Wednesday, August 23, 2023


(Part 2 of yesterday’s post)


By the time I entered Antioch College in 1969, my mythological territories continued to expand, my felt intuitions and values given some language, my growing vision of who we are and who we might be began to settle into some unified philosophy that helped me make sense of and navigate through my daily experiences. I was ripe for some sort of practices and disciplines that would give feet to it all.


That time came in 1973, my last year at school and first year of my post-college adult life.

Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall— each of these three-month little lifetimes introduced me to practices that would define my life, echoing 50 years into the future— and still resonating. 


WINTER: Beginning Jazz and Progressive Education

Antioch had a rotating study/work program— 3 months in the Ivory Tower and 3 months thrust out into the world, placed by a college department working a job somewhere, often in the role of assistant or apprentice. All my jobs had been teaching jobs and the last one was particularly wonderful. In the Fall of ’72, I worked at The Arthur Morgan School in the North Carolina Black Mountains. It was a Quaker boarding school for some 30 Middle School students in the midst of a place called Celo, a Quaker land-sharing community. I loved everything about it— the location, the kids, the Thoreauvian country living combined with the Summerhill community (though more structured than Neal’s naïve vision). I had just discovered Scott Joplin, the blues and Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band and taught a music class combining all three to 17 of the 30 students whacking away with spoons and washboards and singing with kazoos. 


I was scheduled to return to Antioch the next quarter, but was so enthralled with the experience that I asked for an extension. So in the winter of 1973, at 21 years young, before e-mail and cell-phones, I single-handedly (well, assisted by three other young teachers in the Jug Band) organized a two-week Jug Band tour of the South, driving a rented yellow school bus with those three teachers and the 17 kids. We visited and performed at schools, community centers,  churches,  in John’s Island and Hilton Head in South Carolina, schools in Atlanta and northern Florida, a club in Miami and then back again. The whole tale is a matter for another novelette, but suffice it to say that it opened up three significant parts of my life to come:


1) Working in a progressive school and helping build community through music.

2) Traveling and performing with kids and adults

3) Delving into the world of jazz


SPRING: Orff Schulwerk Music Education

Spring semesterbrought me back to my final three months at the college and there I took a class about something called Orff Schulwerk. For ten Saturdays, we met with a dynamic young black teacher named Avon Gillespie and made music in ways I never had before— games, clapping plays, movement activities, folk dance, learning basic recorder, improvisation on percussion instruments and the xylophones, metallophones and glockenspiels known collectively as Orff instruments. Little did I know where this would lead me, but it turned out to be the defining feature of my life to come and Avon the mentor I would meet again. 


SUMMER: Travel, Music and Writing

Summer semester, my last at Antioch, was a memorable trip to Europe with a chorus singing the sacred Masses of Renaissance composers Johannes Ockeghem and Guillame Dufay. It was my first trip abroad and I was properly enchanted by the immersion in cultures so markedly different from my New Jersey upbringing. The Netherlands, Belgium, France, Spain, Italy and England, each a world unto itself, in company with 30 ragged college companions, an inspired teacher and conductor, exquisite music and my own thoughts and impressions set down in a spiral notebook with a Bic pen. This was the first journal of some 30 more to come, a practice I continue to this day. Some 40 years later, I began a Blog (still going) titled Confessions of a Traveling Music Teacher, bringing together the three things that were born on that trip—writing, music and travel. 


Ockeghem proved to have another major impact on my life. When I moved to San Francisco in the Fall, a friend and I started a small grassroots Ockeghem Choir and it was there that I met my wife Karen, who also led me to The San Francisco School where I taught for 45 years. 


FALL: Zen Practice

That Fall,after the summer trip, I hitchhiked to California and moved in with my sister Ginny and brother-in-law Jim to begin my life in San Francisco. I had no clear plan and just got through day-to-day accompanying my sister’s modern dance classes on piano, teaching a little jazz piano at The Community Music Center and just following Ram Dass’s advice to “be here now,” wandering around the city, reading, exploring more jazz on piano and such.


Jim had once picked up my book The Three Pillars of Zenwhile visiting my old New Jersey home and that led him to some meditation retreats at Princeton with a teacher named Joshu Sasaki Roshi. So Ginny and I began sitting zazen meditation with Jim in their little apartment, went once to The San Francisco Zen Center and then made the giant leap to go to a Rohatsu Sesshin (7-day meditation retreat) at Mt. Baldy Zen Center in the San Gabriel Mountains near L.A.  with Sasaki Roshi. I was ill-prepared, both physically and mentally, to sit with pained legs from 3am to midnight in December snows and meet the Roshi four times a day for a sanzen interview that was completely baffling, not the slightest idea of how to respond to my koan question and no guidance or help from anyone. But I soldiered through and in the midst of the pain and cold and confusion, had some lucid moments of feeling more fully alive and present than I ever had. Enough so that I continued the practice and returned for more sesshins over the years that followed.


And so 1973 was the pivot point, launching me into an adult life exploring these distinct but related disciplines of Orff, Jazz, Zen, with writing, travel and progressive education close companions. 50 years later, all of them still by my side, it felt like time to gather them together in one room and speak out loud the ways in which they overlap and how those commonalities not only thoroughly enriched my personal journey, but might have something to say about the collective healing we all so desperately need. 


For despite my conviction held since childhood that the world is a benevolent place, that people are essentially good at heart, that we are here for a purpose and that love, justice, beauty and a sense of deep belonging are part of the plan, a quick look at the morning news reveals that for all the many, many ways we’ve evolved—no more witch-burnings, chattel slavery, rampant colonialism, insane asylums, leeching, child labor, caning in schools and more—there’s ample evidence that we’re getting worse. Again, the morning news. And the stakes are so much higher. 


As practices in and of themselves, Orff, Zen and Jazz have all proven to be useful in nourishing the best of ourselves, bringing life-affirming focus to its practitioners and some measure of comfort and healing to its recipients. I can certainly testify to their impact on my own life. But the point is not to convert anyone to any of them, but to examine their shared qualities that can serve as a blueprint for a happier future for us all. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.