Early in my adult years, I set my life’s compass by three short words:
Such faithful companions they have been! Such difficult friends! And once I introduced them to each other, how the conversations flowed between them!
And why not? They all shared some key qualities:
1. What is Zen? What is Orff? What is Jazz? All three defy simple explanations, impossible to describe to your airplane seatmate even on a 17- hour flight to Singapore talking non-stop.
2. All three are impossible to wholly master, are paths with benchmarks of possible attainment—enlightenment, mastery, Grammy awards—but ultimately are paths with no end. They say that even Buddha is still working on himself somewhere. The expert Orff teacher does not exist and his or her perfect lesson can be demolished in one second by a three-year old. The jazz musician embarking on the next solo is always in uncharted territory.
3. All three demand first-hand experience over belief or faith. All three live as verbs, as practices rather than dogma. All three insist on your own unique way of understanding and expression. All three demand mastery of difficult techniques and understanding of complex ideas which are then gathered together to fully express themselves in a spontaneous response to the given moment— the Zen student’s answer to the koan in the interview with the teacher, the teacher’s response to the students, the jazz musician’s response to the notes out in the air.
4. All three are living examples of Rilke’s line:
“This is how he grows, by being defeated decisively, by constantly greater beings.”
It has been quite a wild ride with these three and the conversation between them. Zen brought me to Japan and the haiku poets, jazz brought me to Ghana and the West African ancestors (as well as New Orleans and Harlem), Orff brought me to Salzburg and the legacies of Bach, Beethoven and beyond. So when they all gather to party in the house of my body and mind, it’s quite an occasion! Wise African elders hanging out with Zen masters, blues singers rubbing shoulders with Bach choirs, potluck dinners with miso soup, red beans and rice, Viennese pastries and fufu. Jazz is present in my Orff teaching, Orff is present in my jazz performance and some occasional mindful breaths in both. It’s at once delightful, maddeningly difficult, strangely interconnected and wholly mine. It’s the life that chose me and I’m doing what I can, knowing it always falls short, to do it honor. It is the tri-part thread I have never let go of that weaves through the unique pattern of a life. My life. And I am grateful for it all.