working well and is not debilitating and the walks 4 or 5 miles a day (at 79 years old!) and feels better amidst all of this than she has in a while. I have a noticed a senior moment here and there (like when she just sent me a booking for Shanghai when I actually needed to go to Singapore!), but we could laugh about it and she corrected it right away. She also reminded me that she is a musician and had taught music and so feels interested in and connected to the work that I’m doing when she flies me around the world. We ended yesterday’s conversation with a vow to actually meet someday!

So there you have it. Business with a face, with a person whose name you know, with a relationship, gives pleasure and character and happiness in the ways we need others to live our lives. And if their names are Sam or Heidi or Bill or Connie instead of the robot voice of the actual robot or the robot-like business person on the phone or the worker in the store who you don’t know and doesn’t know you, then life has a more lively color and pleasing shape to it.

And how about you? Who are the folks you do business with, past and present, that you know and enjoy?

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

i-Phone Rap

Well, it needs a little work, but here's a first draft:

I’m settin’ it all up on my new i-Phone
Got me a password and a new ring tone
Downloading stuff from Ye Ole Ap Store
I got me ten aps and I want ten more.
Got me my Lyft, got me my Uber
Got my Google search to read up on Franz Gruber

You’re comin’ to my workshop and you need to pay?
Got my Venmo and my Paypal, you can pay me today!
I got me my flashlight to search in the dark,
I got me Park and Pay that will pay when I park
I got my Google Map, I got my Ways ap
So I can get around it when the traffic is crap

Now I’ll have my head down when I’m out for a walk
Checking all the ways that we can talk
I can send you a text , a video or call
Tell you where to meet me in the shopping Mall
And if you want to know more about who I am
I can show you now on Facebook or on Instagram

I'll tell you what I think, I'll show you how I feel
I'll show you a cool photo of my last fancy meal
I can send you an emoji that’s angry and mad
Or choose the one that’s happy, confused or sad,
Yes, I can show you how I feel, I can tell you what I think
I can show you a photo of my new kitchen sink

Now I can be distracted when my life feels dreary
I got no friends, but hey! There’s always Siri!
I’ll never feel bored, I’ll never feel alone
Cause I am reconnected on my new i-Phone
I love my new machine, I'm flying' high in heaven
Cause now I am connected all 24/7
It will solve all my problems, it will cure climate change
It will… wait! I have no service, I’m getting’ out of range!

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Me and Machines

I’ve never been infatuated with machines, but have appreciated the ones that deliver something I value— from the record player to the boom box to the i-Pod (I was one of the first on my block to get that!), from the typewriter to the computer to the laptop, from the bike to the Toyota to the Prius. From the toaster to the toaster oven to the…well, toaster oven. Still not sold on the microwave.

So after happily resisting for many years now, I finally went over to the dark side and went from the landline to the flip phone to the i-Phone. I think the breaking point was taking videos in
Ghana with my camera that ran out after 6 minutes and noticing that everyone else’s photos taken on their phones were better than mine. Plus all the times I wished I had a video camera handy when kids were doing something special in class. Then there were all the times I stubbornly printed out directions and tried to read them while driving to some unknown destination, which mostly worked, but not always. And then all the people around me having merry parties on What’s Ap and me the odd guy out.

So when my older daughter said she had an “extra phone,” an i-Phone 6 because she and her husband upgraded, it seemed like the moment had come. Not that it was quite that simple. They had to have their carrier unlock it and I had to have mine open it and the Apple Store needed to do some things and on it went. But as of two days ago, it has arrived in all its mixed-bag glory.

The great thing about the flip phone is that I used it as needed and asked people to mostly e-mail me or call my landline to communicate. I never had to check to see if anyone called me on it because no one would unless we had arranged it ahead of time. But now it looks like I’ll carry this with me and people could be calling and leaving messages or texting or sending What’s Ap messages and in my worldview, I would feel responsible to check and respond. In addition to the daily checks on my e-mail, my school e-mail, my Facebook page. Do you feel what’s happening here? The designed-for-addiction is real and even the best of us are not doing well resisting.

But hey, here I am and we’ll see how it goes. Meanwhile, I bought a new set of headphones because my other broke off inside the computer, a new heavy-duty Yeti microphone to assist me in entering the world of Podcasts. Making them, not listening. And the downloading of a program (Audacity) to edit them. High learning curves all, especially for this non-electronically-infatuated-but-I’ll-do-what-needs-to-be-done-to-move-my-life’s-work-along guy. And thank goodness that I’m not teaching at school at the moment, because then I’d also have to learn the new programs of Schoolology and Parent Square and keep up with Google Drive and Dropbox and…well, you get the point. It’s simply exhausting. Whatever happened to the pipe and slippers and newspaper and dinnertime conversation and a good book and an occasional night out at the movies?

Wish me luck. I’ll need it.