28 March 2010

Jazz in the dark

I'm not sure how I came to love jazz.

Okay, let me back up a little bit. I'm not sure "love" is the right word. You probably need to understand the basis of this relationship to know what I mean.

I can kinda-sorta trace my musical history back to when I was very small and would borrow my mother's albums - real albums - to play on my record player. If you're too young to know what I'm talking about, let me draw you a picture:

These "albums" predated vinyl. Or maybe they were early vinyl, but having broken one or two, I can tell you they were two pressed layers with a thin piece of paper sealed between. So they weren't light, and they had NO flexibility. If you remember vinyl "boxed sets," you can visualize what I'm talking about, but the records in the paper sleeves that lived inside the box were heavy, clunky things that played at 78RPM, meaning one cut to a side - two, at most. An album might contain as many as 4-6 discs. And one disc probably came close to weighing as much as my whole Eric Clapton boxed set from the early '90s. (Or was it late '80s? I think '90s...)

Mom didn't have a lot of albums. She's a "Depression Baby" - ever frugal. She still buys only what she truly needs, whether the need is physical or spiritual. So I know these albums were precious to her. She had a radio/phonograph - a great, hulking thing that was actually quite compact for the time I first remember it, in the late '50s. It had the speaker in the front, along with the tuning and volume knobs; behind that, the top lifted to allow access to the turntable. [There's a comparable model on eBay, pictured above - get 'em while they last! :-)

When I got old enough to handle them carefully and demonstrated with my own little "kiddie song" 78s and 45s that I could operate the tone arm without dragging, Mother let me take her records to my room sometimes. I would spend hours playing "Begin the Beguine" and "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes," dancing with my imaginary friend, Manny Lee (don't ask - I have NO idea where he came from), and making up stories woven with music.

I took piano lessons in grade school and high school. The piano probably saved my sanity during those grindingly depressing years. I quit lessons at one point, for political and moral reasons (my teacher went off on a racist rant in the middle of a lesson, and I walked out), but I didn't stop playing. I actually majored in music one semester during my first trip to college. Loved applied lessons; hated theory.

I haven't played much in the ensuing years, but music still lives at the center of my existence. There's a radio, stereo, or CD player in almost every room in the house. In recent years, my iPod Shuffle has kept me going through wicked workplace toxicity; I can crank up Janis Joplin to the point where nothing can compete with "Piece of My Heart" and "Mercedes Benz," and the gossip just goes away.

I had my first-ever "contact high" in 1974 at a performance by the Paul Winter Consort on the campus of San Jose State University in San Jose, CA. The joint came down the row, and I obligingly passed it to the next person over without taking a toke - I'd never seen a joint before, up close and personal, and I had no idea what to do with it except pass it on. Turned out I didn't have to do anything. The air on our row was pretty dense, and I misplaced myself somewhere between the smoke and the music and didn't relocate the home planet until sometime the next day. Although truth to tell, when I listen these days to those old PWC records and think about how jazz affects me now, without "enhancement," I think it may have been as much the music as the weed.

Sometime in the '90s, I won a couple of tickets from a local radio station to see Joe Lovano at a little club in Raleigh. By that time, I'd been listening to jazz for years; my favorite way to spend a Sunday morning was playing hooky from church, sewing or writing and listening to Kitty Kinnen, the Sunday morning jazz DJ on my favorite mostly-rock station. Kitty was at the club that night; we chatted briefly between sets. The thing that sticks in my mind, though, is my epiphany.

As I said, I don't know when I really got into jazz. Maybe with Paul Winter; maybe even a couple years before, with Jimmie Spheeris. But I do remember that night, sitting at our table, listening to Joe and watching the percussionist. I love percussion, too; I wanted to play drums at one point in my merrily ADHD past. I love the physical effect, the reach-out-and-grab-you punch, of down-and-dirty percussion at close range. And I remember staring at the shimmering cymbals over the top of my glass of red wine - I only had one - and watching the light dance off the metal and knowing without even thinking (although I heard the words in my head, like a message from the Universe):

Music is a physical entity, and this is what it looks like.

It seemed, in that instant, I could see the sound waves emanating from the cymbals.

I told you that to tell you this:
A few years ago, I sang in a couple or three choirs conducted by Harry Pickens, a brilliant jazz pianist, composer, and educator. He's one of the most fun choirmasters I've ever worked with, and one of the most capable. He can pull a top-flight hour-long performance from a wildly multi-cultural (and multi-lingual) 50+ voice choir with only a handful of rehearsals, and have no one mad at him when it's over. He can fuss out the goof-offs and make them laugh at the same time. It's a true gift from the Universe, that.

Ever since that first choir, I've made a point of going to performances of the Harry Pickens Trio whenever I can. It's not as often as I'd like, lately; the best local venue - the Jazz Factory - shut down a couple years ago, and it's hit or miss since then. One night, I was determined to go to a concert Harry did with Voces Novae at Christ Church Cathedral downtown, but got lost and didn't make it until half an hour after the performance started. I went home rather than distract everyone by opening the street door in the middle of the concert.

But tonight, I got there. Harry and trio played at Second Presbyterian Church in St. Matthews, and in spite of almost being T-boned by a crazy Volvo-driver who ran the stop sign at St. Matthews Avenue and Napanee Road (and continued on oblivious for a couple more blocks - I resisted the temptation to follow and deliver a lecture), I arrived and found a seat before the concert began.

I was rewarded in the first set with several favorites, "What a Wonderful World" and "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" among them. The lights stayed on in the beautiful sanctuary, and I was able to crochet musical prayers into the shawl I'm making for a young friend. (The acoustics, by the way, are unbelievably good at Second Pres. The sanctuary is a good-sized room, but at one point, Harry walked away from the mic while talking, then asked, as an aside, if we could hear him. And we could -- perfectly.)

The second set began with Harry asking who knew about Earth Hour. It happened this evening -- one hour set aside for everyone globally to turn off their lights, as a demonstration that we two-leggeds are smart enough to know how to conserve what we have. (I knew about it from the Lion Brand Yarn weekly newsletter that came in yesterday's e-mail, along with two lovely new free crochet patterns.) And then he said that, except for the ones that were legally required for safety, they were going to turn off the lights and play in the dark for a bit.

The next half-hour was a journey for me. I didn't have to worry about getting sleepy in the dark, because I'd had a good nap this afternoon. (Naps are sacred time. Seriously.) I couldn't crochet, because even after my eyes adjusted, I couldn't see enough to pick up where I'd left off. I can work without looking once I get started, but not right off the bat.

So there we were, suddenly -- just me and my brain, in the dark, us and the music, and nothing to do with our hands. And I realized, I don't do "still."

I do yoga. Once or twice a week, I take my mat and my wobbly self to class and I learn to focus, to zero in on a mantra or a pose as a state of being. I work at just breathing, just being. I learn to redirect my thoughts to non-thoughts. I use those two hours or so a week to turn off the left brain and give the right brain a little time to recuperate, if not heal.

But it's not the same.

No, it wasn't that hard. My right brain is in pretty good shape, especially for one whose owner is so into words. But it was enlightening.

Unlike yoga class, no one directed my attention. There was no voice telling me what to do, how to move, where to focus, what to align. No one instructed me how to keep my balance. There was the music, there was my brain, and there was my brain on music.

It took me a couple minutes to adjust to the fact that crochet was out. You need to understand, I use crochet as a way to pay attention during meetings. If I can occupy my hands, the right brain stands a chance of shutting up long enough to let the left brain absorb the discussion. I've pissed off a few Big Cheeses, crocheting in their meetings, but I assure you they were pissed because I distracted them, not because I wasn't paying attention. They had no way of knowing whether I was paying attention, unless they asked me afterward something about what they said - which they didn't.

But I realized tonight the vast difference between paying attention by making the right brain shut up so the left brain can listen, and paying attention by just letting the right brain do it all. Crochet is a work-around. Not-crochet is work. Not-crochet is true focus. In fact, I think it's what we reach for in yoga class, if we really reach. And I don't think I'd been there before.

Once, sitting there in the dark, the words moved back in. It was right at the end, with "The Shadow of Your Smile." It was one of my favorite songs "Back Then," along with "Windmills of Your Mind" and "Autumn Leaves" and a lot of Jacques Brel - back when I played the piano at 3 a.m. because I couldn't sleep, when adolescent anxiety almost succeeded in pulling me over the edge of the abyss. I still know all the words, and they came back.

But even then, that verbal brain couldn't take over completely. The visual brain was in control. And the image I saw was a skinny girl, sitting at a piano in the middle of the night, knowing her mother was awake and listening and not mad at all at being awakened. A skinny girl with sandy braids and green eyes too big for her narrow face, her long fingers reaching well over an octave, tentatively improvising between the written notes and singing softly the words she'd long since memorized. A skinny, wistful girl who had no idea about being in love, reaching for the emotion of love let go - as envisioned by her three-times-older self, who learned some decades back what letting go feels like for real.

It was a mind movie of the first order. If they gave out Oscars for that category, I think we'd have a good shot.

This isn't much of a concert review. It is a from-the-heart account of where my history with the jazz greats of the 20th century -- Gershwin, Hancock, Porter, and others -- has brought me. And how it feels, at the age of 55-and-a-half, to be transported back four full decades and be glad the music kept me alive so I could be here now.

So, see - "love" is completely inadequate. I love Toll House chocolate chip cookies. I love Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia frozen yogurt. I love Anne Lamott, Barbara Kingsolver, and the Beatles. And Clapton, and Janis. And Dean Martin. On another level, I love my kids and my dogs and my husband - not necessarily in that order. I love my siblings and my mom. Across the Divide, I love my dad and my Uncle Paul. We can keep going deeper if you want.

Or we can just say "love" isn't enough. Jazz doesn't satisfy my emotional self or my intellectual self or even my crochet-brained self. Jazz, as it existed tonight at that ever-alive moment in eternity, doesn't satisfy. Jazz is. Jazz defines. Jazz writes the script, sets the stage, picks the cast, designs the lighting.

Tonight, I saw it again: Jazz, for me, doesn't reflect life. Jazz is a simple, almost tangible form of life. If you turn off the lights, put down the crochet (or the book or the phone), and let it carry you downstream - if you have the nerve, the courage, the daring to let go control of your left brain and allow the gut-level, physical, tangible Music to take over - Jazz is life.

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