Wednesday, May 31, 2023

In Praise of the DMV

…”when we win, it’s with small things, and the winning itself makes us small…”  -Rilke


Well, yes, but it still feels good to win! Like my unexpected victory at the DMV today. 


It was both time to renew my driver’s license and bite the bullet to get that damned Real ID. Bureaucracy and I have a long time feud, but I figured it would be a more satisfying battle to see my enemy’s face and go in person to the Department of Motor Vehicles rather than shadow box online. It’s a pleasant walk through the park, just a mile or so, to get there, so a couple of weeks ago, off I went. There were two lines outside, one for appointments and one for non-appointments and both only about 10 people long. The nice man who greeted me said I didn’t actually need an appointment and could get everything I needed done on this visit. Just go to Window X, get a slip of paper and wait until they call you for Window Y.


I hunkered down with my Crostic Puzzle expecting a long, long wait, but was called up within 10 minutes. The pleasant person at the window listened to my hopes to both renew my license and get a Real ID. Had I happened to have my passport or birth certificate with me, I could probably do both right away. Well, wouldn’t you know it, it was the one day I forget to put my birth certificate in my pocket. (Ha ha!). So instead I made an appointment for a few weeks ahead, grabbed a little booklet to prepare for the written test and off I went. A surprisingly pleasant and efficient little visit and neither side needing to put on the boxing gloves.


Time rushed by, as it sometimes does, and there I was at the brink of my appointment. So last night, took out that little study guide to prepare for the written test. Turned out it was not very well organized as a test preparation manual, just a lot of prose information and no practice test at the end. So I looked online and lo and behold, there was a practice test of 30 questions. Took it without studying and dang if I didn’t score 28 right out of 30! Yeah! 


I just had to laugh at how I had worked myself up with some good old-fashioned-test-anxiety from those school days I never cared to revisit. Truth be told, the last test I took was my last DMV written test probably some 15 or 20 years, because the last time I renewed my license, they waived the test. 


So I awoke this morning confident in my multiple-choice powers, ready to ace it and then present all the requested documentation for the Real ID—two bills sent to me at my address and either a passport or birth certificate. All well and good.


Except… My passport is at the Ghana Embassy in Washington DC, getting a Visa stamped into it and though I paid the money for the expedited process, we seem to count days differently and I haven’t received it back yet. Before my wife left to bike in the Netherlands, she reminded me of the file that has our birth certificates. However, mine was clearly a copy and I imagined that might be a problem. Nevertheless, off I went.


Got in to the building after a mere five-minute wait and only five more minutes until I was called to the window. Sure enough, birth certificate copies are not accepted and though I doubted it would work, I did bring a previous passport. But no, no good. However, I could still take the written test and get my photo take to renew my license and then return another time to get the Real ID. 


And that’s when things got good. I had been told May of this year was the deadline for flights requiring Real ID, but the man said it had been extended to May of 2025!!! Yeah! Bureaucracy shot itself in the foot and was so backed up that they had to postpone the date. I will happily wait. 


And then things got even better. For whatever reasons, he said “You don’t have to take the written test. Just pay us the money, get your photo taken and you’re done.” I did both and the entire visit probably was 30 minutes. 


Who would have guessed? A government office that actually works pretty well! Enough workers to handle the work, an efficient system that actually works, pleasant people working there. Even Kafka would have been pleased! Of course, I’m sure there are many stories of maddening inefficiency and perhaps I just got lucky, but in my two visits, it seemed like the unthinkable was happening— a bureaucratic systems handling some high-stakes needs actually working! Praise to the DMV!


At least for now.

Monday, May 29, 2023

Memorial Day

I have a bone to pick with Baba Ram Dass. As a young hippie, I swallowed his “Be Here Now” mantra whole and looked down on taking photos to record or document events. Why try to stop the flowing stream of life? Just float down the river and “be here now.”


What a jerk I was! The result is that I have so few photos from various years in my life that I would treasure now. Of course, it didn’t help that you actually had to have a camera and make sure you took it with you and bought film and got it developed and such. I might have had one my Dad passed on, but certainly never used it during my college years. 


Today is the 24th Anniversary of the death of my Orff teacher, Avon Gillespie. How I would have loved to have shots from that first course I took with him in the Spring of 1973 at Antioch College! Or a whole class group photo! Likewise, I only have three or four poor-resolution photos from the three summers I took the Level Trainings with him, two photos from the seven National Conferences we attended together between 1976 and 1988, no photos of the two Level Training Course I taught with him at North Texas State in 1986 and 1988 and even stayed at his house during that time. What was I thinking?


I do have some photos that came my way through other sources and most importantly an entire 20 minute video of my Level III Orff Course with Avon (and others) in 1985. Both of those have made it into my film The Secret Song and each of the seven times I’ve seen that film, I get goosebumps when they appear and my eyes start watering. 


So yes, Ram Dass, the stream of Avon’s presence in my memory is still flowing despite the lack of captured images. But still, it would have been nice. 


(And now we’re at the opposite spectrum of no cameras with our 24/7 documentation on the cell phone. The problem now is so many photos that it’s a Herculean task to find the few that are actually meaningful. But that’s another topic.)


Serendipitous that this year the date of his passing fell on Memorial Day, so this my testimony to my fallen comrade who died in service to (but not because of) the war against children finding their joy and genius through the arts. Avon, you are not forgotten.


Sunday, May 28, 2023


It’s early Sunday morning and I awoke as I have the past few weeks or so, straight into the arms of a gray, breezy, Groundhog’s Day-like mini-nightmare of sunless weather. Yesterday walking, there was literally 20 seconds when the sun came out and I could feel my whole spirit jump for joy. And then it disappeared again into the grey oppressive mass of summer fog. 


I’m mostly quite happy at the moment. My wife is off biking in the Netherlands (also quite happy) and so I have a rare solitude in my own home that is a kind of time I cherish. 100% in charge of my own mood, my own sense of cleanliness (actually less cluttered and cleaner than when we share the space), a calendar filled with at least one welcome activity each day (like singing with a different group of kids or adults every single day last week). Walking, despite the cold, some four to seven miles a day, listening to Abraham Vergese’s epic new book The Covenant of Water, thoroughly immersed in the nightly soap opera of The Good Wife (re-watching these many years later with only vague memories of what happens) and up at the top of my lifetime piano-playing Wheel of Fortune, fingers gleefully romping through Bach and Bird, Chopin and Monk with energy, precision and expressive nuance. Amidst my solitude, lovely visits with my daughter, sister, friends and colleagues. 

Life is good.


Except. I definitely have a case of S.A.D.— Seasonal Affect Disorder— and with nothing on my calendar today, my one goal is to walk/bike or drive as far as necessary to find the sun. North, South or East (West is water), I am determined to feel its life-giving warmth on my face and to walk in a world restored to color after weeks of grey. 


Wish me luck!

Saturday, May 27, 2023

Book of the Week

If I were to write a short novelette based on my week, here are the possible Chapter titles:


1. Singing my Way to Happiness

2. Topsy-Turvy: My Daughter the Campleader.

3. The Bachelor and the Empty Dishwasher

4. Living Room Piano Virtuoso

5. Grilled Cheese Staff Meeting 

6. Cilantro Pesto and the Failed Cuisenart

7. Carrot Art (see illustration below—as found in the bin at the store)

8. Jigsaw Intoxication (illustration below)


Your assignment. Write a short story based on one of the chapter titles. Winners will be guest writers on this Blog.


Have fun!


Thursday, May 25, 2023


Bringing back child labor. Bringing back book banning. Working on banning gay marriage and perhaps mixed race marriage. Shameless about allowing assault weapons to kill our children without lifting a finger. Working every way they can to block legitimate voting. Lying, lying, lying, with no shame and often no consequence. Still denying climate change. Doing everything they can with money made off the backs of ancestral free labor and with their “get out of paying taxes free” card to bring any semblance of Democracy to its knees and continue to cause immeasurable harm and hurt without an ounce of remorse. Of course, you know who I’m talking about and if you don’t, I’m sure you’re not reading this.


Not a single one of the above tribe would ever, ever consider the idea of reparations. So I have a new plan about the best reparations we can make to people of color nationwide.


One of the hidden costs of the centuries of the slave trade was stealing people resources from the West African cultures. So I believe a logical-consequence- reparations would be to send a few million Republicans to those places and make them work for free as enslaved people (though not quite human beings, as they have proven time and time again) for at least 50 years. (350 less than the chattel slavery we benefitted from.) Before they land, take away their money, their guns, their cell phones and computers,  their identity, split up their family and get them out working in the fields or factories from dawn to dusk. 


It’s a win-win. The U.S. can finally get on with the business of a sustainable democracy that cares for the Common Good and the free labor can bolster the economics of various West African nations. Of course, I don’t wish these good people in Ghana, Senegal, Angola, etc. to have to put up with these 2/3rd humans (a generous estimate), but luckily, the separate and unequal living facilities will prevent contamination. We can check back in after the first 50 years to see if they deserve a parole. By taking their children away and educating them in West African schools as to how to develop as a human being, it’s possible that they might be granted freedom. 


Just a thought. 


Showing Up

In the past four weeks or so, I’ve gone to:


• An elementary school concert led by a former Orff student.

• A local Orff chapter workshop taught by a teacher I knew.

• A high school concert featuring alums from my school. (SFS)

• A dance concert featuring another alum.

• A 50th  Anniversary of a modern dance group my sister danced in.

• A neighborhood sing.

• Two SFS Spring Concerts my former colleagues put on.

• An SFS camping trip my daughter led.

• A luncheon for SFS alums graduating from high school.


All of this a pleasure and not a duty, but also a commitment to keep the community present and ongoing, to support former teachers and students, to simply show up. Amongst possible epitaphs on the gravestone I’ll probably never have, this is an option:


“He showed up.”

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Tai Chi with Turtles

Some of my friends have taken to reading the obituaries. I’m not quite there yet, but I do want to be aware of who has passed from our presence, be they friends, neighbors or public figures. When they’re in their 80’s and 90’s— like the recently departed Ahmad Jamal, Wayne Shorter and Harry Belafonte— things take on a different tone, a grieving that includes gratitude for their long time amongst us. Though still we will miss them.


Now another American musical icon has joined their ranks, Ms. Tina Turner, at 83 years old. You can read about her remarkable rags-to-riches life (as I just did) on Wikipedia— it really is quite a story! 12 Grammies, the largest crowd at a concert (180,000!), 100 milliion records sold worldwide, the first female and first black performer on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, etc. etc. and etc.  Alongside neglect from her parents, picking cotton as a child, an abusive relationship with Ike and so on. Spending her later years in Switzerland (where she became a citizen) and embracing Buddhism. Quite a life!


I often play her rendition of 3 O’Clock in the Morning Blueswhen teaching about the blues and like many, enjoyed her and Ike’s rendition of Proud Mary. But one unique association I have with her comes from a game I play with kids called Stations. Groups of 2 to 4 kids each are given a letter and have to think of a string of words that start with that letter to mime/dance together when the music stops. Things like “Silly Snakes Dancing Samba While Stirring Soup.” It’s always impressive what the kids come up with, but top of the list was this group’s idea:


“Tina Turner Teaching Tai Chi to Turtles.”


You can just imagine how they acted that one out!


So R.I.P., Tina Turner, thanks for your soulful music and hope you find some turtles to teach in the next world. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Gifts from Children

I’ve sung with a kindergarten class and 5th grade class at a local school once a month for the past four months and yesterday was my last for the year. When the little ones spotted me in the hall, there was an outburst of affectionate “Hellos!” and one boy, having just come from outside, gave me a little leaf he had in his hand. At the end of a marvelous 45 minutes of singing, another boy held his arms out as I prepared to leave, inviting me for a hug.

On I went to the 5th grade and taught them some 60’s protest songs, practiced our Table Rhythms on their desks and sang the two songs I taught the last time that Harry Belafonte had made famous. The last, Jamaica Farewell, was an appropriate goodbye song and I learned that they had recently gone on a field trip and spontaneously sang this all on their own. On the way out, a girl rushed out and handed me a piece of paper. 

It is hard to talk about this without appearing self-aggrandizing, but of course, it’s not about me. It’s about what I bring to a group of kids when I enter the room. Not only a wide variety of fabulous songs and stories and games, but the clear happiness I feel in their presence, mirroring back to them the spiritual uplift their bright, curious, quirky selves gives to me, the unspoken but deeply felt sense that I genuinely like them and am happy to be with them and understand them. “Behavior is the language of children” and I believe these little acts of gift-giving are their powerful way of saying “Thank you for not being another annoying adult always yelling at me or that other kind who says, “Dude, you’re cool!”


No Grammy or Oscar or Pulitzer will ever grace my mantelpiece, but hey, I have a little shriveled green leaf given to me spontaneously by a five-year old. That is more than enough.

Monday, May 22, 2023


My daughters introduced me to the tradition of  “kiss the clock” when all the numbers line up. As in 2:22 or 5:55. Lately, I’ve noticed that there are many times when I happen to see the time on my phone, in the car or in the right hand corner of the computer and it’s 11:11am.  Seems trivial, but it’s kind of eerie that this re-occurs much more often than any statistical average. It happened today. And then later, I happened to notice the computer clock— at 1:11 pm! (Insert Twilight Zone theme here)


Of course, now that I’ve publicly acknowledged it, I’m going to feel self-conscious about it when I look at the clock and ruin the whole mystery. Let’s see if I can promptly forget I ever said anything.


And on a side note, I wrote a bit about being retired this morning and the astute reader might notice “This guy has way too much time on his hands!” So yes, I’m busy, but apparently there’s a lot more time and space to notice—and then write about— things large and small that I didn’t have time to notice when I was teaching seven classes a day. One of the perks of retired life. Why, writing this at night, I could even stay awake until 11:11 pm! But that would be cheating.


Good night.


I’ve stop calling myself “retired” as I’m at least as busy as I ever was, if not more so. No surprise and that applies to most folks I know my age. But there are two other ways one can view that word:


1) Re-tired— Tired again. 


2) Re-tired— New tires put on an old vehicle going to new places. 


I’ll take number 2. 

Ordered Fairness

The Nature of Musical Form


It is hard to believe of the word that there should be

Music in it; these certainties against

the all-uncertain, this ordered fairness beneath it,

the tonelessness, the confusion of random noise.


It is tempting to say of the incomprehensible,

The formlessness, there is only order as we

so order and ordering, make it so; or this,

There is natural order which music apprehends

which apprehension justifies the world …

                                  William Bronk


This is a poem I could have written, but no matter that William Bronk beat me to it. I have certainly lived it and what matters is yet another insight as to why music, which seems so frivolous and dispensable and unimportant (talk to your local school board), is so vitally necessary. Whether music’s ordered fairness is entirely fabricated by the human imagination or whether it reveals a deeper order surrounding us, but invisible and inaudible to our inattentive selves, isn’t particularly important. What matters is that when wholly attentive and immersed in music, the chaos of the world is brought into a comprehensible clarity. Not only do musical rhythms enervate our muscles and invite them into the ordered response of foot taps, finger snaps, hand claps and dance moves, not only do music tones soothe our nervous systems and vibrate the inner strings that create the inner motions that evoke e-motion, not only that musical harmonies create the tensions and releases that tell the stories we are built to hear, but that the very forms of music sing of a world that makes sense and gives us a moment’s release from the confusion and commotion and messy unruliness that is much of our daily life. That alone is worth the price of admission.


When my friend at The Jewish Home ends each music session exclaiming,  “You’re wonderful!” (thus, insuring my perpetual return!), what she’s really saying is “How wonderful to have an hour each week to forgot this failing body, this increasingly jumbled mind, this painful awareness of clock time leading us all into a frightening unknown. For this one hour, we’re out of time, out of our bodies and letting the notes from the piano unscramble the mind’s jumble and bring it into an intelligible lucidity.”


I believe we can all use some more of that. Hail music!


Homage to Gertrude Stein


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Sunday, May 21, 2023

Sweet Carrots

Amidst all the hullabaloo of this busy, noisy world, all the struggle to get through the day’s lists, all the striving to make a name for yourself and get ahead (of what? of who?), all the partaking of the roaring stream of texts and e-mails and Facebook posts and entertainment, sometimes the greatest pleasure comes down to simply this— the taste and crunch of a sweet fresh carrot.


In the vegetable world, there are many members who you can mostly count on. The difference between any two zucchinis, heads of cabbage, peppers, onions, in my experience is relatively small. But I find a yawning gap between the incarnations of three different vegetables, so that the gift of a fresh, tasty, sweet and succulent one is like an offering from the Gods. My list?


• Tomatoes— Those pale, anemic excuses for tomatoes that sometimes find themselves in grocery stores can’t hold a candle to the ruby, red, juicy ones fresh off the vine. Extra credit if they’re the “early girls” variety.


• Corn— Growing up in New Jersey, there was some statewide pride in our corn, rivaled by my wife’s home state of Michigan. Sweet corn should live up to its name and not try to get by disguised as its starch cousin. In the past few decades, the corn that appears in California has narrowed the gap between the authentic and the passable. Don’t know how or why, but I’m happy.


• And then carrots. Still a mystery, as I’ve not found a consistency in any of my local grocery stores. Seems to be the luck of the draw, though lately (shh! don’t tell) if I buy loose carrots in a bin, I snap off a small bite to taste before buying. (With my clean fingers, just to be clear.) And this last batch was the jackpot. I grabbed one before my afternoon walk and believe that its deep sweetness with nothing added (not even salt) was enough to make me a better human being. Or at least a happier one.


I’m sure there’s more to say about celery, cucumbers, avocados and more, but I’ll stop here with this little homage to the carrot. Long may it prosper!

Benevolent Colonialism

In the 1990’s, a rich American businessman moves to a foreign country and starts buying up land. Lots of it. Like a few million acres. A 20th century version of colonialism, with big money instead of guns taking over—literally—another land. Same old, same old— disrespect for a people, for a culture, for the land itself, exploiting all for one’s own pleasure and profit.


Except not. Instead of buying it to earn yet more money or exploit the land or the workers on it, the man actually is buying it to preserve it, to keep it safe from deforestation and mining and military exercises and instead, to re-populate it with endangered species and restore it to its original habitat. And at the end of the vision, having spent his personal fortune to purchase it, to donate it all back to the country to create 17 National Parks. 


The country is Chile (also Argentina) and the man is Doug Tompkins, founder of Northface, co-founder with his wife Susie of Esprit and the subject of a new (and excellent) film called Wild Life. (He also was a parent at The San Francisco School where I worked, though I think his daughters Summer and Quincy may have left before I arrived in 1975. )


The film is an extraordinary testament to an extraordinary man who was wildly successful as a businessman, but throughout his career, combined the day-to-day grind of big business with rock climbing, kayaking, bush plane flying and a genuine love for the outdoors. Near the end of his time with Esprit, he started suggesting to customers that they only buy what they need, a radical thought in the endless-growth-and-profit mentality of capitalism. So he just opted out, moved to Chile, remarried another remarkable woman, Kris,  who had a similar epiphany as a CEO in the Patagonia Company and together, they began their quest to create national parks in both Chile and Argentina. When Doug died in a tragic kayak accident in 2015 (at 72 years old, almost my age!), Kris was emotionally shattered, but re-grouped and carried on their vision to completion, signing the agreement in 2018 with then-Chilean president Michelle Bachelet to create five new national parks and expand three others in an area the size of Switzerland! These were people that got things done!


So what from the outside looks completely inappropriate turns out to be a kind of benevolent colonialism, an American using his privilege and power and money on behalf of sustaining bio-diversity and preserving a planet that benefits all, human, plant and animal.

Billionaires, take note! 

Saturday, May 20, 2023


Here’s the truth. If Harvard University offered me an Honorary Doctorate Degree in Music Education, I wouldn’t refuse it. If Wynton Marsalis asked me to head his Lincoln Center Jazz Education for kids program, I’d consider moving to New York. If the Secret Song film won an Oscar for Best Documentary, I’d buy my plane ticked for L.A. to attend the ceremonies. And if my ABC’’s of Education book made the New York Times bestseller list, I’d be mightily pleased. But as my 3-year old student Bella said when I tried to describe to the preschool how to sing a tricky song, “Doug, that ain’t gonna happen.”


What did happen and moved me so deeply was singing the old jazz standards at the Jewish Home for the Aged yesterday and noticing a new resident mouthing the words with a look on her face that announced, “Thank you for bringing me home.” Again, the Harvard Degree would be a dopamime rush of public acknowledgment about what I think is important, but that hour spent with this woman and all the others is the real deal, the actual living in the supreme importance of music’s power to articulate the full range of our joy and sorrow, our love requited and unrequited, our power, our spirit, our soul.


I carry inside me another image of a 4-year-old in Preschool Singing, eyes shut, body swaying, singing out with her whole being “Free at last, free at last…” with such joy and abandonment. She had no idea of the song’s history or what freedom means and yet, she felt the song’s power enter her and knew in her bones that something important was taking place. The details would come later—for now just the song spoke for itself.


So here are the bookends of a life lived with hope and promise, disappointment and forgiveness, possibility and wisdom. A four-year- old singing herself forward into her life to come and a 94- year- old singing back to her life that has been. Music by our side at the beginning, music by our side at the end. No trophy on the mantelpiece can top that. 

Friday, May 19, 2023

Ugly Beauty

Kids are so damn smart. That is, if you train them to look and listen and think, give them something worthy to look at, listen to and think about— and then invite them to express what’s on their mind. That’s what I tried to do with all the kids in all my classes, but was consistently particularly astounded by the 8th graders comments on the music we listened to in our weekly Jazz History class.


I happen to believe that mandatory Jazz History—well-taught, of course, not just dates and facts— is something worthy of children’s attention. That Thelonious Monk is one of many whose music is worthy of deep listening.  You wouldn’t guess that right away if you know his music or listened to it for the first time. On some level, it’s quite abstract and complex.  But inside of all that is a childlike simplicity and spirit that connects with listeners of all ages— which apparently includes 8th graders.

The following quotes reveal that kids get Monk. They notice his ambiguities, the way he connects apparent opposites so that there is no contradiction. Like the title of one of his compositions—Ugly Beauty— he plays chords that seem like they should be wrong according to standard Western theory but somehow sound right. (In describing Ugly Beauty, one of the kids got the essence of the title without knowing the title: “ Sounds like a lot of mistakes: pretty.” Things that in one context would sound ugly in his context sound beautiful. Go figure. 


One of the first recordings I have the kids listen to is his improvisation on a blues (not his composition) called Bag’s Groove, recorded with a Miles Davis group. Listen to how the kids describe it:

• Childlike, yet complex.

• Relaxing, off-key notes.

 • He’s thinking and you can tell, choosing the notes systematically. It sounds like he’s playing the wrong chords, but it works. He’s thinking, remembering and then thinking again. It’s odd, but I like it!  

• Sounds kind of off-key, but also like he planned his solo out before he did it. He knew what sounded good together, even if we don’t think so. 


This would all mean much to you if you actually could hear the same thing the kids are describing. So in a daring first multi-media Blogpost experience, I’m going see if this Youtube link works. Monk’s solo begins at 6:49.


Then I played a solo piano interpretation of another jazz standard (again, not his composition) called I Should Care.  Listen to how intelligently this 14-year old speaks of it.


"The suspense is hard to take. You want to hear it, but he’s thinking and he knows you want it so he doesn’t give it to you right away. He draws you deeper in, then surprises you with odd chords and fast scales. It’s romantic with a twist, his thoughts coming at you through the notes."


Listen and see if you agree.


Like I said, kids are smart. Now if only adults were smart enough to serve them Monk and Miles and Milt and more at the table of compulsory education. 

Touched with Fire

I met a woman the other day who was 103 years old. She walked with a cane and was 100% present in her mind. And teaching my jazz class the other day, I realized that she was born in the same year at the great jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker. That theoretically, he could have still been with us.


Instead, he died at 34 years old. He came unto this earth and his life was a short lightning flash followed by a roaring thunder that still echoes down to this day. Extraordinary what he accomplished in his too-short 34 years. As did Mozart in his 35 years. And so many others who left “the vivid air signed with their honor” so that their names and works continue to live on long past their physical bodies.


In the jazz world, there are many. Clifford Brown at 25 (car accident). Charlie Christian at 25 (tuberculosis), Bix Beiderbecke at 28 (pneumonia coupled with severe alcoholism), Bessie Smith at 43 (car accident), Fats Navarro at 26 (tuberculosis couple with heroin addiction), Chick Webb at 34 (tuberculosis of the spine), Eric Dolphy at 36 (diabetes), Lee Morgan at 33 (shot by his wife), Glenn Miller at 40 (plane crash).The list continues: Django Reinhart (43), Fats Waller (39), Art Tatum (47), Bud Powell (43), Wynton Kelly (39), Dinah Washington (39), Cannonball Adderly (46),  Nat King Cole (36), Billie Holiday (44), Lester Young (49),  John Coltrane (40).


By most standards, all of the above qualify for minor tragedies, life cut short by random events (car accidents), disease (tuberculosis) and the toll life on the road coupled with drug addictions and alcoholism takes on the body. I’m sure all would have preferred a long life and the world would be further refreshed as they continued to perform and create music for many more decades. (And to set the record straight that not all jazz musicians die young, note the following: Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk continuing into their 60’s, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie, Elvin Jones, Chick Corea into their 70’s, Pharoah Sanders and Wayne Shorter in their 80’s, Eubie Blake, Dave Brubeck, Marian McPartland, Hank Jones, Ahmad Jamal in their 90’s—interesting that this last group all are pianists!)


By mythological standards, many of the above who left us early were of the sort where the intensity of life is condensed, where one year of their life equals ten years of another in the roaring fire of their creative spirit. Their “lips touched with fire telling of the spirit clothed from head to foot in song.” Their refusal to let the” traffic, noise and fog smother their flowering  spirit.”

Each achieving an immortality beyond any counting of physical years. Immortal gods dancing around us slowly plodding humans and enlivening our step with their work.


These paraphrased quotes above from an extraordinary poem by Stephen Spender speaking of those who traveled her on earth a short time, leaving “the vivid air signed with their honor.” A poem that could be a homage to each and every one of the musicians above. Read it out loud, slowly. 


I think continually of those who were truly great.

Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history

Through corridors of light where the hours are suns,

Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition

Was that their lips, still touched with fire,

Should tell of the spirit clothed from head to foot in song.

And who hoarded from the spring branches

The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.


What is precious is never to forget

The delight of the blood drawn from ageless springs

Breaking through rocks in worlds before our earth;

Never to deny its pleasure in the simple morning light,

Nor its grave evening demand for love.

Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother

With noise and fog the flowering of the spirit. 


Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields, 

See how these names are feted by the waving grass

And by the streamers of white cloud.

And whispers of wind in the listening sky;

The names of those who in their lives fought for life,

Who wore at their hearts the fire’s center.

Born of the sun, they traveled a short while toward the sun

And the left the vivid air signed with their honor.


I read this poem in my jazz class after listening to Charlie “Bird” Parker’s music and learning of his life story. And concluded with Parker’s own words describing his short, intense life as a musician. 


“I lit my fire. I greased my skillet. And I cooked.”


And we are still partaking of the meal. 

Thursday, May 18, 2023

Jazz History in Twelve Tunes

…is the name of the course I just taught for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) sponsored by San Francisco State University. It’s basically college for seniors, without the pressure of exams and grades and figuring out who to date. Also noticeably less alcohol and drugs— at least during the class. 


Amongst the many things I do that I love beyond reason— singing with children, playing piano for elders, giving workshops to teachers— teaching Jazz History classes is near the top of the list. I did four or five online versions during the pandemic, but the live version—with real interaction, dialogue, a better sound system, a larger screen for my Powerpoints and a piano to demonstrate points and play tunes is head and shoulders above anything possible online. 


Because of all the years thinking about how to present this extraordinary history to 8th graders at my school and younger kids as well, I know how to talk about it to beginners of all ages, as well as give perspectives and insights to those already somewhat knowledgeable about the history and familiar with the musical material. I know how to help people listen with new ears by giving them the key as to what to listen for, the cultural and historical background, the extra-musical viewpoint of jazz as storytelling, as conversation, as a poetry-in-sound that captures both the zeitgeist of a particular time and a universal experience of all times.


Why do I love it so much? Partly for the social duty of showing how “Jazz is what America could become if it ever became itself.” (Wynton Marsalis) and the insights into both how systemic racism works and how people resist it and move the needle closer to justice. My hope is to help people pay their dues for a music that gives so much joy, so much pleasure, so much affirmation of the human spirit by letting them know who to thank and how to thank them yet deeper once we understand what they went through. 


But while necessary, our social obligation to moving that needle can often feel like something we’d rather not do because it’s so difficult and painful and sorrowful. Hard to face. But side by side with these extraordinary musicians, it is simply a joy to be in their company and to feel ourselves rise up as they did out of the murky swamp of prejudice, hatred, injustice. 


To get to spend two hours a week shutting off our damn phones and just being in a room together listening is a great privilege and pleasure. While some of the stories and the musical information were challenging to all of the students some of the time and some of the students much of the time, it was a worthy challenge, the kind that was worth taking the bus or driving and looking for parking at 3:00 in the afternoon. I believe we all left refreshed, invigorated and intrigued to know more. And whether you’re 13 or 83, introducing you to these jazz musicians available to you at the drop of the needle, the insertion of the CD, the click on Spotify or Youtube, people who can soothe you in your sorrow and lift you up yet higher in your joy— well, that’s a teacher’s dream. 


Below is the course I taught, though in 6 two-hour classes, we didn’t get to the last two. Hoping to do a Part II next year. And if I repeated Part I, I might stop at Monk, add Benny Goodman’s Sing Sing Sing and Dizzy Gillespie’s Manteca, maybe switch Billie’s tune to God Bless the Child and Monk’s tune to Round Midnight. Tunes are listed below for your listening pleasure. Enjoy!




1. Maple Leaf Rag— Scott Joplin


2. Empty Bed Blues— Bessie Smith


3. West End Blues— Louis Armstrong


4. Hotter Than That — Louis Armstrong


5. Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue—Duke Ellington


6. Jumpin’ at the Woodside— Count Basie


7. How High the Moon— Ella Fitzgerald


8. Body and Soul— Billie Holiday


9. Shaw Nuff— Charlie Parker


10. Misterioso —Thelonious Monk 


11. So What— Miles Davis *


12. A Love Supreme— John Coltrane *