Wednesday, July 31, 2019

William Carlos Williams Updated

Wi-fi is pretty spotty in the hotel where I’m staying and more times than I’m happy about, that blue line won’t move and I can’t get online. And so I bring poet William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) into the modern world:

So much depends


a thin blue line

moving to the right

of a white bar.  


A student in the course I’m teaching told me an extraordinary story. In his home country of Chile, there was a survey with the following question:

“You are offered a higher salary in your job. You can choose between $5000 more which all of your colleagues will also receive or a $1000 more which only you receive.”

The vast majority chose the latter. 

This pervasive need to be better than your neighbor, to be ranked higher whether you deserved or not, was the cornerstone of slavery and a larger part of Trump being elected. Poor white people who had more in common with the oppressed blacks were purposefully duped by those in power into thinking that they were on the team of the oppressors, given a token amount of privilege to feed an identity based on a illusory superiority. It worked brilliantly and still does. But at such a cost.  The recent terrorist who shot two innocent children whose parents brought them to have some fun at the Gilroy Garlic Festival was reading the white supremacist literature and buying the assault rifle the NRA provided in the name of freedom. 

An overlooked book titled “Somebodies and Nobodies” added rankism to the list of damaging isms and one that cuts through them all. Of course, there will always be hierarchies and when they come from earned accomplishment— the master musician or the wise elder—they are necessary and life-giving. But the idea that one’s identity is based on feeling one inch taller than your neighbor is death-dealing, both literally (the Garlic Festival) and spiritually. “I am the chosen one and all the ‘others’ are doomed for hell” is good for exactly no one. 

Meanwhile, in some village in West Africa, it was said that some Westerner organized a contest amongst the children and told them whoever ran to the tree the fastest would get a prize. The children joined hands and ran together to arrive at the same time. Without being overly romantic and ignoring the rankism that certainly exists there, I do believe that there is a spirit of community togetherness that we would learn from. The crazy Gods of Western civilization threw down Coke bottles into every town and hamlet and people are still fighting to claim it as theirs and theirs alone. 

Let’s train the children to take the $1000. Or better yet, consider if they deserved it all. 

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Verdi Nightmare

At 7:45pm, I was frantically getting ready to go to a Verdi Opera in San Francisco where I was the featured piano accompanist. The problem was: 

• The Opera started at 8:00 and I wasn’t dressed yet or hadn’t eaten dinner.

• I had never played for an Opera in  my life.

• I didn’t know this Opera and had never heard or seen the music. 

• I was concerned that I might be sight-reading a musical interlude as a featured soloist.

• I was worried I’d be accompanying an Opera star trying to follow her fermatas—again, with music I didn’t know in the slightest. 

• I forgot my suit and was frantically looking through my closet for something presentable to wear.

• A bus passed by outside and publicly announced the opera with a  loudspeaker that blasted “featuring Doug Goodkin on piano.” 

• It was now two minutes to 8 and I  had yet to leave. 

And then…

I woke up. 

Monday, July 29, 2019

Deepening Roots, Spreading Branches

Ending the World Music Course on Saturday and beginning the next course on Sunday was hardly conducive to reflection about another year around the sun. But the short story is this: 

Growing older with intention, awareness, still-intact curiosity helps send the roots of this old tree yet deeper into the ground. The darkness and grief there turn out to be life-giving and appear as necessary companions in life’s journey. The tree is anchored yet more solidly and the underground springs soak up through the roots to the branches. And the branches themselves keep reaching for the light and spreading out further. I couldn’t help but notice and feel blessed by the Facebook birthday greetings coming from around the U.S. and Canada, from Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, South Africa, Australia, Iceland, Finland, Spain, Germany, Turkey, Russia, India, Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and beyond, all (well, many) of the wonderful folks I’ve had the pleasure to meet and work with in my world travels spreading the good news about Orff Schulwerk. And then the in-person birthday songs from the 100 international teachers gathered here in Hidden Valley for the annual Orff Certification course. 

Everyone knows about the trials and tribulations of aging, the failing, sagging body, the diminishing of powers and such, but health permitting, the joys and pleasures are many and they’re real. Not to be lightly traded for the young, sexy body, which isn’t an option anyway. So hooray for 68 years old and no better birthday wish than to keep sinking the roots yet deeper and keep reaching toward the light. 

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Chocolate, Socks and Books

Had an early family birthday celebration with my wife, daughter, sister and husband, nephew and fiancé and a few friends. At my age, don’t really expect gifts any more, but I got some. And they were perfect!

Two dark chocolate bars. Always welcome.

Socks. Long in need to these!

Books. Still a staple in my diet, though getting close to the end of bookshelf space. Read and recycle is the key. 

A great early start to my 68thyear!

The Virtues of Fidelity

Many persons have the wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose. – Helen Keller

I am living testimony to the virtue of staying the course for the long haul. Especially if it’s a worthy one that requires constant renewal, effort, intelligence, imagination, dedication, sacrifice and the constant blessing of the energy that cycles back. 

I also can testify that the idea of unseen helping hands and mysterious forces at work is real. Like the other night when a friend I’ve known for 44 years appeared with a gift— some 5 handwritten letters my wife and I had written him 40 years ago on our trip around the world. He had saved them, was now cleaning house and chose this particular moment to return them. 

Needless to say, I was stunned. Because the first one I read was one I had had written near the end of that trip living in Surakarta, Java. It was all about the merits of immersing myself in new culture and what it meant to be as an emerging teacher. To quote: 

I can’t imagine a year better suited than this one for our development as teachers. Since school represents to me the propagation of a ‘new’ culture, this year of observing and experiencing so many different cultures has allowed a clarity and understanding of culture in general, our own in particular and alternative education’s role in shaping and transforming the presently emerging culture. 

 Since I was in the midst of teaching a course on World Music and began by suggesting that we all benefit, teachers and students alike, when we immerse ourselves in diverse cultural experiences, the timing was uncanny. The next day, I read the above to the class, showing them that at a young 28 years old, I was already convinced that this was important and beginning my journey into making the “other” my own. 

But I was yet more stunned to read the next section, especially in light of the fact that three weeks from now, I will beginning my last of 45 years at the school. 

The other day we went to use the swimming pool at a fancy hotel in town. We had it all to ourselves and as we floated around in the pool surrounded by lush tropical plants, the day, like most of them, our own to do as we will, we reflected on being back in the city, getting up early, running out of the house, driving thru morning traffic, spending the day with over 100 high-energy children with barely a moment to go to the toilet, running errands or going to after school meetings, squeezing in interests like piano practice, weaving or taking classes in the evenings etc. etc. It all sounded pretty crazy to us in that moment of poolside luxury. 

But we were smiling inside because we knew that that craziness is our life and that we love it. That school is our swimming pool, the kids, parents and teachers beautiful tropical plants that give out the oxygen we need to breathe. 

 Isn’t that remarkable? 40 years later, that oxygen still sustaining my life. My fidelity to a worthy purpose has indeed brought—and continues to bring—true happiness. 

Friday, July 26, 2019

Missing Limbs

“What skill don’t you have that you wish you did?”

This was the topic for our Men’s Group discussion and I was stunned by the answers. Each of the nine men, who have been meeting together for 29 years, surprised me by their answers—almost all had to do with music. They told stories of failed ventures with piano or guitar and mean or unhelpful music teachers and at the end of the day, being left with the feeling that they couldn’t express themselves musically and they regretted it. Some part of them longed to be able to participate in this human faculty that was been so neglected or wrongly transmitted in our culture. Like they were missing a limb. 

Naturally, my response was: “I’m going to give you an Orff class!” In all these years of meeting, I did something like that once with Boomwhackers and had I known their secret hungers, would have done many more. But it’s never too late to have a happy childhood, so I’m looking forward to the future music class. Ironically, most of them had children I taught for 11 years who left school with a musical foundation far beyond their parents. And I’ve taught a few of their grandchildren. But now it’s time to help heal their music wounds and give them an opportunity to join the music club. (After all these years, I wonder: "Why didn't they ask me sooner?")

Even my answer was mostly music-related. Three things I wish I could do better:
1.    Partner dancing—swing, salsa, ballroom dancing etc.
2.    Snare drum technique
3.    Accents.

Of course, I’m utterly incompetent fixing a car or doing the plumbing in my house, but I don’t care. Happy to pay someone else. Meanwhile, people pay me for getting their musical engine running and all pipes connected. But I’ll give this Men’s Group class for free.

Capstones and Stepping Stones

When I’m teaching, occasionally sentences escape that feel perfectly formed and important. I had the good sense to write this one down.

Every new piece of knowledge is a capstone to all previous knowledge and a stepping stone to the next. 

Not earth-shaking, but a good reminder that when we teach with a purpose and a trajectory and through-line, we introduce key skills and concepts that gather everything we learned into a clear and coherent summary. A capstone is literally a stone placed on top of a wall to complete it., a final decorative touch that completes a building or monument. Hence, many universities offer things called Capstone Projects as a terminating thesis that integrates and summarizes all previous knowledge. 

But that stone then becomes a stepping stone to bridge the known and the unknown, the firm ground from which we learn the next necessary piece of knowledge. In the course I’m teaching now, I’ve introduced a powerful concept called the trichord, three notes in a row like do-re-mi or re-mi-fa etc. I chose melodies in the diatonic modes that are based on sequences of trichords to demonstrate how they work. The trichord then becomes a guide in improvisation. As we learn piece after piece, the trichord becomes more and more familiar and we grow comfortable with its expressive power, learn to recognize, begin to use it effortlessly in our improvisations and compositions.

But then the next step is to put it into a new context and show how it works in the harmonic context of I, V, and IV chords. Now it has a different function and our learning is enlarged by taking something familiar and applying it to something new. This is how we grow. 

Seems obvious, but often teaching can feel like a shopping trip to the mall, picking up this item and that item to put into our grocery cart, but without any connecting thread or direction. Or if we’re a music teacher, we’re given a mere one class a week where we can’t get any momentum going and it becomes a kind of entertainment of glorified babysitting. (Indeed, in New South Wales, Australia, music teachers have been called RFF’s—Relief from Face-to-Face for classroom teachers. Aargh!!!!). 

I talk a lot about our daily Singing Time with all 100 of our elementary students and note that learning some 150 songs makes it possible for the next song to be learned more quickly and expressively. The kids develop a storehouse of melodies from which the brain can draw when it encounters the next song, noticing what is familiar and what is novel. If there is no storehouse, then everything is new information. If the storehouse is filled with the same 10 songs, the possibilities of recognizing patterns is diminished. And so with every new song learned, our previous experience of how melodies worked is affirmed and becomes a stepping stone to the next new melody. Capstones and stepping stones. That’s how we learn. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Two Limes and a Lemon

Today the pleasure of singing songs, playing games and playing powerful music from Zimbabwe, Netherlands, Ghana, Uganda, Philippines and Japan, with my colleagues in the other rooms visiting Venezuela and Indonesia. Radical healing work that invites the participants to consider whole new ways of organizing sound, bringing new rhythms and melodies into their bodies and breaking the illusion of “the other,” exposing the lie of “us and them” and bringing it all together into “we.”

Then home to make a watermelon salad with some gazpacho, corn and chicken sausage. The salad has cucumber, mint, feta cheese, a touch of arugula and of course, watermelon, but when it came time to consider the dressing, my wife reminded me: limes. Which we didn’t have. So I walked the block and a half to my corner store and lo and behold! There they were. For $1.50, I walked away with two limes and a lemon, a pleasant short conversation with the Ethiopian storekeeper and the sense of gratitude that this sweet little corner store has weathered the onslaught of the large corporate markets and has faithfully served us since we moved here some 37 years ago. The walk instead of the drive, the exchange with someone who recognizes me, the sense of supporting small business— one of those little things that adds up to a quality of life far beyond the Costco run to the mall in a car. I like it and am grateful.

Perhaps I should have learned an Ethiopian song for tomorrow’s class? 


Let’s talk about shoelaces. I went directly from teaching one course with 45 folks digging into the sorrowful soil and joyful flowering of jazz into another with 45 folks traveling without passports to the many beautiful musical cultures that feed our ever-emerging mix of cultures. Deep issues, deep discussions, reaching for enlarged understanding, for ways of organizing sound that unlock another faculty of soul, for hard discussions about power and privilege and those who would push away all but their own narrow slice of human potential. Worthy work, healing work, difficult work. But I want to talk about shoelaces.

Because I bought a perfect pair of light sneakers for my Swedish bike-ride. Perfect except the shoelaces were way too long. Returned to San Francisco with my go-to Brooks Brothers black shoes, but here the shoelaces are too short. And in both cases, they keep coming untied. Mysteriously so. Have my kindergarten tying shoes declined as I approach five days before my 68thbirthday? What’s going on? What to do? 

Seems to me there’s four choices:

1)   Buy new shoes. 
2)   Wear sandals. 
3)   Do nothing and keep complaining. 
4)   Get new shoelaces. 

Somewhere in here is a deep metaphor about the way we refuse to solve the problems of the racial divide, the gender divide, the economic divide and so on. But no time to look into it now—I have to put my shoes on to get to class. Maybe I’ll tie a double-knot. 

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Love Letter to NOLA

Dear NOLA,

I admired you from afar for so long and always wondered when we’d finally meet. (I actually planned to come in 2005, but another woman named Katrina intervened). But last year, we finally met and it was well worth the wait. In one day, I saw the Mardi Gras Indians gather and process, drummed in Congo Square and sang with Ysaye Barnwell in a Community Sing. It was a great first date.

But this time around was the real deal. You showed me your tempestuous self alongside your considerable charms and it just made me love you more. I’ve had to travel so far to find the kind of musical community I’ve always dreamed of— to Bali, to Bulgaria, to Brazil and a country just south of Burkina Faso (Ghana). But you have the same deal going on with the added bonus that it’s closer to my skin. It’s jazz and blues and brass and gypsy guitars. It’s American. 

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways:

1)   A walk down Frenchmen St. is a sonic delight, the 52ndSt. scene in New York I missed and now is only a nostalgic sign. But you are alive and well!

2)   Your troubadours sing the full spectrum of Americana without snobbish insistence that one is the best. The same people playing Trad Jazz, swing, be-bop, cool, Latin, modern, rhythm ‘n’ blues, Cajun, Zydeco, all the different ways to sing out freedom. 

3)   Everyone knows everyone. There’s a hierarchy of accomplishment, but it’s a flexible one, connected rather than divisive. 

4)   It’s a city of relationships, talking about your aunt’s collard greens with the audience before launching into the stratosphere of extraordinary technique and complex harmonies. 

5)   You honor and respect the elders, who in turn guide the youth in their role as culture bearers. 

6)   Your people greet strangers as they pass, people in offices talk like people instead of machines and enjoy a friendly conversation. 

Shall I go on? Your architecture, your alluring charisma, your waterways, your living history, your distinctive cuisine, your extravagant moods (the weather!), the overhanging live oaks, the song of the mockingbird and the biggest spiders I’ve ever seen. If you can hold out against the rising seas, I will be back!

All my love to you!

Slavery's Descendants

The history books tell us that slavery in the United States ended in 1865 with the end of the Civil War and the 13thAmendment.  But not quite. The first clause of the Amendment reads: 

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

So the Southern folks switched tactics. Keep black folks downtrod and beaten-down, withhold jobs to force them into ongoing poverty, which breeds violence and theft to survive. Then arrest them, deny them anything approaching a fair trial, throw them in prison and voila! now the chain gang can keep the roads in good shape without wasting the taxpayer’s money. 

Then in 1971, Richard Nixon and his cronies hit on the idea of the War on Drugs as a means for mass incarceration of black folks. As described in an interview with John Ehrlichman, one of the plan’s designers:

“You want to know what this was really all about?” he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or blacks, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

And so came the New Jim Crow (details in the book of the same title), putting one out of every eight black men in jail and labeling these crimes as felonies, assuring that they would never be able to vote. A sinister devious plot that ignorant citizens bought hook, line and sinker. And still do today. As a business plan, it works brilliantly. Now Victoria’s Secret can have prisoners make their sexy lingerie virtually for free. The new face of slavery’s unpaid labor which benefits the white, rich and powerful. 

“Follow the money” was the theme our eloquent guide Ali revealed in his tour of the Whitney Plantation, the only one in America that tells the real story of slavery from the enslaved human beings point of view. (Most point out the beautiful architecture and make a passing reference to the cabins where the “workers” lived). If you viewed the system of slavery as the business proposition it was and agreed with the bottom of line of efficiency and profit, all the brutality and terrorism and inhuman treatment makes perfect sense and allows everyone to sleep comfortably at night. Except for the enslaved people, who had to work from sun-up to sun-down so people in Europe could have sugar in their coffee. 

While we could have played jazz as we did so joyfully without ever touching on the purposeful misery that strangely birthed this triumphant music, I insisted that my Jazz Course students go to the plantation, making it a required part of the course that the course paid for instead of an option. Tears were shed—as they should have been—and there was a deep silence in the cars driving back to finish out our extraordinary 10 days. My hope was that people would never again accept a history class that casually talked about the facts of slavery without the real story and the real feelings the subject deserves.

Afterwards, I spoke with one mixed-race student who talked about how his ancestors were on both sides of the line. The perpetrators and the victims both flowed in his blood and what did that make him? He also had a second stunning insight. He noted how the tour guide spoke about the hierarchy of power in the slave system. At the bottom were the black unskilled workers purposefully kept ignorant and forced to do the heavy labor that required no thinking.  The next level up were the black skilled workers—the cooks, the blacksmiths and others that had certain privileges and a higher status. Then came the white overseers managing the day-today tasks to make sure it all ran efficiently and punishing anyone who didn’t follow their program. At the top of the hierarchy was the Master, who kept a distance from it all except to occasionally check in to see how the crops were doing and to collect the money. 

My friend’s deep insight? The above well describes some of our schools! At the bottom are the children, purposefully kept ignorant about the things that would raise doubts and questions and only given enough knowledge to keep the system going. The skilled workers are the teachers. The  overseers are the administrators. The Master is the Superintendent who doesn’t know the children or the teachers, might show up at a concert or a PTA meeting to give the illusion of being involved, but purposefully keeping a distance and collecting the money. 

Now that is some food for thought. 

Saturday, July 20, 2019

The Presence of the Ancestors

For a suburban American Jewish boy who went intermittently to the Unitarian Church and whose main mythological point of reference was the Donna Reed Show and Leave It to Beaver, it’s weird how much I talk in my workshops about the Ancestors. All cultures have some kind of notion of honoring those who came before and many cultures still continue the practice of inviting the Ancestor’s voice into community decision-making. For example, every time we take students to Ghana, we go the Chief where he asks permission for the Ancestors to welcome us. (So far they haven’t refused.)

But growing up in non-mystical religion and a scientific cultural thinking, it’s hard to know what to make of the notion that the Ancestors are present here and now, that the Other World is intimately connected with this World, that nothing problematic here can be wholly solved by logic, politics, law or political correctness. Without the participation of the Ancestors, we are like peer gang members trying to initiate other without the guidance of elders. That never ends well. 

Conversely, without us two-legged creatures with opposable thumbs, language and voices, no true healing can take place in the Other World where wandering ghosts who were unjustly murdered, brutalized, traumatized, ignored and not properly grieved roam the earth and make us feel haunted without knowing why. Our responsibility is to live well on their behalf, to use our precious human incarnation to move the arc of social justice closer to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, to make more just laws, to cultivate kinder and more knowledgeable children and yes, to grieve, grieve, grieve until the tears run dry and then get up and dance!  It’s only in the conversation between the two worlds that any real change and healing can take place.

Enter my Jazz Course. Ever since the first one I taught in 1988 at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota (thank you, Jane Frazee!) with 6 teachers, I have felt the unseen presence of some ancestors moving through me in each minute of class and beyond. And never more so than this 10-day course in the place where the whole glorious music began—New Orleans. As noted in the post “Perpetual Baptism,” they tested me to the hilt to see how serious I was and I believed they smiled and were convinced, “Yeah! This is the real deal!” And then gifted me with such blessings that in spite of every reason to be exhausted managing 45 strong personalities (they’re teachers!) in a variety of trying circumstances for 10-days straight with barely a break, often teaching 6 hours a day, trying to be fair and equitable with giving time and space to my seven other assistant teachers and keep them happy, keeping track of the budget and certificates and forms and 10,000 other tasks, my energy was constant because I was riding on the wave of the Ancestor’s blessings. Not an ounce of ego here—no place for it in that other world—but gratitude and slight astonishment that they have chosen me and I have not been found wanting. 

I write this on a plane returning to San Francisco after six weeks away. That opening course in Lapland feels like several lifetimes ago, the bike riding in Sweden and touristing in Stockholm, the World Music Course in Halifax and then the 10-days here in New Orleans. The gods were with me all the way, but never so tangibly, forcefully and palpably as in this Jazz Course. America is the place I landed in the reincarnation shuffle and I owe it my allegiance. It asks for the whole of my meager self to help make it what it was meant to be and feels so far away from being at the moment. 

So it’s no wonder that that’s where the presence of the Ancestors feels the strongest. I felt them not only in my own teaching, but also in my performing during this time and again, with the remarkable guest artists doing the same work in their own voices at yet higher and deeper levels (musically, not pedagogically) speaking the exact words and thoughts I shared in their own beautiful way. Herlin Riley, Germaine Bazzle, Khari Allen Lee, Ali from the Whitney Plantation—without ever having met each other, we found ourselves all singing the same song in our own key and vocal style. And I felt their blessing as we sang to them when they entered the room and had them grinning ear-to-ear, stopping in their tracks and thinking, "Whoah! What is this?" Extraordinary. 

And so on I continue, back to another World Music Course in San Francisco on Monday. Hope the Ancestors have it on their calendar!

Do You Know What It Means…

I don’t have anything against Cleveland. Or Portland, Chicago, Boston, Kansas City and all the rest. But I agree with Tennessee Williams that these cities hold a special character and mostly because of the mix of diverse cultures. I grew up outside of New York, I moved to San Francisco, so I well know the pleasures of these two places. But now, after these 10 days in New Orleans (and a 9-day trip last year), I’m beginning to get what makes NOLA the extraordinary place it is. 

"Do You Know What It Means, to Miss New Orleans” asks the old jazz song, a song that now takes on a new meaning as I prepare to leave this city that hosted 10 of the most intense, exhilarating, challenging and soulful days of my life. "The birthplace of jazz" refers to so much more than mere musical notes! The city itself, with its turbulent weather, its below-sea-level dangers, its constant surprises, demands that you learn how to move through the changes like a jazz musician, be ready to switch directions when the piano offers an unexpected chord, know how to turn an unexpected note into something beautiful. Up until the last minute—like moving the Orff instruments in an open truck with a thunderstorm threatening to soak them (we made it in time)— it was throwing our one hurdle after another. But we cleared them all, with intelligence, teamwork and an improvisatory spirit. One final shout-out of unconditional love to the 45 extraordinary teachers who lived this time together. It has been a remarkable 10-day party interrupted by classes. Ha ha! Better put, when the class ended at the University each day, it continued out on the street and in the clubs. 

I believe we all will indeed, miss New Orleans!

Perpetual Baptism

As we began, so we ended. With another door slammed in our face to see how serious we were about opening it. Five times in this course, my extraordinary NOLA host St. Allen greeted me with, “I got bad news.” We had just finished a stirring final song, cleaned up the room a bit and were heading to our final party on the Steamboat Natchez with its Trad Jazz band. How I was looking forward to just kicking back and enjoying a well-deserved party with no heavy decisions to make! 

But the bad news? Delivered at 4:30, two hours before our boat-boarding time—“Reservations cancelled due to mechanical failure.” So a few desperate phone calls and the agreement that the reservation would be switched to “The Creole Queen.” We just would have to show up.

And so we did and the people at the box office said “Huh?” No such transfer had been made and they said the tickets might be at another site a mile away. Allen's on the phone with the people at Steamboat Natchez who say they’ll transfer him to the right person to talk to. He hands me the phone and takes off running for the tickets, with 5 minutes before the boat is scheduled to leave. I get on the phone and hear an answering machine message. The Captain won’t let our people on without a ticket. I’m calling Allen back on his cell-phone and he’s trying to give me a confirmation number while he’s running. The people in the Creole Queen box office are friendly and helpful and they finally figure out a way to make it work while the Captain impatiently taps his foot waiting for the tickets to print out. But now Allen is a mile away and just shouts at me, “Get the people on the boat! Get the people on the boat! I’ll meet you after!!”

And so we get on the boat. Drinks are in order and off we go and after loving and fun small-group conversations with a slight night breeze, we head up to where the band is playing and have an all-stops-out dance in front of the exuberant band. When the boat docked, we followed the band out like a NOLA Second Line and had a jam session on—what else? —When the Saints Go Marching in. 

But the evening was still young. On we went to the remarkable Frenchman St. and back to the Snug Harbor club (our third time there) to hear the Ellis Marsalis Quintet. The drummer was Herlin Riley, the extraordinary drummer who had come to our course as a guest artist and lifted our spirits to the sky. He was the undisputed star of this show and when it was over, he came upstairs and hugged each and every one of us and then gave us an impromptu lecture of jazz, music, love and life. So this was the real climax, the Steamboat  being a deceptive cadence. We spilled out on the street and people started hugging each other goodbye, but then we discovered an all-women band across the street at the Spotted Cat and so we danced across for a delightful coda. Another 20 minutes of music and now the goodbye hugs began again. Well, for me. I left around 12:30 am, but many stayed and I’ll hear some of the stories later. 

The bottom line is this. All of life’s curve balls are necessary to keep you alert and agile and attentive so you can duck and not get beaned. Or to switch metaphors, there are guards at the gates whose job is to test you to see how serious you are, how badly you want something. From the severe and real threat of Tropical Storm Barry to the University officially locking us out of our room for three days (it actual ended up being open for two of them) to instrument orders that didn’t arrive on time to a cancelled Plantation Tour (then finally was re-scheduled and happened yesterday) to one of the guest artists never responding to our invite (and then at the last minute showing up)  a brief tornado warning to the last-minute cancellation of our Steamboat tour, it was one slammed door after another. But nevertheless, we persisted. Like the jazz soloist who is suddenly fed an unexpected chord from the piano player, we had to respond in the moment and find our way through without stopping the music. 

Time and time again, Allen and I had to figure things out quick. And the students had to deal with uncertainty and be prepared to respond immediately as needed. But being jazz musicians and Orff teachers, we knew all about flexibility and lo and behold, every door that was meant to open indeed did open and that made everything so much richer for all of us. It’s nice when the trains run on time, the meal you ordered comes to your table and the teacher follows the course syllabus, but those aren’t the stories you will tell your grandchildren. 

Each day of the 10 was an extraordinary awakening, in company with a diverse group of committed, dedicated, fun and beautiful human beings determined to be the best versions of themselves, to do the hard necessary work to become better teachers, more informed citizens and more compassionate human beings.

People, it doesn’t get any better than that. 

Thursday, July 18, 2019

The Stern Teacher

One day left in some of the most powerful and beautiful 9 days of teaching I’ve had in the last 45 years or so. And still one day more!

Today was the tremendous pleasure of welcoming Ms. Germaine Bazzle to come sing with us and for us and share the deep wisdom of her 87 years. (And the extraordinary look at how eloquent, clear, physically present and in-shape a human being can be at 87 years! I would not have put her as a day over 50!). Next guest was a saxophone (and beyond) player named Khari Allen Lee, husband to an Orff colleague who impressed me when I met him a year ago in my first trip to New Orleans as a fabulous musician and super nice guy. 

But today, after the great pleasure of playing with him for the group with the Pentatonics band, he began to speak about music with an eloquence, passion and musicality that made us all feel—“We are in the presence of greatness.” An old soul in a young body who is as long in understanding as the Mississippi River and as deep as the ocean. 

In a short chat after his presentation, we were talking about the political circus and these strange, strange times we live in. I confessed my complacency during the Obama years, my naïve sense that simply electing a man of integrity, intelligence and the darker skin than any of the country’s previous Presidents was enough. Meanwhile, the Repugnantcans set to work to spread fear so they could hold on to and regain the power and privilege, got organized with gerrymandering and town meetings and media control and the like and landed us in the swamp of Trumpdom. 

Khari compared it to teachers who constantly affirm kids and tell them how wonderfully they’re doing to the point where the kids get complacent and lazy and think they’re just fine as they are. But none of us is wholly fine as we are. We are always a work-in-progress and to attain the elder status of someone like Germaine Bazzle requires doing the work your Soul demands to meet your promise. Years alone are insufficient. So many are simply children in adult bodies and that is dangerous for everyone. 

So Khari followed this image of the over-praised child meeting a stern teacher who says, “Uh-uh. Not good enough. You need to learn about this, you need to practice that, you need to take this all more seriously than you are and do what it takes to master the difficult.” And that’s what the current political scene is telling us. We have to work harder, do better, enlarge our understanding, speak out stronger to stop the damage of the adult-toddlers and move toward genuine healing. 

And I’d like to think that’s exactly what we’re doing in this Jazz Course. Tomorrow we go to Whitney Plantation to witness the deep suffering that has brought us such joyful music. I suspect it will double our admiration for those who survived the worst humanity has to offer and double our determination to tell their stories, sing their songs and play their music. And pass it all on to the children. Then someday we will thank the stern teacher of our times for the needed reminder. 

Transparent to Transcendence

It was the great mythologist Joseph Campbell who coined the title phrase. He noted that to accomplish anything worthwhile requires a great deal of will power, self-confidence, ego-driven drive. What often passes as humility is a refusal to do the work necessary to meet one’s talent and genius. We both admire and disdain ambition, often asking people to tone it down and make sure that everyone has the exact number of minutes on the floor. 

And yes, it’s true that we need to share space and leave room for others to step forward and say their piece. But the fact of the matter is that those who often speak out more often and more strongly are those willing to do whatever it takes to meet their promise. How to balance that with being a nice person concerned about whether the folks they’re around are comfortable?

Campbell suggests that the issue is not turning down your light because it’s too bright for some people’s comfort, but making sure the focus is in the right place. If the light becomes a spotlight shining on your own ego, it’s the wrong use of your spiritual power, A lot of performers and political figures get caught in this trap, much to their own detriment and that of the culture around them. “Transparent to transcendence” means you let that light shine through your small ego self, illuminating all in your presence. Along the way you will be accused of (sometimes rightly so) arrogance and worse, but if you use your power and turn your efforts for the benefit of all, you will arrive at a true humility. 

All of this triggered by an evaluation I just received in one of my courses from a person I highly admire and respect. Because she is on that same path, she gets it. Reading it in the midst of this intense, exhausting and exhilarating jazz course here in New Orleans, it’s just the reminder I need to keep going. Onward!

Thank you, Doug, for sharing your love, your soul, and your lifework as a humanitarian thinker, artist, performer, educator, publisher, person. There are so many paths of personhood you could have chosen in the music arts, but you have chosen a path of humility and service. Thank you for choices that have been such a benefit to so many people, in so many ways.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Today's Jazz Lecture

This from Yogi Berra, the catcher of my childhood favorite baseball team, the Yankees: 

Interviewer:Can you explain jazz? 

Yogi: I can't, but I will. 90% of all jazz is half improvisation. The other half is the part people play while others are playing something they never played with anyone who played that part. So if you play the wrong part, it's right. If you play the right part, it might be right if you play it wrong enough. But if you play it too right, it's wrong. 

Interviewer: I don't understand. 

Yogi: Anyone who understands jazz knows that you can't understand it. It's too complicated. That's what's so simple about it. 

Interviewer: Do you understand it? 

Yogi: No. That's why I can explain it. If I understood it, I wouldn't know anything about it. 

Interviewer:Are there any great jazz players alive today? 

Yogi: No. All the great jazz players alive today are dead. Except for the ones that are still alive. But so many of them are dead, that the ones that are still alive are dying to be like the ones that are dead. 

Interviewer: What is syncopation? 

Yogi: That's when the note that you should hear now happens either before or after you hear it. In jazz, you don't hear notes when they happen because that would be some other type of music. Other types of music can be jazz, but only if they're the same as something different from those other kinds. 

Interviewer: Now I really don't understand. 

Yogi: I haven't taught you enough for you to not understand jazz that well.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Welcome to the Gumbo Shop

Each day in this New Orleans Jazz Course feels like a lifetime. Yesterday was playing some New Orleans-style music (formerly called Dixieland), followed by half the group Lindy Hopping to the other half playing Jumpin’ at the Woodside. In-between, a discussion about the term “Dixieland,” taken from Stephen Foster’s nostalgic song about wishing he was back in the land of cotton, where old times were not forgotten. This was yet more propaganda for White Supremacy, yearning for the “good old days” when the blacks were happily picking cotton in the fields while the whites sipped mint juleps on the porch of their lovely plantation house. After the Civil War, the South was infuriated that their genteel way of life was broken and still are angry about it to this day. It goes without saying that black folks were never happy and that that "gentility" was based on brutality. So when white mainstream named the New Orleans-style music (now called Trad Jazz) “Dixieland,” it was another case of one group feeling the power and privilege to define another in their own terms. Now the move to correct that. 

After the morning class, we all headed down to the French Quarter to hear a Preservation Hall concert just for us and wasn’t that fine? Yes, it was. The rains had stopped, the heat and humidity was kicking it, now we were getting the real New Orleans summer (though still overcast and a slight breeze). Post-concert, we walked to Louis Armstrong Park, stood for a reverent moment in Congo Square, stopped at the statue of Tootie Montana and learned a bit about Mardi Gras Indians and then sat under the stature of Louis Armstrong while I told the story of his life. Well, wasn’t that special? Yes, it was. 

Then the 45 of us were free to go off on our own and I ended up playing pool in a bar with about 20 others (one of the better games I’ve ever played!). On to The Gumbo Shop for dinner and one of the best waiters I’ve ever experienced, who gave us a fast, rhythmic patter going over the menu, always ending with the phrase “Welcome to the Gumbo Shop!” We had the traditional red beans and rice, gumbo, crawfish, blackened red fish and more and every time he came in to check on us, he ended with “Welcome to the Gumbo Shop.”

Gumbo has long been a perfect metaphor for the mix of cultures that created jazz, all the way down to the burnt roux that is its base with its musical counterpart of the blues. 

Tomorrow we resume the first of the last four days (starting to feel some sadness at the impending farewell) and I think I’ll start with: 

“Welcome back to the Gumbo Shop.”