Saturday, November 15, 2014

Notes Without Culture

Technically, I had a seat to myself on the long flight from San Francisco to Newark, New Jersey. But sharing the space with me was Passion, Obsession, Vision, the whole crazy “whatever-it-takes” family that convinced me without a moment’s hesitation to fly clear across the country and back again for three short classes with kids. 

The venue was the New Jersey Performance Arts Center in Newark, New Jersey, probably less than a half-an-hour from my old home town of Roselle. It was a Family Day of Swing and the New Jersey Orff Chapter kindly lent me some Orff instruments to use in my mix of Orff and Jazz. It was a challenging age range, from toddlers to a few teens, but 40 years of experience and my pleasure in what kids come up with faced with five xylophone bars and a pair of mallets got me through it and both kids and parents seemed reasonably happy. From there I peeked in at other workshops— Romare Bearden-inspired art, teen jazz ensemble and swing dance culminating with a live big-band performance and kids and adults of all ages out on the dance floor. Fabulous!

Then on to a panel that included Stefon Harris, the wise-beyond-his years and brilliant jazz vibraphonist who was mostly responsible for inviting me. I started scribbling down everything he said and my pen couldn’t write fast enough. In response to my comment about what was missing in university and high school jazz programs, he remarked:

“They brought in the notes without the culture.”

Boom!! That’s the danger of schools, taking the surface information without attention to the roots. And a good way to describe the music education my fellow troublemakers and I have grown at The San Francisco School. Not only do we attend to the culture behind the notes so the students know who to thank, but we work to create our own school culture that makes the notes memorable.

Another gem from Stefon:

“You don’t need discipline if you have passion. If you’re making yourself practice, you’re in the wrong field. You just get hungry and you get up to eat— it’s that simple.”

How much I feel this lately from the kids. I don’t need to “discipline” them and they don’t need to “discipline” themselves (well, some do! J ), because they’re caught up in a joyful celebration, from the big all-school ones to the feeling inside of each class. They’ve caught a bit of my passion for it all and they’re simply enjoying the meal.

And so on. Of course, when I talk with Stefon or my friend Kofi or my colleague Sofia or read Gary Snyder’s new book and feel like jumping out of my skin with excitement about what they’re saying, it simply means that our visions are aligned and they’re saying what I need to hear and reminding me to say what perhaps others need to hear. Stefon talked today about vision as a filter for experience and my filter is tuned toward certain ideas that point to community, culture, compassion, health (all kinds), joy, grief and the power of tones and words artfully arranged to evoke deep feeling. I turn numb when the talk turns to machines or the stock market or the next thing I should fear, but these discussions feed a vision that keeps growing and yet is ever the same. 

And so I take the long return trip tomorrow re-ignited yet again and all vows renewed to keep culture and notes, culture and words, culture and kids, side-by-side.

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