NOAHJAZZ - NB PONTIFICATES

MY REFLECTIONS ON MUSIC, LIFE, FOOD AND WHO KNOWS WHAT ELSE . . .

The New Administration, Butt Boils, and MLK’s Persistence

I have been attuned to the significance of Martin Luther King Day for my whole adult life. This year feels different, mostly because this occasion comes days before a particularly consequential change in our presidency. So that brings us, of course, to getting gross and painful butt boils.

It’s not a particularly fun topic, but I think now is the time. When I was in college I started having regular problems with painful, infected sores on my butt cheeks, bad enough to make sitting difficult (which is a particularly inconvenient obstacle for someone in music school to study the piano). At a certain point, a campus doctor who knew maybe a little about Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (and who on that occasion was taking on the task of lancing a particularly agonizing boil) suggested that with my fragile tissue, this was perhaps an inevitability of sitting on hard benches, and perhaps I might benefit from using a cushion. So I stole one from my roommate’s couch, and when I remembered to use it started to experience much less of this problem . . . and when I didn’t remember, well, the results were predictable.

So, all of y’all who’ve seen me whip out a cushion when I have to sit virtually anywhere, this is why. And sometimes I don’t do it for any number of reasons. I don’t remember to bring it or I miscalculate the seat surfaces of wherever I’m going or I sit down unexpectedly without thinking much of it or I just determine that it’ll look stupid to do so and don’t want that. And sometimes I get away with it and sometimes I go back down the Road of Boils again.

So this past weekend I was in NYC on behalf of Resonant Motion, presenting at the National Conference for Chamber Music America. Specifically, I was organizing and moderating a panel discussion on Creating and Presenting Socially Conscious Art. It was an extremely important and gratifying experience, followed by some quality time with some inspiring people, one of whom joined me on the subway ride back. I was deep in conversation with him, overwhelmed by my awareness that less than 48 hours later I would be shifting gears to eulogizing my mother at her memorial, totally exhausted physically, carrying a lot of stuff, and emotionally overwhelmed by the awareness that I should have been commiserating with Claire about the whole experience before and after. So I didn’t feel like fishing through my backpack for my cushion and thus sat on the subway without it. When I got back to where I was staying and got ready for bed, I felt that certain irritation in my butt that suggested that I may have opened that unfortunate door (the back door, if you will). So as consciousness faded away, two things not directly butt-related bounced around my consciousness: Martin Luther King, and the upcoming shift in government.

In 2014, as I undertook the CD release tour for my Ripples album, I decided that I would eschew music in the many hours in the car and listen to speeches instead, about 85% of them Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s. For full disclosure, I wasn’t actually looking to glean much from the content, which I had studied in such depth ten years earlier as I prepared the music for my “Soul Force” album, dedicated to his life and work. In this instance I had determined that my capacity to use my music in service of human transformation and social responsibility was being held back by limitations and flaws in my public speaking. As such, I was diving into hours of speeches by Dr. King primarily for the oratory itself. But, of course, I couldn’t help but pay attention to WHAT he was saying.

On that occasion what struck me most was how many of his speeches through the years focused on what in the grander scheme of his life’s work seems like minutiae. Yes, of course he was discussing the broader ideas and mandates of equality and justice, but so much of it was focused on very specific strategies. We mostly think of the Reverend in terms of how comprehensively he brought about change, and in that context it is sobering to hear him talking about a specific initiative in a specific city where he worked with citizens banding together to put pressure on a specific group of local stores to bring about greater opportunity and equity within that community’s economic and social landscape.

I wish I could claim to be sufficiently enlightened that my immediate response was one of inspiration, but actually my first response was that this was kind of depressing. I suppose I was naively looking for “this is how we will change everything!” – after all, who wants to hear a great leader and motivator talking about how they’ve almost figured out how to fix that leaky pipe under the bathroom sink. But I made myself sit with it and, of course, realized that this is what resistance and overcoming look like in real life. Shouting “viva la resistance” from the rooftop is important too, but doing the grunt work day in and day out on a consequential (even if comparatively unglamorous level) is utterly essential to real change. Just like my butt doesn’t care about all the reasons why I didn’t take care of it the other night (and it’s not going to issue a “no boils” edict because of that), the forces of oppression and greed aren’t going to wait for the forces of good to buck up emotionally or calculate a strategy. It’s the persistence in all the small stuff that is largely behind the transformation we celebrate this time every year.

And as we inhabit a time when it seems that there is a new threat every time we turn our heads, we must remember this. It is SO easy to get demoralized by the whole situation and feel as though there is nothing we can do. But each positive step we take is important. For some that will mean organizing protests or lobbying for specific policies. For some it will mean working to support those who are likely to become more vulnerable. For some it will mean simply taking care of themselves so they can recover from other challenges and remain in the game, so to speak. And this is likely to shift for a given individual. But just as using a cushion every day can keep my butt on the piano bench (and thus, if I dare say so, able to make an impact that way), consistent persistence in service of what we know to be right action is in and of itself a contribution to the world. Even if all we can do is keep ourselves strong and healthy and sane while we wait in the wings for the right occasion to stand up, that is in and of itself participation. Even if impact of our persistence is so local in scope that few take notice, we are still part of the greater good. As we march towards a time of challenge and uncertainty, we can also be marching to justice and freedom, remembering that such a march takes many steady steps. And to keep taking steady steps you need (in addition to a healthy butt) to remember what persistence is about.

Joy Will Find a Way (and the Myth of Lukewarm Water)

I believe that joy will find a way in 2017. I really do. I also think there will be pain, some of it residual and bleeding into the New Year and some of it relating to new hurts that still lie before us. So much of the richness of life involves embracing the full scope of experience. Sometimes that means holding joy and suffering in tandem. This, of course, becomes harder to swallow as the suffering reaches the depths of despair, but in a sense that is when it becomes most important to remember. As much as Western binary thinking might challenge this, the existence of one does not negate the other.

There’s a scene I keep going back to from my favorite movie, the mock music documentary “This Is Spinal Tap.” Derek, the bassist in the fictional band is talking about the two visionary bandleaders, expressing that they’re like fire and ice, and he deadpans that he feels his role is to be in between them, kind of like lukewarm water.

I go back to this (I’ll call it DSP, or “Derek Smalls Phenomenon”) because, as funny as I find the quip in the film, it is the opposite of my own experience with the poles of emotion. Maybe it would be easier (or a least easier to explain things) if DSP governed my life, but for me these poles coexist. I started to realize this a few years ago when I realized that I was unable to offer a genuine single-adjective response to the seemingly simple question of “how are you?”

At that time I was doing some deep, dark work in the realm of inner demon-slaying, an exhausting process that left me hyper-aware of painful places inside. And at the same time, I was experiencing moments of real fulfillment in my life. So people would ask me how I was doing and if I was trying to be sincere I would stammer in attempting to fashion a response. By the principles of DSP, the answer would be a very straightforward “okay” and in truth I would generally give that response simply because it was easier. But the more genuine answer would have been “I’m having a really hard time . . . and life is beautiful and inspiring. Lots of fire and lots of ice, very little lukewarm water.”

I’ve been thinking about this as we head into the New Year, with so many around me feeling the pain of experiences that have marred the year that has passed, whether due to politics, loss of heroes, or personal tragedy. Never before 2016 have I heard such widespread sentiment of a calendar year being lousy. Personally, I have great hope, optimism even, that joy will abound in 2017. I do not, however, expect it to push the suffering aside. Indeed, my personal take-away from 2016 is all about the coexistence of fire and ice.

For me the end of 2016 has been gut-wrenching. However, as recently as a couple months ago I would have characterized the year as a wonderful one, if only because of one experience. In April Kate and I legally adopted our two younger daughters, Ariana and Tiana. Though they were 25 and 23 and had been a permanent part of our family for years, I still knew it would be an emotional experience, but I wasn’t fully prepared for HOW emotional it would be. Without getting into the minutiae of that day here (ask me sometime, I’ll gladly tell you all about it), I can say that it changed me.

Specifically, I had a moment walking from the parking lot to the courthouse when I was filled with such gratitude and love that I stopped in the snow to breathe deeply and tell myself “you must never forget how blessed you are that you could experience something this beautiful.” And I have reminded myself of this over and over since then, that redemptive love is not only a beautiful thing to experience but proof that life itself is a blessing.

This is as true now as it was in April . . . and there is some heavy new pain residing beside this joy. I’m learning not to be surprised by the extent to which each is relatively impervious to the other. Some degree of joy might be muted by suffering and some degree of suffering might be healed by joy, but on balance they both remain. So as I spent my last reflective moments in 2016, my grief was still intense, but so was my love and gratitude for my family and more generally to simply have been able to participate in loving interactions, including with those who are no longer here in the physical plane.

The joy can’t erase the pain, and truth be told I personally don’t even wish it could. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no masochist, and just because living with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome has forced me to increase my pain threshold, I hardly enjoy pain. But with EDS, awareness of pain is necessary to be sufficiently attuned to my body – a pain in my hip is what alerts me to the injury or ergonomic misjudgment or whatever issue needs my attention. And so it goes with my heart. My capacity to be a loving, caring person relies on my attunement to what’s actually going on. And if what’s going on is tragic, then attunement will equal suffering. The thing is, for me the suffering of turning away from whatever is going on (and thus inevitably both alienating those also impacted by whatever is going on and failing to nurture my own broken parts) is even less bearable than the suffering of facing it.

But if the joy can’t erase the pain, I do believe it can soothe. In a sense, joy and pain are manifestations of the same energy. If you choose to engage fully and feel deeply, you will invariably experience both to some degree. Living a life that shields you from pain will inherently also shield you from joy, a sacrifice I personally am unwilling to make. I certainly don’t suggest gratuitously inviting pain or suffering into one’s life in a misguided attempt to enhance the experience of joy. Nor am I suggesting that wallowing in suffering is a way to more fully experience life. But the door to joy remains open even amidst pain. Whether the salve it provides is enough to make life bearable is not my place to dictate for anyone else. But I know that amidst every heartbreak I have experienced have been moments of levity and gratitude and love, moments that are in a sense all the more moving because of my awareness of how much I need them. A game of “ice cream store” with my grand-nieces in the hospital cafeteria moments after my mother’s death, or a knowing hug from someone who knew and loved Claire, or delivery of some lasagna when I’m so depleted from it all that I’m virtually paralyzed . . . these things can be enough to remind me that it is not only possible to endure, but totally worth it. Even the adoption last April was so beautiful in part because of how far we had all climbed to get there and how sacred we all knew that to be.

This is why “joy will find a way” (a phrase borrowed from Bruce Cockburn’s song by that title, one of the most beautiful songs about coping with loss that I have heard) still feels potent. And why when I use that phrase here it is not meant to suggest that joy is in some sort of competition with pain, much less one I’m claiming joy will win. But as long as there is one unbroken corner of my heart, joy has its point of entry. The ice of grief may not melt, but the fire of joy can still warm my soul, and as it does I am reminded that I can endure. Whether it is knowing that I will make it through my grief or knowing that I will have the resources to make it through whatever challenges lie ahead, that reassurance can light each step forward, and each step is an affirmation that life goes on.

Love, Loss, and Courage

Well I try to make it go, I try to make it go
But it’s all about the slow ascension
And the mountain feels so high, the mountain feels so high
But is it any match for my intention?

Dear Claire,

I’m not going to lie, I’m having a hard time right now. I know you are extremely busy comforting the countless people who are wrecked by your death (God, it hurts every time I write that), but given your track record of stepping up and helping me out even when you’ve got a lot going on, I thought I’d reach out and see if you can help out with the crisis of faith with which I’m currently wrestling.

“Normally” right now I’d be writing my annual Love Wins-themed blog post to try to find a shred of light or wisdom or encouragement amidst the darkness of the December 14 anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. And you and Gabe would be reaching out and sending love to me and Kate and supporting my public and private remembrance of Ana Grace and the other children as you always do when that date rolls around. Even in grief I’m able to see the irony that as I spent early December bracing myself for the nearly unbearable pain of this annual ritual, I had no idea that the ante of simultaneous pain would be upped in this way or that my nervous system was capable of sustaining that (sort of).

First off, can I tell you how proud of you I am? I am struck by how consistently you were able to offer wisdom into all things Resonant Motion. Which sounds kinda corporate as I read it – really, it means that you were a collaborator in my life’s work ever since I asked you and Gabe to join the RMI team in the early stages back in 2013. Your wisdom went so far beyond your 27 years. I was just thinking about the planning meeting we had for the NY constituents of the Unity Arts Alliance, and how easily and completely you commanded the respect of everyone in a room in which I (15 years your elder) was the next-youngest person there. As your teacher, I saw firsthand the determination and discipline that fomented that wisdom. You could have coasted on talent, but there you were painstakingly learning multiple-chorus Lee Morgan and Clifford Brown solos note for note.

But more than having wisdom in the sense of knowing and articulating information or perspective, you had wisdom in knowing how to be. And a big part of that was your courage. I never saw you shy away from the hard stuff, which manifested in your capacity to fully engage in conversation about difficult subjects. More importantly, you fully engaged in ACTION around difficult subjects. That was in the most literal sense what you were doing right up until the end, and I love you for that more than anything.

You know it’s the reason I treasure your singing so much, too. Many have praised your otherworldly voice, and they’re right. Singing at Bushnell Park with you and Latanya and Mel when Garth couldn’t make the gig gave me a physical sensation that, if it could be bottled, would make us a billion dollars as pharmaceutical magnates. But that’s only one part of why you were a remarkable singer. You were a remarkable singer because your courage allowed you to fully inhabit the most emotionally loaded material with profound grace.

This is why I kept giving you such emotionally loaded material to sing. Amidst the agony when dear Ana Grace and her classmates were murdered, I also agonized over how to express that loss in music without dramatizing it or drawing undue attention to myself. My loophole was making the penultimate track of Ripples a short song based my poem “L’Amour Gagne” (semi-concealing “Love Wins” by changing the language). It needed to be you singing it. I’ve probably listened to you sing it hundreds of times, and I get chills every time.

But those chills actually pale in comparison to what you did with my “The Rock and the Redemption” suite. At the end of the hour-plus of music, there’s this moment. You know the one I’m taking about because I’ve thanked you for it repeatedly (and you of course demurred). I knew that I needed you to sing the culminating verse, the one at the beginning of this letter. I didn’t realize, though, that I’d get weak in the knees every single time I heard you sing the word “ascension.” Those three syllables literally make me think “this is why I make music.” With all due respect to the many other fine singers I know, it could only have been you delivering that.

And I just realized that the last musical sounds we ever created together were at the RMI showcase in Brooklyn this past spring. Appropriately enough, the last tune we did was Franya Berkman’s “Little Ones.” You were singing a song about children who died too early, composed by a wonderful woman who died too early. And you sang it utterly perfectly. I know this, because I forced myself to watch the video today. It was almost unbearable to watch, but it was perfect. What my music will be going forward without you is just one way I’m lost right now, though I recognize that I owe it to you to get found eventually.

I needed to tell you these things now, though I’m thankful that I also did so when you were here. But now I need to talk about the moral conundrum that has been exacerbating my sorrow, anger, and disbelief.

As you know, I spend a lot of my life’s energy encouraging people to live lives governed by peace, love, courage, and generosity, a mandate that deepened when the Marquez-Greene family adopted “Love Wins” as a mantra and I formally committed to making sure my life’s work (for which you were such an important co-conspirator) consciously aligned with that. This commitment is doubly true for my students. It is triply true for the students with whom I become close. It was quadruply true for you. I openly admired and encouraged the proactivity with which you supported people (including your family) through difficult times. We worked together to foment radical love for all.

Preaching that is easy enough when there are universally positive outcomes to be promised (joy! brotherhood! transformation!). But now . . . I know this is not a constructive or even accurate viewpoint, but I’m haunted by the sense that you were martyred for your abundant goodness. I’m crying writing that and I’ve cried every time I’ve thought about it (I know that on earth you never saw me cry, because I pretty much only do so when watching sappy movies).

This is intensified by the post-election climate in which you and I (along with so many others) had already been contemplating the possibility of a reality in which speaking up for love and goodness and caring could become simultaneously more necessary and more risky. Does that mean we should back off or lean in harder? Is a life of selfless adherence to these principles worth the risks that one can avoid by keeping to oneself? Do I have to start appending my beseechments to love one another with potential side effects like a freaking Viagra commercial? Even if I reconcile what happened to you (which, of course, I never will), can I in clear conscience continue to encourage others in the way I have?

Yes, you’re right that these are false binaries and that I’m getting worked up. So I’ll take a pause here to bring the subject of Basha Baerman, my mother, into the conversation.

My mother died peacefully on Friday at age 81, lucid to the end and grateful for having had the opportunity to savor the presence of her family. She would not want an elaborate eulogy here (or, really, any attention at all), so I’ll keep it brief. She was motivated by selfless, unconditional love, particularly for her kids (and eventually grandkids and great grandkids). That was what mattered to her above all. And that was easily the dominant influence she had on my own development. Sure, through her I learned to distinguish Chopin from Mozart in a “blindfold test,” learned to love reading, and learned the verbal and gestural mannerisms that immediately identify me as Jewish even though my spiritual adherence and faith-based education are literally nonexistent. I concluded that the way to be a parent (and, indeed, as a human in the world) is to be governed by love every day, in every decision.

As we’ve discussed, one of the ways I measure the rightness of my actions is by projecting forward to my deathbed. It’s morbid in a way, and it’s also presumptuous (since, as this very conversation so painfully acknowledges, we don’t all get the luxury of that final reflection). But it is an effectively sobering way to anticipate the likelihood of regret and to re-route one’s actions preemptively as necessary. Well, I just spent a good amount of time next to a deathbed, so even before you went away last week, I was reflecting heavily on that.

So from that perspective, I guess the fundamental question is this: in the end, would we want our last reflections (whenever they come) to be of courageously living our principles or of successfully avoiding pain? I’m straining to think of an instance in which I’ve ever heard someone in their golden years express relief that they shied away from emotional involvement and responsibility to a sufficient degree to have enjoyed a long, emotionally detached life. Maybe it’s a thing, but I haven’t ever seen it.

So for some of us, I guess it isn’t really a decision. Sure, there are moment to moment cost/benefit analyses, and sure there are needs to strategically exercise protective boundaries, but in the broader sense the conclusion is self-evident. As far as I’m concerned, love and community and connection are the reasons for living. And yes, if you love, that means you are more engaged with others. Their pain becomes your pain, their risk becomes your risk, and that’s kind of how it goes. You can mitigate it some through being savvy and having healthy boundaries and so on, but on a broad level, what do you do when you hit the crossroads between actively and bravely loving or shrinking back into a definition of love that is inert and sentimental? Courage is in that sense not so much a matter of facing danger as it is a stubborn determination to be undeterred in love, no matter what. You did that. Did I mention that I’m proud of you?

At this point I ask myself this: what would you say to all of these musings and doubts? As I attempt to picture that, I think it would be pretty succinct and would go something like this:

Geez Louise, what are you TALKING about? Golly, if I’m not here to help people, SOMEONE has to do it. Take good care of yourselves . . .  and then get back to work. We have to spread love more intensely than ever.

I think I’m pretty close, right? Well, this is what I/we will do. Love still wins, and it’s still the only thing that does, and we’ll keep on loving, for you, for Ana Grace, for my mom, and especially for everyone left here who needs it. You’ve done a great job of loving boldly and courageously, and one result is there are a whole lot of people who will make sure your family is okay. And we will take care of Gabe, now, 15 years from now, always. I wish so badly that being in it for the long haul didn’t mean going on without you, but I promise that I will, as I can remember you singing with the Wesleyan Jazz Orchestra one of the first times I ever heard you, dust myself off, pick myself up, and start all over again. Dammit, Claire, I’m crying again.

Until we meet again . . .

Love always,
Noah

The Election, Jazz, and Discourse Across Lines

Since the 2016 election, a lot of folks are feeling a lot of different feelings. And expressing a lot of feelings. And feeling very strongly about the distinctions between their feelings and others’ feelings. And in some cases trying really hard to figure out how to find that balance whereby they are true to their beliefs and morals and yet remain able to engage genuine dialogue* with other decent humans who feel (and in some cases voted) differently. And with Thanksgiving coming up, some who aren’t ready to attempt that engagement on a broader societal level will be forced to figure out how to find common ground in their own families. OMIGOD, HOW DO WE DO THIS? Okay, take a breath. And another. The answer, of course, is thinking like a jazz musician. Just work with me for a minute.

* This post is intended for those who WANT to have constructive engagement, but question whether there is a method by which to do so, whether it’s worth the stress, and so on. I have decided at least for now that it is possible and desirable, a decision partly borne of the privilege attached to my status as a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual man whose physical disability is relatively inconspicuous and who isn’t particularly Jewish, hand gestures and capacity to insert random Yiddish words aside. If you have decided for moral and/or strategic reasons that you will not engage with anyone at all complicit in something with such hateful and destructive consequences, then this blog post isn’t for you, unless you enjoy my jazz analogies, in which case read on.

Okay, back to jazz as the answer. You might expect this to be the point where I start talking about jazz as a transformative art form. Or a profound mechanism for collaboration. Or a practice that teaches us how to improvise deftly. Or a genre that provides a wonderful model for multiculturalism. All that’s true, but I’m actually looking at it from the far more mundane angle of trying to put forth something in which the statistical majority of people have no interest whatsoever, yet not closing that door.

I create jazz and it’s very important to me that it be authentic and that my peers and elders in the jazz community view it as such. In a very real sense, those are the ears I hoped to reach when I was in the dues-paying process, both for practical reasons (reaching those folks = gigs) and emotional ones (praise from musicians who I admire = the pinnacle of validation). But it has never been my goal for the notes I put forth to resonate only in the echo chamber of jazz musicians and fans. All the work I’ve done has been in service of trying to communicate universal truth in the most compelling way possible, so the more of that universe I can reach as I share those sounds, the better.

I also recognize that a statistical majority of people who aren’t already jazz fans will never be. Some people just reject all that it is and stands for, so I can’t get wrapped up in them. Some people actually like related forms of music or art and abstractly COULD like jazz but are too invested in whatever biases or self-identifications preclude that (“I’m a grown-up, and even if broccoli or jazz are delightful AND good for you, you can’t MAKE me consume either one!”). These folks aren’t hopeless (from a “getting through” standpoint), but trying to persuade them is generally not energy well invested. But then there are some folks who actually COULD get down with the music and haven’t yet been given that point of entry, whether it be exposure to compelling music in an unexpected setting, or interest stemming from a personal connection to a musician or a fan, or simply hearing the right song at the right time that makes the synapses connect in a new way.

This is the sub-population that guides my decisions about musical inclusiveness. To be clear, for me it is a given that diluting the music is unacceptable. If I hear F-sharp in my head and I know that it would make the music more accessible to play F-natural, you can be damn sure I’ll play F-sharp – not out of defiance, not to challenge, but simply because it’s my job to obey the emotional and spiritual “truth” of the music as I hear it. So if we accept that the sincerity of the music is the top priority, the question becomes how to frame what I do. Is “soulful and probing music for soulful and thoughtful people” a compromise compared to “music for jazz fans and not the closed-minded morons who don’t get it?” In a sense, the only real difference is in leaving open the possibility of letting those in who don’t yet “get it.” Some of that is a matter of how the music is framed. Some of it is our energy as musicians – this may be difficult to quantify, but if the music is a sincere outward reflection of an inner state, then I believe there is a difference between music made out of love for all present compared to music made with contempt for those who don’t get it.

Making music is an emotionally vulnerable thing, so it takes strength and discipline not to capitulate to frustration in that regard when people don’t respond as we want them to, but there are two important reasons to stay resolute. One is that transformation takes good-spirited persistence. Someone who doesn’t like jazz is unlikely to be completely converted in an instant, but every step in the right direction is progress. The other is that unless you’re the musical equivalent of a “private dancer,” every interaction can impact other people – even if a given person is frustratingly unresponsive, the response to that response will be noticed by everyone else present.

I’m remembering the first big CD release show I did on the little tour celebrating the “Ripples” album. As I introduced the tune “Ripples,” I began to explain the somber but hopefully inspiring story of my Aunt Margie’s passing and how her commitment to goodness impacted a wide swath of people, something that provided the emotional and conceptual basis for the whole album. And people were really getting it and were clearly moved . . . with the notable exception of one table that clearly had the disposable income to pay a substantial cover charge to drink, talk, laugh, and generally whoop it up, oblivious to what was going on. The whooping really started crescendoing as I was telling this story, and of course they were sitting RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME. In that moment it would have been very easy and very tempting to just shut down, truncate the story, and play a quick and dispirited version of the song, but I didn’t. I knew that even if the folks at that table had proven beyond reasonable doubt that they had no intention of “getting it,” it would be a shame to miss out on the chance that was right at my fingertips to connect with others in the room who were on that precipice. Feedback afterward suggested that this is exactly what happened – it doesn’t always work that way, but it does often enough to affirm that I would be foolish to squander the opportunity.

Part of what makes this tricky is that, of course, I don’t know HOW open someone is up front. I can make an educated guess based on other factors, but it’s an inexact science. If one has the stomach for failure or rejection, however, the benefit (the ROI, if you will) of putting oneself out there is pretty hard to argue against. Let’s say that 80% of Americans have NO capacity to like jazz (I don’t think it’s nearly that many, but for the sake of conservative estimates, let’s go with that). Of the remaining folks, let’s say that 80% who could like jazz never will allow themselves to listen to it because they’re too invested in a jazz-rejecting identity. Of the remaining folks, let’s say that 80% still won’t get it if they put on my record or enter a venue where I’m playing. That leaves a “tiny” sub-population who will be moved by my music . . . a number 7 times greater than the number who bought Adele’s last album. The statistics are obviously contrived, but hopefully they help to convey the point that seemingly insignificant odds can still represent a game-changing impact in a world in which a seemingly small number of “fans” can turn the tide in one’s success as an artist. If I’m aloof, if I’m rude, if I lapse into “jazz nerd talk” that excludes “ordinary” people, I’m closing a door for no good reason other than lacking the patience to keep it open.

And so here we circle back around to politics. The same principles and tactics apply, but instead of different layers of propensity to enjoy jazz, we’re looking at worldview and politics. Let’s say a certain percentage of those who voted a particular way are nasty, hateful bigots. I’m not suggesting we devote ourselves to rehabilitating them against their will, but there are others not in that category. So among those not in that category, let’s say that some are abstractly less far away philosophically, but not interested in engaging in genuine dialogue. Fine, it’s probably not worth devoting our time and energy to someone whose only mode of discussion is one-way. But that’s still not everyone. So among those who ARE open to discussion, some will ultimately leave any discussion having drawn the same conclusions with which they entered. But not everybody. And if that small percentage of that small percentage of that small percentage view things from a different lens, you’ve actually made a profound, measurable difference. And that’s even assuming that we have the capacity to measure whether seeds we plant with folks who we conclude are “hopeless” will die in the ground or possibly germinate slowly.

As with the purity or sincerity of musical ideas, and as I said up front, this all presupposes that you are not compromising your beliefs. I am not recommending that you say “well, okay, it is true that SOMETIMES grabbing a woman by the p**** is pretty cool” as a means of artificially manufacturing common ground. But if you’re expressing yourself sincerely, you can do so in a way that’s inclusive or in a way that automatically excludes those who don’t already agree with you. Suggesting that someone’s choice of a vote automatically attaches a pejorative noun to them (e.g. “You are a [insert bad thing here]”) automatically shuts down conversation. Is it worth it? Is it the only way to communicate the gravity of the subject matter? Or is it simply a means of letting go of your conversational discipline because you’re upset and/or don’t feel it’s worth choosing your words in a careful and dignified way? If you stop and look within on a case-by-case basis, you will find the answer.

I’ve written before on this blog about the power of intention, something I’ll simply reference here by saying I have seen incredible transformation in people whose views I thought to be iron-clad. Not every time I’ve tried (or even close), and seldom quickly, but it has happened. And honestly, just knowing that is enough for me to find the inner strength to keep trying, even though I know the odds in any given moment may be long. The odds that we will be free of consequences if we stop trying to find civility where we can are even longer.

Top 10 Favorite Tracks Featuring Bob Cranshaw

The music world lost one of the most prolific providers of bottom end when bassist Bob Cranshaw passed away yesterday. I first heard Bob live right after I began college in 1992, when I went with my friend Jeff Grace (now an acclaimed film composer) to hear his former teacher and one of my heroes, James Williams. It was at Tavern on the Green and while I was already a big fan of JW’s work, I was really taken by how hard the rhythm section (Bob and Billy Drummond) was swinging. I was fairly familiar with Bob’s work, though I didn’t actually realize at that point that he was mostly playing electric bass, something that in one sense makes it all the more special in hindsight that he was playing the upright bass so elegantly and effortlessly.

These are some of my favorite performances of Bob’s. With hundreds and hundreds of records to his credit, many of them classic, I had to leave off a lot of important ones, including some that I particularly love by Max Roach, Barry Harris, Jaki Byard, Eddie Harris, Duke Pearson, Grant Green, Shirley Scott, Yusef Lateef, Mary Lou Williams, and Joe Locke (as well as Stanley Turrentine, Bobby Hutcherson, and Wayne Shorter, who are at least represented below as sidemen).

The list is in chronological order rather than order of preference. All these tracks are in-print, so treat yourself to some listening today in Mr. Cranshaw’s memory.

1 ) “Egyptic” from Daddy-O Presents MJT +3 (by MJT +3)

Bob’s first session, from even before this group added Frank Strozier and Harold Mabern. He swings wonderfully and takes a nice solo – this is also fun for hearing Richard Abrams (not yet Muhal) playing in a straight-ahead context.

2 ) “Them There Eyes” from Carmen McRae Sings Lover Man and Other Billie Holiday Classics (by Carmen McRae).

I love Bob’s work with singers, and this early example of his accompanying work is particularly fun, as Carmen’s opening reading of the melody features only the accompaniment of Bob and his MJT +3 bandmate, drummer Walter Perkins. Then the rest of the band (Lockjaw Davis, Norman Simmons, Mundell Lowe, and eventually Nat Adderley) enter and things start cooking on another level.

3 ) “Without A Song” from The Bridge (by Sonny Rollins)

Of course, Bob’s more than 50 year relationship with Sonny Rollins can’t be overlooked. It just so happens that my favorite of these moments of Bob is the first track (though not the first-recorded track) of their first record together. Between the extended bass solo and the relatively sparse playing of Jim Hall and Ben Riley sparse playing, Bob really gets room to shine on this infectiously swinging tune.

4 ) “The Coaster” from Evolution (by Grachan Moncur, III)

Though perhaps most associated with straight-ahead jazz, Bob was far from conservative. His thumping bass fits in perfectly with Bobby Hutcherson’s vibes and Tony Williams’ crackling drums on this track (and the innovative record from which it comes), also of course featuring Jackie McLean and Lee Morgan.

5 ) “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” from Inside Betty Carter (by Betty Carter)

Another vocal track, and an opportunity to show off Bob’s way with a ballad. Betty certainly kept her band on its toes, and Bob keeps things buoyant through all the twists and turns.

6 ) “Inner Urge” from Inner Urge (by Joe Henderson)

Quick: your top ten classic jazz albums (by non-bassists) in which the first solo on the record is by the bassist. Okay, time’s up. Really, though, what knocks me out most is not Bob’s solo but the way in which he, McCoy Tyner, and Elvin Jones keep things so propulsive without lapsing into predictability. Bob could walk quarter notes with the best of them, but this reinforces how much else he had up his sleeve.

7 ) “You Go to My Head” from The Gigolo (by Lee Morgan)

Bob is responsible for many memorable bass lines on “groove” tunes. While “The Sidewinder” is probably the most popular, I have always loved the line that he and Harold Mabern play atop a Billy Higgins groove as a recurring pattern throughout this utterly delightful arrangement that also features Wayne Shorter.

8 ) “Serenade to a Soul Sister” from Serenade to a Soul Sister (by Horace Silver)

I almost picked Psychedelic Sally to demonstrate an early example of his electric playing (in the context of his extensive work with Horace) but decided instead on this track from the same session. This bluesy yet harmonically and rhythmically modern waltz features Stanley Turrentine and Charles Tolliver in the front line, and it’s fascinating to hear how Bob and Billy Cobham find the sweet spot of addressing that modernity yet keeping it soulful as one would expect from Horace.

9 ) “Delores St S.F.” from Sunset to Dawn (by Kenny Barron)

In a sense this is a contrast to the previous track. That is, here we get to check out Bob’s nuanced mastery of the electric bass in a straight-ahead context, on Kenny’s ethereal waltz/ballad also featuring Freddie Waits and the atmospheric percussion of Warren Smith and Richard “Pablo” Landrum.

10 ) “Send In the Clowns” from Sa Va Bella (for Lady Legends) by Milt Jackson

Have you ever wanted to hear this melancholy Sondheim waltz swung like crazy? Well then Milt Jackson’s your man. Which, of course, he should be anyway. It seems fitting to wrap up the list with one of the last recordings by Milt’s great quartet with Bob, Mike LeDonne, and Mickey Roker.

Top 10 Favorite Steve Wilson tracks

I am just thrilled that Resonant Motion gets to bring Steve Wilson in tomorrow to share his sublime playing, wonderful compositions, and affable, thoughtful manner with my community in Middletown, CT. The occasion has given me the impetus to dig into some of my favorite Wilsonian music through the years.

My first time hearing Steve was on the Spiral Staircase album by OTB (the Blue Note “super group” in which he replaced Kenny Garrett), but I don’t think it registered, because I was a senior in high school and mainly concerned with the presence of Ralph Bowen and Michael Philip Mossman, both of whom I was about to begin studying with in college, which my friend Amanda Monaco was hip enough to alert me to (she, as it turned out, went on to study with Steve a few years later).

My first time hearing Steve live and being fully aware of his presence was a revelation. It was 1993 and he was playing alongside my mentor Kenny Barron in the group of Buster Williams (with which he’d go on to play quite a bit through the years). His soulful, assertive work on alto and soprano saxophone was revelatory, and I began absorbing much of his work as a leader and as a sideman.

The biggest revelation, though, came when he played on 3 tracks of my Soul Force album. It was 2004 and I sucked it up and contacted his manager, Laura Hartmann – though Steve and I had become acquainted by that point, I was braced for “go ‘way kid, ya bother me.” I not only got a “yes,” but some enlighteningly professional work in the sense that everything about it went smoothly and put me at ease, from his preparedness to his warmth. But man, once the tape rolled, he KILLED it. Every take, every solo, every moment of section work. On the ride back from NY that day, Omer, the young assistant I had helping me in the studio that day, just kept saying “man, Steve Wilson.” That about summed it up.

I could go on and on, but I’d like to get to the music. Because he has been so active, I’ve had to leave out sessions by some important ongoing colleagues of his like Ralph Peterson, Bruce Barth, Christian McBride, Billy Drummond, Victor Lewis, David Berkman, and Darrell Grant, as well as more “isolated” (from the discographical sense) appearances on records by Dave Holland, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Roberta Piket, Roz Corral, and others. Now on to some of my favorites:

1 ) “A Joyful Noise (for JW)” from Generations

Two of the most important pianists in the Steve Wilson lineage are the great James Williams and Mulgrew Miller, both sadly no longer with us. Mulgrew’s soulful, modern playing was a wonderful complement for Steve, and theirs is the perfect team to pay tribute to James. The rhythm section of Ray Drummond and Ben Riley was actually the other 2/3 of James’ trio the last time I heard him play, a few months before his passing, and they swing hard on this appropriately soulful waltz. And yes, I’ve used the word soulful multiple times here. Soulful soulful soulful.

2 ) “Monk Medley Part 2 (Bright Mississippi, Four In One)” from Duologue by Steve Wilson and Lewis Nash

Do check out Steve’s duo with drummer Lewis Nash the next chance you get. Steve’s deep relationship with Thelonious Monk’s music is put to great use on this track, but the whole album is full of groove and sublime interaction.

3 ) “Go East Young Man” from The Sequel by Mulgrew Miller and Wingspan

This incarnation of Wingspan features a front line of Steve, trumpeter Duane Eubanks, and Steve’s frequent and fruitful collaborator Steve Nelson on vibes. I dare say this track is one of the most swinging things I’ve heard recorded in the last 15 years, making me miss Mulgrew all the more. Steve’s soprano work is a definite highlight.

4 ) “Perry Street” from Live In New York: the Vanguard Sessions

This hard-swinging and harmonically evocative tune comes from Steve’s most recent record as a leader, featuring his Wilsonian Grain quartet, with Orrin Evans on piano, Ugonna Okegwo on bass, and Bill Stewart on drums.

5 ) “Illusion” from the Traveler by Kenny Barron

We need to make sure Steve’s lyrical ballad playing is represented, and I can’t think of a better way than on this soprano feature with Kenny, one of the living masters of ballad playing.

6 ) “Four” from A Week at the Blue Note by Chick Corea flute

Steve’s fruitful tenure in Chick’s Origin sextet (with yet another important collaborator named Steve, one of my early mentors, trombonist Steve Davis) was fortunately well documented. There is some great original music by Chick, but I also have a particular fondness for the extended live romps from this multi-album set. Hearing Steve burn on this tune is a definite highlight.

7 ) “Tortola” from Soulful Song

This Wilson original is indeed a soulful song, all the more so due the sympathetic interplay with pianist Bruce Barth, bassist Ed Howard, and drummer Adam Cruz, Steve’s go-to quartet for years.

8 ) “The Hunted” from The Child Within by Billy Childs

Steve takes an utterly burning alto solo on this one, prodded along by Childs’ comping and the great rhythm section work of Dave Holland and Jeff “Tain” Watts, both of whom would later feature Steve on their own excellent recordings.

9 )  “Galapagos” from Written in the Rocks by Renee Rosnes

Two of Steve’s most frequent collaborators are heard on this gorgeous track from a session released earlier this year by pianist Renee Rosnes. Renee, Steve’s bandmate in OTB (and a frequent collaborator since), composed this tune that features Steve’s gorgeous flute playing as well as a solo turn by, once again, the great Steve Nelson on vibes.

10 ) “Passages” from Boogaloo Brasiliero by Freddie Bryant

Steve’s flute is heard once again. It seems an appropriate bookend to this list as well in that this harmonically rich, rhythmically multifaceted tune featured prominently when Freddie was the first guest artist in the Jazz Up Close series.

Honorable Mention: “Truth, Justice, and the Blues” from Truth, Justice, and the Blues by James Williams and the ICU

I put this one separately because a) it’s out of print, and b) the work of the James Williams Intensive Care Unit (particularly the live shows I saw, buoyed by the wonderfully complementary work of the steady core of Steve, Miles Griffith, John Lockwood, and Yoron Israel) is so special to me that I have trouble quantifying it. The group’s first album features wonderful saxophone work from both Steve and Bill Pierce, but this track is all Steve, with his alto soaring over the hard-swinging backdrop.

Top 10 Favorite Bobby Hutcherson Tracks

Aside from being in shock that Bobby Hutcherson is gone, I struggle to figure out a way to summarize his musical contributions. Among all the great musicians in jazz history, there is a sub-set of those who maintain unique voices, yet have the versatility to seamlessly integrate into a wide variety of environments, who have equal measures of sensitivity and fire, restraint and chops, melodicism and harmonic sophistication, mastery of their instruments yet capacity to transcend those limitations and simply use those instruments as a mechanism for transmitting something deep, directly from the soul. Bobby Hutcherson’s legacy could be defined in terms of his contributions as a vibraphonist (and marimbist), jazz soloist, and/or composer, but for me his music will always be defined by the way his infectious warmth and rugged creative searching shattered any listener’s capacity to put the resulting music into a rigid box.

Indeed my development as a jazz musician is dotted with important, ear-opening moments that feature Bobby. Some are referenced below, like hearing Jackie McLean’s Destination . . . Out for the first time in an LP listening station at the Hartt School with Jimmy Greene, Kris Allen and Jason Berg while I was a teenager studying at the Artists’ Collective. Some are not, like Tom Brislin hipping me to Herbie Hancock’s “Theme From Blow-Up” (as played on Bobby’s Oblique album) or hearing Joe Henderson’s Mode for Joe for the first time, or picking up the Color Schemes record at the local library and hearing Bobby’s incredible interplay with Mulgrew Miller (and . . . okay, now I’m cheating). Suffice it to say that it’s challenging to narrow down to the point that I’m omitting not only great albums but entire collaborative histories of his important work with Andrew Hill, Dexter Gordon, Cedar Walton, McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Cowell, and others. We’ll miss him tremendously, but what a body of work.

So without any further ado:

1 ) “Little B’s Poem” from Components

Written for his then-young son, Bobby’s best-loved composition is 100% deserving of that recognition. A lovely waltz that, in this performance, manages to be dramatically passionate and liltingly gentle at the same time. In addition to Bobby, there are gorgeous solos by James Spaulding on flute and frequent playing partner Herbie Hancock on piano. The rhythm section ebbs and flows amazingly, thanks to the sensitivity of bassist Ron Carter and debatably Bobby’s most important collaborator of the 1960s, drummer Joe Chambers.

2 ) “Khalil the Prophet” from Destination . . . Out by Jackie McLean

Because of the diversity of Bobby’s artistry, it’s difficult to find a single context in which we hear everything he has to offer. A case could be made, though, that we get pretty close on this album, Jackie McLean’s One Step Beyond, and Grachan Moncur, III’s Evolution, the three cutting-edge albums featuring J-Mac, Grachan and Bobby together. We hear Bobby take an authoritative solo after comping for the two horns with assertiveness and sensitivity that render other chord-playing instruments wholly unnecessary and show why he was so valued as an alternative to piano or guitar in groups like those of Eric Dolphy and Archie Shepp. With all due respect to Gary Burton, it is in this music that I hear the direct antecedent of the comping of Joe Locke, Bryan Carrott and so many other modern vibraphonists serving as the sole chord-playing instrument in a rhythm section while also functioning as major soloists.

3 ) “Goin’ Down South” from San Francisco

This album is another great example of his collaboration with saxophonist Harold Land. It’s a little weird not to include one of Bobby’s own compositions on this list, but this performance of Joe Sample’s tune to my ears stands along “Cantaloupe Island,” “The Sidewinder,” and “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” among the most potent backbeat tunes in the straight-ahead jazz lexicon.

4 ) “Ice Cream Man” from Solo/Quartet

I have to thank Chris Dingman for introducing me to this tune when, as an undergraduate at Wesleyan, he arranged it for the Wesleyan Percussion Ensemble, opening for Bobby when Jay Hoggard brought his friend and mentor to perform on campus in 2002. This is a multi-tracked solo mallet percussion extravaganza, beautiful, haunting, and deep – I have yet to listen to this (which I’ve probably done hundreds of times by this point) without hearing a nuance I’ve missed on previous occasions.

5 ) “Herzog” from Total Eclipse

I’ve assigned this tune to student ensembles often enough to gain an even further appreciation of how tricky it is, and thus how remarkable it is that Bobby, Harold Land, Chick Corea, Reggie Johnson, and Joe Chambers make it sound utterly effortless.

6) “Step Lightly” from The Kicker

Anyone fond of my writing for vibes might want to check out this record as well as Grant Green’s Idle Moments for a glimpse of my point of reference. My extended Know Thyself suite, in particular, draws very direct inspiration from the very particular saxophone-guitar-vibraphone blend that Bobby, Grant, and Joe Henderson manage to achieve on these sessions, with this lovely track as a particularly inspiring example for me.

7 ) “Mandrake” from Iron Man (sometimes issued as Memorial Album) by Eric Dolphy

As much as I love Bobby’s work on Dolphy’s iconic Out to Lunch album, this more obscure record is actually my favorite. Something about the ensemble blend is deeply moving to me, and the great feature spots by Bobby, Eric and Woody Shaw certainly don’t hurt.

8 ) “Now” from Now!

This lovely composition documents several important things, including the beginning of Bobby’s working relationship with pianist Kenny Barron, his wonderful sensitivity on ballads, and maybe most significantly the beginning of his work with choral music and less common orchestrations, something even more evident elsewhere on this cutting-edge album.

9 ) “Oatmeal” from Plays the Truth by Les McCann Ltd.

When I was in my early 20s I was given a two-record compilation of 1960s recordings on the Pacific Jazz label, and through several tracks on that I discovered what a strong, swinging (a la Milt Jackson, though with his own sound) straight-ahead vibraphonist Bobby was on the West Coast both before he made it to NY and established himself in more “progressive” musical environments and subsequently (on Gerald Wilson recordings, for example). This hard-swinging blues tune from 1960 nicely represents that vital facet of his musical personality.

10 ) “Kiss to the Skies” from Beyond the Wall by Kenny Garrett

Given how heavily this list represents the 1960s, it seems appropriate to wrap this list up by showing how long Bobby kept his artistic vitality. Recorded 10 years ago, this searing Kenny Garrett date (featuring the late Mulgrew Miller, the pianist on the first Bobby Hutcherson record I ever heard) blends Bobby’s vibes excellently with the saxophones of Kenny and Pharaoh Sanders.

Phoebe Snow, St. Peter, and the meaning(s) of “Legacy”

I’m a fan of Phoebe Snow from two different angles, angles that one might even deem at odds with one another.  As I contemplate what in music resonates the most with me (something I do approximately 5 times a day) and ponder what life is about (something I do approximately 10 times a day), Phoebe keeps coming to my mind.

From the first angle, Phoebe came up with a remarkable debut album in 1974 (eponymously named) and announced her arrival on the music scene with a degree of soulfulness and artistic vitality that seemed a sure harbinger of world-beating triumph. And then a couple years later, her daughter Valerie was born, with severe disabilities. Rejecting suggestions that she institutionalize Valerie, Phoebe devoted herself to her daughter’s care for the duration of Valerie’s 31-year life. She continued to make music as feasible along the way, but the trajectory was clearly changed. She performed a bit more after Valerie’s passing, but that period lasted less than two years, cut short by a cerebral hemmorage in 2010 that ended her career and led to hear own death the following year. Her legacy will endure, but as with a transcendent athlete who suffers a career-altering injury, it will on some level be marked with “what ifs.”

From the second angle, Pheobe found enlightenment as she came up with (or maybe was thrust into) a remarkable life. She spent the statistical bulk of her adult life enmeshed in the sacred task of caregiving. Bookending that stretch of 31 years, we can look at short periods of comparatively unencumbered musical activity that most of us should be so lucky as to have, with an admirable maintenance of her skills in between (not to mention another half dozen records). But really the sheer devotion to goodness will endure more powerfully than anything. And a case could be made that the compromises had less to do with musical quality and more to do with visibility and the trappings of stardom. That is, she wasn’t deprived of potent music-making so much as the context of her life resulted in a narrower audience.

Of course we’ll never really know the full scope of her own feelings about all this, and it’s up to us to use the Phoebe Snow parable in whatever way makes the most philosophical sense to us. Is her tale a sad one? An inspiring one? One from which we should learn lessons or one that should simply make us grateful for what we have?

Me, I have been stewing for months over the vision of Phoebe meeting St. Peter at the pearly gates. Spiritual though I may consider myself to be, I’m not a religious man. But the image of a morally just figure serving as an arbiter of goodness and assessing worthiness for eternal paradise gives a concrete vision to the question of how to assess a life’s work. As I navigate my own choices in life, career, art, and navigation of obstacles (physical and otherwise) I often go back to the question of “in the end, what will matter?” That has been true for a few years now, but comparatively recent is the St. Peter imagery.

More specifically, as I’ve gone on a Phoebe Snow listening kick in recent months, I have thought about her life and asked myself “did St. Peter care that she never won a Grammy?” And, subsequently, “if not, then how much do those things REALLY matter?” That could be a sour grapes response, but for me it has been a helpful way to calibrate and refine my own priorities. Given how many formative perceptions of mine have revolved around “legacy” defined in terms of accolades and quantifiable accomplishments, it has been an interesting zone of contemplation.

So I finally wrote a song about it. I’ll play it for you sometime – in the meantime, here are the lyrics:

Valerie’s Arms (music & lyrics by Noah Baerman, (c) 2016, Chedda Chowda Music, ASCAP)

For 31 years, Phoebe took one for the team
That ain’t what you think when you picture livin’ the dream
Where were the number ones, the pretty gold statuettes?
I guess that’s what a life of virtue gets . . .

But I saw St. Peter
He was waitin’ there to meet her
He said she was a world beater
‘Til Valerie was gone
He don’t care ’bout no Grammys
He don’t run that kind of scam, he’s
In tune with what’s really goin’ on
He’s in tune with what’s really goin’ on

In ‘75, Phoebe’s songs were front page news
From Poetry Man all the way to Harpo’s Blues
Peter’s her biggest fan, of the songs that are slick yet wild
But mostly he digs the care she gave her child

Yes I saw St. Peter
He was waitin’ there to meet her
He said she was a world beater
‘Til Valerie was gone
He don’t care ’bout no Grammys
He don’t run that kind of scam, he’s
In tune with what’s really goin’ on

He said if I let them in on talent alone
Then maybe we’d have the baddest nightclub in the universe
But I look for kindness down to the bone
And between you and me, the music really isn’t any worse

So was it a curse, a blessing, or a compromise?
You’d have to ask Phoebe, way up there in the skies.
But whenever I contemplate the loyalty that she vowed
I know she’s in Valerie’s arms up on a cloud

‘Cause I saw St. Peter
He was waitin’ there to meet her
He said she was a world beater
‘Til Valerie was gone
He don’t care ’bout no Grammys
He don’t run that kind of scam, he’s
In tune with what’s really goin’ on
He’s in tune with what’s really goin’ on
He’s in tune with what’s really goin’ on

Alternate Realities: EDS Awareness Month 2016

On the coooover of Rolling Stoooone . . .

Maybe next month?

So did you read the latest Rolling Stone? You might have missed it, but the cover story about me has some really sexy photos and a probing interview about my creative process and the 38 weeks* per year I spend making glorious music and sharing it with overflowing stadiums of adoring fans.

* 38 weeks may seem a bit lazy for someone getting that much attention, but considering that I also have four Grand Slam tennis tournaments to win each year. Each of those takes 2 weeks plus a week of preparation beforehand. That equals 50 weeks, and I do take 2 weeks’ vacation because a) I need some quality time with my family and b) I am a human being, after all.

Oh wait, I guess that isn’t accurate, is it? Well, if you have ever wondered about how glorious my life would be if I didn’t have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (as, of course, I have), maybe you’ve come to a similar conclusion. Since May is EDS Awareness Month, I have been thinking about “what might have been,” though maybe not in the most obvious ways. If it were in the most obvious ways, it’d sound something like this:

IT’S NOT FAIR!! I was supposed to go on the road with my musical heroes and sell bazillions of records and win shiny awards and be on magazine covers and have all the money, fame, and respect that (names of successful peers retracted) have! I worked hard to earn all that, and because of this damn medical condition, it was all taken from me. I can’t play long gigs, spend days (much less months) on the road, stay up late at jam sessions, schlep gear, do a gig and a record date on the same day, or even eat or drink whatever’s available at the gig. IT’S NOT FAIR!! SCREW YOU, EDS!

The thing is, I don’t actually believe that anymore. The most obvious reasons are that a) I know plenty of great, committed musicians who deserve all the things mentioned in the previous paragraph and don’t have them and b) it’s not necessarily true that having those things brings about happiness.

But what I really want to discuss here is the natural but illogical notion that we can take a difficult life circumstance and project life without it, a life in which all the things we like about our situation either remain the same or improve. Even if we accept that the above-referenced “what might have been” scenario is abstractly possible, what are some other possible outcomes for the trajectory of my life?

  • • Scenario 1: Unencumbered by EDS, my music career thrived in all the ways described above. As a result, I had sufficient access to temptation that I embraced the stereotypical “artist lifestyle.” Over the years, I developed an STD, spent my money unwisely, and wound up with a drug habit that I would need to spend the rest of my life tending to with the limited resources I didn’t already squander.
    • Scenario 2: Unencumbered by EDS, my music career thrived in all the ways described above. As a result, my life on the road strained all my important relationships, leaving me estranged from my kids and hopping from one relationship (or possibly marriage) to the next whenever the honeymoon period ended and the reality of day-to-day relationship maintenance sprung up. Not having dealt with the physical struggles, my compassion never entirely developed and even my professional relationships lacked true warmth and understanding.
    • Scenario 3: Unencumbered by EDS, my music career thrived, giving me success out of proportion to my emotional infrastructure. I never had to confront my demons or deeply assess who I was or what I wanted out of life. Thus, each coveted milestone I achieved brought about a further feeling of emptiness and despair, as the gap between my life on paper and my inner reality widened. Eventually I got out of music altogether because I didn’t know how to deal with this gap and the reality was too depressing.
    • Scenario 4: Unencumbered by EDS, I never got serious about music, because contact sports were never off limits. So instead I focused my youthful energy on different sports and became popular in school. I got mediocre grades, tried and failed to make it as a baseball player, didn’t get a college scholarship to compensate for my grades, bulked up as soon as my metabolism changed, and went about the rest of my life doing odd jobs without a sense of purpose and looking for love in all the wrong places without having any people skills to compensate for losing my athlete status.

In reality, the likelihood of any of these outcomes is at least comparable to that of the peaches-and-cream scenario. Life is a complex and interrelated system of things and we simply can’t just replace one thing with another and assume everything else will be the same. Maybe my EDS-less life would have been one of joy, glory and validation. Or maybe it would have been marked by shallowness, wastefulness, mediocrity, or self-sabotage. Unencumbered by EDS, the most likely scenario is that I would have lived a life bearing no resemblance to this one and turned out to be someone else entirely doing something else entirely.

I literally do not know who I would be without Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. I don’t mean that in a quasi-heroic “character-building” sense, although that is part of it. I also don’t mean it in a generic “appreciate what you have” sense, although that’s also part of it. I mean it in a very matter-of-fact way.

Because of EDS I live in a state of flux between two poles. Hurt and healing. Struggle and transcendence. Connection and alienation. Despair and hope. I’m in a never-ending boxing match with EDS. It has the power to win by knockout and I don’t . . . but if I am smart, strategic, and willing to take it on the chin and get back up when necessary, then the scorecards just may come out in my favor, or at least I’ll prolong the bout. This is fundamental to my life, to my character traits (good and bad), and to my music – every note I create is an attempt to express the same self that would be indistinguishable without EDS.

Do I wish I didn’t have EDS? Of course I do, I’m neither a masochist nor a Buddhist monk. But the resistance has melted over the years – it’s fundamentally part of who I am, and I am grateful to be me. As always, my greatest hope for all those impacted by EDS is for more forward motion in the struggle. More research, more knowledge, more public awareness and support. All human beings have challenges that make them wish they could wave a wand and eliminate particular circumstances with no negative impact on anything else. It’s natural, it’s understandable, but it’s not the way human existence works. And it will become all the less necessary to go on these flights of fancy as all of us keep building a world in which people have the support they need to face their struggles with hope and dignity.

………………..

2010 EDS Awareness: Belonging

2011 EDS Awareness: Accommodations

2012 EDS Awareness: Losing Everything

2013 EDS Awareness: Compromised Expectations and Desirable Communities

2014 EDS Awareness: Persistence

2015 EDS Awareness: Professional Coping Skills

“Nice” Is Overrated: Farewell, Randi

On Monday I attended the memorial services that marked, in a sense, the last goodbye to my friend and colleague Randi Brandt. One conclusion is that Randi was not a nice person – and I mean that in the best way possible, for reasons I’ll explain momentarily.

By the time I began teaching teens at Choate Rosemary Hall ten years ago (at first on an interim basis) Randi was already ten years into her position as Assistant to the Director of the Arts, so she was an indelible part of the fabric there. Yesterday, though, hearing both formal and informal reflections on Randi’s life and spirit I felt like something finally clicked.

Interestingly, the light bulb went on that everyone who knew her well a) had been scolded by her more than once and b) felt more loved and nurtured as a result. My first response was “oh, I guess it wasn’t just me,” which I already knew, but still. But my second response was to reflect on how being “nice” and being caring are not only not synonymous, but sometimes actually at odds. This is not to somehow fetishize bluntness (which in Randi’s case was neither good nor bad, but simply a part of her personality) but instead I suggest we take a closer look.

To me, the term “nice” is one of the blandest ways to describe somebody. When I was a kid it was part of the cultural consciousness that when teenagers described a girl as having a good personality, it was a euphemism for unattractiveness. “Nice” is kind of like that – it means you have nothing bad to say, and nothing particularly good to say either or else you’d say “loving” or “compassionate” or “extremely kind,” all of which fit Randi. “Nice,” to me, means “not unpleasant.” Or maybe “hasn’t ever been a jerk to me.” But by itself, nice is bland. If you’re drowning, you are not likely thinking “I hope somebody nice comes along to save me . . . or at least to tweet a frowny face as they shed a tear.” No, at that moment you’re not looking for nice, you’re looking for strong, brave, spunky, principled and decisive. You’re looking for someone who’ll get in the damn water and pull you out . . . and if you get called out along the way for the idiocy of getting into that situation, you’re unlikely to begrudge that.

When I met Randi ten years ago, it took me a while to adjust, as she was indeed less “nice” than some other administrators I knew, and particularly since I spent my first year there not knowing if the gentleman for whom I was filling in would come back, I felt-particularly self-conscious about how to read the directness of her communication. Over time I found her to be a committed and skilled and smart and tuned in. As more time passed, I realized what a dynamo she was as a human being. I have seen her be willing to be “not nice” for the greater good of the many people (colleagues, students, especially her family) she cared about, and I really admire that. Never was this more evident than in her fight with the cancer that ultimately took her life.  I also don’t want to fetishize the “courageous fight” against terminal illness, but my goodness was she not going to capitulate to this, not with what that would mean for others, especially her daughter.

Randi will surely not be forgotten, and I’m confident that whoever is in charge of her accommodations in the great beyond cares about “nice” as little as I do.