Saturday, March 6, 2021

Further Adventures in Grandparenting

The quiet chatter of the grandkids cozied up in their sleeping bags inside their tent. Having spent the night on the land of my nephew Eren and his partner Maya at a country house in Sebastopol, they emerged into a sunny day and went with Maya to gather eggs from the chickens. While waiting for Eren’s pancakes and fresh-orange juice squeezed from the oranges they had gathered the day before from my sister’s orange tree, they sipped hot chocolate around the fire pit and delighting in poking little sticks in and out of the flame. After breakfast, we practiced our frisbee skills and then I taught them my childhood game of SPUD, which now was their favorite game ever. 

 

From that auspicious beginning, we packed up the car to drive back to San Francisco to arrive in time for Zadie’s Zoom music class taught by… me! Usually she’s in Portland tuning in on the screen from her day care provider, but now she was by my side while Malik took a much-need bath. A fun class about nursery rhymes and how it always seems to make sense to leave out the last line of the rhyme and throw something out the window.

 

The moment we signed out, we walked out of the house and through the park to meet Maynard Moose and Willy Claflin. Zadie and Malik had spent a snow-bound day enthralled by his stories played on cassette tapes(!) and they were amazed that I knew him! (He actually was my student in an Orff Level I class some 30 years ago.) So I set up the meeting, we lunched on chicken gyros and French fries and he kept them enchanted with three or four Maynard Moose stories, complete with the Maynard puppet itself! 

 

Well, that should have been more than enough for one day, but no, after buying two books and a double CD from him (the books personally signed!), Maynard left and a friend joined us and gave the kids some chocolate bars. And then we met their beloved Aunt Tita and went on the Ferris Wheel. Their first time and the excitement of getting up high and seeing all of San Francisco!

 

Enough? Nope, not yet. A short romp at Tita’s house, then come join the monthly neighborhood sing out on the street—50 songs with dancing! Followed by Zadie’s request of take-out Chinese dumplings from a local restaurant she remembered. And then settle in for a movie—The Black Stallion (holds up—truly beautiful) with, of course, fresh-popped popcorn. 

 

By any standards, that would be a memorable day. And yet in the midst of it, the kids still managed to have a senseless fight in the back seat of the car that required strict admonishment and Zadie melted down when she lost her mask and kept sulking a bit even after it was found. I had a little talk with her about resilience and privately worried that my efforts to create this high standard of rich experience was feeding some sense of life as indeed, rainbows day after day and an expectation that every whim be fulfilled.

 

So I’m proud to report that when we spotted the ice cream truck we had been looking for in vain the whole week, I resisted getting them an ice cream. This old man can be tough when he needs to be! 

They’re leaving to return to Portland today while my wife and I get our second vaccination. If we have bad side effects, I’m definitely getting myself an ice cream.

  

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Problem Solving

Some people have used the extraordinary capacity of human problem-solving intelligence to create life-saving vaccines, power a rocket to Mars or write an intricate 4-voice fugue. 

 

Yesterday my granddaughter and I used the same capacity to try to dislodge putty from the trachea of a rubber chicken so it might squawk again. Through ingeniously taping two chopsticks together and a half an hour labor probing down the tube, we indeed extracted most of the putty, but still the poor chicken was mute when we squeezed her. So our next task is to gather our imagination to create an appropriate memorial service for her. 

 

I know my granddaughter is up to the task because of the imaginative tale she told about how the putty got into the chicken in the first place. A first-rate tall tale of the chicken on the ground with its open mouth facing up, the putty stuck to the edge of the table and beginning to droop over until some it fell into the chicken’s mouth. Then she picked up the chicken and in its upright state, the putty flowed down the tube to block the squeezebox that made the chicken squawk when squeezed. I listened respectfully and concluded with, “That’s quite a story.” And left it at that. Oh, and did I mention that this entire chicken disaster happened while she was theoretically on Zoom for online school?

 

That’s life with grandchildren.

 

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Jazz Stories: P.S.

“Search for what unites us; understand that which divides us. “   - Carl Orff

 

This stunning quote from Carl Orff surprised me. I thought I knew most of his memorable statements, but had never heard this one. In ten short words, he summarizes the trajectory of my life’s passions. Music, dance, poetry and community ritual as the joyous forces that unite us, social justice work as illuminating the narratives that divide us with the intention of refusing their perpetuation. And both present in these little jazz stories I’ve been sharing.

 

In his book Racism: A Short History, George Frederickson looks at the subject through three cultures based on White Supremacy: the United States, Nazi Germany and South Africa. Isabel Wilkerson makes similar comparisons in the book Caste, substituting India’s caste system for South Africa’s apartheid. Both books are well-worth a read for those seeking to “understand that which divides us.”

 

I mention it here because when I went to South Africa in 2008 to teach Orff workshops, I was struck by both the similarities and differences with the U.S.’s version of systemic racism. Amongst many of the weird manifestations of cultures based on hate, exclusion and supremacy, there were four large groups out of many ethnicities in South Africa: white folks from Britain, white folks from the Netherlands (Afrikaaners), black folks of Zulu ethnicity, black folks of Xhosa ethnicity. The two white groups held the power, but they also hated each other. The two black groups were victims of oppression, but they also hated each other and had a long history of warfare. 

 

And so here were representatives of each of the four groups come together in my Orff workshop. My lofty vision was that folks would go off in small groups and come back with a piece of music/ dance that they created, with the rule being that some of each population had to be in each group. My fantasy was that here was a revolutionary healing moment, the four groups that historically hated each other having to come together and create something beautiful together. 

 

When they re-gathered to perform, the heavens did not part and the light of long-deferred healing and justice descend in glorious beams. The pieces were fine, though short of extraordinary. I said something out loud about how it moved me to note that something unimaginable a mere twenty years ago could be happening and there was a sweet moment of renewed hope in the room. 

 

But though one reality was that the “music brought us together,” the other was that after the workshop, the black folks would have to take at least two buses or taxis to travel two hours back to their townships and the white folks would return to their homes enclosed behind barb-wired walls and security guards at the entrance to their streets. The musical reality was in sharp contrast to the political reality and both were true. 

 

All of this is contained in the story of jazz, all of this is present in my work giving Orff workshops around the world. The beauty and uniting force of what happens on the bandstand and in the Orff workshop sometimes (or often) in contrast to the division that still exists outside the club, concert hall or school gymnasium. It’s na├»ve to rest content with the comforting notion that the music is enough, it’s limiting to think that political change alone will bring the deep healing and happiness we seek. What’s most important is that the two remain in conversation. 

 

This was what I was reaching for in this Jazz Stories little series—one story told through words and history to illuminate divisive practices, the other on the Youtube clip told through the music itself to unite through its power and beauty. I hope someone found this worthwhile—and that Carl Orff would approve.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Modern Day Grandparenting

The grandkids are here, for the first time without their parents and for a whole week. The first three days have simply been marvelous, with more delights to look forward to. Though it came from a gesture to give breathing room to their parents at a needed time, this is no altruistic do-gooder decision. It is (mostly) pure joy and happiness. 

 

I know that even as a grandparent, I have to be available for comforting skinned knees, friendship issues, hurt feelings. I have to resist a steady diet of ice cream and advocate for spinach. I have to help build resilience and face the harsh truths of this life without promising rainbows day after day. With the added responsibility of helping my mixed-race grandkids navigate through the horrendous legacy of an unchallenged White Supremacy. 

 

But truth be told, I just want to give them as much happiness and rich experience and fun as is humanly possible. Follow their whims, offer suggestions, insist on some non-negotiables (like the afternoon out-of-the-house “adventure walk” or bike ride), play, play and yet more play. The organized kind, like five different cards games, frisbee/ catch/ paddleball/ soccer, Sorry/ Boggle/ Taboo and the spontaneous kind, like making statues on tree stumps, building stick huts, racing leaves in a stream. 

 

I want to read great books to them, not just the kind with a punch line and concrete correct message, but the kind with characters/ plots and images that let their imagination soar, with pithy little metaphorical messages that might guide them their whole life— the Little Engine That Could chanting “I think I can! I think I can!,” Owl’s “Tear-water tea that is a little bit salty, but is always very good,” and for goodness sake, “Let the wild rumpus start!” Then the old movies, even in (gasp!) black-and-white —like The Absent-Minded Professor that had them roaring with laughter and wholly engaged, or for the older one, the trilogy of cross-dressing in Some Like It HotTootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire.

 

Naturally, much art, much singing, some improvised music on piano/ Ghana xylophone/ rubber chickens and pigs. Helping out making waffles or roasting vegetables or grating cheese for burritos. And fun also means responsibility—the daily clean-up, consequences for the inevitable sibling bickering, owning up to mistakes made. Oh, and did I mention madcap wrestling and boxing and swordfights with cardboard tubes?

 

Adulthood is always so somber and serious after the unabashed laughter and tears of childhood, but never so much as today, with certifiably deluded people who will believe any conspiracy theory dominating the news, the near demise of democracy, the year anniversary of the pandemic and climate change with an alarming timetable. So maybe more important than ever to let the children be wholly children, not burden their fragile shoulders with too much weight, give them more ice cream than you think is good for their “character.” 

 

My theory, for the moment, of modern-day grandparenting. 

Jazz Stories: Summing Up

We got it so wrong with Black History Month, first, by making it a token “thing” rather than a radical re-writing of a subject called History. And secondly, by emphasizing this black person’s contribution and that black person’s contribution. Having being written out of the history books, it felt necessary to highlight the “Hidden Figures” to whom we owe so much. But beyond perhaps some black kids feeling a new sense of pride and a few white folks maybe thinking “Wow. I never knew that!”, what really changes? The answer, seems clear: Nothing. Or at best, not enough.

 

The issues lie so much deeper and require so much more. And perhaps the most important is for white folks to reflect on why history as taught in schools and discussed in our national discourse is the way it is. Learning a few things about the black contribution misses the mark in understanding what we really need to move forward. As Ijeomo Uluo said, “I don’t want you to understand me better— I want you to understand yourselves.”

 

And so at the end of these twelve Jazz Stories, a few thoughts:

 

• It isn’t enough to learn about the contributions from black people that are left out of the history books. But we do need to know them, we need to know who to thank and then we need to thank them. 

 

• It isn’t enough to be uplifted by the music/ poetry/ art/ dance/ theater that black artists created. But if we are, then we need to know their stories and the dues they paid to bring us such beauty, joy and pleasure. And on behalf of white folks everywhere, we again should thank them for their Herculean efforts to break through all the limitations we threw in their way and apologize for it all. 

 

• It isn’t enough to marvel at the extraordinary physical, moral and intellectual accomplishments of black athletes, artists, political activists, spiritual leaders. But while we should, we should see it all as a complete rebuttal to the illusion of White Supremacy and get to work improving our own intelligences inspired by their examples. 

 

• It isn’t enough to be inspired by the many ways presented in these Jazz Stories that one can begin to commit to needed change, sometimes through committed social action, sometimes by telling the needed stories through one’s art, sometimes simply by being one’s own beautiful and authentic self. But if we find ourselves inspired, then the best response is simply to get to work. 

 

• It isn’t enough feel shamed and guilty (though a little of both is always appropriate), but to understand that inventing, teaching, passing down and feeding the centuries-old narrative of White Supremacy has hurt us all. Black folks a thousand times more than whites, but white folks taught to hate, given permission to ignore unearned privilege, privileged to choose whether to think about these issues or not, excluded from the possibilities of friendships and working relationships with black folks because of blind belief in the doctrine, are also hurt by its perpetuation. 

 

• Seeing the consistency of the White Supremacist thread in each of these 12 stories, understanding more clearly how it works so that we can recognize it and refuse it drawing the line and proclaiming “This is where it stops.”— this gets closer to the heart of the matter. And it’s still not enough! Even those who have begun the work will always find themselves sliding back into the lies they were told at a child, will be blind to some of their unearned privileges, will find themselves resisting the next thing they have to consider. 

 

But of all these reasons for Black History Month, it’s the one that feels the most important. Recognizing how we’re all trapped in a narrative that purposefully damages and swings its heavy sword of power is perhaps the most important change-making step we can make. It’s the willfully blind or unconscious acceptance of this narrative that makes police with the knees on the neck, Capitol terrorists storming in with the Confederate flag, bystanders just going on with their day as if these things don’t concern them, feel justified and even righteous in the face of their odious actions and non-actions. It’s the story that is carried as a heavy shield against the duty of Christians to practice the Christianity they profess, Americans to be responsible citizens, people to be decent human beings. The story was invented to help slave-owners sleep peacefully at night on the soft pillow of their Southern “honor” and is still being used for the same. Without it, people would have to face themselves and get to work.

 

But wouldn’t we all be the happier for it? Shall we begin? 

Monday, March 1, 2021

Stagger on Rejoicing!

It’s March. Named for the Roman God of War. Cited in Shakespeare’s “Beware the ides of March.” The month that will come in like a lion and go out like a lamb. Or vice-versa. 

 

And now it is the month when one year ago, the world shut down. On March 1st last year, I was staying at an Air B ’n’ B in Marin County with my wife and two daughters celebrating her 70th birthday with a long bike ride and dinner out at a restaurant. Indoors!  A couple of days before, I played piano while my friend Laura sang at the Jewish Home for the Aged. Note: she SANG! We all did. Without a mask. 


The next day I went to the dentist and was asked my first question about exposure to the corona virus. And then went on to school, where I began teaching what was to be (unbeknownst to me) the last two weeks of my 45 years of live playing, singing and dancing. The next week, went on a retreat with my Men’s Group—9 of us in a house together. And at school, I went on a field trip to see a dance show where 3,000 kids were in the auditorium!

 

Extraordinary to think of it all now. School closed around March 13th (a Friday!), my grandkids came down to shelter with us for two weeks and still we were expecting that maybe everything would open up again by April 1st

 

And so here we are, my grandkids with us again (without their Mom and Dad for the first time), we celebrated my wife’s 71stbirthday with a lovely bike ride along the SF coastline and sushi dinner out on the street in the parklet with cars driving by. The world seems to be leaning toward a gradual re-opening, the crab apple tree in the Arboterum is beginning to blossom and Spring is in the air. Nothing to do but follow W.H.Auden’s advice:

 

“Stagger on rejoicing!”

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Jazz Stories XII: John Coltrane

 Very few people in this world make hotel reservations in the land of Grief. We’d much rather “have a nice day” and if there is an occasion where a tear drops from our eye, we often apologize to the people present, as if it were a cause for shame and we’re ruining their nice day. 

 

But if we make that a habit, what do we do when the occasion demands that we cry a river or are overwhelmed with a tidal wave of sorrow? An event like the Birmingham church bombing or 9/11 or the police murder of George Floyd?

 

We’ve seen how Nina Simone wrote and sang a song of outrage, how Charles Mingus wrote a composition of protest.  John Coltrane was not a singer, but he sure could sing through his tenor saxophone and reach some notes that his voice couldn’t easily reach. His reaction to the 1964 Birmingham act of terrorism was a great grief-cry, a composition called Alabama. 

 

Coltrane was that rare combination of disciplined technician— people say, only half-kidding, that he practiced 25 hours a day— and a soulful spokesperson for Divine Presence in the world. No one knows at the beginning of the path exactly what awaits them, but some simply feel called to follow it no matter where it may lead and to trust their heart to know when they’re on track or off. Coltrane went from the 3-minute jazz blues to the long composition A Love Supreme and people folded up in his volcanic sound were wholly along for the ride. 

 

And so when the community was in grief over Birmingham, some, like social activist Angela Davis, needed to hear the notes that spoke their sorrow and also led them towards hope. As all true artists do, he wasn’t aiming for a predictable effect, simply letting his own anguish cry forth and those that could hear, heard. As might you, when you listen. 

 

Listening: Alabama

https://youtu.be/saN1BwlxJxA

 

  

Birthday Surprise

I think it’s safe to say that I’ve spent more time in the company of my wife than any other human being on the planet. 47 years together, 42 of them spend working at the same school and now a year of being sheltered in place 24/7. That’s a lot of years, months, days, hours and minutes. 

 

And yet it was only today that I discovered that she doesn’t know how to snap her fingers. Imagine! All that time and I never knew! And that she can only whistle one note. How could I have missed this?

 

Yesterday, I walked to through my local neighborhood and noticed—again, for the first time—two unusually tall palm trees I had never noticed. I had walked by them time and time again and only noticed them now. 

 

And so a new challenge: To daily see if I can notice something I normally pass by. And write it down. Want to join me?

 

PS And the happiest of birthdays to my wife Karen, to my lifelong colleague James Harding, to Julie Gottschalk, my student from 1972 and still in touch and Eddie Corwin, my SFS student and son of the long-time school cook. Hooray for you all!

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Jazz Stories XI: Nina Simone

No one knows what gives some people courage to speak out and makes others silent even when they know something is wrong. But it was clear that even as a young girl, Nina Simone had the nerve to stand up for what she knew was right. 

 

Like Hazel Scott, Nina showed her talent at the piano as young as four years old. By the time she was 12, she was ready to give her first classical music concert. When her parents were forced to move to the back of the auditorium to give up their front row seats for some white people, Nina refused to play until they got their seats back. And they did. 

 

In 1950, at the age of 17, she was encouraged to audition to attend the Curtis School of Music in Philadelphia. Her family had moved there from North Carolina expecting that she would be accepted, but she was denied admission and suspected that racism as the reason. Her sense of injustice was growing, like a heavy weight trying to push her down. But instead of being defeated, she became a weightlifter, using the opportunity to grow stronger, pushing back against it all with the power of her fingers on the piano and later, lifting it up over her head with that most magnificent of human expressions, the soulful singing voice. . 

 

And what a voice! Not trained in the technical music schools, but shaped by the beauty and sorrows of life, she could sing tender in a song like Little Girl Blue, joyous in Feelin’ Good, loving in My Baby Just Cares For Me, determined inI Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free  and outraged and angry in her own song Mississippi Goddamn. This last song was a response to the 1963 bombing in a Birmingham Church that killed four innocent young girls. It was the first of many more songs to come in the cause of Civil Rights. 

 

But just as Hazel Scott was punished for speaking truth in the McCarthy hearings and had her TV show cancelled, Southern radio stations refused to play this song, some smashing the promotional records and sending the pieces back to her agent. Her honesty, ferocity and soulful presence was a threat to people who wanted to sweep injustice under the rug. And in a career that depended upon opportunities to perform, to have her music recorded and distributed and played on the radio, speaking truth was a big risk. And it hurt her. 

 

And yet here she is still, long after those vicious racists she fought against are gone and unremembered. Take a moment to listen. Take many moments to listen. And pass on her legacy.

 

Listening:Mississippi Goddamn (Nina singing and playing with a band)

https://youtu.be/LJ25-U3jNWM

 

Another version with relevant photos:

https://youtu.be/hBiAtwQZnHs

 

PS Take some time to read the comments below the videos. The listeners understand that this wasn’t a bad moment in our history, it was happening everywhere in all places (see Nat King Cole’s story in L.A.) and in all times (this year’s news with George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and the Capitol riots). Compare her bravery with the cowardice of elected Republican Senators refusing to speak out and convict Trump of inciting insurrection. 

 

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Why I Have Hope

My grandchildren Zadie and Malik will visit soon and a friend gave us an old bike that is the perfect size  for Zadie. So in a recent phone call, we told Zadie, “We have a present for you!” and without missing a beat, she replied: 


“Do you have a present for Malik too?” 

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Jazz Stories X: Billy Taylor

Performing is the heart and soul of a jazz musician’s life, but it’s a hard way to earn a living. So teaching can be the bread and butter that sets food on the table and pays the rent. You might not always know where your next gig comes from and how much it will pay, but teaching gives you a schedule and a dependable sum of money. 

 

Not all teachers are artists, but just about all musicians are teachers of one kind or another. 

They may hand-pick a few promising students, like the great pianist Art Tatum did for Oscar Peterson, informally take fellow musicians aside to show them things that improved their playing, like Thelonious Monk did for jazz giants like Bud Powell, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and countless more or they might even accept a formal position in a college, as jazz pianist Jaki Byard did at the New England Conservatory of Music. One way or another, they all mix teaching with playing.

 

But how to keep them in balance? If you’re not alive and vibrant playing the music you love, what do you have to teach? If you have to worry about where the next check is coming from, how can you play without worrying? So many musicians must decide on how to bring the two worlds together.

 

Billy Taylor was no exception. He got off to a promising start as a jazz pianist by studying with Art Tatum and playing with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and others as the house pianist of the Birdland Jazz Club in the late 1940’s. He made many recordings in the 1950’s and 1960’s and had steady work as a jazz musician.

 

At the same time, he wanted to uplift the music, the musicians and the listeners through one of the most powerful vehicles for social change—education. In 1958, he became the director of television’s first series featuring jazz and some of its remarkable innovators. Titled The Subject Is Jazz, it featured composers Duke Ellington and Aaron Copland, performers like Bill Evans and Cannonball Adderley, poet Langston Hughes and more. In 1964, he created his Jazzmobile program to present free outdoor concerts, attracting audiences who normally would not attend and bringing jazz to children not allowed in the jazz club. In 1969, he became the first African-American leader of a talk show band on The David Frost Show. All the time performing, writing books and composing music. He was a busy man!

 

One of his compositions he wrote in 1952 for his daughter Kim, a gospel-style tune singing his hope for a better world for her. He recorded it in 1963 and that same year, played it at a rally with Dr. Martin Luther King. But it didn’t really attract the public until another singer recorded it in 1967 and brought her own soulful feeling to it. The song? I Wish I KnewHow It Would Feel to Be Free.  The singer? Our next featured artist—Ms. Nina Simone!

 

Meanwhile, here are the lyrics, co-written by Dick Dallas.

 

I wish I knew how it would feel to be free.

I wish I could break all the chains holding me.

I wish I could say all the things that I should say

Say 'em loud, say 'em clear, for the whole world to hear.

 

I wish I could share all the love in my heart.

Remove all the bars that still keep us apart.

I wish you could know what it means to be me.

Then you'd see and agree that everyone should be free.

 

I wish I could give all I'm longin' to give.

I wish I could live like I'm longin' to live.

I wish I could do all the things I can do.

And though I'm way overdue, I'd be startin’ anew.

 

I wish I could be like a bird in the sky.

How sweet it would be if I found I could fly.

I'd soar to the sun and look down at the sea.

Then I'd sing 'cause I know how it feels to be free.

 

LISTENING: I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free

https://youtu.be/vq3sdF0YXkM

 

Billy Taylor instrumental version:https://youtu.be/0bbvNAzS5rU

 

 

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Changing Our Diet

“We are what we eat” is as true for the food which build our physical bodies as it is for the daily diet of news that feeds our mental and moral selves. We have one crisis in America of epidemic obesity from our fast food habits and another of moral starvation from our media habits. 

 

I’m thinking of the way the news features the death of Rush Limbaugh and buries the news of Chick Corea’s passing in a paragraph on the back page. Both were American citizens and one used his human incarnation to spread fear, hate and ignorance, the other to elevate us with sublime artistic expression with a commitment and character worth emulating. In the same way, Ellis Marsalis’ death from Covid last Spring drew little attention, another exemplary jazz musician who fathered an extraordinary musical family (Wynton and Branford both towering contemporary jazz musicians, Jason and Delfayo also out there making great music), was himself a superb pianist and dedicated his spare time to teaching young people in New Orleans. His passing received but a passing notice, but that damn fool Kanye West (who sold out to that even greater fool, the ex-POTUS) separates from Kim Kardashian (that socialite and media personality whose only accomplishment is “being famous for being famous,") and it’s all over the news.

 

Okay, I get it. If it bleeds, it leads, newspapers have to make money and character doesn’t sell, a competitive industry demands that you hit the lower three chakras of food, sex and power. But still there was a time when jazz musicians like Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk were on the cover of Time magazine, when the death of a jazz giant merited big coverage so you didn’t have to find out accidentally from a friend that someone like Clark Terry died five years ago. 

 

But media folks, pay attention. You drive both the tone and content of our public discourse and if you continue to make our small-selves obese with a constant diet of horrible human beings and starve our need for uplift with stories of Americans worthy of our pride, you get exactly what have—an overfed, undernourished, dull-minded, sensation-driven, heart-buried-in-blubber population caring about the wrong things. Put Chick on the front cover and Rush in the back and notice what changes. 

 

Thanks to the 35 readers considering these words, while the 35 million reading about Kim and Kanye go on with their day, yet again lowering the bar of their humanitarian promise.

 

 

Monday, February 22, 2021

Jazz Stories IX: Charles Mingus

Charles Mingus was a world unto himself, larger than life and determined to swing the world around by its tail. He was a bass player, but also performed on piano, a composer but also a master improvisor, a performer but also a bandleader and  one of the few bass players to take on all these roles. He was descended from a mix of African, Chinese, Native American, German and Swedish ancestors— no wonder the world inside him was so complex and vast! 

 

But the way things work in a land dominated by White Supremacy, any percentage of black ancestry makes you a black person denied the same status and rights as the white folks. So it was that Charles was denied opportunities to play cello, his first love, in classical music orchestras. Inspired by Duke Ellington, he switched to jazz and changed to bass. But as happens for all black people in America, the scars of racism left their mark. 

 

So in 1957, when nine black students in Little Rock, Arkansas, enrolled in the all-white Central High School to test the Supreme Court ruling that declared segregated schools unconstitutional, Orval Faubus, the Governor of Arkansas, ordered the state National Guard to prevent them from entering. President Eisenhower eventually persuaded him to remove the troops (influenced somewhat by a public comment Louis Armstrong made!) and brought in the nation’s National Guard to protect the students, but still the governor approved of the ongoing resistance to integration by the white community. 

 

And so it was that Charles Mingus used his voice to compose The Fables of Faubus,  a composition critiquing the Governor and his racist decisions with lines like:  “Two, four, six, eight, They brainwash and teach you hate” spoken over the powerful instrumental composition. It was not recorded until 1959 and Columbia Records did not allow the words to be included, but a second recording on another record label finally did in  1960. 

 

Mingus composed over 300 works and this was one of the few with an explicit political message. But like all jazz musicians, his ongoing struggle to affirm the glorious humanity of African-Americans through his expressive art helped move the needle closer to liberty and justice for all. 

 

LISTENING: Fables of Faubus

https://youtu.be/QT2-iobVcdw

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Jesus, Henry and Walt

“Name some influential books that changed the way you saw the world or opened you up to hidden part of your self or gave language, images and character to a felt part of yourself now more clearly defined.” 


This my question for a recent meeting I hosted and without thinking too hard about it, I named Walden by Henry David Thoreau and the poetry of Walt Whitman. But the bigger question is why.

 

I had the good fortune of being raised without the burden of religious dogma. My father was a scientist who was not fond of the ritual and theology of his Jewish upbringing and as much for social reasons and hiding his origins in the 1950’s business world, he “converted” to Unitarianism, the most mild of Christian denominations. I remember studying something about morning dew in my Sunday school class and it wasn’t a metaphor for some Bible story, simply a little science class.

 

This might have meant that I felt the world as purely secular, but one must not confuse organized religion with spiritual impulses. Both Thoreau and Whitman allowed me to separate the two, showed me how the divine could be felt in a shrub oak and leaves of grass, that the self I celebrated could be a larger self that contained multitudes far beyond the small self that lived a life of quiet desperation. Why try to squeeze the world’s miracles into theology and dogma? Why transform mystery into imagined surety? Why capture the free flight of birds into the frozen words of dogma that divides? Henry and Walt— and later Mary Oliver— showed me that you needn’t. They showed me that it's possible to simply accept the song sparrow as a miracle without worrying about who created it. That your time would be well spent to focus on your own quality of attention in hearing its song as an announcement of divine purpose in life.

 

I was somewhat interested in Jesus as a man with a worthy message, but couldn’t stomach the simplistic exhortation to believe and was aghast at the atrocities committed in his name. It became clear that he could be an opening window or a closing door, a sword to cut through ignorance or a shield to cover the heart, an inspiration to do the hard work of love or an excuse to dismiss and even kill anyone labeled the other (including other Christians not of your sect). I wasn’t interested in whether Jesus Saves or whether he was the true Son of a God. The more important question was whether he opened the hearts of his followers to love or became a place for them to park their hatred and small-mindedeness, their refusal to do the work of recognizing true divinity in the world, in their neighbors and in their selves. 

 

And so all these years later, I continue to remember and forget my place in a holy world, aided by a Buddhist meditation practice, great music and poetry, walks in the woods with mindful attention, unhampered by the need to cage transcendence into mass worship and dogma. Might the healing of the world be helped if we all considered the same? Consider: no wars were ever fought over whether the shrub oak is the true god and the song sparrow the lesser one. No one ever hated another in the name of leaves of grass. 

 

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Jazz Stories VIII: Hazel Scott

 We often think that the famous people we’ve heard of were the best at what they did. But there are many people in many fields who did extraordinary things and didn’t wholly get the recognition they deserved. Like Hazel Scott.

 

Hazel was born in Trinidad and moved to New York when she was 4 years old. She showed signs of being a musical prodigy and she got a scholarship to study classical piano at the prestigious Julliard School when she was 8. In 1933, at the age of 13, she formed her own All-Girl’s Jazz Band and played both piano and trumpet and also sang. By the age of 16, she was performing on the radio and beginning to play piano in various nightclubs. 

 

The word got around and people flocked to see this talented young woman who could play so many different styles of both jazz and classical music. And combine them, often doing something called “swinging the classics.” By 1943, she had performed at Carnegie Hall and been featured in three movies. She was a rising star in both the music world and the film industry. By 1950, she became the first African American woman to host her own TV show, The Hazel Scott Show. 

 

To be successful, many people had to give up their moral values and do whatever the people hiring them demanded. But Hazel was very clear about her dignity as a black woman. She would not accept any film roles that depicted her as a maid or a nanny and decided her own wardrobe in the films. If the director insisted she wear something that she felt was demeaning, she simply quit the picture.

 

Likewise, she refused to perform in clubs where blacks and whites were segregated, saying “Why would anyone want to come to hear me, but refuse to sit next to someone like me?” She fought on many levels for racial justice, suing a restaurant in Washington State that refused her service. 

 

While offering an inspiring model of a talented artist dedicated to justice, she also suffered in her career. In the early 1950’s, Senator Joe McCarthy conducted a government-approved campaign to expose anyone connected to the Communist Party or communist ideas and blacklist them, preventing them from being hired for a job in their field. When accused, she testified before the congressional committee affirming that she had never been a member of the Communist Party, but criticizing the committee for their irresponsible actions in throwing “the mud of slander and the filth of scandal” onto decent American citizens. She stood up and spoke truth to power.

 

And one week later, her TV show was cancelled and her career cut short, never to recover. The young woman who was once as well-known as Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald fell out of the public spotlight. Still to this day, she is often left out of books about jazz history.

 

And so we tell her story here—Hazel Scott as a sterling example of an extraordinary talent who used her time in the spotlight to uplift us with her art, challenge us to examine injustice and inspire us with her commitment to a better world.

 

LISTENING SUGGESTION: One of her most remarkable performances was featured in a  movie titled “The Heat’s On” in which she plays two pianos at once. Enjoy and be amazed!

https://youtu.be/1HdnjTCMzpg

 

And if you want to know more, here is a 20-minute mini-documentary about her life:

https://youtu.be/o_WJ4PpxWaE

Friday, February 19, 2021

Tidbits

• The explosion of pink-blossomed plum trees at their peak. 

 

• Two young girls running on San Francisco’s Marshall Beach silhouetted by the sunset.

 

• Back to my childhood three-station TV in dream-world—missing flights at airports on CBS, teaching at my school on NBC, giving Orff workshops on ABC. More channels please!

 

• 50-foot cable at Best Buy to try to solve unstable Zoom connections. 

 

• From Scotland to England to Denmark to France— Call My Agent the new nighttime TV companion. 

 

• Three most influential books theme for Men’s Group— Walden, The Autobiography of Malcom X, The Soul’s Code.

 

• The “w” not working without much effort on my keyboard. What?! Why? When? How to fix it? Where to fix it? Suddenly it seems like the most important letter. 

 

• Invitations to teach in the Fall and one of them live in November. May it be so!

 

• Invitation to teach in 2024 and starting to think about whether I should still buy green bananas. 

 

• Don’t forget pears and blue cheese.

 

PS  What is the etymology of “tidbit?” “Tid” from dialect meaning fond or tender, “bit” meaning a morsel. That kind of works.

 

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Jazz Stories VII: Benny Goodman

Most musicians love doing one thing—playing music. They’ll do whatever it takes to have the opportunities to play music and if they get famous enough, they’re not happy because they’re famous— they’re happy because their fame opens up opportunities to play more music. And get paid for it!

 

So when the clarinetist Benny Goodman started playing the music called jazz, he knew he owed his life to the black creators of this lively, fun and deeply difficult art form. But like all of us, he also lived in his time, a time when racism made it a struggle for jazz to be accepted by the public. From the beginning with ragtime and the blues, some white folks were attracted to this music and by the time Benny’s band was formed in 1935, many would go up to the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem as guests of the black community to dance the Lindy Hop to the great swing bands of Chick Webb, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and others. 

 

But the white music establishment, the newspapers, the music critics, felt threatened by the popularity of music made by black folks who had been assigned an inferior position in the doctrine of White Supremacy. So when they heard a swingin’ jazz band of white musicians, it suddenly gave them permission to properly praise this music and its musicians and they started calling Benny Goodman “The King of Swing.”

 

The black community knew better. So in 1937, they invited the Benny Goodman band to a “Battle of the Bands” with the Chick Webb band. The dancers themselves would be the judge. 4,000 people stood in line and another 5,000 were turned away. This was a big deal! Both Goodman and Webb had the same person arrange their music, a black musician named Fletcher Henderson. So when both bands played the same arrangement, you could hear the difference. Not only was Chick Webb’s tempo faster and a better match for the Lindy Hop moves, but there was that undefinable sense of uplift called “swing” and that edge of blues expression. Benny’s band had a smoother sound, but it was just a bit too tame for the dancers. So Chick was declared the winner, outswinging the “King of Swing!" You can judge for yourself below.

 

LISTENING SUGGESTION: Here is the link re-telling that story with musical examples:

https://youtu.be/EbamDNDoJu0   Then go ahead and listen to a song that Goodman and Webb (and others) are credited as having co-written: Stompin’ at the Savoy. 

 

POSTSCRIPT: It wasn’t Benny’s fault that the press dubbed him with that King of Swing title. It simply was the way white privileged worked (and still works). But to Benny’s credit, he used his growing “rock-star” popularity to break through barriers of race and formed the first integrated jazz trio with black pianist Teddy Wilson and white drummer Gene Krupa. (Benny was Jewish and faced his own form of discrimination, so one might say the trio was integrated in three ways.) He later added black vibraphonist Lionel Hampton to form a quartet and included black guitarist Charlie Christian in a later sextet. In the midst of his rising popularity, this was a big risk to his career and he showed courage in taking that step. He loved played with these superb musicians and defied society’s dictum that this wasn’t acceptable.

 

When he became the first jazz musician to play at Carnegie Hall in 1938, another big step in making the music “legitimate,”, he invited black musicians from the Count Basie and Duke Ellington band to play with him on some numbers. This historic concert broke through two barriers— jazz in a music venue previously used only for European classical music and furthering integrated bands as the new norm. As a result, many black musicians eventually played in Carnegie Hall. (Later that same year, Louis Armstrong played there, followed by many of the great jazz artists). 

 

  

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Finding Your Voice

I introduced Thelonious Monk in yesterday’s Jazz History class and talked about “voice” in jazz—the way a person’s musical expression becomes as legible as their signature and you can immediately tell who they are by their touch, their tone, their phrasing., all of which (and more) combine to create their sound. And one of the student’s asked the $64,000 question: 

 

“How do musicians find their sound? When do they know they’ve found their sound? Can they define their own sound?”

 

Deep questions! My off-the-cuff answers:

 

1) It’s a long, long process. They often hear it in their head before they can find it on their instrument. Both Charlie Parker and Dizzy talked about that idea, that shadowy sense of searching for something they couldn’t quite touch yet. They persevered and it slowly revealed itself. 

 

2) Many go through a long period of listening to and copying the solos of the people they admire. Charlie Parker did that with Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie with Roy Eldridge, Chick Corea with Bud Powell, etc. The idea of copying is not to merely imitate, but to absorb and transform through your own voice—which you will do anyway regardless of intention. 

 

To put it another way (and this my quote that I woke up with this morning): 

“You can’t be yourself until you’ve tried out everybody else.”


After playing or writing or painting in the style of others, you gradually shed the elements that are not native to your own unique way of thinking and feeling while integrating and developing those that are.

 

3) Beginning with a search than never ends, going through a period of copying those you admire—and throughout it all, staying alert as to when you start to feel your own voice emerge. And then follow it regardless of public opinion. Follow Duke Ellington’s maxim—“if it sounds good (to you), it is good.”

 

4) A truly authentic voice is a rare gift that very few achieve. But as Thelonious Monk suggests: “Keep on tryin’.” No matter what your field. 

 

 

Jazz Stories VI: Nat King Cole

 Nat King Cole was famous for singing a song called “Unforgettable” and he was. His silky voice soothed the listener’s ear and smoothed out the rough edges of their day.  He sang for black audiences and white and you would think the latter would have Charlie Black epiphanies and change their feelings about race in the presence of his gifted genius. 

 

You would be wrong. The story of the imagined “proper places” for white folks and blacks was so deeply imbedded in people brainwashed to believe what their parents, preachers, teachers and newspapers taught them that they saw no contradiction between enjoying his music and refusing him entrance to the restaurant. 

 

And even worse. The man who entered our homes and hearts each Christmas evoking chestnuts on an open fire once bought a home for his family in Los Angeles, only to wake up one morning to a burning cross on his lawn. (Yes, the KKK was not only in the Deep South, but in Los Angeles!) When a neighbor told him, “We don’t want any undesirables here!” Nat gently replied, “Neither do I. If I see anybody undesirable coming in here, I’ll be the first to complain.” 

 

But his hopes of smoothing over vicious racism the same way his songs soothed our savage beasts could only go so far. In 1956, when performing in Birmingham, three men rushed the stage and tried to pull him off and kidnap him. It was part of a larger plot involving over a 100 people whipped up to a frenzy when told that this black man was after their white women. (A common lie white supremacists used to create fear and hatred). Nat was stunned, remarking "I can't understand it. I have not taken part in any protests. Nor have I joined an organization fighting segregation. Why should they attack me?"

 

He chose to continue to perform for segregated audiences in the South and just tried to forgot the incident. But forgetting racism is one of the privileges black folks in this country never have had. Black leaders criticized Cole for his passivity and shaken by the violence he experienced in Birmingham and upset by the criticism, he changed his tune, joined the NAACP and even helped plan the march on Washington in 1963. 

 

“Unforgettable” now had a double meaning, at once a lovely love song and the word that well describes the ongoing presence of white supremacy in our country, especially for the people of color who are hurt by it. Next time you hear those sweet dulcet tones of “Jack Frost nipping at your nose,” remember the man who sang it and promise him you’ll keep speaking out on his behalf. 

 

PS Nat King Cole actually began his career as an excellent jazz pianist. When a drunk patron at a jazz club shouted at him to sing a song, Nat gave it a go with the song Sweet Lorraine. The audience loved it and he launched a singing career that reached many more people than his Jazz Trio could. Nat was a heavy smoker and died from lung cancer at the tragically young age of 45.


LISTENING SUGGESTION: Thanks to modern technologies, Nat’s daughter, singer Natalie Cole, was able to sing an imagined duet with her Dad some 25 years after he died. The song? Unforgettable. Take a listen.