Thursday, September 30, 2021

Art and Remembrance

 What is art but the breadcrumbs


         we leave behind as we enter the dark forest,


              in hope that we will be found—


                        or at least remembered.


Bach’s notes strewn along the path,


        Georgia O-Keefe’s flowers


                  Mary Oliver’s perfect words


They will never be alone in the world to which they’ve flown.



And they keep us company in our aloneness, give us comfort 


as we step, cautiously,


 into the black woods, 


steering us away


from the witch’s cottage. 


A Memorable Day

According to my calculations, I’ve been on this planet for 25, 612 days. So when I say that September 30, 1980, was perhaps the most important and memorable day of my life, that’s saying a lot. It means that I lived through 25, 611 days that went from the sublime to the ridiculous, the memorable to the forgettable, the extraordinary to the mundane and everything in-between. But on that one day, my life was changed forever. 


In short, I became a parent. In our rented apartment at 1519 Masonic Avenue, my wife Karen gave birth to my first daughter Kerala, surrounded by two midwives, my sister Ginny, our school colleague Pamela and myself. I cut the cord and held Kerala in my arms some 60 seconds after she was born. And that’s when life as I knew it was no longer. 


I’m not the first to marvel at the fact that you need to pass both a written and driving test to drive a car, need to work countless hours to get the degree your job requires, need to practice your instrument for some 10,000 hours before anyone will consider putting you on a stage. But any fool can become a parent, with no qualifications whatsoever, no instruction manual, no proof that you’re up to the task. One moment you’re a person and the next, you’re something else entirely, a parent responsible for the health and well-being of another living creature. But of course, not just another living creature, the one that carries your DNA forward, your legacy, the one you hope to continue the family line and name, the one you’re counting on taking care of you in your old age. 


Karen and I were about as prepared as we could be. First and foremost, we wanted a child (take note, Texas) and at 30 and 29 years old, in our 5thyear together, felt ready to have a child. We were both teachers, so we knew a thing or two about children and the kind of child-raising we hope to cultivate. Our parents were mostly good parents, there for us when we needed them, mostly supportive, not flagrantly abusive, so we had some pretty decent models to emulate. Their biggest flaws from our point of view were simply going along with the assumptions of 50’s child-raising that we didn’t wholly accept. I already cooked and cleaned and now would change diapers, we both worked, Karen fixed some things around the house and we thrilled with the prospect of playing with our child, reading to her, camping with her, taking her to the movies, cooking with her, traveling around the country (and later) the world with her—and, as it turns out, teaching her at our school, Karen through art, me through music. We would not spank her or punish her excessively or tell her children were starving in India when she didn’t finish her vegetables or insist that she become a doctor or marry a Buddhist.


41 years later (and indeed, in each of those 41 years), the jury is in. We did a pretty god job. Kerala—and her sister Talia— are stellar human beings. Hard-working, hard-playing, fun, great writers, great cooks, good travelers, caring citizens with great politics, fabulous mom and aunt and generally just great to hang out with. My biggest disappointments are their refusal to watch old black-and-white movies with me, not listening to much jazz or classical music and not drinking oat milk with me. I can live with that.


Happy birthday, Kerala!

Indigenous Wisdom: Part III

And so the healing. It’s an enormous job and one that has barely put its toe in the waters of the national discourse. All we seem to know how to do is shout at each other across an ever-widening divide, depend upon laws to make us do the right thing or the wrong (Texas!), depend upon malls and media to keep distracting us from the needed conversations (with ourselves and each other), keep on doing what we’ve always done without considering the needed refusal to stop the harm.


And yet, there are good signs of people waking up, of youth speaking up, of groups getting together and joining their gifts and perspectives (as in the recent Collective Trauma Summit). Had I been invited to that summit, my perspective would have been “get it right the first time” as a strategy to avoid perpetuating the traumas big and small that we inflict on our children. Like grades in schools, tolerance of bullies, stressful competitions in the things that don’t really matter that much, looking at numbers instead of children, keeping the arts away from them. 


In my little world of Orff Schulwerk, I inherited the intuition of my teacher Avon Gillespie that the Orff approach to music education could be—and should be— so much larger than the effective teaching of musical skills. That it had everything to do with building a joyful community and inviting individual expression and revelation of each’s unique gifts within that community. And so starting from Avon’s foundation, I set off to create classes for kids, ceremonies for my school, rituals in my teacher-training courses that attended to each of the seven pillars of Indigenous Wisdom. 


• Our summer course has several moments reminiscent of Initiation ceremonies in which the Level III graduates emerge different people that they came in at Level I. 


• The Schulwerk is a contemporary reincarnation of Oral Culture, treating the body as an instrument of knowledge, the voice as the carrier of rhythmic speech and melody, the listening ear as the vehicle of learning, away from the black dots on papers and mere duplications of what others have written, impossible to wholly learn on Zoom. 


• Eldership is not well understood anywhere in America, but from the beginning when I attended Orff Conferences as a brash, young man, it was felt that the elders knew things we didn’t and yes, there was a clear respect for their work born from years of experience.


• Continuity became a cherished value at my school as school ceremonies repeated over 45 years kept evolving and growing and increasing in depth and meaning. And always changing, but the innovations were small and always came from need and clear ideas about improvement, never from the shallow idea “we’ve done this a long time, so why not try something different?” Likewise in my music classes, new versions of old ideas, new ways to teach familiar material, new material to teach familiar concepts kept things flowing and growing. But there were the old warhorses—Old King GloryIntery Mintery, the Stations game and some 150 songs— that kept threading through decades of joyful music-making.


• The annual school camping trip in the foothills of the Sierras was the high point of the year. The kids who felt too confined by the indoor school thriving out in the woods and fields and streams. (Sadly discontinued due to diminished teacher energy and legal fears). 

The outdoor space at school, with gardens and ducks and chickens and annual baby goats helps keep things real. Likewise, our summer Orff course in a retreat center in Carmel Valley with weekend whale watching gives a different flavor than the low-ceiling fluorescent lighted University classrooms such courses often are held in. While falling short of the deeper connections in the natural world that occur when one grows and gathers one’s own food and comes to know the weather cycles and contours of the land and fellow animal life, it still is given a place at the table of the joyful community.


• While diverse religious upbringings prevent a common understanding of the role of the ancestors, still there are echoes of these practices. I always begin our summer Orff Course invoking and thanking my teacher Avon Gillespie (who left us in 1989) and we end the course as he ended his, spiraling while singing (and weeping) a beautiful farewell canon. We take care to tell the history of the Schulwerk, acquaint the students with Carl Orff, Gunild Keetman and others. And with the kids at school, particularly in my 8thgrade Jazz Course, I introduce them to their American ancestors that the culture at large seems to think are optional people to know. No one leaves without come connection with Louis, Billie, Duke, Ella, Monk, Miles and beyond. Likewise, Vivaldi, Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky and more. And when those goosebump moments arise in the music class, I feel that as the presence of the Ancestors come to watch and listen and bless the miracles that are happening.


• Everything happens within the circle of community and the things we do in Orff classes are some of the fastest, deepest and most memorable ways to feel connected to each other, to feel part of a greater whole. People—of all ages— who sing together, who dance together, who play music together, who play games together, who create together—are people who create lifetime bonds and build their own sense of belonging. Stand out/ blend in are the two poles of my music class goals, so that kids can feel the deep pleasure of both giving their small self over to the large group sound and motion and also express the unique gifts of their deep self through improvisation, solos, shared ideas. Most communities aren’t authentic communities because they require people to check important parts of themselves at the door, the price they require to belong to a narrow set of ideologies or dogmas or party lines. Here, we encourage each child to contribute the medicine of their gift to heal the greater body and to be healed by the greater body in return. 


What would happen if each field of human endeavor considered how to integrate some or all of these pillars into their particular job or workplace or neighborhood? Teaching music to kids and adults via the Orff approach may appear unusual, small and esoteric, but couldn’t workplaces bolster more community instead of cutthroat competition? Bring the natural world and the consequences it faces to the table of decision-making about continuing to manufacture those little (or big) plastic water bottles? Consider what is worthy of continuity—like the principles of democracy and the Constitution— and what needs to be radically changed—like refusing to continue the legacies of racism, homophobia, misogyny, unchecked greed, etc.? You get the idea.


Now just get out there and do the work.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Indigenous Wisdom: Part II

Before looking at the possibility of restoring some of these indigenous values, we need to 

look at the present state of American culture.


1.Initiation: We mostly have no formal transitions into adulthood and abandon our children to figure things out themselves, leaving them vulnerable to peer/gang initiations of drugs/ sex/ violence. Even in the old Jewish traditions of the mitzvah’s, we still have the situation of this amusing haiku:

                                                Today I am a man

                                                Tomorrow I return

to 7thgrade. 


2. Oral Culture: Knowledge is stored and passed on mostly through the printed word, be it in books or on screens. As such, it is isolated from the body, from the singing voice, from the told story, from the character of the person and people who carry it. This narrowed-down version de-emphasizes the heart, the body, wisdom, the moral force of the idea. 


3. Eldership: Without valuing knowledge in context of community or the wisdom of those who have lived and embodied essential knowledge, elders are seen as dispensable and isolated from the community. 


4. Continuity: Constant innovations (new! Improved!) is valued as a business strategy and both shaped by and a cause of rapid and constant change. Be it in art or business, the new is given more weight than the old, the tried, the true. The motto is: “If it ain’t broke, fix it anyway.”


5. Connection with the natural world/ gratitude and permission: Nature is the mere backdrop to the human drama and the site of resources that feed our extravagant and expensive desires. Short-term harvesting of the needs of the moment, with corporate profit driving much of it, replaces long term sustainable care. Habitual gratitude is missing and permission to use or kill is an alien concept.


6. Co-existence with the ancestors: The here and now is almost all anyone knows, fed by constant media and sensation. History is little understood, the sense of debt to and connection with the ancestors in the invisible world is reduced to Hollywood ghost stories and the sense of obligation to the descendants a rarity. 


7. Community: Rugged individualism permeates American culture as a sustaining mythology, each out to get theirs, amassing riches at the expense of the community both human and natural, freedom as “doing whatever I want,” the sustaining services of the common good that government can provide disdained, distrusted and criticized by people even as they drive on roads, go to schools, get treated at hospitals, get relief after natural disasters. 


That’s a lot to think about. As we look for quick and easy solutions to these problems that have been percolating for centuries from these toxic manifestations of our cultural choices, 

we can see how much work lies ahead. It helps to know specifically what needs our attention and perhaps this list might be a start. 


Indigenous Wisdom

When Gandhi visited England and was asked by a reporter what he thought about Western Civilization, he quipped “I think it would be a good idea.” (snare drum/cymbal here!)


But in retrospect, given the crisis the world faces now, the better answer is: “It was a terrible mistake.” Of course, those of us reading this blog post and enjoying the flush toilet, the cultivated wine, the bicycle, the washing machine, a library of books, shelves of recordings, etc. etc. and yet again, etc. are indeed grateful for the products of civilizations past and present. But when it comes to climate crisis, we would have been so much better off hunting and gathering in small villages, with perhaps small garden plots and modest farming. 


Amidst all the talk of diversity and identity and groups that seem opposed to each other, I hear very little conversation about the yawning gap between indigenous people and those in “modern civilizations.” Again, the descendants of an extraordinarily diverse pool of indigenous people are also enjoying the benefits (and more) listed above and giving their talks celebrating their ancestors on Zoom, flying to conferences, publishing books. How could it be otherwise? And yet the traditions they represent might still have much to teach us, things to re-imagine in a modern context. 


What strikes me about these primary cultures we’ve named indigenous is at once the extraordinary diversity of the groups—indeed, as many and more as there are distinct bioregions in which their culture has grown and flourished. From the Inuit in the North to the Maori in the South, the Celts in the West, the Ainu’s in the East and hundreds and thousands of other groups past and present, the details of the culture are unique and distinct, according to the land, the language, the particular histories. Which makes it all the more astounding to consider that such groups separated by thousands of miles, bioregions as diverse as Artic tundra, North African desert, South American rainforest, languages with no common base, all agree on some basic things without ever having met each other. Things that civilization whitewashed, neglected, abandoned, purposefully—and violently— shut down— and we civilized descendants suffer from the loss. Six things come to mind:


1. Initiation: The conscious and collective bringing over of the children into adulthood, charging them with the cultural values to be embodied, preserved and brought further down the road. 


2. Oral Culture: Knowledge stored and passed on in the body through dance, in speech through proverbs, poetry and storytelling, in the imagination through art and music.


3. Eldership: As carriers of such knowledge, the elders are revered and valued and felt as caretakers of the community. 


4. Continuity: Honoring and maintaining tradition is more important than constant innovation. Innovation in response to changing conditions is necessary and welcomed, but generally small and slow.


5. Connection with the natural world/ gratitude and permission: Understanding one’s connection and debt to the natural world that sustains you with food and shelter. Asking permission to cut the tree and thanking the animals killed. 


6. Co-existence with the ancestors: The personal and collective ancestors are not seen as in the past, but as co-participants in the present, brought into the community and community decision-making through ritual, dance, music and more. 


7. Community: Freedom is always bound with relationship within the community, attending to what serves the well-being, health and happiness of the community. 


Again—the details of the above differ from group to group, but these qualities tend to be shared by all of them. Rather than see this is a mere anthropological insight, the question remains: “What does all of this have to teach us now in our moment of crisis? Can we learn something from these groups that we have ignored, dismissed, eradicated? What would these life-sustaining qualities look like within the framework of contemporary culture?" 


Stay tuned for Part 2. 

Jazz, Joy & Justice

This I know. 45 years of teaching children of all ages carries three indisputable truths.


1) Children love music.

2) Children are (mostly) naturally joyful.

3) Children care that things are fair.


And so as adults, we owe all three things to the children we raise, nurture and love. And so, Jazz, Joy and Justice.


1) Jazz is not the only music worthy of our children’s attention. But it is certainly one of the most important ones, the way that it marries the body to the soul, the heart to the mind, touches the full range of our human possibility. We owe it to our children to introduce them to it all. 


2) Music brings joy and jazz, born from sometimes unimaginable suffering and sorrow, is one of the most joyful musics that planet has known. If you need to be convinced, spend some time with Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Thelonious Monk. We owe our children all the joy and happiness we can offer alongside the comfort and healing of inevitable sorrow and sadness. 


3) The children’s intuition that fairness is important can grow to the larger dimension of justice and the story of jazz musician’s lives and what they endured (and endure) in a culture that consistently failed to deliver the promise of justice to their doorstep is the one we are obligated to tell to the children if we are to move the moral arc forward. We owe it to our children and we owe it to our nation. 


So why not bring the three together as one? Go beyond mere duty and finger-wagging political demands with a musical soundtrack to the social justice work. Not just enjoy the music like a dessert-first treat that is just sweet and yummy with little nutrition, nor just hear the stories like a liver-and-onions meal good for you, but short on taste, color and pleasure. Bring them together.


See you at the dinner table!


Monday, September 27, 2021

Caretakers of the Forever Community

Yesterday, I led a group memorial service in the park with twelve of the elder school teachers (two still at school, the rest retired) for alums and alum parents who had died in the past two years. We told stories, spoke directly to each of them, sang songs. For about two hours. Lovely and needed. 

 We began by simply holding hands in a circle and I spoke some opening words about having bumped into many alums and alum parents at various events these past two weeks, how I noticed that each spoke with such warmth about the time we shared together in that marvelous school, what it meant to them and what it meant to their kids and what still echoes on in their lives. It reaffirmed my sense that we are a “forever community.” When I was finally officially granted the title of Master of Ceremonies on the last day of my 45 years at school ( a role I had played for so long without official acknowledgement), I took that as an ongoing job. So having heard about the untimely deaths of two alum students and known about various alum parents denied Memorial Services due to Covid, I decided to convene the elders of the community in our unspoken role as caretakers of the community. Which of course, means honoring the departed as well as welcoming the newborns and celebrating milestone accomplishments. 

 A few days earlier, I took my small Dell paperback of Wordsworth poems I’ve had since high school ($.40!) and slipped in my pocket as I headed out the door for my daily walk. Turned randomly to a poem I had never read before and worked on memorizing it. Turned out to be the perfect poem for this ceremony. It is more and more clear to me that nothing ever dies, but simply changes form, from matter to energy, from body to spirit, from the visible to invisible. Nothing is “past away,” "what was" still is and forever will abide, only now in new forms that take our effort to remember and call forth. 

 Most of us who gathered together are in our 60’s and 70’s and I could feel mortality’s presence as each felt that such circles may soon gather for us. We who passed each other daily in the school halls in our 20’s, 30’s, 40’s and beyond, with our bright eyes looking to the future, day by day, creating this community that sustained us and nurtured children and made a place of welcome for parents, all of us joined in the vision of a world better than the one outside the school gates, now faced with our disappearance, the truth that we shall someday vanish and that that day is so much closer than it used to be. So I love the lines suggesting it is enough if we will but use our remaining time to act, to live and most beautiful of phrases, use our power to “serve some future hour.” To claim our new life as elders, as "caretakers of the forever community." 

Here is the poem. 

 The River Duddon: An afterthought

 I thought of thee, my partner and guide

As being past away—vain sympathies!

For backward, oh Duddon, as I cast my eyes,

I see what was and is and will abide. 


Still glides the Stream and shall forever glide.

The Form remains, the Function never dies.

While we, the brave, the mighty and the wise,

We, who in the morn of youth defied

The elements, now must vanish- be it so!


Enough, if somehow our hands have power

To live and act and serve some future hour. 

And if, as toward the silent Tomb we go, 

Through love, through hope and faith's transcendent dower, 

We feel that we are greater than we know.

-      William Wordsworth 

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Hairy Naked People

“What you love is the cure” and I agree wholeheartedly. Not only the cure for all your personal suffering and disappointment and anxiety and sadness, but for the greater world as well. And there’s few things I love more than teaching music to a group of people, than making music and sharing music and dancing to music with a group of people. And if it’s a group of people I already love, so much the better. And if not, I can grow to love them if we spend enough time together.


And so it has been for me and so many Orff teachers in Brazil. Perhaps five times I’ve had the good fortune to teach there and some 50 plus teachers have come to our California summer Orff Course to study, another group to my Jazz Course, some to the Intern Program at the school and some to the Salzburg Summer Course. Such a vibrant, warm, funny, smart, good-looking and musical-down-to-their-bones group of people! They seem to get what I’m driving at one notch above some other cultures and I certainly am drawn to so much of their music, their dance, their beautiful language and their culture. The love from both sides keeps growing and glowing.


And so it was that in the first minute of my 3-hour online workshop with Brazil this morning, it already felt complete just from the act of seeing each other. But on we went, me teaching in Spanish, which they seemed to understand and which I miraculously had inside of me ready to go, having not spoken it in quite a while and certainly not taught in Spanish is quite a while. I began with a Spanish nonsense rhyme and because I was focusing on how to develop any given piece of material far beyond the usual, we stayed with variations of that for almost two hours. By the end, we had probably recited it some 50 times! 


At the end of the sequence, I asked if there were any questions and one of my dear friends said, “Do you know what these two words mean in Portuguese?” “No,” I confessed and she told me. One was “naked,” the other “hairy.” So apparently all my Brazilian friends were just fine with letting me go on for two hours singing about hairy naked people without anyone alerting me!!!!! Ha ha! 


And that’s why I love Brazil so much. 


Friday, September 24, 2021

The Other Side of Privilege: Part II

All of that last entry is prelude to an intriguing, fascinating and needed week-long Zoom Seminar titled Collective Trauma Summit. Featuring healers, psychologists, doctors, spiritual practitioners, poets, social activists, songwriters  and more, it takes a look at the effect of Trauma on our citizens, our politics, our culture, our natural habitats, climate change and more. It becomes clear that merely better politicians and better laws, is just the tip of the iceberg (a metaphor climate-change may make obsolete!). Not only are we dealing with a long list of personal trauma—sexual abuse, violence, bullying in the family/ school/ neighborhood/ church—but some are part of a collective trauma induced by racism, genocide, displacement, homophobia, misogyny and all are part of a growing trauma of both the effects of climate change—fires, storms, tsunamis—and the growing fear that the world as we know it soon will end. 


Psychologists agree that the initial response to trauma is shock and denial, the nervous system’s survival strategies to protect us from its overwhelming horror. But if we stay stuck in denial, there will be no healing. We will be victims of PTS and most likely descend into depression, alcoholism, drug abuse, either go into deep repression and check out of life or violent expression, turn the rage outward to others. It’s good for exactly nobody.


So in reviewing my “blessed life,” I notice I have experienced the manageable proportion of annoyance, outrage, betrayal, grief that are required subjects in the school of life, but none of these qualify for trauma. Today, I listened to two lectures in the seminar that took my breath away. One by Sherri Mitchell, a member of the Penobscot Nation on the North Eastern Seaboard and another by Hector Aristizabal from Colombia. Both told horrifying stories of the murders of friends, neighbors and family members and personal torture. Each in their own way, they made clear that trauma lives in the cells and never wholly disappears, no matter what you do. And that it is passed on in families for generations, not only by perpetuating the dynamics that helped cause and sustain the trauma, but literally inherited at the cellular level from the ancestors who were enslaved or wiped out in genocide and not properly grieved for, a collective trauma that is real and invisibly at work in the everyday choices we and our culture makes. That’s a lot of grief to carry, a lot of trauma to deal with.

Without understanding that, without properly grieving, without engaging in it through community art, ritual, meditation, no mere laws can effect the change we all need both personally and collectively. 


Here’s the bad news—it’s hard. It goes against everything we were taught about being nice, about making sure we get ours in a cutthroat world, about constant shopping and consuming to fill up the holes, about having a nice day. It takes an effort beyond most people’s capacity to even imagine, never mind do. And yet without it, nothing will change and all the forces that created and sustained the genocides, the enslavement, the war against the natural world that has brought us to the brink, will continue unchecked and deliver us to our self-created doom. 


Here’s the good news— it’s possible. Sherri and Hector stand before you to testify with the whole of the body, mind and soul that you can work through this and come out the other side. I think of the unimaginable depths of horror they both experienced and compare them to the gun-toting angry mob storming the state capitol (never mind the national one!) because they couldn’t get their hair cut— well, the mind reels. I don’t know if I would have 1/10thof the capacity to do what they did, to speak of these horrors (keeping in mind that recalling them brings them alive again at the cellular level) with such forgiveness and love and hope in their hearts. 


Each was asked how they sustained hope and each replied independently that it was the people they were meeting who were getting to work—particularly the young people, determined to draw the line and refuse to pass the trauma forward. I have done a miserable job expressing myself here, just too many powerful ideas and emotions to whittle them down to coherence, but the punchline is simple. We—all of us—me, you, your conservative uncle, your conspiracy-theoried neighbor— need to offer the genuine gift of our soul, the one that feeds life and feeds love (not our happiness collecting guns) and serves others, far beyond any normal “have a nice day” day. Not tomorrow or not sometime, but now. If human beings who have been beaten and tortured and watched family members murdered and seen their language and/or culture disappear can do it, then you can too. 


The world is waiting. But not for too much longer. Hurry. 

The Other Side of Privilege

Let me be honest here. I have lived a blessed life. 45 years doing fun and meaningful work in a (mostly) supportive and loving community,  a lovely house in a city I love one block from a park that feeds my soul, a healthy and (mostly) loving family shared with my active wife, with two daughters we admire and two grandchildren we adore, the opportunities to travel to some 60 countries and (mostly) good health. I am not boasting here nor am I unaware that much of that could change in an instant, even by the end of this sentence. If anything, that sense of the delicacy of good fortune feeds my ever-growing gratitude for it all. 


Some of it came from my own choices and efforts, some from help by seen and unseen hands and some from just plain good luck. I’m also (painfully) aware that the liberties and freedoms I enjoy, the confidence that nobody is out to get me for no reason whatsoever, comes from a privilege I inherited that, though promised to all in our country’s founding document, has not been equally delivered to all— not then, not now and not next week or year or decade. Just by virtue of being a straight, white, middle-class male with a college education, I am spared the horror of the arrows of hatred, the closed doors of narrow choice, the threat of death if my car tail-light is out.


And more confession. Like most Americans I know, I’m affronted if my computer doesn’t work properly, infuriated if my flight is delayed, enraged if I get a parking ticket 5 minutes after the time expired. Then there’s a second level of political outrage that feels more justified and more useful, fueling my determination to sign petitions, make calls, take to the streets when injustice is endorsed by those in power. This level can also include plans to build high-rises in my neighborhood or to shut down music programs in schools. 


And then the third level which we often think only happens to us, but of course, happens to everyone. The small and large betrayals of friends, lovers, workplaces you gave your life to, those personal injustices that call for our attention and response. Which naturally, often includes outrage or whining or anger or genuine grief. We are thrust into the role of the victim and either play out the part or refuse the script. 


And finally, the grief that no one avoids of losing loved ones and watching the list grow as fortune grants you birthday after birthday. It’s all real and it all deserves attention. 


But the big, unanswered question we’re all called on to answer is this: How do you deal with it? Wallow in it? Deny it? Repress it? Express it? Ignore it? Accept it? Work with it? All of the above? Take your pick. What you pick will have profound consequences, not only for your own health and well-being, but for the healing of a broken world.  Read on.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Jazz and Justice: Part III

Let’s connect jazz in American culture and education with Bryan Stevenson’s four steps toward healing systemic racism. And consider how this class hopes to contribute.


Proximity: The 2.3% statistic of Americans listening to jazz and the ignorance about jazz history that even school jazz band students display is another way of revealing the lack of proximity to the black experience most white Americans have. By getting to know key jazz musicians in this class and hearing their stories, we will begin to heal through proximity.


Narrative: By getting to hear a few of select jazz musicians’ hundreds of stories about enduring racism, we learn that despite their fame and fortune, no one was exempt from racist attacks— psychological and physical. In so doing, it becomes difficult to deny the ongoing presence of systemic racism in this country. By recognizing the indisputable narrative of white supremacy, we are equipped to change it. 


Discomfort: The calm but passionate telling of the stories few people know does not avoid 

 discomfortbut makes it more palatable. Ending each story with discussion points   

 and leaving room for reflection and sharing in a safe and respectful atmosphere 

 without shame or blame helps to change the narrative collectively and affirm the 

 community’s value of the deep work of social justice far beyond celebrating Martin Luther 

 King Day.


Hope: Hearing how each of these artists reacted to and endured the suffering of systemic racism can give hope to all of us struggling to figure out how we can endure and/or help out. Listening to their music at the end of each story reveals the joy and triumph of their lives and allows us to hear and appreciate the music deeper, to thank them for their efforts to wipe out ugliness with beauty. 

And dear reader, if this entices you to take the class, it’s not too late! You can sign up for the next six (see link below) and get the recording for the first class you missed. Maybe see you on Monday!



Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Jazz and Justice: Part II

 Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer defending people on Death Row, a social justice advocate and author of the book  Just Mercy (also made into a movie). I had the good fortune to hear him speak many years ago at an Education Conference and remembered his 4-step prescription for healing systemic racism. 


1) PROXIMITY: Without spending time with people different from us, we are vulnerable to believing stereotypes of “the other” that blinds us to seeing our common humanity. Years after the legal end of Jim Crow, we remain—in our schools, our neighborhoods, our workplace— a mostly segregated society. When we start to hang out with each other, work together, play music together, party together, we can more easily refuse the call of the demagogues to demonize and hate and fear people who don’t look or act or think exactly like us. Proximity alone is not enough, but it is an important first step. 


Beyond simply being together in the class or office or bandstand or basketball court, we need to talk to each other and hear each other’s stories. With special attention to the stories of our fellow workers/ students/ neighbors who have been marginalized. Hear the stories of the 52 times our son-in-law was pulled over for the crime of “driving while black.” Of the “me too” moments of women, the “coming out of the closet” tales of gay people. We must get “proximate” to suffering and understand the nuanced experiences of those who suffer from and experience inequality. (see my daughter Kerala Taylor’s article My Husband Doesn’t Feel Like Being Black Today for a look at the different experience of blacks and whites in America) :


2) NARRATIVE:  Our life is not what we experience as much as how we interpret what we experience. Or seen from another angle, our inherited assumptions—from our family, our schools, our churches and temples, our culture’s mainstream media—determine what we experience, give it a distinct shape and color, give it a meaning according to the narrative that we carry with us. That narrative is often unconscious, fed to us from the above sources without questioning until we read something, experience something, meet somebody, that makes us stop and question it. 


The spoken and unspoken narrative of White Supremacy has driven our culture from its inception and continues to cause great damage in both subtle and overt ways.  Black and white kids can be proximate to each other in the integrated school, but still not mix in the cafeteria or understand the different experiences they have in the same country or discuss how this narrative hurts them both. Without examining or understanding or questioning the assumptions of white supremacy, nothing will change.


3) DISCOMFORT: We must be willing to do things that are uncomfortable. Stevenson observed that fighting—sometimes in vain—for the rights of some of the most downtrodden members of society can feel uncomfortable. However, there is restorative power in doing so. He is committed to working for equality not only because he wants to fix a broken system, but because he recognizes his own brokenness in the brokenness of those he serves. It is extremely comfortable for teachers to teach that 1+1=2, Paris is the capital of France and 6/8 is called a compound musical meter, but extremely difficult to bring up the things that most people would rather not talk about. And that’s what keeps them going.


4) HOPE: Hope is a prime ingredient in working for social change. Without faith in the capacity of human beings to change, to re-consider, to become better versions of themselves, every teacher would change professions. Hope is also a verb, an active participation in giving feet to vision, muscle to our dream of what the world can be without any guarantee that it will become so. As former Czech President Vaclev Havel said: 


Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.


Justice makes sense. It is worthy of our hope. 


How does Jazz fit into all of this? Stay tuned for Part III.  

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Jazz and Justice: Part I

Yesterday I began my new online class, Jazz and Social Justice. Six 90-minute sessions each Monday night. Thrilled to have sufficient interest (35 people!) and the opportunity to exercise these ideas and share this information with a group. The course is based on the new book I wrote telling stories from some 20 plus jazz musicians about the systemic racism they encountered and how they dealt with it. I began with an overview that went something like this: 


The Status of Jazz in the U.S.

• In some ways, jazz has become a mainstream part of American culture. Just about every middle school/ high school/ college in the country has a jazz band/ jazz department. 


• Yet according to a 2013 poll, jazz is the least popular music genre in the U.S., with an astoundingly low 2.3 % listening to it— last on the list! 


• Jazz band in schools is accessible to those interested in playing certain instruments. 


• Exposure to jazz for all students of all ages through listening/ playing/ learning history is not a curriculum mandate. 


• In the Orff world, despite my 30 years of effort to show people how to integrate Jazz and Orff and make it playable and understandable for every child, jazz is not included in the Level trainings or expected in the Saturday workshops and only given peripheral attention (if any) in the National Conferences. 


• Most kids in school jazz bands (all levels) know little about jazz history and teachers more concerned with getting kids to read charts with good tone and rhythm are not expected to include this.


• If kids (or adults) do know something about jazz history and the key musicians, the emphasis is more on biographical details about who played with who and when and what they recorded. Little (if any) attention is paid to what they endured as black  Americans in a racist society and how they dealt with it.


The Status of Social Justice Education

• Schools have a long history of perpetuating the narrative of White Supremacy through ignoring diverse histories, leaving out needed stories, failing to challenge the assumptions driving Columbus, genocide and slavery. Now this is becoming yet more extreme as conservative states are actively banning the teaching of Critical Race Theory and other attempts to tell the whole story.


• “My ignorance is as good as your education” is death to any possibility of healing. 


• Ignorance can come from the privilege of apathy, people who don’t care to examine their inherited narratives because it makes them uncomfortable and gets in the way of them “having a nice day.”


• Ignorance can be purposeful perpetuated by those in power to preserve their unearned privilege.

• The mixture of those in power who have voice (Fox News, for example) and those who listen complacently or enthusiastically cheer them on is why the Civil War continues. Those who spew hate from platforms at rallies need the crowd that applauds them and the crowd needs their demagogues to bless their decision to refuse independent thought.


• “We are in a race between education and catastrophe” (H.G. Wells). School as business-as-usual is a bad survival strategy. Time to speak up beyond the norm, not with preaching and shouting and party lines (from either end of the political spectrum), but with sharing the stories that give a fuller picture, challenge unthinking and hurtful assumptions, leaving room for lively and respectful discussion and reflection, cultivating the capacity to think critically and imagine new possibilities. 


So how to artfully combine teaching kids about jazz and teaching kids about social justice? Stay tuned for more.

Life in the Neighborhood

From a world dotted with small villages to a country filled with small towns, mostly people have lived in  a place where everyone knows their neighbors. That means they’re available to watch out for each other, help each other, offer a sense of belonging. A trip to the market or store or post office enriches you twice—once with the needed thing bought or bartered and once with a friendly conversation. 


What is a blessing in terms of community living can also be a curse in other ways. When everyone knows their neighbors, it means that everyone also knows your business— and there are times when we’d rather that they not. Like any social setting, little cliques or gossipy groups can form and if who we are in our essence doesn’t sit well with the ethos of the community, we sometimes have to hide or give up or suffer indignities that stifle our true selves. Not to mention knowing all your neighbors is no guarantee whatsoever that you like  all your neighbors or that they like you. 


So sometimes the anonymity of the city can be a blessing. The diversity of different groups allow one to pick and choose the folks you call “community.” The choices are wider, the possibilities greater, the confluence of energies more stimulating that the predictable knowns of small-town life. Balanced out by the shadow sides of loneliness, errands that are mere errands minus the banter with the temporary young clerk at the store, the small or large increase of fear or distrust when surrounded by strangers. 


And so the question remains: Can one find the quality of small town life within the vibrant, diverse culture of a city? (Or conversely, can a small town also be diverse, vivacious and offering some anonymity when needed?)


Within a few months of moving into our present home back in 1982 with our two-year old daughter, a neighbor organized a tree-planting project. It was a great way to meet each other and we soon followed suit with hosting a Christmas Caroling party, and later, an Easter egg hunt for the little ones, a 4thof July barbecue, Halloween pumpkin-carving party. The neighborhood kids grew up with it all. Even when most of the families moved to other neighborhoods, they still came back for these various events and almost 40 years later, we’re still doing the Caroling Party. 


So when the Pandemic hit, I began an out-on-the-street neighborhood sing with the new young families that moved on the block. We sang once or twice a month for over a year and the other day, after a summer off, we came back together, this time in our back yard. As happened before all those years back, many of these lovely families moved to another neighborhood, but retained their loyalty to the Second Avenue Sing!  I was delighted to welcome them all (they all came!) and it was even more fun and satisfying to be seated in the yard not having to dodge cars and arranging seats so the singing was yet more focused and satisfying. And of course, the kids have grown! The three year old now 4 ½, the seven year old 8 ½, etc. and able to sing more complicated songs. 


And for this retired music teacher, such a joy to keep sharing music as the thread that helps weave community. Before that recent sing, I had just played piano at the Jewish Home for the elders and the day after the sing, played piano at Flower Piano in the Arboretum for the crowd of mixed ages that gathered around. I am certainly not a concert pianist on the Symphony Stage nor a jazz musician touring the clubs nor a singer hired for the Folk Festival, but I’ve managed to use music to bring people together in joyful gathering, any time, any age, any place. 


And that, my friends, is a great blessing. May it continue!