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



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)


Another version with relevant photos:


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


Billy Taylor instrumental version:



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

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!


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

Friday, February 19, 2021


• 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:   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.


Monday, February 15, 2021

Piecing Together a Life

I’ve done jigsaw puzzles now and then throughout my life, but suddenly they have become a cross between an obsession and a spiritual discipline. Not to mention the perfect passed-time/ pastime on  a pandemic's rainy day. There my thousand-piece tree puzzle sits on the desk looking out the window, an ongoing invitation to make sense of the world. To fit one more piece into the puzzle, literally and metaphorically. 


Not only is there a brain-awakening neuron-firing quality to searching out the needed shapes and colors, but there is a physical, almost-orgasmic response when the piece in your hand lowers and fits perfectly into the awaiting arms of the companion it was meant to re-join. You might hear a little cry of joy escape my lips as the two pieces meet like long-estranged lovers running towards each other on a sunset beach. Maybe I’m making too much of it, but hey, we all take our pleasures as we find them and who’s to say otherwise?


Besides the tangible mental, emotional and physical pleasures, there is a deep metaphorical quality to the jigsaw puzzle. As James Hillman’s book The Soul’s Code and Michael Meade’s The Genius Myth make clear, we come into this life accompanied by a spiritual template, an image of our soul’s destiny already in place. At birth, all the pieces scatter and we spend our lives trying to re-assemble them one-by-one. If we are attentive, we might have glimpses of the whole picture in our day or night dreams that help us like the photo on the box’s cover. And then we set to work over the course of a lifetime to reassemble the pieces. When we’re working well, we feel that mental, emotional and/or physical pleasure that tells us we’re on the right track. The Soul speaks in hints and veiled references, never step-by-step instructions. 


If this sounds like pre-destination, it’s not. At least not entirely. Because we are not helpless players in a given script of Destiny, but active participants who must do the work to piece it all together. Many refuse the effort, put together the wrong puzzle, try to force pieces together that don’t fit, claim they’re too busy to waste time at the puzzle board. There are a thousand ways to get it wrong and equally a thousand ways to get it right.


Many begin taking out the straight-edges, with particular attention to the corners. This forms the frame of your life. You get a job, rent or buy a house, get your clothes, furniture, dishes and appliances, get a bike or a car or figure out good bus routes, get married (or not), have children (or not). You’ll probably get insurance, a bank account, a credit card. You know. Adult stuff. Once you get the frame of practical life in place, now you’re ready to nourish your Soul life. 


Next step might be grouping pieces according to colors and/or images. My strategy from here is often to just let my hand roam over the scattered pieces and see what attracts it. Pick up the piece, study the shape and image, double-check with the template picture and consider where it might go. In life outside the cardboard puzzle, it is that mysterious force that leads you to this book in the bookstore and not that one, that guides you to this piece on the piano and not that one or sends you to the banjo instead of the piano. Which friend should I call now? Which e-mail wants answering first? What do I need now, what don't I need now and how does it all fit into the grand scheme?

Here is where the miracles take place, as I hover over the slowly emerging pieces inside the frame and Voila!! there it is!!! Such delight! Such satisfaction! Such affirmation that there is a divine hand in some other world looking over the chaos of this one and sending my messages that all the pieces do eventually fit, each one in its proper place. 


The other night I read this passage in Amor Towle’s Rules of Civility. The character was talking about a crossword puzzle, but the same qualities apply: 


“…watching each word fit so neatly into the puzzle’s machinery, one feels as the archaeologist

must feel when assembling a skeleton—the end of the thighbone fitting so precisely into the socket of the hipbone that it simply has to confirm the existence of an orderly universe, if not a divine intention.” 


At the beginning of the venture, there’s the excitement of possibility, of the journey that lies ahead. But in truth, it just gets better and better as the picture emerges and the scattered pieces diminish. A good metaphor for the grace of aging. If one has attended and continues to attend to the Soul’s image, the sense of satisfaction increases and you actually look forward to putting in that last piece. Well, death is not quite as enticing, but perhaps it could be something close to that. And then there’s the Hindu idea that it’s just the end of one puzzle and another one awaits you. Worth pondering.


But of course, I don’t have time to keep talking about this because I hear the Siren call of my trees puzzle, the lure of the next piece, the rain pitter-pattering outside the window and a day awaiting my next step in the Soul’s journey. 

PS: Days later, a new insight came to me in a dream. The last pieces are the most difficult to put in. They’re the ones that you couldn’t find a place for, that didn’t seem to fit anywhere. And suddenly, with fewer choices as to where they might go, they find their place at last. 

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Jazz Stories V: Ella and Marilyn, Billie and Bob

If we are so lucky as to find work that we love, we still need to struggle with finding the right place to do it. Also the right people to hire us. And the right people with whom to share the fruits of our labor. For jazz musicians, work mostly existed in small jazz clubs, smoky places with loud conversations, people drinking perhaps a bit too much and many owned by Mafia bosses concerned about making money from it all. 


Here musical geniuses like Ella Fitzgerald sought to share her enormous talent as a singer and uplift people with a voice that could take them to heaven and back in a single musical phrase. And yet at the same time that the angels gathered around to listen, she—like so many jazz musicians—had to deal with people talking too loud or making obnoxious comments or bosses who made her enter the club through the back door or sometimes simply refused to hire her if they thought she didn’t have the right face or race or body build. 


The latter seemed to be the case at the Mocambo Jazz Club in Hollywood, where the manager refused to book Ella because he didn’t think she was glamorous enough. Marilyn Monroe advocated for her and promised she would sit at the front of the house every night and bring along other celebrities. Since money was the language businessmen speak best, the club owner agreed. During Ella’s run there in 1955, other movie stars like Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra joined Marilyn at the shows. When word got out that celebrities were present, perhaps some people attended just to “star-gaze.” But once they got there and heard the beauty and power of Ella’s singing, they needed no encouragement to come back. The shows were sold out every night and her engagement extended a week. As the word got out, invitations from larger venues started coming in. As Ella said, “After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again.”


Remember Billie Holiday? She was as tough as nails and once when an audience member called her a racial slur, she broke a bottle of beer and drove him out of the club threatening him with the broken bottle. But it was exhausting to put up with constant racism. Once when she started singing Strange Fruit, again, someone shouted ugly words to her and she stopped singing. Movie star Bob Hope was in the club and told her, “You go back out there and sing. I’ll take care of that s.o.b.” And he did. 


This little story should inspire us all to consider how to use our privilege on behalf of justice and decency. Ella and Billie were well known stars in their own right, but as black artists in a racist culture, they didn’t have the same power and privilege. As white movie stars, Marilyn Monroe and Bob Hope had the power to influence people and they chose to use that power on behalf of these artists they admired. They don’t deserve any special recognition just for doing the right thing, but in a country where so few white folks spoke out (and still don’t), their actions stand out. And let’s remember that besides being decent human beings in this regard, they had another motivation—they wanted to hear Ella and Billie sing!!! As should we all. 


LISTENING: Anything Ella ever sang is worth a listen, but given this story’s theme, try Nice Work If You Can Get it. Enjoy!

Friday, February 12, 2021

Raise High the Roof Beams

Raise high the roof beams, carpenters— a giant has passed from our midst. On February 9, the titan of jazz piano, Chick Corea, left this mortal earth. I’d like to imagine a splendid welcome party in the other world with the recently departed fellow pianists Ellis Marsalis, McCoy Tyner and then the pantheon of immortals who Chick had played with or been influenced by— Wallace Roney, Stan Getz, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell and others. 


Meanwhile, we mortals are left bereft of one of the shining stars in the jazz galaxy. With dazzling fingers, big ears, a prodigious imagination, a relentless curiosity, a dedicated discipline, a hunger for the diverse cuisines of the musical banquet, Chick was a musician worthy of adoration, a model of qualities, musical and otherwise, worthy of our aspiration. 

The sheer range of his musical explorations is staggering— from the electric bands of Miles Davis and his own jazz-rock group Return to Forever, to modal jazz, to free jazz, to composed Children’s Songs, to world music fusion, to Mozart concertos with improvised cadenzas, Scarlatti set for jazz band, original string quartet compositions, Bartok piano pieces and beyond. 


And all the many roles he took—composer, bandleader, ensemble player. His duet collaborations are legendary— with vibraphonist Gary Burton, fellow titan pianist Herbie Hancock and more recently, Hiromi, with banjo player Bela Fleck, with singer Bobbie McFerrin. Each showing his ability to musically converse with a wide range of musicians in a wide range of styles. 


I had the good fortune to see him in concert at six or seven times, each one memorable. I appreciated his warm rapport with the audience, his playful spirit, his stunning virtuosity never played to show off, but always in service of the music. Perhaps the most memorable was the last one a few years ago when he played solo piano at the SF Jazz Center. At one point, he stopped and told the audience that he was lonely playing by himself and did anyone want to come on stage and play a free improvisation with him. To my surprise, without time to consider, I jumped up and was ready to sit down at the piano bench with him. But there was a problem— I had bought one of the cheaper seats high in the balcony and before I could even step away from my seat, someone much closer ran up to the stage. She did a lovely job and when she left, he said, “Usually I would invite someone else…” at which point I was ready to yell down, “Wait for me!!” But he finished the sentence with “but tonight Aaron Goldberg ( a young professional pianist) is in the audience. Aaron, come on up!” 


So that’s my famous fish story of the one that got away. With the moral: “Always buy the most expensive seats.” How I wish I could say in this moment that I had the extraordinary honor of playing with Chick Corea. But it was not to be.


I was stunned when a friend shared the news of Chick’s passing with me via e-mail. (And angry that my Online News did not have this as a headline! Why do I have to read about scum like Marjorie Taylor Greene instead of the culture taking a moment to proudly hail one of our fallen heroes? Aargh!) The world feels a little bit less than it did, that palpable sense of loss felt by those left behind. At 79 years old, it still feels too young for this vibrant still-performing musician to leave us. But on the other side of the coin, what a full, rich, vibrant and true-to-himself life he lived, bringing so much joy to others and himself enjoying playing so many kinds of music with so many different people. 


R.I.P. Chick Corea— you are loved and forever remembered.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Jazz Stories IV: Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday had a childhood as hard as anyone could imagine. Alongside the personal trauma was the constant assault of being black in a white supremacist society. And yet with an inner strength and a courage far beyond the capacity of most people to reach, she used her singing voice to not only survive her own sorrow, but to touch millions with the beauty of her singing. She could take the most simple and even silly song and transform it into pure art. 


Most of the songs were about love— love found, love lost, love that never knocked on the door or love that rang the doorbell and no one was home. And since everyone had either been visited by love or their dreams of love, it was easy for them to relate to the lyrics and enjoy the melodies. 


So in 1939, when Abel Meeropol, a Jewish English teacher in New York, gave her a song he wrote to sing, she hesitated. Abel had seen a photograph of a lynching and wrote his song Strange Fruit in response to it. It’s opening verse: 


Southern trees bear a strange fruit,

Blood on the leaves and blood on the root. 

Black bodies swaying in the Southern breeze,

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees. 


Lynching, that ongoing horror from American KKK terrorists, was not the kind of topic American audiences wanted to face. As Billie describes it:


“I was scared people would hate it. The first time I sang it I thought it was a mistake and I had been right being scared. There wasn’t even a patter of applause when I finished. Then one lone person began to clap nervously. Suddenly everyone was clapping. …I came off, went upstairs, changed into street clothes and when I came down, they were still applauding.”


Strange Fruit became one of her signature songs. Though most of her repertoire continued to be on the light side, her willingness to take that risk combined with her power to sing that song with the anguish and soulful feeling it demanded, showed that entertainment need not always be escape from hard issues. It could break harmful silences and open up needed discussions and point its finger directly at what needed work in our broken culture. 


LISTENING SUGGESTION: Naturally, Strange Fruit. And then listen to one of her few original songs God Bless the Child. 


Wednesday, February 10, 2021

8.6 on the Montessori Richter Scale

According to my trusty AOL news, something happened that made my hard-to-surprise-these-days jaw drop. As follows:


BAD NEWS: At the request of a parent group, the admin of a charter school in Ogden, Utah agreed to offer an opt-out form for parents who didn’t want their children to learn about Black History.


GOOD NEWS: Responding to a public backlash, parents withdrew that request. 


BAD NEWS: Still one wonders why the parents were voting for purposefully propagated ignorance in a SCHOOL and one wonders even further that the administration of that school succumbed to their request. Note: The administrators of a SCHOOL agreed to hide necessary information from their students.


GOOD NEWS: With the request withdrawn, the children (theoretically) will be learning the things they absolutely must know about our history to become functional citizens and educated human beings. 


BAD NEWS: The name of the Charter School? THE MARIA MONTESSORI SCHOOL!!!!!!


I expected to feel an earthquake from Maria turning over in her grave. That school has some serious soul-searching to do. Over a hundred years ago, Maria Montessori had a vision of achieving humanity’s illusive quest for peace and social justice by cultivating it at the root in the way we nurture young children. She writes: 


“Noble ideals and high standards we have always had. They form a great part of what we teach. Yet warfare and strife show no signs of abating. And if education is always to be conceived along the same antiquated lines of a mere transmission of knowledge, there is little to be hoped from it in the bettering of humanity's future. For what is the use of transmitting knowledge if the individual's total development lags behind?”


How aghast she would be to witness not only our failure to develop the whole individual, but to see how far we have descended from noble ideals and high standards. We live in a land where citizens at a Presidential rally cheer for him when he shows he can drink a cup of water without spilling it (yes, that happened). Where after four years of encouraging bigotry, hatred, greed, indifference, lies and accepted of lies as "alternative facts," he exhorts his followers to storm the Capitol Building and threaten the lives of other elected leaders. Where a "mere transmission of knowledge" makes us nostalgic for a time when children were encouraged to learn things and not just make up the reality of their choice. Where a school that should know better endorses purposeful ignorance and makes the blocking of necessary knowledge acceptable— in Montessori’s name!


There’s no hope for the conspiracy theorists and those who have spent their lifetime courting their unearned power and privilege as the moral compass of their every move. But if we are to effect the deep-tissue change we so desperately need, it is the children we must nourish. It is the way we teach them that we must re-consider. It is also what we teach them— the long overdue true story of what happened in this country and why it happened and how it keeps happening because we refuse to know it. 


Here is the rest of Montessori’s quote: 


“…Instead, we must take into account a psychic entity, a social personality, a new world force, innumerable in the totality of its membership, which is at present hidden and ignored. If help and salvation are to come, they can only come from the children, for the children are the makers of men. The child is endowed with unknown powers, which can guide us to a radiant future. If what we really want is a new world, then education must take as its aim the development of these hidden possibilities." 


Maria Montessori School of Ogden, Utah, take note! Those hidden possibilities of each child include ALL children and if you’re white in America and refuse to learn the story of how those possibilities in black children have been relentlessly blocked or ignored through culturally approved and legally sanctioned means, then shame on you. Shame on the administrators, shame on the parents who requested opting out. Take down Montessori’s name and call yourself the Same Old School of White Supremacy. And thank you for the decent people who called them out. But without the inner work, those children who almost opted out will sit in class with their parents' voice in their ear and their minds and hearts unable to receive the knowledge they need. 


Let’s get to work.