“A self-sacrificing way,
But also a warrior’s way, and not for brittle, easily-broken, glass-bottle people.
The soul is tested here by sheer terror,
As a sieve sifts and separates
genuine from fake…”
At the same time that I’m reading biographies of Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, I’m dipping back into some Rumi poems and though separated by centuries and continents, they have a lot to say to each other. “What Is the Path?” is the Rumi poem and those first lines well describe what both Bird and Monk went through in their jazz initiations, playing at jam sessions where a drummer threw a cymbal at one to humiliate him and critics repeatedly published the fact that the other “couldn’t play.” Most of us glass-bottle people would have shattered from shame, but driven by some inner certainties, these two continued past the terror and proclaimed their genuine artistic soul.
“…And this road is full of footprint!
Companions have come before.
They are your ladder.
And so both Bird and Monk took the baton from Duke and Fats and Art Tatum and Coleman Hawkins and climbed higher up the ladder into the next level of the overtone series and rhythmic conception.
“Without them you won’t have the spirit-quickness
you need. Even a dumb donkey
Crossing a desert becomes nimblefooted
with others of its kind.”
Spirit-quickness, indeed! One of the unteachable tenets of jazz. Unteachable, but not unlearnable. It is a human faculty cultivated and grown through constant conversations where one learns to respond to the calls and call to the responses. So the path of jazz requires not only conversation with those ahead of you, those jazz elders, but those at your side, your fellow explorers in the jazz journey entering new unmarked territory with each encounter on the bandstand. Putting your foot down and testing the weight of the sand and gradually developing some sense of how to walk nimbly through the treacherous chord changes, in company with others.
“Stay with a caravan. By yourself,
you’ll get a hundred times more tired,
and fall behind.”
There is certainly solitude in your practice, Bird practicing at home some 11 hours a day for a few years, Monk falling asleep at the piano after endless hours of trying to work things out. But it is in the caravan of fellow jazz musicians that the real journey begins and ends, the immersion in the group vibration and spirited musical conversations.
And so with anything. Zen students sit together in the zendo, Orff folks gather for workshops and summer trainings, athletes practice together. You don’t get to consciously choose your family, your neighbors or your colleagues at work, but when you wholly commit to a path, you must choose the caravan you will join. Which is yours?