Just finished the last of three jazz online classes with 50 to 90 people in my home via Zoom.
On the first day, I shrieked with joy seeing some 10 or so friends from around the world—South America, Asia, Europe, New Jersey! By the third of these 90-minute sessions, I was beginning to recognize the faces of some of my new “virtual” friends and that was sweet.
My goal in these classes is the same whether live in a circle or mediated by a screen— to give teachers the tools to teach their children better. "Better" meaning with more clarity, more understanding, more fun! I aim to give them the best of child-friendly materials, show them how to develop it beyond the activity into the next possibility, enlarge the understanding of how certain musical styles work, improve their own musicianship and so on.
At the same time, I know that the kinds of experiences human beings have who play, sing and dance together, who create together, who support each other in risking beyond the comfortable, will bond these people together into some kind of ongoing community long after the last song is sung. I have witnessed how such communion lives on in memory, letters/ e-mails, live visits, What’s Ap groups and even shared tattoos!
But when I teach jazz, especially to Americans, I aim for more. I want to use the music and its history as a lens into what went down in this country so that we might finally have the possibility of drawing the line to all the hatred purposefully fostered and perpetuated for unfair economic game, unearned privilege and identity and saying: “Here is where this stops.” I invoke the title of the Albert King song: “Had You Told It Like It Was, It Wouldn’t Be Like It Is.” So I try to model how to be the courageous teacher who will talk beyond the notes and tell the stories that need to be told and (now) show them on Youtube—the Battle of the Bands between Chick Webb and Benny Goodman, the tap dancing of the Nicholas Brothers and Fred Astaire, the singing of Big Mama Thornton and Elvis Presley. And then examine the story behind the story. And then the story behind that one. Find the disease in the root that keeps the flower from blooming as fully and fragrantly and colorfully as it should.
And that brings us straight into the center of what it means to be a fully functioning beautiful soul of a human being. The lesson we’re all hunkered down in virtually every corner of the world trying to learn.
And so in this last session showing how the notes worked in the 12-bar blues on the piano, I somehow circled around to some quotes by Duke Ellington and decided to give Duke the last word in this three-part online series. Imagine my surprise when I got to the last quote and up rose that familiar sign of great grief leavened with joy that made my voice stop and had me reading with tears streaming. Online! With strangers I had just “met.”
So the verdict is in. The soul and the open heart certainly tend to prefer a sacred grove to wandering around Costco, would choose an embraced circle of warm, sweaty bodies to a checkerboard of faces on a screen. But they can arise anywhere, anytime, if a person has chosen to live with caring beyond the casual, beauty beyond the practical, grieving beyond having a nice day. Have you noticed that when people break down and cry in front of others, they often say, “Sorry?” Why apologize? Let ‘er rip! Duke’s words below just did me in and I was proud that it was witnessed by my new friends and colleagues.
And so the quote. Duke was asked in an interview what his newly composed Suite was about and he replied:
“New World A’Comin’ refers to a future place, on earth, at sea or in the air, where there will be no more war, no greed, no categorization, and where love is unconditional, and where there is no pronoun good enough for God.”
Please pass the tissues.