Monday, January 21, 2013

The Sacred Portals of the Future

What a day! The equivalent of a grand slam in baseball! Martin Luther King was honored, Barack Obama was inauguarated for his second term and the new SF Jazz Building opened its doors with a ribbon-cutting ceremony, brass bands, speeches and general good spirit— all on the same day!

At the SF Jazz ceremony, John Santos gave a stirring speech about the working class roots of jazz, a good reminder as this shiny new building takes its place amongst the traditionally elite culture of Opera and Symphony and Conservatory in a neighborhood with restaurants priced on the higher end. He then sang an invocation to Eleguá, the Yoruban Orisha-deity of openings and closings, doorways, portals and crossroads. Eleguá is the West African/ Caribbean version of the Greek Hermes, the Roman Janus and host of other such gods in various cultures worldwide. He is depicted sometimes as a child and is attracted to children’s toys and candy.

So while I’m mixing cultural references, above is the Temple of the Three Windows in the Sacred plaza of Machu Picchu, dedicated to the Inti, the Sun God. It’s a good image for today’s historic sacred portals to the future— the one that Martin Luther King threw open wide so we could see the same mountaintop of justice he saw, the one that Barack Obama is hopefully re-dedicating himself to with renewed fervor, less naivete and stronger backbone and the window into the next step in the story of jazz in the U.S. of A.

The Incas were deeply steeped in hierarchy. If fact, Inca technically is the word for the ruler come to earth as divine representative of the Sun God Inti. It was an inherited position and when one such king died, he was mummified and his power remained intact in that form while the next was crowned. Anyone who knows even a little of jazz’s colorful history knows that it began in poverty, in cotton fields and ghetto ‘hoods and if you rose to be the Empress of the Blues or Mr. Duke Ellington or Mr. Count Basie or Lady Day, it was not from inherited privilege, but talent married with dedication and a prodigious technique and imagination. And a whole lotta soul. And at the ceremony, giant photos of the above musicians and more shone out from the building across the streets, reminding us that their sacred power is still helping to direct the show long after they’re gone.

So this is the New Ruling Class, American style. Martin Luther King, a poor country preacher, became the remembered conscience and spiritual beacon for a whole country. “By what sends the white kids, I ain’t sent, I know I can’t be President” wrote Langston Hughes a while back, but Barack Obama proved him eventually wrong— twice. And after a century of being the underdog in mainstream culture, jazz has finally risen to the top. It is the new nobility of American culture. In fact, perhaps too much so for some, not prepared for the level of sophistication by a culture with jazz still on the low end on the radio dial and with music programs dropping all over the nation.

And that brings me back to Eleguá and the children. The speeches acknowledged the fine work SF Jazz has done with the High School All-Stars and the Jazz in the Middle School program, but conspicuously absent are the elementary school children. All of them. Not just the ones who already study sax or are ready to dedicate their life to this music. Just the ones who want to get a taste of what it feels like to play jazz at their level. I’ve been pounding at the door the last 10 years or so, shouting, “I’m your guy! You need me!” and it’s starting to slowly open. (Come to my post-Family Jazz workshop on April 13th). I say this in all humility— I simply haven’t met someone who has worked so extensively to bring hands-on jazz to three-year olds, eight year-olds and 8th graders in a way that makes sense to them. I happen to think it’s a next important step and just hope I’m still around when others start to agree.

Meanwhile, I’m well-aware that this posting breaks every rule of coherent writing with its patchwork themes, so might as well throw in the final one. I mixed a baseball grand slam with the Three Sacred Windows of the Incas, further confusing matters with references to  4 runs and 3 windows. So what’s the 4th? Yesterday’s 49’ers football game!! (Nice one, Doug! From baseball’s home run to football touchdowns. Huh?)

There! Now I’ve thoroughly earned the F- in essay writing while illuminating ancient history, contemporary culture and hopes for the future. Remember all of this next time you think of January 21, 2013.

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