A man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?
- Robert Browning
Many jazz pianists who went to see the great Art Tatum play often threw up their hands and left thinking, “Why bother? Maybe I’ll take up harmonica. Or accounting.”
Last night in my Jazz History class, after showing various Youtube videos of the Three Titans of Modern Jazz Piano— Herbie Hancock playing a Gershwin tune with Chick Corea, Chick Corea playing a Mozart Concerto with Keith Jarrett, Herbie playing with Bobby McFerrin, Chick playing with Bobby McFerrin— I was both lifted up into the upper reaches of the stratosphere of human possibility and seduced by the sirens of Compare and Despair. The depth of communication, the heights of inspired improvisation, the outer reaches of technical virtuosity, all achieved on a high wire without a net below, was simply breathtaking. Again, I wondered why the daily media keeps feeding us these sub-standard models of unwell, broken and sometimes outright insane human beings who fill Repugnitican political offices. Can’t we just watch five minutes a day of this other level of human achievement?
Of course, as a proponent of playing music, singing and dancing no matter what your level of proficiency, God-given talent or dedicated hours of practice, it would be wrong of me to switch to accounting. I still can feel the blessing of a simple Bach piece decently played, the pleasure of dancing alone in my room to James Brown, the value of singing with the kids on the block with my 3-chord songs on guitar. Naturally, I’d love to be able to jam with Bobby McFerrin at the level of Herbie, Chick or Keith, but my gift lies elsewhere. And that’s fine with me.
If I do need to console myself, I can remember the story of Bobby McFerrin, when he was a parent at my school, organizing a recording session with the 3rd grade for his son Taylor’s birthday and trying to teach them their parts. He reported later that it was the hardest thing he had ever done. I smiled, knowing I could have pulled it off with ease.
But none of this is an excuse to stop reaching beyond my grasp. The very effort brings joy and yes, small steps of progress. And that’s enough. That’s my little taste of heaven.