Saturday, July 30, 2016

Into the Fire

It was a day of tears and laughter yesterday and shouldn’t every day be? Beautiful mirror movement in the jazz class to recorded jazz ballads—Ella, Billie, Blossom Dearie—then a swingin’ Milt Jackson blues, a joyful Shim Sham Shimmy dance to a live rendition of Exactly Like You (play, sing and dance, people!) and then a hot Latin groove with Listen Here. This was our jazz show to be shared with the other two Orff courses and wasn’t it impressive how well these folks played after a mere five days of jazz immersion? Equally lovely to see and hear Janet Greene’s Intro. Class share their explorations of the power of elemental music, dance and drama and then the potent combination of Keith Terry and Linda Tillery’s virtuosic, sophisticated, get-down, soulful combining of our most powerful instruments, the body and the voice. Especially moving was the closing “Ain’t I Got a Right to the Tree of Life” and I believe the ancestors stopped in to enjoy that and I believe they were so happy.

In a sane and normal life, there would be some moments now to digest, de-compress, reflect and savor the harvest of these intense past five days. Sometimes I have the good sense and luxury to do that. But the world is on fire and we need to keep hauling the buckets of water far beyond our usual capacity. So I have exactly three hours to close out the last course, pack for the next one and pick up my partners-in-crime at the airport and head down the two hours plus to Hidden Valley Music Seminars in Carmel Valley to begin the next two-week communal gathering of joy, laughter, tears, music and dance with some 100 souls from around this planet— the Orff Levels training.

When I say the world is on fire, it’s not just a metaphor! The Big Sur fires have been blazing uncomfortably close to Carmel Valley and I hear that we will be breathing the smoke for some days to come. And when I talk about going into this next course like jumping from the frying pan into the fire, there is a literal quality to it! May the winds blow south and the fire be extinguished!

I better get packing. 

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Tap Dancing Swedish Blues

What I do is me. For that I came. —Gerard Manley Hopkins

I dutifully had big parties for my 40th, 50th and 60th birthdays, feeling like I needed help stepping over the decade line. I needed encouragement, witnesses, good-wishers and friends to mark the occasion and I remember enjoying all three. People are telling me that 65 is another milestone—Social Security and Medicare kick-in, I’d be obligated to retire in most European countries and it just sounds significant enough to warrant another big bash. But instead I just went to school and taught the 4th day of my Jazz Course. And it felt just perfect.

What better way to celebrate another turn around the sun than to keep doing the thing that makes your own light glow, the thing you’ve been circling around for most of those 65 orbits. I did miss having my family around—my wife in Michigan, my daughter in Portland, my other daughter visiting her sister, my sister at the Mt. Baldy Zen Center. But I got a wonderful Facebook video from the Portland crew and later Skyped them just as my wife called from Michigan. So we had a three-way conversation and they sang me Happy Birthday in canon. Not on purpose. Fun.

But the highlight of the day was going back to the Jewish Home where I hadn’t been for these last 6 weeks of travel. I brought the students from the Jazz Course and we played Bach with piano, viola and oboe, sang some Happy Songs from the 20’s and 30’s, featured our tap dancer Aaron and several drummers, had a Finnish Charleston dancer who later sang a beautiful Swedish song, had different singers dish up some Jerome Kern tunes, had a resident (who used to be in Beach Blanket Babylon) sing My Yiddish Mama. Each song a different facet of beauty exquisitely rendered.

My dear friend Fran had just come back from three days in the hospital and it looked like she couldn’t leave her room until the nurse had the brilliant idea of wheeling the whole bed out. We brought her the microphone and she sang (appropriately for what she’d just been through) Everything Happens to Me and then a haunting Embraceable You. Near the end, I played Over the Rainbow and after one time through, asked my class to choose a resident to be with and hold their hand while we sang it again. That was when the drought ended in California— a moment worthy of so many tears that the parched earth was restored.

My friends, I have complained about so much in this life, from the big disappointments to the small First-World problems—and let’s face it, I’ll continue to be annoyed when my suitcase is lost by the airlines for three weeks. But I’d be a fool not to feel the full measure of grace and blessing that has come my way, the good fortune to fall into a path with no end and no borders, a path with heart that perpetually gives back and refreshes me so that when I was playing and singing the Leaving My Mama Blues at the piano to close out today’s session, my friend Edie exclaimed that I looked like I was 35 years old.

And not only the good luck to so thoroughly love what I do, equally the teaching and the music-making and the writing, but to get to do it with so many people and so many different kinds of people, all of whom give back to me with the refreshment of their own beautiful selves. Nothing will stop the march of numbers and the astonishment that they speak something about my own body and mind, but if we have to grow old, we might as well do it with the full measure of our love and humor, tap dancing, playing blues and singing Swedish songs.

It was a lovely birthday. Now for some popcorn and an old movie.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Sally Go Round the Sun

Sally go round the sun. Sally go round the moon.
Sally go round the chimney pots. Every afternoon.

So goes the old children’s rhyme and game, Sally in perpetual motion circling the sun, the moon, the chimney pots by the hearth where the ashes are kept (from whence the phoenix rises) and orbiting these celestial and earthly bodies every afternoon. A while back, I created a ritual event around this that I sometimes do in workshops, complete with symbolic death, re-birth and the continuity of life. If you look deeply enough, children’s games are profound enactments and re-telling of life’s grand mysteries.

The preschool has a tradition in my school that on his or her birthday, the child circles around the sun suspended from the ceiling the number of years they have lived. With the 3, 4, and 5 year olds, this is a short little ceremony. But when the years have piled on each other as they have for me (it’s the evening before I turn 65), that’s quite a trip indeed. The last few years, my birthday has come during the Orff Level Training Course down in Carmel Valley and I have swum laps to match the number of years I’ve lived, trying to remember who I was and what I was doing during each lap. It’s a good exercise (and also good exercise!) and takes even longer than the preschool circles around the sun.

This past circle around has been extraordinary in many respects. Besides just the increased gratitude for the opportunity to take the trip that I always took for granted when I was younger, the months have been full and rich and rewarding. I’ve been blessed with the opportunities to give Orff courses in five continents, work with four Interns in the Fall, take 40 kids to perform in the San Diego Orff Conference and then again at the NAIS Conference in San Francisco. It was the school’s 50th year and 700 school families and alums came back for our big celebration. My wife decided to retire after 42 years of teaching, 41 with me by her side and there were multiple parties and farewells. Big events.  

And then the time with the grandchildren, all the hours at the piano—in my home, at the school, at the Jewish Home, at the Palace Hotel. A memorable Social Justice field trip to Georgia and Alabama with the 8th graders, school concerts, plays and hundreds of classes. Though my heart has been  heavy with the news and the election circus, the pleasure and power of music and teaching has never let me down for an instant.  

My hope that next year’s orbit and more orbits to come with all be accompanied by the music of the spheres.  And that American people will come to their senses and vote for our better selves, cast a ballot for hope and not fear. May the phoenix of healing and redemption and moving forward together rise from the ashes of our accumulated failures. May it be so!

Older or Elder?

It’s 4 am on the last day of my 64th year. I’m awake with jet lag, but also the reverberations of a glorious day of music and teaching. Yesterday we played, sang and danced in my Jazz Course, so joyfully, so happy to hit the bad guys on the head with our rolling pin and then step back, baby, step back, so thrilled to unfold the road map of the blues and start traveling down that lonesome road in company with each other, so willing to feel the full measure of our voice singing out some grief and pain and the poetry of sorrow and then transform it all into the Duke Ellington notes of jubilation. 9 am to 4 pm, a full day of nothing but pleasure and conviviality, keeping our troubled minds deep in the backpack, shooing away our doubts and voices whispering “can’t” to us, chasing away despair and grabbing helplessness with both hands and open declaring, “I’m in charge here.” Our brains were buzzing with the math of music come alive, our hearts were humming, our feet were tapping, the full glory of awakening that jazz invites, a wholly alive and alert human being come out from the corner of its hiding into the bright sunshine of its promise.

At the end of the day’s teaching, I stepped into the phone booth like Superman and changed into my suit and headed for my gig at the Palace Hotel and from 5 to 9, stepped into the next refreshing waters of piano, bass and sax. Not just playing changes and each of my fellow players going through the motions of the 32 bar solo like someone giving their predictable opinion at a school staff meeting, but diving down into the deeper waters where the luminescent fish light up a seldom seen world with the light of their own being. My fellow divers Joshi and Sam have spent enough time conversing together that when we play, the three-ness of us becomes the we-ness of us, one voice with three interlocking parts. Some Jazz Course folks out there at the tables enjoying their time together with wine and snacks, but also listening beyond background and letting us know with their Amens when we took them to a good place.

And so I spent the day and when I finally got home at 10 pm and did the little rituals of attending to business and closing out the day, my skin was still tingling, my heart still in the jazz groove, my energy closer to the 4-year old than an old guy 60 years later. Music has that power to charge you and light you up and keep your engine running and thrumming without an outlet and a plug, without ravaging the Middle East for oil. Yes it does.

Young Paul McCartney could only envision the tottering old man shuffling along in his pajamas, hoping that someone would still pay enough attention to need and feed him. But on my last day of that mythological year, another day of joyful teaching before me, another romp with my fellow Pentatonics band in a concert for kids, I imagine I’ll feel the same tonight as I did last night, 4 am awakening be damned!

Maybe Paul was speaking directly to music when he asked “Will you still need me? Will you still feed me?” Well, yes, there’s a thought, we need music, but music also needs us. Without our attention and time and discipline, music itself would lie mute and hibernating and as much as we need music to feed us and nourish us and refresh us with all its flavors and textures, it also needs us to feed it with our commitment and dedication. Think about that for a moment.

Like everyone, I don’t love the way 64 is marching to 74 and fates willing, 84 and beyond, but if I have the privilege of marching onward, it might as well be with a loose-limbed jazz stride rather than a soldiered goose-step or a shuffling stoop to the walk. Whatever else we love about youth, there was no way I could teach the classes I teach today with the full measure of my body and heart and soul when I was 24 or 34 or 44, no way I could play with the hard-won freedom of swinging on the 88’s, no way I could say what I say with the authority the years have granted and the freedom to not care if I look cool or am offending someone. Our culture has no understanding whatsoever of the gift of being an elder, just all the lame jokes.

So this my ode to the way music walks you down the aisle and marries you to the elder you might become. Either you’re an older or an elder and music is one of the things that will make the difference.

Monday, July 25, 2016

A Thick, Hearty Soup

“Way down yonder.”  “Soup, soup!”

So opens one of my favorite call-and-response songs from the Georgia Sea Islands. Some cryptic calls and always the “Soup, soup!” response and so much in the hearty mix of broth, vegetables, spices, meat (optional) and a hambone thrown in. It’s also a dance and a game that carries a secret message of getting to do the thing the slave-master prohibited (dance), sneak pass the guards of uptight Puritanical sexual repression and actually move your hips. For those always looking for reasons to justify a song like this in a school curriculum, the soup’s rich ingredients include a history lesson, first-hand experience of geometrical progression, a deep lesson in offbeat, syncopation and swing rhythm, a test of one’s culinary repertoire (you have to improvise a list of soups in the lyric), a challenging kinesthetic task of circling your knees one way and stirring the soup in the opposite direction, a social connection, a workable Spanish translation—in short, just about the full range of our multiple intelligences and school subjects condensed into this simple, but powerful song and game. Good for you and tastes good too!

But as I began my jazz course, a bit bleary from jet lag, I opened by a small invocation to the ancestors, inviting them to be present and witness how we took seriously our duty to keep the worthy things they bequeathed to us alive and thriving while also refusing and seeking to heal the part of the inheritance that caused and continues to cause so much suffering. While madness reigns in the world outside the gates, I called upon us to engage fully in this healing work, not only sustaining the beauty passed down to us from the past (from folks like Carl Orff and Count Basie), but actively creating our own fair share from the meetings of our collective minds and bodies. If we do that work well, we will have the past in the present, the present in the present through the continued act of creation and the future in the present knowing that we came to take the bounty back to the children we teach. All of this is thickening for the soup, adding body and flavor and a pinch of soul.

The first day already had more memorable moments than many courses offer in an entire semester. I loved my vacation, but still a joy to slip back into my old pair of pants lovingly worn through by decades of teaching and keep the dance going. And joy of all joys, my three-week-missing-in-action suitcase was at school!! Hallelujah!!!

10:30 at night and I thought I had something else interesting to say, but jet lag is brutal and I think I fell asleep four sentences ago. Onward!!