Here’s one of the challenges of writing not only for oneself, but for others out in the cyberworld. Among those ‘others’ are people I know and, increasingly, people I don’t actually know. That’s cool. That gladdens my heart, in fact. It reminds me of a little sign one of my aunts had in her house when I was a kid that said, “There are no strangers, only friends we haven’t yet met.” It’s maybe a little hokey, sure, but as I begin to post more to this blog and send my personal thoughts out into the world, I prefer that image to some alternative like, “there are lots of strangers out there, some even living in their mother’s basement, subsisting on Ramen noodles, playing lots of Dungeons and Dragons, acting like trolls on the internet, and thinking of stalking you.” You see what I mean? Which would you pick?
So since this post alludes to my spiritual world-view, and I know that there are about as many spiritual world-views as there are people in the world, I’d just like to clarify something from the outset for those who are reading this and have never had the opportunity to chat with me about life’s big, eternal questions, and don't yet know just how much I respect the diversity of viewpoints on this here planet Earth. I will herein mention the G-word. You know the one—the one that makes some people froth at the mouth (I’m thinking atheists here) and some people get really . . .oh . . .proprietary, I suppose (I’m thinking just about everyone else). No, but seriously. God and religion are topics I tend not to touch upon on this blog, at least so far. There are some good reasons for that, which perhaps you can imagine, especially if you’ve ever come across a true internet troll. But for the sake of something resembling clarity, I will say that when I use that word “God”, it doesn’t bring up for me an image of an old white guy with a beard, sitting up in the clouds or among the stars. It doesn’t even bring up an old clean-shaven dude, or a middle eastern guy with a goatee, or a black man with sideburns, or any dude at all, really. Neither does it bring up for me a female image, bearded, mustached or otherwise (though for some reason, the word “Italy” does). When I use that word “God” I’m keenly and painfully aware of the word’s inadequacy to describe that toward which it points, and I use it because I haven’t yet come up with anything better that would rise to anything like the level of universal understanding. For me, when I use that word, I’m typically referring to my own sense of the Unity of All Things; the Life Force that informs my sense of connectedness to everything (and I do mean everything) that I feel in moments of extreme clarity, such as in the presence of natural beauty, or in my garden as tiny seeds begin to bring forth such abundance, or in the presence of my nieces and nephews at play, or my partner when his still-wet hair falls just so across his handsome face, or when seeing Egyptians who yearn for freedom peacefully take down a dictator, or when looking at a Vuillard, or Jules Breton’s “The Weeders”, or when witnessing another person bringing forth their heart’s deepest yearnings.
I feel it also, as you will soon read, when hearing or performing music.
For me, music is a big one. For me that’s prayer, and that’s when I most understand the notion that ‘the body is a temple’. Some days, there comes a point where I feel a change-over from singing to being sung. Those are very good days.
That said, prologue over. Here’s the main thing I wanted to post about today.
Today I’m remembering the England I came to know when I was ten—how I became obsessed with its history, how I soaked in the pageantry and ceremony. How I reveled in the historical gore, all those heads rolling on Tower Hill, the way only a ten year old can. I loved the palaces; their gardens with those expanses of green where one could walk and walk enough to make a fawning entourage weep.
I’m thinking of that basement jazz club called Pizza Express—it’s still there today—and what a stark contrast was to be found amid all that smoke and sound beneath the street. All around me in London and its surroundings was propriety and symmetry. The park gardens were all straight lines, tightly trimmed hedges and topiary, rows of flowers with colors harmoniously arranged. There were the long straight hallways and drawing rooms of Hampton Court Palace, reminders and enforcers of the stuffy protocols and rules. But Pizza Express was like an exotic treasure, a whole different world with red candles casting a sultry light in the darkened smoky cavern.
Here’s how it goes: like a typical ten year old American, I’m whining a bit. Like an atypical ten year old, I’m out past midnight, with my parents in a foreign country. I’m complaining about the music. Because of my musical training from the age of five, at age ten I have a deep love of classical music—again the symmetry and formality, straight lines mixed with controlled pageantry and strict rules. And like any truly American child, I possess an equal love of rock music and the kind of pop that makes my parents' skin crawl. But this "Jazz" is as foreign to me as England, where the only snack I recognize in the hotel shop is the Twix bar, where there are ghastly little round pizzas with one olive in the center, under-stuffed sandwiches, meat pies, double-decker buses and Taxis that are black—not yellow, like they’re supposed to be. So strange that even living so close to NYC, even with a father in the music business (which is the reason for our trip), I have to cross an ocean to finally come face to face with this uniquely American music.
This “Jazz” is noise. But only because I’m not listening; not really hearing. “This is boring. There aren’t any words,” I say. My father turns to me truly bewildered, his voice uncharacteristically displaying the New Yorker in him, as he leans in to where I can hear him and says deadly serious, “What’uh you, nuts? There’s a whole conversation happening there. Listen—hear that bassist? He just asked the piano player a question.”
My face says Huh?
“It’s a language; this is how musicians talk, how they say what they need to say. Listen. Here’s the piano player’s answer.” I do listen. I can relate to this piano player. My hands have similar memories; at that point, five years worth, anyway. After a few minutes, I feel some meaning emerging. Really feel it; it’s not quite a thought—which, I consider for the first time, is maybe what music is for, language that can magically bypass thought if it wants to, and go straight to feelings we understand.
“Now,” my father says, “that drummer’s going to add his two cents.” I focus and listen as my heart shifts its rhythm to match his. The discussion unfolding before me has me rapt. Nothing he’s doing falls on the convenient and familiar 1-2-3 or 4, but it works. All of it works—the rolls, and seemingly languid laying-back on the beat that arrives just in time. He’s so relaxed. He’s the definition of cool.
Then, I will never forget, a young man with blond hair and a trumpet comes to the forefront. That ten-year-old me thinks everyone is old, but the adult who looks back knows this “man” was probably somewhere in his 20’s, maybe even his early 20’s. I think of him as the Patron Saint of Jazz, even though I don’t know his name. Perhaps you didn’t know there was such a thing, but I assure you there are many. I’ve seen them everywhere, especially in NYC. Just when stress or difficulty seems poised to overtake one, they appear there in the park, or next to the drug store, or the subway platform, their case open for your offerings as they send theirs through the airwaves. They blow or strum or drum or pluck their way into your consciousness, like a shaft of light let into a dark room, reminding you that there is something else you forgot amid all your sleepy, automatic comings and goings. There is that current of Life beneath the life circumstance; that spark that comes through in the lulls between trains and appointments and meetings.
So this young man steps forth, brings the horn to his lips and fingers the valves to speak his part in the dialogue. He begins, and within seconds he is gone. Simply gone; eclipsed by something celestial, the glint in his eyes rivals the sparkling brass in the stage lights. He is somewhere else, and the whole room has gone right there with him. The music is loud, but you can tell that all the cacophony of the patrons' chatter and silverware has ceased. No tables are being bused, no drink orders taken. All heads are turned toward this young man and his horn, the center of the universe, blazing like the Sun, no longer two separate entities, unified, flowing, divine.
How can this be real? There are no more rules, no straight lines; only freedom, and the great expanse of the creative spirit. I’m not whining anymore. I can’t speak. My mouth is hanging open. My father rips his eyes from the band to look at me, knowingly, smiling, relieved. She gets it, he is thinking. This is my child. Now she knows.
It goes on forever, this man’s solo, and yet it ends too soon. Oh to be that nimble, that knowing. His lips are glued to his horn, but still you can feel his smile. He knows he’s good—better than good—this is distinctly clear in my memory. He’s giving everything he has, and he floats as he feels the crowd taking it in, joined to him like a lover, awed by the connection, speechless and hungry for more.
Eventually, he winds down, leveling off. Only the rhythm section is pulsating now, almost a whisper, reverent, as he lowers the horn, coyly smiles, and nods at the band, and then the crowd.
There is a noticeably long pause amid those assembled; mouths agape and silent as if an angel had just appeared and revealed a stunning secret. Then, the crowd draws its collective breath . . . and explodes like a supernova.
The rhythm section is drowned out. People rise to their feet hollering, clapping, smiling in sheer amazement and gratitude. They turn to each other, to strangers even, shaking their heads as if to say, “Can you believe what just happened?”
And I am crying.
And smiling. And clapping so hard my hands hurt.
My life, and music, are forever altered in that London basement.
Even at ten, I am thinking, I can barely believe how many ways there are to know God.
I am thinking, For the rest of my life, this is how we will speak to each other.
Image credit: Nick White