Thursday, August 31, 2017

Dear August

You will be leaving us again, as you do each year and always with a bittersweet taste. When you go, Summer goes and summers for most of my life have been nothing short of glorious. It used to mean freedom from schedule and responsibility, permission to wander and amble and lie in the hammock and slowly savor an ice cream cone and wade in the water and settle down with a book or ten or sit on the front stoop and watch the fireflies or (later) travel to foreign lands and get a new look on life. Now it means something a bit different, although I haven’t wholly given up on such summer leisure. But more and more these days, it’s teaching adults and sharing everything I’ve spent my lifetime caring about and studying and developing and practicing and…well, living. And discovering that most of them are eager to receive it and it inspires/ affirms/ challenges/ tickles/ touches/ pleases them and we both end up happy we met.

So now September is an hour and ten minutes away and it’s a different world. My real New Year as I again become a teacher of children in a school setting, a setting far more fun and enlarging and satisfying and joyful than the schools I knew as a kid. But some things are universal—the excitement of kids gathered in one place, the constant surprises of the things like an 8-year old approaching you with her pet boa constrictor wrapped around her, the 9-year old who made you despair in the first class of kids today and their most basic grasp of etiquette and effort and respect and then astonished you in the second class with the sharp focus, attention, perseverance and accomplishment, walking out with a spontaneous “thank you.” Summer is lovely, but Fall has her own beauty and for this lifelong teacher, it has something to do with promise renewed and the adventure of learning with curious kids and still curious adults afoot.

Outside the class, no Fall colors from my childhood, but instead San Francisco’s fog dispersing and 87 degree heat predicted tomorrow. I suspect the fog will return like a sometimes welcomed and often unwelcomed return guest, but meanwhile, the promise of warm days lie ahead. And happily so.

And then the cultural events that cycle through every year—Opera in the Park, Comedy in the Park, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in the Park, the Mime Troup in the parks, Sea Shanty sings on boats, later Halloween and Day of the Dead. Not to mention the stellar line-ups for SF Jazz’s sixth season.

So August, thanks for another terrific month and September, good to see you again. On we go.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Greatest Story Never Told

Today was the first day of my 8th grade Jazz History Class. I started by playing Elvis’ version of Hound Dog with everyone singing along. Unsurprisingly, most of the kids knew it, right down to the machine-gun drum break. And then I asked them:

Where did this song come from? What happened to make this song possible? What was happening at the time it was recorded? What did this song lead to? Who sang it and why and how and where? Who listened to it and what did it mean to them?

If we start from this song and follow it thread by thread, we’re going to uncover an entire world where everything is connected and makes a certain kind of sense. But just because things happened in the past and can’t be changed doesn’t mean that they made the kind of sense they should have. We have to decide to today if the story handed down is one worthy for us to live and for us to hand down.

Hound Dog came from the blues and the blues came from African-Americans and Africans became African-Americas not by choice, but through a systematic ongoing kidnapping and brutal 400 years of forced labor. The past that led to the song is not just the story of brutality by folks with a different skin color, but of the extraordinary survival and spiritual triumph of a people who kept their spirit alive and sang about in music that ended up defining America in the eyes of the world, a music that came to be a mighty river called jazz, with its many tributaries. All of which would baptize the alert listener and offer its healing waters to anyone willing to pay the price. And that price was a willingness to feel, to hear, to see what is happening around us and within us.

It’s the greatest story never told, at least not told systematically by our education system, nor by our radio stations, nor in our daily public discourse. It’s the story that left untold, brings Neo-Nazis and Klansmen to Charlottesville and even to San Francisco. And so I take seriously my responsibility to tell it, not to proselytize left-wing politics, but simply to show and tell and hear the stories that brought us this incredible music. And then to teach the music itself in a way that deepens the healing, completes the cycle by rising from the pain and sorrow to the joy and triumph etched in every note.

Woody Guthrie’s guitar had this inscription: “This machine kills Fascists.” I can say the same about my jazz classes. Not that it literally kills people who are Fascists, but it murders the ideology of Fascism and lives the alternative in the community of music-makers we create. It’s not easy, it’s not always pleasant, it’s edgy and risky and challenging—and therefore, it’s worth doing. Thank you, 8th graders. It’s going to be a glorious year.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017


Today is Charlie Parker’s birthday. He would have been 97 if he hadn’t died when he was 34 in a body that the doctors surmised was 65. He was one of the fiery shooting stars that shot across the firmament— a mere flash, but with a heat and light and intensity that would echo through the ages, leaving “the vivid air signed with his honor.” * And, by the way, if you don’t know who Charlie Parker is, shame on the schools you went to and the culture that brought you up. But it’s never too late to find out.

“Bird lives” said the graffiti when Parker died in 1955, his body ravaged by drugs and alcohol and hard-living, but his bright spirit captured in the recordings that assured his immortality and brought yesterday into today. In fact, in my car listening to “Just Friends” played with strings, recorded a year before my birth and still holding up as I follow the intricate pathways of his genius winding their way through the chords of the song. And though I revere certain things about the past, most notably the gifts it has brought to the future that is now, I’m not nostalgic for “the good old days.” But I do appreciate that in 1950, the popular music of the day was still being written by gifted poets and tunesmiths like Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter and the like, sung by both popular singers like Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Jo Stafford and jazz vocalists like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, were familiar to virtually all Americans with a radio or record player and were also played and interpreted at the highest level by jazz musicians like Art Tatum, Dizzy Gillespie and our man, Charlie Parker.

And a jazz musician with strings was the ultimate meeting of Europe and Africa, with the improvised soulful African-timbred and rhythmic ideas in the lead while the string provided the cushioned background and the feeling of a Viennese pastry shop. In the movies of that time, the black folks always had to play the servants, the backdrop to the white folks' drama. But here, they are the masters of the recording studio, with the white folks in awe of the intelligence, technical command of the instrument, imaginative flow of musical ideas springing from the horn of Charlie Parker like a god birthed from Zeus's head. As concertmaster Gene Orloff said,

“It was the most phenomenal thing I ever saw or heard…”

And so on August 29th (remember that date!), yesterday comes some 77 years to us here today, Bird lives on and the world is refreshed. Give a listen. 

• From a poem by Stephen Spender.

Monday, August 28, 2017


Thanks to vegetarianism, it looks like I’ll be around to see tomorrow. Cooking home alone, I sampled a piece of tofu and it definitely went down the wrong place and I started choking. That scary moment when you’re gasping for breath and no one around for the Heimlich maneuver. In those few seconds, remembering the story of my wife’s grandfather dying from choking on a piece of meat.

But even though it was firm tofu, I knew it couldn’t cause too much damage and my mostly vegetarian lifestyle was affirmed. I’m looking forward to tomorrow. 


Today I have nothing to say and I’ve just said it.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Fervor of Creation

We are rarely so alive and so alert as when we are creating. Yesterday I began composing some simple music to a tongue-twister for my 4th grade class and once that was set in motion,
the mind kept the wheels rolling without me having to push the cart. I was swept up in the fervor of creation, most of which was bubbling beneath the surface. Ideas about what to adjust, what to edit, what to add, came forth of their own accord and continued in my sleep. I dreamt about using the same melody for a welcome song and when I awoke, it was already fully formed.

Think about it. The miracle of creation is so extraordinary that we assign it to some supernatural force we call God. But since the imagination is one of our human faculties, it seems that God (or the gods) wanted us to co-participate in the ongoing process of creation. And thus was born the glorious history of art, organizing images, movements, sounds, words, experiences to create something that never was before and never will be again, except as a reproduced record of that miraculous creation.

To live life using the full possibility and pleasure of continuous creation is available to us all, but only realized by some. When asked about his favorite composition, Duke Ellington replied “The next one.” When a player in Charles Mingus’ band played an inspired solo that brought down the house, Mingus told him afterwards, “Don’t do that again!” Meaning don’t try to reproduce that moment to please an audience, don’t try to step in the same river twice. Just keep yourselves wholly open to the flow and the source of that inspiration.

Scientific invention also belongs to the realm of the imagination and creation, but quickly crystallizes to material objects that are mindlessly reproduced and standardized. The inventors, if they were lucky enough to get a patent, can live off the money and never have to imagine again. The advertising person can stumble upon one poetic phrase and retire on it’s royalties. The poet gets paid 10 cents and keeps up the lifetime glory of trying to capture the sublime in a net of words. Lucky poet!

My class plan around “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck?” will neither shake the world nor earn me big money. But it was a good way to spend my time and I woke up just a bit more alert, alive and excited having dipped into the waters of creation. And next week I get to bring it wholly alive with the 4th grade and watch it change and grow again. Lucky me!