Willie Sordillo's Blog
The blogs on this page range from music-related to spiritual to musings on my thoughts, observations and opinions about whatever interests me.
Actually, all of that is spiritual to me. Some of these have been published by other organizations, but all are my original writing.
December 18, 2023
The End of an Era
When I stepped down from directing the music for the Jazz Worship service at Old South Church in early September, my good friend and musical partner, Zoë Krohne, who led the singing at that service for 10 of the 18 years of its existance, stepped up as the musical director. This was always meant to be temporary, as the church intended to take some time to discern what kind of service best meets the church's needs and hopes for the future. Zoë has done a spectacular job, and it's been my pleasure to play under her leadership at the service several times this fall. But all good things must end, as they say, and this coming Thursday, December 21, will be Zoë's last service and the last Jazz Worship service at Old South as the church transitions to something different in this time slot in the New Year.
I will be playing at this final service, along with Doug Rich (who played at the very first Jazz Worship service back in 2005 and many, many times since) and Mark Shilansky (who has played at quite a lot of them as well), and of course, Zoë. I hope you will consider joining us as well. This service will be the annual Blue Christmas service, which recognizes that this time of year is not all bright and merry for many of us. It's certainly not if you live in the Ukraine or Gaza, and it may not be if you've lost someone you love, or are alone, or feel depression as the cold months come on, or feel overwhelmed by the multitude of expectations the season holds, the over-busyness, the pressure to spend large sums of money which you may or may not have, and a plethora of other things. The service is not meant to try to cajole you into feeling jolly, but rather to acknowledge that you may not, and to bring you into a community of others who may share your feelings. There will be some familiar music and some less familiar, and while we wish for it to bring you some sense of hope, it is mostly on the melancholy side- the bluer side. So along with Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell and Sarah McLachlan, you'll hear a pair of songs by the contemporary group, The Brilliance, among other things. And there will be words of comfort and prayer. There's a lot that resonates with me in this service, and if it does for you, I hope to see you on Thursday, for this, our last Jazz service. And even if you love Christmas and find great joy in all of its trappings, you may find that this provides a refreshing break in the busy-ness of the time. We start preludes a few minutes before 6:00 pm in Old South's Gordon Chapel, located at 645 Boylston Street in Copley Square. All are welcome- whether or not you celebrate Christmas at all!
In the New Year I will have some gigs in non-church settings to announce- so stay tuned for that!
Thank you for reading, and best wishes to you for a healthy and peaceful ending to this year, and the promise of a fresh start in the year to come!
November 8, 2023
How is retirement going?
Over the past weeks a number of people have asked me how I'm enjoying retirement. I have to say that each time I hear the question, I am at a complete loss as to how to answer in a way that makes sense to me. The truth is, I don't feel "retired," am not even sure what that word means, and have no idea what other people's expectations are for retirement. The word conjures up images of sitting on a Caribbean beach sipping a cool drink before a dunk in the ocean- a nice thought, but one which better fits my definition of "vacation." In retrospect, I regret having used the word in connection with leaving my role at Old South Church; though I am no longer working there on a weekly basis, I have never intended that change to suggest that I was retiring from playing music. In fact, the intention in leaving was, in large part, to allow more time to pursue other outlets for musical expression. What repertoire would I like to be playing at this point in my life? Who would I like to be playing with, and where would we play? What songs might I be writing to reflect my present perspective? I loved working at Old South, and at the same time, it took so much time and creative energy that I had very little left to either book gigs or envision, let alone put together, what I would like to be doing as a musician outside of playing for worship services. Now that I do have more flexibility, I'm finding that it takes time for these things to fall into place, particularly when they involve other people, as is my intention. On top of that, I've been a bit out of the loop in the wider musical world, due both to my work at Old South and from the isolation of Covid. So while I don't have "the next thing" in place yet, I would say that rather than being retired, I am in transition.
For those who might be interested, I can tell you what I have been up to since leaving my job as music director for Jazz Worship at Old South Church in early September. On the musical front, I've applied for a grant from my local cultural council for a performance, which, if funded, will take place in April. I don't want to say too much about this yet, in the event that it is not funded or only partially funded, but if it all comes together, it will be a multi-cultural, multi-arts collaboration which I'm very excited about. I am also working on trying to book some gigs at venues in the Greater Boston area which will likely take place in the earlier part of the new year if they come through. While at this point I don't have anything concrete to report, I will certainly let you know where, when, and what other musicians are involved when I do. In the meantime, I have recorded a track for a benefit recording spearheaded by singer/songwriter Linda Marks, and played live a number of times in the past months- for church services- including one at a funeral service and two at Old South Church's Jazz service- as a sideman, rather than as the leader- a role I really enjoy (no responsibility for planning the repertoire, writing out charts, booking musicians, communicating with musicians and staff, feeling responsible for it all coming out well- just the fun parts!) In fact, I will be playing there this Thursday, November 9, along with Linda Brown-San Martin and Doug Rich, under the leadership of Zoë Krohne. So if you're of a mind....
Beyond that, the two major themes of my present life have been visiting friends and being a grand-parent to my just-turning-one (tomorrow) grandson, Will. I've had great fun babysitting Will and some quality visits with friends in Western Mass and New Hampshire, as well as spending the better part of a week in Tulsa with an old friend and semi-annual travelling companion. Perhaps I will write more about that in another email (the second most asked question being, "Why Tulsa?" or just, "Tulsa?") I continue to try to improve on the saxophone, practicing every day, and I've written one new instrumental piece, which we played at one of the aforementioned jazz services, and am hoping to do a lot more writing. I'm also looking forward to doing more jamming with friends, just for the fun of it. I think as with any major change, there is a period of transition which has to take its natural course before settling into something new- if one ever settles into anything! And sometimes, the best things are those which I don't see coming; and the good stuff almost never happens when I try to force something which doesn't take shape naturally. So at this point, there is still much to be determined, all in its own time. But I'll tell you one thing I don't plan to do, and that's retire!
September 12, 2023
I'm writing to say thank you to all of you who attended my last Old South service as music leader for Jazz Worship either in person or on-line this past Thursday. It was a very special evening for me, and I am both filled with gratitude and humbled by the kind words of support and appreciation which I received from both those participating in the service and those who spoke or wrote to me afterward. I am extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to play music in a setting that afforded me the ability to express my spiritual, political and artistic yearnings in one place, to people who were fully present and open to receive and give back what I had to offer. It has been a gift to work with so many talented people- musicians, clergy, staff and volunteers, for such an extended run. I do not have the words to adequeately express my gratitude.
Zoë is keeping the music alive at the Old South Jazz service, and has some great musicians lined up for the coming Thursdays. As always, you can count on compelling words from Old South's clergy. Preludes start a few minutes before 6:00 in Gordon Chapel.
If you either missed or would like to revisit my farewell service from last week, you can view it here:
Jazz Worship - September 7, 2023
Thanks again for your support!
September 5, 2023
My Last Jazz Service
It is with a mix of profound and conflicting emotions that I navigate my final week as music director of Jazz Worship at Old South Church in Boston, culminating with this Thursday's service on September 7. While a church service should always be about things much greater than those who participate in it, I will celebrate the completion of 18 years in that role and say farewell while striving to bear in mind the real reasons we've been gathering in this place each week. As I reflect upon the gift this has been, it seems to me that this work has been my true calling, the setting in which what I have to offer is most in tune with the needs of that setting, and where the most authentic expression of my art and myself have been given voice. I have been blessed to work with incredibly talented clergy, staff and some of the finest musicians in the Greater Boston area (and beyond), and I have learned from them all. And I have been blessed to serve congregants, some who come with regularity, some who may be just passing through, who receive our offerings and send their own music back to us, multiplying our efforts many times over. I am grateful.
And at the same time, it feels right to step back from this. While the the service lasts but an hour, there are, of course, many hours of behind the scenes work required to pull this off each week. In my role, those hours are given to choosing songs with intention to support the theme the clergy will preach on, collaborating with them on the liturgy and logistics of the service, reporting back to them on our song choices and specific needs for each service, hiring and communicating with musicians, making sure our sound needs will be met and our pay checks will be written, learning new songs, coming up with arrangements, writing out new charts and updating others, and, of course, practicing as much as possible. All of this has given my weeks structure, and these responsibilities can also take as much time as I have to give to them. And as soon as one service ends, the cycle starts anew in preparation for the next. After 18 years, it can feel, at times, relentless, and it can become more challenging to maintain the enthusiasm to keep the stream flowing and fresh. It would not be right to give this any less than 100%, and it becomes increasingly difficult to do so. Both the church and me are better served by making space for new beginnings and fresh energy.
Concurrent with my personal situation is the fact that the church has undergone a great deal of staff change since Senior Minister Emeritus Nancy Taylor retired in May of 2022, and a new Senior Minister fills that role starting this week. It's a good time to take stock and discern the needs of the church in fulfilling its mission as a sanctuary in the city in this moment and looking to the future.
Fortunately for those who find the service meaningful, it will continue through the fall while this discernment process takes place, and the music will be led by the person I've worked most closely with in preparing the services and has given so much to both its process and execution through the past 10 years, our extremely talented and gracious vocalist, Zoë Krohne. I know the music for the service will be in good hands under Zoë's direction, and I look forward to seeing what innovations might come about as she spreads her wings further in this capacity. I don't know what will follow beyond the Advent season, but knowing Old South Church, I am confident that it will be creative and meaningful, and designed to serve as broad a cross-section of our citizenry as possible. I look forward to seeing that that looks like!
For my part, I don't know exactly what will come next- a major impetus to step back is the fact that, given the needs of the service, I haven't had time to develop anything ongoing outside of that, or to take on the necessary work of booking and promoting performances in other venues. I know that whatever I do, I will continue to work with my two most consistent and sympathetic collaborators- and two of my best friends- Zoë and Doug Rich. When I find out what we're doing and where we're doing it, you can be sure I will let you know!
So, this has been a long way of saying that I hope you will join us, either in person or on-line this Thursday, September 7, for Jazz Worship at Old South Church, with preludes starting at about 5 minutes before 6:00 pm. We will have a larger than usual band, as I wanted to include more of the musicians who have been regulars in the past few years, with Mark Shilansky and David Hunte both playing keyboards, and John Baboian playing guitar along with Zoë, Doug and me. I've chosen songs- some celebratory, some reflective- in the hope of leaving you with my parting message in song. I've heard rumours that there will be special food at the conclusion!
Old South Church is located at 645 Boylston Street in Copley Square, at the intersection of Boylston and Dartmouth Streets. If you're joining us on-line (either live or after the fact), you can find a link to the
Old South Church Livestream
Thank you for your support over the years!
July 18 2023
A number of years ago I was asked to write the theme music for a documentary film. That film, entitled, Project Censored: The Movie, explores the nature of media censorship of news which may be damaging to the corporate sponsors of "the news." The resulting, winnowed news is likened to junk food- filling, but ultimately not good for us. At the behest of the film-makers, I've just uploaded the song I wrote for the movie, which I called "Junk Food News." If you'd like to hear it, you can find it on a number of popular music streaming platforms, including Spotify, I-Tunes and YouTube Music. Here are some links to it on those platforms, and you can find it on others you my use as well:
Junk Food News on Spotify
Junk Food News on YouTube Music
Junk Food News on I-Tunes
To learn more about the film, please visit: Project Censored: The Movie
July 11 2023
Big Change at Old South Church's Jazz Worship
We’ve been in the midst of a season of change, beginning with the Covid pandemic, the retirement of our beloved Senior Minister, Nancy Taylor, the departure not long after of our also loved Shawn Fiedler, the good news of Rick coming on board as Interim Senior Minister and Ashley’s ministry with us, then Helen’s retirement, and finally, the fresh news of John Edgerton’s return to Old South as the next settled senior minister. That’s a lot of change in a relatively short amount of time, some of it felicitous, some sad, some bittersweet, and it can be hard to adapt to it all. But times of great change are also times of great opportunity, and it will be exciting to see where and how Old South feels God’s call in what is essentially a new epoch for the church, a time to discern, establish priorities, and make changes where they will help further the ways we act as the hands and feet of God in this place and in this moment.
As it is a time of new beginnings, I feel it’s the right time for me to announce my retirement as well. The first Thursday in September will mark the completion of my 18th year of leading the music for Jazz Worship, and that seems like a good landmark to celebrate my last service in this capacity. It has been a gift and a blessing to play a small part in the workings of this great church, and it has been a privilege to work with many gifted ministers, starting with Nancy Taylor, who conceived this service with me and got it off the ground, and all of the associate pastors, student pastors, ministerial interns, staff, talented musicians, and laypeople who I have worked with, learned from and worshipped with through these years. I have loved this work, and it has been one of those labors of love which can take as many hours as I have to give it. It has been the focus of my week for all of these 18 years, and, perhaps not surprisingly, even more so when I retired from a day job some 7 years ago. I am at an age when I feel that if I am to do new things, I’d better get on it!
One of my heroes is David Ortiz, whom I view as a model for how to retire with style: He announced that the 2016 season would be his last, and during that season he hit 38 home runs—the most ever by a player in their final season—and had 127 RBI while batting .315. He led the AL and MLB in a number of categories and had one of the best seasons of a 20 year career that is sure to land him in the Hall of Fame. Many people entreated him to continue playing, as he was clearly at the top of his game. But he chose to go out while he was at his best, rather than continue until his declining skills became painfully apparent to everyone watching, as is so often the case. Well, I’m no David Ortiz, but I would like to retire as music director for Jazz Worship while I am still playing at a level commensurate with my particular abilities.
I am confident that the Saints of Old South Church will discern faithfully what God is calling this community to moving forward. For my part, my intention is to continue to explore avenues of artistic and spiritual expression. My longtime motto has been, “take a little of the church into the club, and a little of the club into the church.” But for a while now, I have had very few opportunities to play in what I would call “mainstream” venues. I would like to get back to that while I can, and to play with a group to develop a repertoire that we know very well and can explore very deeply, rather than imagining each week as a fresh slate in search of repertoire geared to support a particular theme. I still plan to play in churches from time to time, and would love to play at Old South on a very occasional basis if invited. So I hope this is a change, but not a final farewell!
Thank you for all of your support over the years, and please join us over the course of the summer!
May 10, 2023
Song of the Week #14: Brubeck and Desmond
When I started my little "Song of the Week" project, the intention was to create a forum to share songs I've written over time. I am grateful for the positive response I've received to many of these. But this week, I'm going to take a rest from that, and instead send you a song written by one of my early jazz heros, whose music still moves me greatly, Dave Brubeck. It probably goes without saying that the saxophone playing of Paul Desmond, Dave's partner for decades, is a huge part of what I love about the Dave Brubeck Quartet's music. Paul was my first jazz saxophone influence, and continues to inspire me more than half a century after being introduced to his music as a sophomore in high school. Many of his improvised solos seem so perfectly crafted to me, free of extraneous notes and always finding the sweet ones which seem unexpected yet inevitable at once, as if they had been carefully composed and edited rather than played off the cuff in the heat of the moment. And rather than go with the trend of the day and attempt to sound like Charlie Parker (another hero of mine), who changed the way virtually everyone played regardless of their instrument, he resolutely followed his own path, which is both more authentic to the nature of jazz, and earned him the respect of Parker himself. So while I didn't write this week's song, my playing and that of my compatriots, Doug Rich and Erez Dessel, represents our own improvised interpretation of this song, and I think of improvisation as spontaneous composition in its own right.
Here's our version of the song: Forty Days
A number of people have asked when I have gigs coming up in settings other than our weekly jazz church services at Old South Church. Unfortunately, those have been few and far between of late, a situation which I am hoping to change. I do have a couple of things on the calendar over the coming months, though. I will definitely provide all of the details as the dates come closer, but for now:
On June 24, I will be presenting a painting and music improvisation with my artist friend, Patrick St. Pierre at an event called "Art in the Garden" hosted by Open Spirit in Framingham. The event, at 39 Edwards Street, will run from 1:00 - 4:00 pm, and the musical portion will run from 2:00 - 3:00. Patrick and I will be influencing each other's artistic choices as he paints an un-premeditated picture while I improvise on the saxophone to create an original, spontaneous work of art. Following our presentation, Patrick will give a brief talk on our process before inviting anyone who would like to make their own painting to my improvisation. The event will include other arts activities as well. Full details to come at a later date!
And on August 31, Zoë Krohne and I will be leading a band with our friends Marlene del Rosario and Ron Mahdi in an outdoor concert at the McAuliffe Branch of the Framingham Public Library. We are very pleased to be invited back to participate in this free concert series, having really enjoyed playing in this beautiful setting to a very responsive audience last summer. The concert starts at 7:00 pm, and you are invited to bring your own lawn chair or blanket to set up in the grove behind the building.
In the meantime, I invite you to join us for Jazz Worship at Old South Church this Thursday, May 11, beginning with preludes at 5:55 pm. Rev. June Cooper, recently retired as longtime director of City Mission Society of Boston, will be preaching a sermon which honors former Old South member and first African American published poet Phyllis Wheatley, lifting up her message of perseverence and hope in the face of unfathaomable oppression. Conseulo Candelaria-Barry joins Zoë Krohne, Doug Rich and me to play music by composers ranging from Ornette Coleman and Charlie Parker to Graham Kendrick, Pat Humphries, and songs from both South African and North American freedom movements. Please join us!
April 26, 2023
Song of the Week #13
This week's Song of the Week was written for a service commemorating those lost in the Middle Passage. May we always remember.
If I Could Drain the Oceans
This Thursday at Old South Church's Jazz Worship service, Rev. Ashley Popperson will preach on the impossibility of going back to "what was" at a particular time, and the healing that comes when we embrace the change, including the wounds that come with it. Pianist Matt Richard joins Doug Rich, Zoë Krohne and me in providing musical support. We'll play songs by Sonny Rollins, Sting, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Lennon & McCartney, and me as well as a favorite from the tradition of spirituals created by peoples of African descent.
April 14, 2023
Song of the Week #12
Two weeks ago I sent you a song written in honor of my friend, Stanley Swann, who left the planet too early. This week I'm reaching back into the vaults to send you a song that you can hear Stanley play on, with the belief that he lives on through his music and in the hearts of those who loved him. This is from my 2002 CD, echoing, and the song, "Holler," inspired by African American field hollers, is absolutely driven by Stanley's powerful drumming. But in addition to really laying down the law rhythmically, listen to how he picks up on and highlights what others of us play at various times, and leads us into section changes and a key modulation. As I recall, we recorded this live in the studio in one take at the end of the day, so there's no editing or overdubbing here to make it sound better than we played it- that's Stanley responding in the moment in real time, elevating all of us!
And if you like the elegant piano playing on this cut as much as I do, Consuelo Candelaria-Barry, who played it, will be playing with Doug Rich, Zoë Krohne and me this Thursday at Old South Church for Jazz Worship starting a few minutes before 6:00 pm. We'll be celebrating Earth Day a couple of days early (and should be celebrating it every day, for that matter), and we would love it if you'd celebrate with us! The church is located at 645 Boylston Street, Boston, in Copley Square (right at the Boston Marathon finish line!)
Here's the link to the song: Holler
April 5, 2023
Maundy Thursday and Song of the Week #11
This week at Old South Church, as Thursday is Maundy Thursday, an occasion of great significance in the Christian journey, rather than offer one of our usual Jazz Worship services, we join with the clergy and the Festival Choir under the direction of Mitchell Crawford to offer a service of Tenebrae (shadows) depicting the Last Supper and arrest of Christ through word and music. The jazz ensemble will include frequent collaborator Mark Shilansky on piano and the addition of Miles Walcott on drums, who join Zoë Krohne, Doug Rich and me.
This is always a very moving service for me, perhaps my favorite of the year. In addition to a dramatic telling of the story as we experience light turning to darkness, the music brings together disparate elements to create a mosaic of colors with the intention of illuminating the message told through the spoken word. The music includes compositions by Bruce Cockburn, George Harrison and Billy Strayhorn along with Taize chant, traditional hymnody played with a jazz inflection, plainsong and an arrangement by David Hurd. I am grateful for these boundary-breaking collaborations bringing together jazz and classical elements, ensemble with choir and organ, which, while musically rich, symbolizes for me the search for wholeness and unity that this journey is ultimatley about.
The song I've chosen as this week's Song of the Week has a tangential connection for me to Maundy Thursday, in that it was written to mourn and celebrate the life of a good friend and musical partner who died before those who loved him were ready to let him go. Stanley Swann was a drummer par excellnce who Doug and I partnered with frequently, and seemed to have the ability to read the minds of those he accompanied, calculating his beats to emphasize the rhythms being spontaneously created by the improvisors around him so accurately that they sounded as if meticulously orchestrated in advance. I wrote a longer blog about Stanley (and this song) which I "published" on November 12, 2015, so rather than repeat what I said there, I will refer those who might be interested to my website, where I have archived my blogs. This link will take you to the blog page, and, if interested, you can scroll down to the date in question to find the blog: Blog Page
Here's a link to the recording of the song, "A Flower is a Day; A Friend is Forever," made by Doug Rich, Erez Dessel and me during the isolation phase of the pandemic: A Flower Is a Day; A Friend Is Forever (for Stanley) And if you're wondering why there are no drums in a song about a drummer, well, Stanley was the drummer, and if you listen deeply enough, perhaps you'll hear him.
April 2, 2023
Lenten Devotional on the theme Traveling Together Toward Easter (#5)
…But no stranger had to spend the night in the street, for my door was always open to the traveler. Job 31:32
When I was in Singapore with a band I was in, we had a day off from performing engagements, and though companionship is high on my lists of both the necessities and delicacies of life, if you’ve ever been on a road trip where you’re spending virtually every minute of every day with the same group of people, often crammed into cars and small hotel rooms, you’ll understand why I decided to take that day off from the band as well. Another musician friend who had been to Singapore previously had tipped me off to a nature preserve just outside the main part of the city, and I set off by bus on my own to take that in.
It was like no other place I’d been, and as I walked through the paths, surrounded by lush vegetation and both flora and fauna that were exotic to me, what I remember being most fascinated by were the wild monkeys who roamed freely, as I had previously only seen monkeys in zoo environments which restricted their movement. I remember it being a very hot day, and the trail went up and down some inclines, and in short order, I was drenched in sweat, but happy. At some point along the way, a couple of young kids came up behind me, and to my amazement, took the kind of interest in this sweaty, more or less middle-aged foreigner that I had in the monkeys. Supposing there must have been many foreign tourists who had made their way to this place, I was surprised that I held any fascination for them, but for whatever reason, they were eager to interact, and laughed a lot, and attached themselves to me for the remainder of my walk. Their parents lagged behind at a respectable distance, close enough to make sure their kids were safe, but far enough to let them have their own experience. When we finally reached the end of the trail, the parents joined us and took some pictures of the kids and me together.
In the course of my travels, this was not the first or last time I was befriended by strangers, but it is one of the most memorable. It reminds me of how we often let fear of people who seem different prevent us from taking the first step to open the door to friendship. It reminds me to trust, rather than be suspicious of the stranger I might meet unexpectedly on the path. It reminds me of the naturally inquisitive nature of children, and how easily we lose that as we grow older. And it reminds me that I may have something of interest or value to other people, and should not withhold it.
I would love to meet those children now, almost thirty years after our first meeting. I would love to ask them what they remember, if anything, of our encounter. I would love to see if they are still inquisitive, still bold in their desire to make contact with people from unfamiliar places, still fascinated and friendly, free of fear and judgment. I would love to take a new picture of us together, and to tell them that because of them, I try to be more open to strangers I meet along the trail, greeting them not with tolerance, but with enthusiasm; that I try to be more like them. I would love to tell them, “Thank you.”
Welcoming God, May we always meet strangers along the way with the eagerness of a child, assuming the best, seeing you in everyone, and offering companionship for the journey. Amen.
March 29, 2023
Song of the Week #10
If you were to set a well-known bible passage to a Latin montuno, would it still sound "biblical?" Listen to this week's song of the week and make up your own mind about that! I can't take credit for the words to this one, which actually puts together two ancient prayers (only one of which has a Latin beat), but I did write the music. Zoë sings it beautifully, and Doug and Erez provide the rhythm and harmony. Here's the link: The Lord's Prayer/Psalm 23
March 25, 2023
Lenten Devotional on the theme Traveling Together Toward Easter (#4)
For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving. 1 Timothy 4:4
There are many reasons why people travel: it might be for work, for a much needed vacation, or it could be family-related; and in the latter case, it might be a happy occasion like a wedding, reunion or holiday celebration, or something less welcomed, like attending a funeral or supporting a loved one in the last phases of their life. As I look back on the travelling I’ve done over the course of my life and reflect on my current stage of the journey, more and more, I see the goal as embracing all of these types of travel, even the less pleasant ones, as a form of adventure travel.
The last big tour of a band I was in took us from here to Texas, then to California, and from there to Singapore. The flight to Singapore was very long. In fact, through some sort of weird metaphysics which I still don’t understand and have something to do with crossing the international date line, I arrived in Singapore an hour before I left Los Angeles, though it took over 24 hours to get there. But the real adventure came when we had a 4 hour layover in Narita, Japan.
As is frequently the case, as I look back on my life as a much younger person, I’m amazed at the choices I made, the boldness of my decisions, and the audacity with which I was able to pull off things which my current self would deem impossible. I guess you could say that I’m amazed at my sense of adventure! In this instance, while some of the band chose to wait it out in the airport, I managed to negotiate the subway system, get myself to a temple which I had heard about, find a noodle joint where I ordered and enjoyed a bowl of noodles, and get myself back to the airport in time to catch my flight- all without speaking or understanding a word of Japanese.
When I think about how I might live every second of my current life with this zest for adventure, the key seems to be to try to live with gratitude for all of it, including the challenging parts which, given the choice, I wouldn’t seek out. And the trick to that, I think, is to be open to what comes rather than upset by what doesn’t go according to plan, greeting the unexpected road as an opportunity. Miles Davis famously said, "It’s not the 'wrong' note that matters- it’s the one you play after it." Maybe I love jazz as much as I do because jazz teaches me that even those “wrong notes” can be made to sound beautiful by what we play next. If we respond with acceptance, self-awareness, lack of judgment, and use the tools we’ve developed over years of practice, something unintended or even unwanted can be the starting point of something beautiful. And the good news is that when we approach life this way, we are sometimes gifted by the help of others. As saxophonist Paul Desmond put it, “I could play the wrongest note possible and Dave (Brubeck) would respond with a chord that would make it sound like it was the only note I could have chosen.” As a person who makes a lot of mistakes in life, as well as in music, I need to ask myself, “How can I turn my difficult passages and missteps into something beautiful?” When the adventure becomes bumpy, can I gracefully accept what comes and adapt to it- and give thanks for the opportunity to deeply experience something unexpected and new? Can I be grateful for all of life’s journey? Can I see it all as an adventure, and savor it?
Merciful God, thank you for the adventure you’ve given me. May I accept the road before me in its grandeur and its pitfalls, and see the beauty in all of it.
March 22, 2023
Song of the Week #9
With some notable exceptions, darkness generally gets a bad rap. We hear about going over to "the dark side" and there's that time-worn cliche of the bad guys dressing in black while the good guy wears a white hat. Of course, the most pernicious association between darkness and negativity is expressed in racist attitudes toward people of color. This week's Song of the Week is a meditation, of sorts, on lightness and darkness, informed in part by my reading of Ibrahim X Kendi- though, as always, my intention was to write in a way that tends more toward poetry than didacticism. On the musical side of the equation, while I intended for this to have a light Latin feel, I was very surprised by the introductory piano solo that Erez plays, which leans more toward tango than the salsa I was imagining. But I think it works! I hope you enjoy it! Light and Dark
March 18, 2023
Lenten Devotional on the theme Traveling Together Toward Easter (#3)
I will turn all my mountains into roads, and my highways will be raised up. Isaiah 49:11
To the elders among you… Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. 1 Peter 5
There are many types of journeys, some measured in miles, some in the passage of time, and some describing emotional passages or transitions. Sometimes, more than one of these comes into play over the course of the journey. Parenting is one of those.
We’re now in the stage of life where we’ve raised two daughters, and both now have a child of their own. We have journeyed from the sleepless, though blissful nights of caring for a newly born babe through the toddling times to full out running and talking up a storm; through the ups and downs of schooling and friendship traumas, with excursions to extra-curricular activities; to visiting and finally attending college, living at home after college before finding a life partner and starting an independent life as an adult. We’ve experienced all of the emotional as well as the literal miles driven to get from there to here. Now, as we settle into our role as grandparents, a new journey has begun; or at least, the journey has taken a turn on a road that was new to us. We’ve strapped on our seatbelts and are eagerly following that path, finding joy not only in the excitement of new life, but in our bonding with each other through this shared experience and our now changed relationships with our children. Even as we care for their young ones, our children have now begun to take care of us, as Nina did when she did all of our grocery shopping at the onset of the pandemic.
Like all roads, though, this one is not straight, and there are occasional bumpy passages to traverse. Though we think we’ve gained some wisdom from having travelled the parenting road a couple of times, we find that not only have some new practices evolved for making the trip, but that our children have ideas of their own, and a right to make different choices than we might. There are new road signs along the way, and some of them are clearly marked, “Do not enter!” And of course, we don’t know exactly where this road is leading, even as we cruise along full speed ahead!
As in all journeys, we set out on the path we think is the best one for us, or that we stumble onto, perhaps making some unexpected turns along the way, but adapting to the changing circumstances we encounter. We continue a journey begun long ago with the birth of our children, but in a changed relationship as our children become parents, now caregivers to both their progeny and, increasingly, to us. As in all journeys, we are all always somewhere, and always on the way to somewhere else. May we celebrate and be grateful for both, and to those who travel with us!
Gracious God, send us travelling mercies as we journey through life, and make us grateful for the road behind us and the one ahead, though it may not take us where we thought we wanted it to.
Jenny Allen and Willie Sordillo
March 15, 2023
Song of the Week #8
This week's Song of the Week is one for which I wrote music and adapted a pre-existing text for the lyrics. The original text, from the pre-Christian book of Isaiah, is poetic in a way that I hope can lead to multiple interpretations, regardless of one's religious beliefs (or absence of same!) Recorded during the isolation period of Covid's presence in our lives, this is also one where Zoe and I were able to collaborate with my good friend, Gary Lapow, who lives in Berklee, CA, through the wonders of remote recording technology. I am grateful for that opportunity, and his contributions play a major role in this interpretation, which you'll see is very different from other recordings I've posted on my YouTube channel. So thank you, Gary! Here's the link: I Go Before You
As always, Zoe, Doug Rich and I will be playing for Jazz Worship at Old South Church this Thursday with preludes starting at 5:55. This week we'll be joined by our frequent partner on piano and vocals, Mark Shilansky. The theme of the service, and much of the music, is "Rest." If you can't make it to 645 Boylston Street in person, you can join us online via Old South Livestream
That said, I will once again make a pitch for live gatherings, and those which involve music, in particular, if you're able (and understanding that not everyone is!) I say this after hearing my friend, Josh Rosen play at the Lily Pad this past weekend both in a duo setting with Stan Strickland and with his group, The Melt (both of which I highly recommend!) A couple of weeks prior, I went to the same venue to witness an engaging set by a band called Bog Berries, led by one of my former students, Cooper Evello. (I also recommend them!) And my feelings about the heightened experience of being there live to witness spontaneous creativity and communal interaction were echoed in an account in a biography I'm currently reading about Sonny Rollins, where musicians hearing the young, game changing Charlie Parker for the first time were awed by what he was inventing not when first hearing him on record, but upon seeing him play live in a club. It's just a different experience altogether, and there are layers of meaning that can only be communicated and understood through face to face interaction. Layers of joy, too, I'll say!
And speaking of that, I am hoping that in coming months I will have some club or otherwise public events outside of church to tell you about. I've been slow to get on it with booking things since Covid hit for a variety of reasons, some better than others (like grand-parenting), but it's time I get it together. Stay tuned!
Thanks, as always, for your support, and for reading these missives and listening to the songs! I appreciate it!
March 11, 2023
Lenten Devotional on the theme Traveling Together Toward Easter (#2)
And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. 2 Corinthians 9:8We talk a lot about what to take with us when we pack for a journey, and less about what not to take. When I travelled a lot with a band I was part of, I learned how to pack efficiently, whether massaging a few weeks’ worth of essentials into a suitcase or maximizing the amount of instruments, gear and people that could be elegantly fit into a van. I learned how to take everything I needed, but only what I needed for the journey, and how to get the most out of the available space. Now that we’re older, Jenny and I are very much in a “travelling light” mode. We buy as little as possible and have given away many things we don’t need, whether kitchen utensils we have doubles of, books we may love but will likely never re-read, and even some things kept around for purely sentimental reasons (which I find particularly hard to off-load). I think of the movie, “Up in the Air,” in which George Clooney’s character has a side-job as a motivational speaker, and begins his talks with a small backpack and the statement, “This is your life….” He travels constantly, and has got packing light down, using that as a metaphor for the other kinds of baggage we carry with us. What do we need, and what are we better off without? In this season of Lent, so often associated with giving something up, I wonder not only what I can do without as an individual (and not just for Lent), but what we might pare down on collectively. What do we do out of sentiment and habit that no longer serves us well? Can we shed some of our individualism to benefit our collective well-being? Can we wean ourselves off fossil fuels? How about deeply rooted prejudices we’ve carried with us since childhood, often unconscious of their place in our backpack until someone else feels their weight and pushes it back on us? I wonder what other societal habits, rituals, and addictions we might rid ourselves of in search of something more useful, efficient and consistent with our values? And are there things about the way we “do church” that no longer serve us as they once did, yet we continue out of habit, loathe to part with more out of sentiment than how well they serve us in this time, and into the future? I have a box of old letters in my basement which I rarely, almost never, in fact, look at, yet I keep around as a matter of sentiment. I can make an argument for keeping those letters, and we as a church and as a wider community can make arguments for keeping some of our traditions. In some cases, the argument is good enough to justify maintaining the practice. But in this dark season of Lent, as we journey forward toward the light of Easter, I wonder if we might consider the weight of our suitcase, take stock of what we’re carrying, and ask ourselves what we really need not only to feel connected to our past, but to sustain us as we journey into the road which lies ahead. Provisioning God, give us the wisdom to know what we need to do the work you have called us to do, and leave the rest behind, trusting that like the sparrow, you are watching us, and will provide all that is essential. Amen. March 7, 2023
I'm reaching back for this week's Song of the Week for a song I wrote in 1990 and recorded with the Latin band I was part of for a decade, Flor de Caña. This served as the title song for a collection of songs written by pro-feminist men on an album released by Flying Fish Records and benefitted organizations providing services to people with AIDS. This was at the height of the epidemic, when PrEP and viral suppression drugs did not exist, and thousands were dying. The majority of the artists contributing songs to the project identified as gay men and more than one was HIV positive. To put this in context, this was 7 years before Ellen DeGeneres came out with a kiss on her TV sitcom and was blacklisted for a number of years as a result.
The song itself is a little more abstract and mystical than all that- or at least I hope so! I played rhythm guitar and sang the lead vocal on this, so it's different in that regard from what you usually hear from me these days. The track also features Rosi Amador's singing and Brian Folkins-Amador's lead electric guitar playing as well as bandmates Laura Burns on bass, Hector Cancel on percussion, and Jorge Martinez on keyboards. Rosi and Brian are best known these days for their work with their band, Sol y Canto, which has been going strong for nearly 30 years. One more fun fact to put this in historical context: In 1988, when Flor de Caña's first album was released on Flying Fish, which was one of the largest and most respected folk music labels at the time, it was the first recording the label released on CD, and they were nervous about making the leap to that format, fearing that the folkies who bought their products would be reticent to embrace the new technology, preferring to stick with vinyl. In those days, we lugged boxes of recordings to sell from the stage in three formats: CD, vinyl, and cassette! Streaming was something water did!
Enough talk- here's the song (this is audio only, no video this week): Feeding the Flame (Willie Sordillo with Flor de Caña) 1990
As for present times, this Thursday at Old South Church's Jazz Worship, we will be absent our exceptional and beloved vocalist, Zoë Krohne, who will have a week off. While we will miss her, I am excited that another old and dear friend and amazing singer will be stepping in to fill that role. Louise Grasmere has performed in a variety of settings, ranging from bands to a duo with her partner, percussionist Linda Shoemaker, but may be best known for her work with the Mystic Chorale, which is where we first met over 25 years ago. She has a voice that can fill any room with or without a mic, and is a masterful interpreter of any song she chooses to sing. If you've heard Louise, you know what I'm talking about- if not, you're in for a treat! Either way, please join us on March 9 at 6:00 pm (preludes start at 5:55) at Old South Church, 645 Boylston Street, Boston (on the corner of Boylston and Dartmouth in Copley Square).
A final note: We lost a true legend on March 2 in saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter. His influence on how we hear and play jazz, from his work with Miles Davis and Weather Report to his solo recordings and work with Esperanza Spalding cannot be overstated. In his honor, pianist Matt Richard and bassist Doug Rich will join me in playing three of his compositions this Thursday.
Thanks for reading, listening to these songs, and supporting live music! Feel free to share any or all of this!
March 1, 2023
Lenten Devotional on the theme Traveling Together Toward Easter (#1)
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself." Matthew 22:37-39
Every other year, my friend Sox and I embark on a journey together, a pilgrimage, of sorts, to visit musical and cultural shrines which have significance to us. Our travels have brought us to the Newport Jazz Festival, the Woodstock Museum, the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame, and a Native American Music and Dance Festival among other places.
Sox and I have been friends for nearly fifty years, and while we share a number of perspectives and passions, we have different dispositions when it comes to some matters. Sox is an enthusiastic and dedicated planner. He loves to do research and come up with detailed itineraries well in advance of any outing. When he packs for a road trip, a large cooler with many pre-planned meals is always included. I, on the other hand, like to make a sort of general plan and then see where the wind takes me, following my instinct and the inspiration of the moment. Both perspectives have merit, and these sojourns have been successful in part because we respect each other’s place of comfort and compromise when it makes sense to. In fact, our perspectives balance each other, giving us a better outcome than either alone might produce. So while we may start the day with a “fixed” plan, as we did the morning we visited the National Civil Rights Museum and were to visit another museum in the afternoon, we allow ourselves to abandon the plan, as we did on finding the Civil Rights Museum to be so profoundly moving that we spent more time there than we had scheduled. When we left, later than expected and emotionally wrung out, rather than keep to the plan and cram another museum in, we went to an old growth forest, where Sox walked while I played my saxophone to the trees. This flexibility and understanding of our differences and compassion for each other’s needs is not only why our travels are sustaining, it’s a reason we’ve maintained such a close friendship while living in different parts of the country for the great majority of those fifty years.
I would venture that this is a good model for any deep relationship, whether a friendship, a marriage, a work partnership, or a community. It’s not always easy—sometimes there is intense negotiation, and sometimes one party makes a greater sacrifice in the compromise than the other—but ultimately, the rewards are great, as lasting bonds are formed and deepened through the years, and each of us benefits from the other’s perspective.
Certainly, there are times when compromise is not possible. We need to stay true to our core values, particularly when issues of justice and equality are at stake. Yet, our challenge throughout our travels is to see the humanity in everyone, and remain open to finding our common ground. If it is sometimes challenging to find the middle ground with those we love, how much more so with those we may not know, and with whom we lack an embrace of shared passions, passionate, perhaps, only in our disagreement. But as we traverse the winding road of life, how might our lives be enhanced, and what might our world look like if we were able to see each other’s differences, but also our similarities, and without necessarily agreeing, seek compromise when possible?
Uniting God, help us to see you in all whom we meet, to appreciate difference, and to learn to compromise where we can while holding fast to our principles of inclusion and justice for all. Amen.
March 1, 2023
Song of the Week #6 and Live Music
This week's Song of the Week was written as a message, to myself, first and foremost, to respond to the climate crisis, but can apply as well to other crises of inequality and injustice. There's a little theological motivation in there, and the song reflects my belief that faith is expressed through action. Lest that all sound too heavy, political and biblical, it's an upbeat, rock 'n roll tune which hopes to inspire and motivate rather than depress and bring down. And my intention, as always, was to write lyrics imbued with some poetic qualities rather than coming across as a diatribe or pamphlet. But judge for yourself! Here's the link: Send Me
I watched a video recently from one of the YouTube saxophone dudes I follow, Jay Metcalf from Better Sax, in which Jay showed scenes of several live concerts he attended recently.* While at the venues, he interviewed some of the top saxophone players on the scene today, specifically asking each how they got to the level of musicianship they had attained. There was one significant thing that every one of them cited: Going to hear great musicians play live. Though all had studied with great teachers, practiced countless hours, and listened to and watched videos of great performances over a lifetime of study, each said that nothing had more impact on their growth than seeing great musicians play in concert.
For me, personally, going out to hear live music has been one of the most important factors in my psychic recovery from the isolation of the Covid era. Though I listen to and watch a great deal of music via recordings and videos, and can be deeply moved by great songs and great performances in those formats, there is nothing like the joy I feel when listening to my friends play in small haunts in Cambridge or higher profile artists play at the Newport Jazz Festival. The energy of a live setting, where, under the best of circumstances, the musicians take risks and the audience response becomes part of the performance, creating a communal vibe which is much greater than the sum of its parts is pure magic, and it feeds my soul. And yes, there is also some mysterious learning that takes place when watching a great musician play live- I don't know how it happens, but I know that I have come home from a performance which moved me and at least to some degree, felt like I played better and in ways that I hadn't previously. And part of why all musicians want to play with musicians who are more advanced than they are is that great players lift up our own playing to a higher level.
I write this in hopes of encouraging you to attend live performances to the degree that you feel comfortable at this stage in the Covid game. I've been to venues which required proof of vaccination and mandatory masking, and some which left it up to the individual. And as with everything else, each of us needs to abide by our own standard of comfort, weighing the potential benefits against the potential dangers. For me, the benefits have been enormous, and I've been willing to live with a certain amount of risk for that payoff. There is nothing like a live performance! So I hope you will consider this invitation in light of your own circumstances, to go out and hear and participate in a live performance, whether it's at the Lilypad in Cambridge, the Berklee Performance Center, Scullers, or Jazz Worship at Old South Church, where you will find me, Zoë Krohne, Doug Rich and different piano players and guitarists each week. This week, Mark Shilansky joins us not only to play piano, but to join Zoë on a couple of vocal duets. We start preludes at 5:55 pm. I hope to see you there!
*You can watch Jay's video here: I Asked Top Saxophone Players How They Got So Good
February 22, 2023
Song of the Week #5
The song I'm sending you this week is called, "Unexceptional," and unless I've missed the mark, it's self-explanatory, so I won't say more. I hope you enjoy it, and if you care to pass it on to others, please feel free. Here's the link: Unexceptional
At Old South Church this week, Zoe, Doug and I will be joined by the always wonderful and inventive Mark Shilansky on piano. We'll be venturing into the sands of Lent with help from jazz compositions by Paul Desmond and Clifford Brown, as well as some well-loved hymns from the African American church tradition, a bossa nova, and a song that was a big hit on the country charts for Dierks Bentley. To find out how this all fits together, please join us at 6:00 on Thursday.
February 15, 2023
Song of the Week #4
This week's Song of the Week is an instrumental which I titled "Black Friday." One of the nice things about instrumentals is that while they are capable of creating a stong mood, they can tell any story that mood may conjure in each individual listener. This is another one written during the period when I was challenging myself to write a song a week that I felt comfortable performing in public. That initiative arose in large part as the result of a friend in Indiana inviting me to perform as part of a concert series he curated in Fort Wayne, with the directive to play my "most authentic music" as opposed to just rehashing standards. In part because my primary public playing for a number of years has been at the weekly jazz service at Old South Church, where I choose songs primarily to support the theme of each particular service, as opposed to developing a repertoire in the way that a working band might, my internal response to my friend's invitation was, "What is my authentic music at this point in my life?" I am grateful to Ketu for prompting that question, as it sparked a period of intense creativity for me. And especially as I began my performing career as a guitar playing singer-songwriter, though I have aspired to be the best guitarist and saxophonist I'm capable of, I think my most unique and authentic voice has been through my songwriting. I love lyrics that tell a story or convey an aspect of our common human experience with a minimum of well-crafted words, and have worked hard over many years to sharpen my skills in service of that goal; but I have been just as deeply moved by say, an improvised lyrical solo by Paul Desmond which is equally honed, with just the necessary, well-chosen notes, sculpted to something as lean and incisive as a well-written and editied composition, and at the same time, deeply evocative on an emotional level. I've been moved by Desmond's playing since my sophomore year in high school when an upper classman invited me to join his band and turned me on to the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Though I have been moved and inspired by many other musicians and genres over a lifetime of listening and playing, I've come back to that music frequently over the course of my life, and it has never failed to move me deeply.
I'm miles away from Paul Desmond, but here's my instrumental, "Black Friday," recorded at home during the pandemic by me, Doug Rich and Erez Dessel: Black Friday I hope itsays something to you.
Tomorrow at Old South Church, Doug, Zoe and I will be joined by a very special guest and longtime friend, Jacqueline Schwab. You may know her as the Americana pianist who has played on the majority of Ken Burns films and recorded albums dedicated to particular styles or periods of American music, like her album of songs related to Mark Twain. Or you may be a county dance fan, and know her as part of the popular ensemble, Bare Necessities. Or perhaps you saw her accompanying folk legend Jean Redpath on the David Letterman show. It's less likely that you were at the White House when she performed there, but you might have seen her on PBS playing with the American Pops Orchestra or GBH's recent Holiday Celebration. Jacqueline and I have performed together on an occasional basis over a number of years, and while our musical backgrounds are very different, we have found places in the middle, between her strengths and mine, which stretch us both and can lead to exhilierating results! The thing which comes through most strongly for me in all of Jacqueline's playing is that while she is technically brilliant, she embues every note with a very deep passion and intention. And that's a powerful combination, where most of the best music resides!
February 8, 2023
Song of the Week #3
This week's song is one that I composed for a very specific occasion, but with the intention of writing it in a way that I hope allows multiple interpretations, based on the frame of reference and personal experience each listener brings to it. For some, the impetus in writing the song may be obvious, while for others, perhaps not. I hope that however you interpret this, it will have meaning for you; and whatever meaning you may find in the song is the correct one! Here's a link: Sacrifice
Tomorrow's Jazz Worship service at Old South Church will focus on reconciliation and the notion of giving up seeing others as enemies, with implications for what is needed to achieve or at least move toward racial justice. The spoken word message from Katherine on these themes will be supplanted by music from Duke Ellington, Iris Dement and others, with sprinklings of bossa nova and funky Valentines added for good measure. Guitarist John Baboian joins Zoe, Doug and me in the band. We start with a prelude at 5:55 pm in Gordon Chapel. Hope to see you!
February 1, 2023
Song of the Week #2
Thank you for the positive response to last week's "Song of the Week." I really appreciate both that you listened to it, and that you took the additional time to write to me. Thank you!
Today I'm sending you the most recent song that I've written. The recording is from its debut (and so far, only) performance last week at Old South Church. So while this is less polished than a song we've played longer and allowed to find its own groove or recorded under more controlled circumstances, I'm following the advice of Bob Reynolds, one of the saxophone gurus I follow, who says, "Can't wait for perfect!" Indeed, at this stage of life, I am far more interested in getting things out there than in chasing unattainable perfection, even as I continue to strive to improve.
I think the song speaks for itself, so I won't say too much more about it, other than this was one where the words came very fast, in the middle of the night, and my job was just to listen to the voice in my head and write down what was coming through. Unlike most songs I write, where the music comes easier than the words, I struggled in putting these words to music, going through numerous iterations to land where I did, though as I listen to this now, there's nothing complex about the music. I guess the challenge was in writing something that captured the mood I was after, allowing the words to come through and balancing the darkness of the verses with a sense of positivity, and that didn't sound suspiciously like another song I'd been listening to recently! I hope you like it! Live Every Moment: A Note to Myself
While I'm here, I want to express gratitude for the opportunity we had this past Sunday to play for worship at Pilgrim Church in Duxbury. We're told that there were many more people in attendance than on a usual Sunday, in large part, I believe, because people came hoping for meaning, solace and the support of community as that town reeled from the tragic deaths of three children earlier in the week. I believe strongly in the healing power of music, and of people coming together in community, and I beleive some healing took place in that hour, so I am grateful that we were able to participate in this gathering. When I get side-tracked, trying too hard to be as good as the saxophone players who inspire me (and whom I am not even in the same universe as), it's good to be reminded that gatherings like this one are what I am meant to be doing. Being inspired by greatness is good; striving to improve is good; but one doesn't have to be John Coltrane to follow one's calling and to do good.
I am also grateful that tomorrow evening at Old South Church I will be playing with the same band which played on Sunday, comprised of Zoe Krohne, Doug Rich and Mark Shilansky. We'll be playing our usual eclectic mix of spirituals, a bossa nova by Antonio Carlos Jobim, a ballad by Charles Mingus, a lighter piece by Duke Ellington, and a song by one of our favorite contemporary jazz singers, Lizz Wright. We start preludes at 5:55 pm in Gordon Chapel at Old South Church in Boston, or you can watch online.
January 25, 2023
This Week and Song of the Week
It's been a hard week with the mass shootings in California, the ongoing war in Ukraine, and the tragic and at this point still mysterious deaths of two children in Duxbury, where I will be playing this coming Sunday morning. Among so many other things. I won't try to offer false hope or piety in the face of this, but I do believe that our only recourse is to find support in the communities we're part of, and to continue to work in those communities for peace, equality and sustainability. I feel this especially strongly as the grandparent of two beautiful children, and wonder what kind of world we're sending them into.
Though music has been at the center of my life for most of my life, I don't see making music as a solution. But I do see it as something which can help us through some difficult times so that we have the strength to become part of the solution. The songs of others have given me great joy, moved me in ways that mere words cannot, and inspired me both to go on living, and to live a creative life in whatever ways I can. And I have written songs to help myself make sense of the world around me and the feelings within me. My hope is that by sharing them, other people might find a common experience or feeling expressed, or even be led to look at something from a different perspective than they had previously encountered.
To this end, I would like to begin sharing songs I've written over the course of my life through this format. I'll put a link to one song a week in an email and send it out. You can take it or leave it. If you like it enough to share it with others, I would be honored, but I have no expectations in doing this- it's there, and you can respond to it in whatever ways you like, or not at all!
This week's song is called Generosity, and was written in early 2019, before the pandemic came around and changed everything. At the time, I was in the midst of a task I set for myself of writing at least one song a week that I felt good enough about to perform in public. This song was one of those. The recording was done from the separate homes of the five musicians involved during the pandemic, when that was the only way we could create music. Each musician recorded their part to the recorded tracks of whomever had recorded before them, the audio tracks were then mixed to create the stereo track, and Doug Rich put together the video which you see here, lining up the videos each of us had made of ourselves recording our parts with the stereo mix I sent him. The musicans are: Doug Rich, bass; Zoe Krohne, vocals; Erez Dessell, keyboard; Michael Patterson, guitar, and me playing alto saxophone. I hope you enjoy it. Here's the link: Generosity
As usual, Zoe, Doug and I will be playing for Jazz Worship at Old South Church in Boston this Thursday, starting a few minutes before 6:00 pm. This week we'll be joined by guitar virtuoso John Baboian. We are continuing to livestream these services as well as offering them to an in-person congregation. We'd love for you to join us in person, but we're also grateful when you tune in on-line. You can do that through this link: Old South Livestream. You can find archived versions of past services through that link as well.
And if you happen to be in the Duxbury area this Sunday, Doug, Zoe, Mark Shilansky and I will be playing for worship at Pilgrim Congregational Church starting a few minutes before 10:00 am.
Thanks for reading, and may you be well.
April 10, 2022
Washing has as much impact on our emotional well-being as it does on our physical health. We’re more ready to meet the challenges of the day when fresh from a morning shower, free of the grime and stress of yesterday. We have a fresh start. Water cleanses our bodies and our souls.
I wrote the song below in 1989, but as history has evolved, so has the song, with one of the original verses no longer describing the present state of the world, and other events coming to the fore. That verse has now been re-written twice. Perhaps this is as it should be in a song which employs water as its central metaphor: like a river whose path shifts over time with the rising and falling waters, water not only cleanses us, but changes us, ever changing beings in an ever changing world.
You can watch a video recording of this song here: Clear Water- Willie Sordillo Jazz Ensemble
You can listen to the original version here: Clear Water - Flor de Cana
All over this world I see my people suffering and dying
I see them hungry and homeless at my door and over the sea
But I know, yes I know just as sure as I'm breathing and walking
That a people that's bound up is one day bound to be free
And the clear water come down, wash away the pain in my heart
And the clear water come down, cleanse my soul
And the clear water come down, wash away the pain in my heart
And the clear water come down, cleanse my soul
In South Africa there's a man who spent half his life in a jail
In Memphis they shot down a man who once had a dream
But you can't kill a dream and you can't keep a dream behind the walls of a cell
When they unlocked that door, Nelson was already walking free
Sometimes it feels like all reason and right are gone from this land
Even a plague is a weapon when truth bows to lies
But Black Lives still Matter; we can’t give up now; we can’t live in fear
It’s our time to walk in the arc with eyes on the prize
April 3, 2022
Too Much Water
For my part, I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die. Genesis 6:17
We understand water as the essential nectar of life, a source of nourishment and cleansing, physically and spiritually. We marvel at and are enriched by the beauty and peace of a flowing stream, a placid lake, the constancy of waves breaking on an ocean shore, the seeming endlessness of the seas. We are blessed by the gift of water.
What then, do we make of it when there’s too much water? Where is the blessing when the rains don’t stop, the dam bursts, and the flood waters come? Twenty days in, Noah was likely giving God thanks for the ark, but of the rain saying, “Really, God?” How might the people of New Orleans have felt about water when the levees broke and the city filled up like a giant, poisonous bathtub, obliterating homes and lives? How do we feel about the inevitable storms and rising tides that are the result of climate change we have brought upon ourselves?
Perhaps when there’s too much water, when we feel ourselves submerged and drowning, see our crops flooded and the rain unceasing, God is giving us a warning: Too much of a good thing is never a good thing; curb your greed. In a world where we often assume that more is better, maybe God is reminding us to be mindful of what is precious: the resource of water, certainly; and also the resource of community, which requires that we preserve it by sharing and caring for each other rather than seeking to gain and hoard as much as we can for ourselves. All that glitters is not gold; but the glint of the sun off a breaking wave might signal that some things are more precious than gold. Will we choose to squander our fortune on short-term satisfaction, ignoring the long-term consequences of our wastefulness in service of our perceived self-interest; or will we choose to conserve and mindfully share our resources, using only what we need while attending to the health of our wider community and the prospect of sustained viability for generations to come? How will we respond to too much water? When the waters rise and reclaim the land on which you built your house, do you hear God speaking?
Beneficent God, help us to discern your voice when we are overwhelmed in the abundance of your gifts, drowning in your generosity. May we understand your message to us, and may we take responsibility to adjust our behavior accordingly. May we feed your sheep. All of them. Amen.
March 21, 2022
Let It Rain
In 1985 I spent three months in Nicaragua on one of several trips I made there during the 1980’s. It was both a hopeful and challenging time, as the people had succeeded in ousting a brutal dictator and were sowing the seeds of a more equitable society, but came under military attack from Contra rebels who supported the old order.
During these months, my home base was Managua, where I lived with a family in their shotgun style home with a dirt floor in the main building, and an outhouse and chickens running free in the back yard. The infrastructure in Managua had been depleted first by a devastating earthquake in 1972 which left much of the city un-reconstructed as the dictator pocketed most of the relief money which came in from around the world, and now the Contra war. During those three months, there was also a drought.
One result of all of this was that water became a precious commodity, something to be careful in rationing if not hoarding. Running water was shut off in different sections of the city on different days, such that any given part of town had running water three or four days a week. Meanwhile, rain barrels—often replenished on the running water days rather than by rain—collected water needed for drinking, cooking, bathing, and even pouring down toilets, as the only means of flushing waste. Actually, rather than becoming a precious commodity, everyone became extremely attuned to how precious water is at all times.
Sometimes we need to be deprived of something we take for granted to fully appreciate its value. While I complain when the water isn’t hot enough in my comfortable home in Framingham, in Managua, in those times, nothing felt as luxurious as the ice cold shower I was able to take every few days. Even mud from a brief downpour can become a welcome sight when the same torrent which created it washes away the brown dust and fills our rain barrels, giving hope for the continuance of life.
We live in a time of many challenges now. In our fractured world we witness many things we’ve taken for granted becoming scarce. How much deprivation is necessary before we are willing to take measures necessary to protect the bounty of water and other resources we consume? How do we maintain hope in bleak times, when greed and the drive for short term profits impede our ability to maintain a planet that sustains life? From what fount shall we fill our rain barrels with water and hope?
If God is like water, life-giving and essential to our being, what will it take for us to appreciate this aquifer we take for granted? What will it take for us to realize that in this waterfall lies our hope?
Bountiful God, pour down on us in torrents, but let us not take this bounty for granted. Give us hope, but give us the courage to take the hard and necessary steps which turn hope into being. Amen.
December 29, 2021
Sunday not Thursday
While it's tempting to feel sorry for ourselves having to live through these strange times, the Christmas story, if we heed the context, is a stark reminder that the world has long been a troubled place in need of healing, and as hard as these times seem, they are and always have been, even in the best of times, much harder for some people than others. But the Christmas story is also a reminder that there is hope; that another way is possible, even if sometimes hard to envision and always hard to attain. We get a glimpse of that ray of elusive possibility cutting through the shadows as we approach a new year and an Epiphany. We will endeavor to reflect that beam of hope this week at Old South Church.
There will not be Jazz Worship this Thursday. However, the Jazz Ensemble will be providing music for All-Church Worship this coming Sunday, January 2 at 10:00 AM. Our musical selections will help us walk with the Magi and see the newborn babe through the eyes of a child. Our sources included traditional favorites of the season, a French carol from the 15th century, and a contemporary telling of the story from our friend, Matt Myer Boulton. Our pianist this week, Consuelo Candelaria-Barry, is another old friend, and a musician of great depth with an ear for beauty and a touch to match.
Please join us in person or from your computer.
November 30, 2021
This Week, This Month and a New Recording
For those of us who celebrate Christmas, we’ve just entered the season of Advent, a time of waiting and expectation, and one which I normally associate with darkness, and specifically the “darkness before the light” variety. It sometimes feels like we’ve been in a sort of darkness and waiting for the past couple of years, so as I think about Advent, one of my internal responses is, “So what else is new?” But to be fair, there have been some bright pools of radiance in the midst of the bleak, and it’s probably a better idea for me to focus on those, carrying over the invitation to invest in gratitude that Thanksgiving provides, prodding my sense of expectation that more light lies just ahead, though maybe around a corner or two.
At Old South Church in the coming weeks, we will try to balance our embrace of the darkness with our hope for better days to come. Our musical offerings will include some of my favorite paeans to the dark, but we will also tender refrains which inspire joy. Well, hope, peace, joy and love, the four sisters of the season. We inaugurate this endeavor this Thursday evening, December 2, with preludes starting at about 5 minutes before 6:00 pm, both in-person and on-line. Joining Zoë Krohne, Doug Rich and I this week will be Carolyn Wilkins, the author of several works of fiction and non-fiction, and a psychic as well as a gifted pianist and long-time teacher at Berklee College of Music. Also, happily, an old friend of ours. As is our practice, we will be drawing on music of varied origin both secular and sacred rather than relying on either pure jazz or church sources, though all of it spiritual in the way music of meaning, whether sung or played, by necessity is. So whether Advent is your thing or not, I hope there will be something among this collection that will meet you where you are and draw you in a bit. The repertoire will include a jazz standard, a song from Sara Bareilles and Joe Tippett, one by Andrae Crouch, and rather unintentionally, half a dozen by me, among other things. To join us, either come with your mask to 645 Boylston Street in Copley Square, or settle in in front of your computer at home via Old South Church on Livestream
For the remainder of the month, our pianist will be the always inventive Mark Shilansky. As in previous years, this series will culminate in our Blue Christmas service on December 23. More on that in a future mailing.
Incidentally, if you’ve been watching these on-line and noticed occasional difficulties with the sound reproduction, we’ve just invested in some new equipment which I’m hoping we will be able to employ this week and which I am very hopeful (notice the Advent connection there) will have a positive impact in how we sound over the World Wide Web. There has definitely been a learning curve to going hybrid, but I think we’ve made a lot of progress to this point and that this next step will bring us much closer to helping you feel that you’re in the room with us, even as you watch from home.
Finally, on another note, one of the bright spots I alluded to earlier was the chance to go into a recording studio in Western Mass one day this summer with my good friend, Bert Marshall, and record a track for his new CD. (Yes, they still make those!) I love Bert’s songwriting, singing, guitar playing and arranging, and I’m very excited that the album is now officially out! If you’d like to hear samples and/or purchase it, you can find download information at Hearnow.com. If you prefer to have a physical CD, those are available from Amazon.com .
That’s it for now- hope to see you soon, and thank you for reading!
November 3, 2021
So Long, Facebook
I de-activated my Facebook account this week. I had planned to delete it, but gave in to the less definitive option of de-activating, which means I can come back without losing anything that’s been previously posted if I get cold feet. I initially created an account when my daughter was in her adolescent years, mostly so I could keep track, more or less, of what she was up to. Once in that world, I found myself entranced by the ability to re-connect with friends from my own youth as well as keep abreast of the comings and goings of friends closer to home. It seemed like a little bit of magic that I could remain in contact with people I met on a visit to Chile without the delay of international mail, and that we could exchange photos as well as words, with a minimum of effort. And of course, I thought I needed a social media presence to sustain a musical career. My daughter, meanwhile, closed her account ages ago, abandoning this medium taken over by older folks for more hip platforms, and has never looked back.
The reasons to leave Facebook are many and obvious. My biggest objections are political. Facebook is an ideal medium for the spread of lies and misinformation which have harmful effects. Despite the fact that it is also a medium which can aid the spread of truths, we know how siloed we all are. It would be exceedingly difficult to find a single person whose mind was changed by a Facebook post. So the medium becomes a platform for organizing others who share preconceived political views, and we have seen the disastrous results when those views are based on lies and misinformation, passed along unmediated, even when the mediator surely knows they are providing the current for those lies. And we have seen how Facebook has responded to those who have called them out for their role in promoting hate speech and lies. I do not wish to support Mark Zuckerberg and his type in gaining obscene profits from such destructive and reckless behaviors. Yes, I believe in free speech; I also believe (as does our legal system) that some forms of speech, like slander, are excepted from “free” speech. I do not consider lies and hate speech "free" either.
Next is the pervasive invasion of privacy and increased vulnerability to predators through cybercrime that using these platforms presents. It freaks me out that after visiting the website of a musical supply house, the saxophone reeds I just ordered or the microphone I merely looked at shows up in a targeted ad on Facebook. I’m not under the allusion that leaving Facebook eliminates this invasiveness, but anything I can do to minimize the notion that I am being spied on 24/7 is a good thing.
And finally, there are the countless hours I have spent scrolling through posts. While I’m grateful to know of news from my friends and to be made aware of other news, recordings and articles that I might have otherwise missed, I wonder how many songs I might have written, how much better a musician I would be if I’d spent even half of that time with my instrument instead of looking at a photo of the scrumptious meal my friends ate last night.
The big plus, of course, is that it is a handy and immediate form of communication, and communication is paramount in my book. Music, for me, is all about communication. And in a world which communicates more and more exclusively on social media platforms, it seems foolish on some levels, or at least naive, to withdraw from a medium which so many people depend on to stay connected. Perhaps this will ultimately draw me back in...we’ll see. Short of becoming a hermit, there is no getting away from the internet world, and I will continue to communicate with you through these messages, and to maintain a website www.williesordillo.com and a YouTube channel, where I will post new music videos from time to time.
Thank you for reading this, and for your support! As always, if you would no longer like to find things like this in your inbox, shoot me an email and I will take you off the list- you do not need to provide a reason.
In the meantime, I’m looking forward to another Jazz Worship service at Old South Church in Boston this Thursday, November 4. We will be focusing on those who’ve gone before us and the ways our community supports each other in times of grief and loss. There will be a ritual to call forth the ancestors, a message from our seminarian, Jess Young Chang, and music from the jazz and African American Spiritual traditions as well as a new instrumental I composed for this service. Our good friend, pianist and singer David Hunte joins Zoë Krohne, Doug Rich and me in the band. We begin with preludes at about 5:50 pm. If you’re not able to attend in person, you can watch via livestream through Old South Church on Livestream
I hope to see you soon!
April 7, 2021
You Be the Judge
If you’ve been reading these emails or attending our Virtual Jazz Coffeehouses with any regularity, maybe you’ve noticed that quite a few of the songs we’ve chosen to play since the pandemic began have been from a particular era, the 1960s and ‘70s. This was a time of great social, cultural and political ferment and change, in which artistic and musical creativity both responded to and propelled all that was going on. And a lot was going on, including the War in Viet Nam, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Women’s Movement as well as the burgeoning of Flower Power and nearly universal use of marijuana among young people. It also happens to be the era in which I spent my teens and twenties. So as I approach one of those milestone birthdays, I ask myself, “Am I choosing these songs because of the relevance they hold today, or because the music from that time really was better then than it’s ever been; or am I just getting old?” Before you answer that, consider some of the composers whose works we’ve played:
Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, George Harrison, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Bill Withers, Leonard Cohen, Eric Clapton, Charlie Parker, James Taylor, Dave Brubeck.....
I suspect that there’s some truth in answering in the affirmative to all of those questions. I do choose songs for their relevance to the themes of our services and in response to the events taking place in our current world, and I believe that these songs written 40-50 years ago speak to those issues eloquently and in artistically engaging ways. And yes, there is an element of nostalgia there for me as well, which I suspect is there for some of you, too. This is not to say that there haven’t been great songs written since, and I fully support the younger voices that have risen to create new forms of expression and which have, in some cases, addressed our current political context head on. But another significant matter is authenticity, and I believe that it is critical that anyone whose intention is to create meaningful artistic expression must speak from their own experience and context. And beyond cultural appropriation, would you really want to hear me rap, anyway?
Tonight at the Virtual Jazz Coffeehouse we are asking the question, “Should we be afraid of the dark?” We will hear Nancy Taylor’s always insightful words in response to that question, and a poem by Emily Dickenson. Our musical contribution to the conversation comes from that rich era of my youth: Paul Simon, Jesse Colin Young, George Harrison and Mary Lou Williams. Yeah, I’m getting old, but I defy you to find better sources of inspiration than this!
Please join us at 6:00 pm this evening: Jazz Coffee House 4/8/21 on Livestream
And if you’d like to consider our question of the day further via Zoom following the service: Jazz Coffee House | Old South Church in Boston, MA
Thanks for reading!
Peace and love,
March 18, 2021
Birdsong and Bob Dylan
Bird vocalizations can be divided into two distinct categories. While both bird calls and bird songs are used to communicate things related to survival, songs are used in situations where birds feel secure. They tend to be louder, longer and, as one would expect, a lot more musical than calls, which among other things, indicate alarm or a threat to territory.
We humans, of course, vocalize in a variety of ways as well, though for some of us, singing feels more natural than to others. There are reasons for this: some people are gifted with naturally beautiful voices; some seem to have a genetic propensity for music; some are born into a family where music and singing are nurtured, encouraged and shared; and some people have had unfortunate experiences of being discouraged from developing their innate instinct to sing.
In my case, though playing a musical instrument was encouraged and lessons were part of my life from an early age, I was not a singer. I did not feel good about my singing voice, and I did not enjoy it. I sang when I was told to in school, and in church, where the hymns always seemed to be in the wrong key for me, and made me yawn as I attempted to keep up. Though music was a big part of my life through high school, I left the singing to others whenever I had the option.
Though I was already familiar with Bob Dylan’s music, when I got to college I started delving into it in a much deeper way, and began to learn to play some of his songs on guitar. But it was his voice that was the revelation: he didn’t sing like anybody else—he sort of spat out the words in a talk-sing kind of way, and didn’t worry about it being pretty. And it worked. Moreover, it gave me permission to sing, too. I realized then that it didn’t have to be pretty to be effective, and that the point was to communicate in my own voice rather than try to sound some way I couldn’t. This opening eventually led to voice lessons, practice, and improvement. I never became a great singer, but I was able to find a place in the world of folk music, which was more accepting of a variety of vocal styles and timbre than some other genres, and was even able to make a meagre living as a travelling folk singer for a time.
I am very much aware of my limits as a singer in my current band, where I’m standing next to someone whose singing routinely moves people to great depths through a combination of sincerity and an exceptionally beautiful instrument. I have found that my truest, most effective singing voice comes through an alto saxophone. But every so often I will sidle up to a mic and chirp out a harmony to Zoë’s transcendent melody, and there is joy in that. And like birdsong, it comes from a place of security.
By now, I’m sure you’ve figured out that in telling my story, I’m talking about things that I believe are universally true. Here’s what I think we can learn from birdsong and Bob Dylan:
1. Singing comes naturally if it’s not discouraged (ask any bird).
2. Singing isn’t always about singing—maybe there’s something else you’d like to do that you haven’t been encouraged to do or thought you couldn’t do.
3. We can learn to do things we thought we weren’t any good at, in our own way and time, and with guidance from people skilled at what we want to learn who communicate well.
4. We each have a unique voice, a unique path to follow. The trick is to find yours and run with it.
5. Context matters. What is appreciated in one context may not be in another. Find out where your voice is needed and will be heard.
6. The pretty way isn’t always the best way.
What would you add to this list?
I know there’s a bird that sings, “Bobwhite….Bobwhite….Bobwhite…..” Somewhere, there’s got to be one that sings, “BobDylan….BobDylan….BobDylan.”
Musical God, Help us overcome the discouraging messages we’ve received, and help each of us find our unique voice. Let us sing with sincerity, whether or not our song is the prettiest song in the forest, and help us appreciate the many and varied songs which come through the trees to reach our ears. Amen.
March 18, 2021
Suffering, Death and Living Well
Last week’s Virtual Jazz Coffeehouse theme was suffering, and this week’s is death. It’s our way of saying, don’t get too excited about the onset of spring and the expanding availability of the vaccine- there’s plenty of suffering left to go ‘round and in the end, we all die. Just in case you were wondering.
Well, actually, it’s more about making meaning of those ever-present realities, and moreover, how our understanding of them affects the way we choose to live. This week’s question, “Should we fear death?” like previous week’s questions, seems simplistic on the surface- my glib self responds, “Of course we shouldn’t....but what we should do and what we actually do are frequently not the same thing”- and provokes more questions than answers. A glance at the New York Times daily digest and I think maybe a better question is, “Should we fear life?”
We will attempt to address some of this through song and spoken word this evening, and I promise you, our intention is to leave you with more reason to feel hopeful than discouraged or overwhelmed. Aiding us in this undertaking are two songs I’ve long loved by two musicians I admire greatly: Greg Brown’s “Brand New Angel,” which was sung by Jeff Bridges in one of my favorite movies, Crazy Heart, and “Every Little Moment,” by my friend and mentor, Billy Novick, whom you may have heard play in a variety of situations ranging from Club Passim to Prairie Home Companion to John Sayles movies to major ballet companies in Washington, DC and China. We will add to this archived songs from traditional sources and Sweet Honey in the Rock’s Ysaye Barnwell. Regardless of the darkness of the times or the topic, through it all, music remains a balm for me. And I hope for you as well.
Please join us at 6:00 this evening at https://livestream.com/oldsouth
Finally, here’s a replay of one of the songs from last week’s service: Willie's YouTube Channel
Thanks for your support!
March 6, 2021
Soaring (A Lenten Devotional on the theme, "Nesting, Singing, Soaring")
And I say, ‘O that I had wings like a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest;
Truly, I would flee far away;
I would lodge in the wilderness;
I would hurry to find a shelter for myself
from the raging wind and tempest.
Nesting, singing, soaring….it sounds so idyllic—especially soaring, after nearly a year of getting all too familiar with nesting! How many times have I wished to lift my wings and leave the ground, and with it, all of my earthly burdens as I soar off to some faraway tropical island where Covid doesn’t exist and hateful politicians hold no sway! In this happy state, I would be sure to be singing all the way! Ah, to be a feathered bird—that would be the life!
But as it is with most things, the reality of a bird’s life is not as carefree and easy as we might like to think. There is the constant scavenging for food, the responsibility of caring for the chicks, the need to pick up and move in response to seasonal changes which are less regular than they were in pre-climate change times, and of course, the ever-present danger of predators. As much as we want to believe a bird can just fly off at the first sign of danger, anyone who’s ever lived with a cat with outdoor privileges has probably had the experience of being greeted by their darling fur-ball with a mouthful of feathers in offering. And birds, themselves, like the hawks which swoop down to grab an unwitting bunny for lunch, can be predators. Nature is a glorious thing, and it is, among other things, a brutal struggle for survival in which the stronger, better adapted or more shrewd literally feed off the weaker, slower and guileless.
The facts of the natural world are not an analogy for human activity; we are part of the natural world, and as such, subject to the same needs, dangers, and struggle for survival. We can be and frequently are brutal and predatory in this pursuit. And as with our tendency to romanticize birds, we are prone to reducing our view of human nature to simplified terms. We tend to see things in black and white, good vs. evil. But as it is with birds, our reality is more complex, nuanced and multi-layered. Good and evil live in all of us and are always at war, always present, even in our better moments. When I do a good deed, am I not it in part, doing it to stroke my own ego, as well as out of genuine concern for others?
There is a positive side to this: if I believe that good and evil both live in everyone, then I must believe that even the most hateful of people has within them the seed of goodness that might be nurtured, that the hope of change for the better is always present.
This complexity, this ongoing struggle to shift the balance in favor of the good most of the time and the fact that we sometimes lose this battle, giving in to our darker passions of fear, hatred, judgement, and selfishness does not make us horrible people. It makes us complex beings. It makes us human. The struggle between good and evil goes on within us as individuals, and it goes on in the wider world of which we are a small part. The fact that this struggle will go on without end, good never vanquishing evil in this realm, whether within us or in the larger picture, does not mean that we should give up on striving for goodness; it means that we need to keep working toward it, trying to shift the balance in the direction of good, even with the knowledge of its unattainability. When we accept the reality of the world as it is, rather than romanticizing it, and continue to work for good in spite of the sure knowledge that we will falter along the way and never fully achieve our goal, it is then that we will truly soar. Our flight will not be without care or struggle, but it will be with holy purpose.
Gracious God, help me to embrace the complexity of the world, and to have the courage and resolve to work for good even with the knowledge that evil will not be vanquished during my time on this planet. Help me remember that there is good in everyone, even as there is evil within me. Amen.
February 25, 2021
Chick Corea and Sweet Forgiveness
Though I’ve been listening to Chick Corea’s music over a period spanning some 40 years, I wasn’t prepared for the depth of loss I felt upon learning of his death on February 9. Part of that was the pure shock of the news- I had no idea he had been ill or was anywhere close to the end of his life. I later found out that even Herbie Hancock, who held a close friendship with him for over 50 years which was expressed, in part, through episodic duo performances, was unaware that Chick was nearing the end, only to receive a call from Chick’s wife to inform him of his passing a few hours before the news was announced to the world. But beyond the shock of the unexpected news, I have had the experience before of not realizing how much someone meant to me until after they were gone, and that was the case here.
I only saw Chick play live once, but he made an impression: It was at an outdoor jazz festival which featured a number of exceptional pianists. Chick was the ultimate performer, the headliner at the festival, and before he took the stage, I remember thinking to myself, “How can Chick be better than these other extraordinary artists? He’s just more famous, that’s all.” But from his first note, the difference was palpable. Every pianist who played that day was a brilliant musician with technical virtuosity, deep musical knowledge and expansive creativity. But Chick had all that and something more- he had an ability to communicate that was way beyond all that, a way of making the piano sing in a way no one else could.
And as I’ve watched a number of his performances on video in the past year, and especially since learning of his death, the other thing which sets Chick apart is his deep sensitivity and connection with anyone who was fortunate enough to share the stage with him, whether another jazz legend or an up and coming younger artist. He was the supreme listener, and he had both the chops and the sensitivity to respond with immediacy, sympathetically and brilliantly to anything anyone else played. He could exert a strong influence on where the music was going, but he never imposed his will on the other players as much as inspired them to try to make the journey with him. As I read testimonies from jazz luminaries who knew and played with him, like Herbie Hancock and Wynton Marsalis, what comes through most strongly is Chick’s soulful personality and profound humility. I think you can see and feel all of that in his duet entitled Armando's Rhumba #2 with the great Bobby McFerrin- the virtuosity, the creativity, and the love. (You can find this video on YouTube.)
Tonight at Old South Church’s Virtual Jazz Coffeehouse, in tribute to Chick, we will humbly interpret one of his compositions, “Open Your Eyes, You Can Fly” (co-written with Neville Potter). I can’t promise you the virtuosity of Chick and his companions, but we will do our best to play it with love, the way Chick would. It’s an uplifting song of the kind we need in these challenging days.
This evening’s service is also informed by the question, “Why is it so difficult to forgive?” Our musical contribution to that conversation comes from the pen of Iris Dement in the form of her touching song, “Sweet Forgiveness.” And, as usual, we will draw a couple of songs from our archives from past coffeehouses.
Add to this words of welcome, wisdom and poetry from our clergy, and you may find, as I do, hope, inspiration and challenge in equal measure. Please join us at 6:00: https://livestream.com/oldsouth/jazzworship2-25-21
June 21, 2020
What Has Open and Affirming* Meant for Me?
I write on the evening of the day one of my closest friends for over 40 years died. George was a multi-talented musician whose primary instrument was piano, but who also played double bass, clarinet, sang and could tap dance if called to. He was my musical partner on many occasions when we both lived in Cambridge, and he went on to help form a band that toured nationally, sometimes sharing the stage and their bus with Pete Seeger as they performed songs in support of justice, peace and the environment. He later moved to Washington, DC where he established himself as one of the pre-eminent musical theatre directors in the city, winning the prestigious Helen Hayes award on two occasions. Just weeks before Nina was born, George and I teamed up to play music in the lounge of a cruise ship through Alaska’s inside passage. It was my last hurrah as a touring musician before settling down to fatherhood and the longest time we spent together since George’s move to DC. He had a quirky, bubbly personality and a strong sense of humor. He would interrupt situations which looked like they could become violent or involved unequal power relationships. He was a teacher, a gardener, a cook and a vivacious oddball who loved and was loved by many. And yes, he was gay. He was not the first or only gay man I have called a friend, but he was a best friend, and through him I learned a lot about the trials and dangers he and others faced that I didn’t. And I learned how much he loved being gay, the exquisite joy of it! Equality is a concept I’d long embraced, but George and other friends made it personal.
I had known George for many years by the time Jenny and I moved to Framingham and decided to investigate the possibility of finding a church. Both Jenny and I had strong spiritual longings but neither of us had been part of a religious community since our youth. And frankly, the exclusionary tendencies of a large number of people identifying as Christians made us wary. When we discovered that Grace Church in downtown Framingham offered an express welcome to the LGBT (Q, X and other letters wouldn’t be added for a few more years) community, we were both surprised and delighted. For the first time as an adult, I thought it might be possible to both maintain my commitment to equality and join a church. I could honor my beliefs and my friends while trying to understand what it meant to follow Jesus without feeling these things were at odds. Were it not for ONA, I do not think I would be a church member today, and my life would have followed a very different trajectory.
What has ONA meant for me? It has meant that I have been able to fully express both my faith and my commitment to justice, because I belong to a faith community that shares my commitment and my values. It has meant that I do not have to deny my beliefs, betray my friends or compartmentalize my life in order to call myself a Christian. Ultimately, it has led to professional work for a denomination which espouses equality and interprets Jesus’ message as a call for universal love. It has led to ongoing work in churches as a musician. But most important, being part of an ONA church has allowed me to join with a large number of like-minded people to collectively contribute to increasing the visibility and rights of people of all identities and expressions. And this makes a better nation for all of us.
I don’t understand Christianity without ONA. What would it mean to call myself a Christian while turning my back on those people Jesus lifted up, the downtrodden and oppressed? What kind of church would deny the full humanity of someone as gifted and soulful as George? And what of all the others, who may not be as gifted or charming as George, but who are fully human, fully themselves, fully worthy of love and respect, fully expressions of God’s unrelenting creativity, mortal bits of God-spark populating the world? Who’s going to stand with them if not the church? What would my life be without a spiritual home, a community of like-minded believers, a place of refuge for all of us? ONA has meant that I don’t have to answer those questions. I’ve found a place with a big table where there’s always room for one more chair. I just need to sit down and join the feast. That’s what ONA means to me.
*Open and Affirming, abbreviated to ONA, is the term adopted by the United Church of Christ for a statement and policy created by local churches which offers a specific welcome to all people, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, race, age, or ability.
May 26, 2020
The poet Naomi Shihab Nye says:
Before you know what kindness really is you must lose things
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
More than two months into the altered world of sheltering in place and social distancing, we’re all too aware of the things we’ve lost. We look toward an uncertain future and wonder how long it will be, or if we will ever see the return of at least some now forbidden and previously taken for granted things in what was once normal life: the handshake or embrace of a friend, singing in a choir or with a group of friends, taking in a ballgame at Fenway park on a warm summer’s evening, going to school and camp, going to a restaurant with family and friends, going to work, going to church - the list goes on. More than pleasures which enrich our lives, many of these things we consider necessary to a life fully lived and worth living. What does it mean to live in a world barren of human contact, of simply gathering in public spaces? We know loss. We know sorrow. We grieve.
Naomi says that when you know this deep loss, “then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore.” I want to believe her. We see evidence to support this hope in the medical personnel and essential workers, the sewers of masks, the preparers of meals, the givers of dollars, the singers of songs and in countless small ways.
And yet, we also witness angry mobs brandishing weapons and screaming about “liberty” and “freedom,” as if freedom were not a collective enterprise and the “freedom” to infect others with a potentially deadly disease is somehow more important than someone else’s right to simply survive, or for us to survive as a nation and world. We see leadership that has failed to lead in a time of crisis. We see impatience and self-centeredness trumping kindness and compassion. Either Naomi is wrong or we don’t really know loss yet.
In truth, kindness and self-centeredness have always lived side by side and will continue to do so, regardless of the circumstances of the world; we’ve never been at a loss for loss. We always have the choice to go one way or the other, and we all make that choice, even if we make it unconsciously, deluding ourselves in thinking that we can be neutral. For failure to act is an act in itself, and if our failure to act allows others to suffer, we cannot call ourselves kind.
Ultimately, our ability to flourish in a world which can feel more like smoke and mist than solid ground is dependent not on our ability to envision a return to “normalcy” with new rules, but our determination to live fully in this very moment. The great jazz pianist Herbie Hancock tells a story from when he was a young, up and coming musician working in Miles Davis’ band. In the midst of one of Miles’ brilliant trumpet solos, Herbie played an impossibly wrong chord. Miles, rather than being thrown by the dissonance, or even perturbed by it, simply took a beat and played a note which made the chord sound like that was the chord meant to be there all along. The lesson was, there are no wrong notes- it’s how you respond to the notes that are given to you.
So, here we are. We are given this circumstance, this set of unexpected notes. We do not know what the future will look like and we cannot control that. But we have this moment. In fact, this moment is all we have. How do we respond, in this minute, to make it beautiful? May we find the kind notes.
God of Eternity and of Now, help me hear the notes you play in this moment, and help me find the compassionate notes to play in return.
April 2, 2020
Virtual Jazz Coffeehouse
The jazz community lost two giants to COVID-19 this week in Ellis Marsalis and Wallace Roney. Ellis was, of course, the patriarch of the multi-talented Marsalis family, father of Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo and Jason, a mainstay in the New Orleans jazz community who mentored many of the great players coming up and played with other jazz masters when they passed through town. He was 85 years old. Wallace was only 59, a jazz trumpeter who many feel was heir to Miles Davis. For me, though I never met either of these two men, the loss feels personal, which I think says something about the power of music to communicate deep emotion, express the ineffable, and enliven the bonds which unite all of us through our shared human experience.
The music community, both famous and obscure, out of paying work (and not unique in that), has risen to the occasion of our self-imposed isolation by posting a great deal of home-made music. It’s one thing to see Paul Simon at the TD Garden with 10,000 other people, accompanied by a very large ensemble of some of the best side-players in the world, a slide show, spectacular lighting and a mammoth sound system, and quite another to see him standing outside, alone, with an acoustic guitar singing songs that many of us grew up with. While the sheer number of videos and livestreams being offered can be overwhelming, the desire and capacity to connect, and to offer something freely, is as moving as these intimate performances themselves.
Tonight at 6:00 pm we will stream the fourth in our series of Virtual Jazz Coffeehouses. Each has felt different as we both learned more and adapted to the rapidly changing circumstances, sometimes changing our plans two or three times over the course of the week. During our first two weeks, the four-piece jazz ensemble and a skeletal staff of clergy and a videographer gathered in the sanctuary of Old South Church to play live to an empty room. Last week, after several stops and starts, I recorded three songs from my home and Zoë Krohne recorded one from hers. This week we took this virtual recording process a giant step further, with each musician in the quartet recording their parts, one at a time, starting with Erez Dessel on the piano, from their homes, and sending their tracks on to the next person to play to. We took video of ourselves playing, and each track was played as a complete take, with no overdubbing involved. I mixed the tracks to balance the instruments and voice and bring out the solo portions, and our bassist, Doug Rich, incorporated the recording mix with the videos each of us supplied to create the finished songs. It’s strange to play jazz, a highly interactive art form, this way, but I feel proud of the work we did together, and I hope that you will find it meaningful.
If you’d like to hear the webcast tonight, please join through this link at 6:00 pm: https://livestream.com/oldsouth/jazzworship4-2-20
If that time doesn’t work for you, you can still hear the program at anytime thereafter, as well as any of the previous programs, through this link: livestream.com/oldsouth
I hope you and your loved ones are well and safe, and that we may all find ways to stay connected and build community even in this time of crisis.
March 16, 2020
"Falling Trees" (written on the Edwards Church Lenten theme, "A Grove of Trees")
If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. Deuteronomy 15:7
Though losing friends to death comes with the territory of age, it’s been a season of unusually high loss. From mid-December through the first days of March, I count seven deaths which have touched my life. Though some are more distant than others, among those are a friend of more than 40 years, a man who sang in a choir I accompany on a regular basis, and four members of Edwards Church. I played in three memorial services in December and January and attended three other memorial services. These losses came on the heels of my 50th high school reunion, where the thing which impacted me most profoundly was a display listing the over 60 members of my class who have died.
As much as I know that death is a natural part of life; as much as I know that ageing means surviving an increasing number of one’s peers; as much as I want to believe in a heavenly afterlife where my family, friends and all the good musicians anticipate my arrival; as much as I love the poetry of phrases like “Death, where is thy sting,” I can tell you exactly where the sting is.
But here’s the thing. When death comes, attending to the living is one of the things we as Church do best. At the time my choir member friend died, his wife was not pleased with all of the time her husband spent singing with the choir, acting as the church historian, and serving on a number of committees. She resented his absences to the point where she had stopped coming to church. When he died unexpectedly and she first thought about what the funeral would look like, she did not want to include much music, and she did not want the choir to sing. But it was the choir who organized meals for the family for the next month, and as planning progressed, the amount of music and the number of musicians participating increased until it was one of the more musical funerals I’ve ever attended. The choir sounded glorious as they sang through their tears. And the following week, his wife started coming to church again.
My 40-year friend had two memorial services: one in the temple which she belonged to and another in a United Church of Christ church which she knew well from her lifetime as a social justice activist. Her partner, also a member of the temple, requested that the congregation end the service by singing Amazing Grace.
Debbie has told us how the old growth trees provide shelter and nutrients for the saplings, until one day they fall, letting in the light that allows the new growth to flourish, eventually taking the place of the elders in a repeating cycle. When one of those big trees falls, somebody in a church somewhere is singing Amazing Grace. Somebody’s bringing dinner to the family of the fallen one. Somebody’s looking at what that life accomplished and meant to others and thinking, ”That’s how I want to be.” Somebody’s feeling gratitude for the shade, and for the light that allows them to grow strong.
Healing God, thank you for the tall trees among us, and for the communities which surround us in love when one of those trees falls. May we nurture the saplings and fall gracefully when
our time comes. Amen.
April 6, 2019
Let my teaching fall like rain and my words descend like dew, like showers on new grass, like abundant rain on tender plants. Deuteronomy 32:2
Sometimes, particularly when we're young, a few years difference in age can seem like generations. On one of my first days in my new junior high school, I recall a ninth grader saying, "I don't talk to seventh graders." I had a friendlier experience when, as a sophomore in high school in New Jersey, a gym coach arranged for me to work out on a regular basis with the varsity gymnastics team at a college in my town. Though there can be a world of difference between a high school sophomore and a junior or senior in college, the coach, team, and several in particular went out of their way to help me, taking me under their wing, and in time, treating me as a member of the team. Though I couldn't compete with them, I attended as many of their home meets as possible to cheer them on, and I remember being surprised and honored when they invited me to come to their team picnic at a state park a couple of hours drive from campus. I continued to work out daily with the Montclair State College Gymnastics Team until I graduated and went on to my own college career at a school in Virginia, a decision made in part because a former member of the Montclair team had served for a time as assistant coach at William & Mary.
Early on in my time as a college gymnast, I found myself competing against the very team that had taken me in as a high school student, and some of the people I'd worked out with in those days were still on the team. My coach knew of this relationship and arranged with the Montclair coach for our teams to go out to dinner together after the meet so we could catch up, and I was also able to greet my mentors during the warm-up session which preceded the meet. This was all quite lovely. But the thing which affected me most profoundly was something I never would have anticipated.
The Montclair team had a tradition during their meets. When a member of the team landed their dismount, the entire team would shout in unison, "Score!" It was a way of showing support and pumping each other up, and helped build the team spirit which undergirded a sport which is essentially individual. As I completed my first routine, my landing coincided with a resounding "Score!" I was competing against these athletes, but I was still part of their team.
I learned a lot from these young men, people only a few years older than I, but far wiser. They taught me how to do double leg circles on the side horse and a thousand other things which aided me enormously in gaining physical skill as a gymnast. More significantly, they taught me how to treat other people, regardless of age or status, with respect, kindness, and an open-ness to sharing knowledge and providing support. They taught me that friendship is more important than team affiliation. They taught me that human beings can be good. They taught me how I should treat the ones who were right behind me.
Wise God, thank you for mentors who, no matter what the age difference, understand what we need to learn and share their knowledge and wisdom graciously. Thank you for friendships which are not
limited by team, or town, or country, or race, religion, gender-identity, expression or anything else. May I learn from these friends and mentors and be like them. Amen.
March 27, 2019
Parent and Child
You show love to thousands but bring the punishment for the parents' sins into the laps of their children after them. Jeremiah 32:18
When it comes to intergenerational relationships, the sweepstakes winner, the Big Cahuna, the World Series, the jackpot round, the Ten Million Dollar Question, the elephant in the room- is the relationship between parents and their children. No other relationship is so fraught with resentment and gratitude, anguish and joy, shame and pride, and love at once hard won and unconditional.
Most of us who become parents enter into it at an age where we're able to appreciate a good deal of what our parents did for us, including an understanding of the wisdom behind some parental decisions which felt outrageously wrong at the time. We look eagerly to the start of our turn to be the nurturer and guide, knowing what we want to carry forward from the way we were parented, and armed with a list of things said and done to us that we know we will never do or say to our kids, most of which we will do or say within the first year or two of their lives. We leap into parenting with a charmingly naive idea of what we're getting ourselves into, carrying blissful notions of the innocence of children, our ability to protect our children from the ugliest human behavior, and of the reach of our influence.
Lest I sound overly negative, let me say here that despite or perhaps because of this complexity, there is nothing in this life that I value more than my relationship with my daughter. Nothing. Here, on the other side of childhood, my daughter a college graduate with a good job, living on her own in a town close enough that she drops over with some regularity and phones in with great frequency, I can almost forget how hard it was at times to get to this place, recalling events, but not conjuring up the feelings that went with some of them- except the love that undergirded all of it. A friend once told me that the morning after screaming her way through natural childbirth she couldn't remember the pain- I don't know if that's always the case, but I think it's a good description of what I'm talking about.
Parenting is difficult for a million reasons, but perhaps most because it challenges us to deal with things we may not like about ourselves. By the time I approached parenthood, I not only thought I had done the work I needed to get my act together, dealing with my demons and defects, but I had years of experience working with kids as a teacher and spending time with the children of friends. And I felt ready, having waited until my forties, giving me time to have other experiences which conflicted with parenting, and to find a partner whom I felt committed to and trusted enough to take this on with.
Of course, thinking one has one's act together is the surest sign that one doesn't, and parenting brought home to me the fact that all of those things I thought I had dealt with were still there, dormant, awaiting the stimulus to come out of hiding and make me face them once again. Only this time, the consequences were far greater, as they could have an impact on the young life developing before me. I was not happy about this, but I am grateful for the work it made me do. Like childbirth, a painful gift, but a great one.
When Nina was young, she loved to play school, setting up a classroom, complete with the overhead projector she asked for one Christmas, and acting as the teacher for a group of dolls, or, when possible, willing friends or parents. She was a hard taskmaster. On one occasion, however, I was able to convince her to allow me to be the teacher. I asked her to read a story aloud and then asked what she thought the main message of the story was. Without hesitation, she correctly answered, "Never give up on someone." I was impressed that she'd seen it so clearly, and I understood it as a message from her to me. It's a lesson I've tried to remember as I continue to try to get my act together. Like childbirth, that's something I don't expect I'll ever experience. It's worth a try though.
Forgiving God, help us remain humble enough to allow our children to be our teachers, even as we teach them. And help us to forgive ourselves for our imperfections and the mistakes we make along the way,
passing our frailties along with our wisdom to those whose growth is entrusted to us. Amen
March 17, 2019
A Lenten Reflection on the theme of intergenerational relationships:
The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life, turning a person from the snares of death. Proverbs 13:14
Many of the elders I've looked up to, learned from, and in a sense, been mentored by are people I've never met- people who I've known only through their music or writing. Part of the power and beauty of music is the way in which it captures an intimate feeling so perfectly that it speaks to the listener as if describing one's own experience. And great writing often feels like the author is speaking directly to the reader. In both cases, those of us on the receiving end can feel like we know the author of those words and sounds in deep and meaningful ways, though we've never met, and we share that feeling with thousands or even millions of others.
I was introduced to the Dave Brubeck Quartet through their recordings as a 15 year old sophomore in high school. Their music moved me profoundly, and I was especially attracted to two things: the playing of their brilliant, iconic alto saxophonist, Paul Desmond, and the telepathic bond between Dave and Paul. The more I learned about them, the more I admired them. Brubeck was a pioneer in breaking down the barriers of segregation in the jazz world, being one of the first white musicians to include an African American in his quartet, a bassist named Eugene Wright. He was principled enough to cancel tours of the South, though doing so caused him to lose a significant amount of money, when he was told that he could not perform at certain venues unless he replaced Gene with a white bassist. Something of this same humanity came across in the music, too, a celebration of life which expressed itself in pure joy.
I was never so aware of this as in the one time I witnessed the "classic" Brubeck Quartet with Paul, Gene and drummer Joe Morello playing live in Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1975. Dave and Paul had been playing together for over 30 years at this point, and the band had officially disbanded a few years earlier so that Dave could concentrate on composing orchestral and choral sacred music. The concert I witnessed was part of a reunion tour, and the hiatus had, I'm sure, given a freshness and excitement to this tour which provided added spark to the music. When Dave and Paul exchanged a glance or a smile across the stage, it was as if I could see an electrical current connecting the two. So strong was their bond that at times they would modulate to a different key without any visual or, as far as I could tell, auditory cue that this was about to happen, only looking up and grinning at each other after the fact.
Paul died in 1977, and though I continued to follow Dave's career and listen to Paul's solo recordings, nothing they did apart ever matched those old Quartet recordings for me, and I have continued to come back to them year after year. Then, in 2005, I got to meet Dave.
The occasion was the Newport Jazz Festival. Though I did not play at the festival I had a backstage pass, and as the backstage area at Newport is essentially an open courtyard bounded by trailers, once being admitted into this sanctum I found myself in the midst of several jazz luminaries who I admired very much. Dave was one of them, and knowing this was likely the only opportunity I'd ever have, I walked directly over to him and introduced myself, saying that I was about to launch a new jazz worship service at a church in Boston. He received me openly, with a warm handshake and a smile, told me how wonderful it was that we were starting this service, and even passed the news about the service to some other folks around us. I then told him how much his music had meant to me, and how I thought his playing with Paul brought out something special in both of them, trying to be graceful enough not to imply that his playing was not enough on its own merits. In response, he put his hand on my shoulder and said, "You liked Paul, didn't you!" And then he went on, "In some ways he was my best friend; in other ways, I didn't know him at all. There's a book that came out recently, a biography. I learned things about him I never knew from this book. You should read it."
Well, I now own that book, and I've read it twice from cover to cover and gone back to parts of it multiple times. And I learned a lot from it, too. But what I also learned came from Dave's generosity of spirit, the same thing that animates his music. A lot of people, upon learning that I was a particular fan of someone else in their band, might have ended the conversation at that point, turned their back on me and walked away. Instead, Dave shared my enthusiasm and gave me more insight into his relationship with the other musician and pointed me in the direction of a valuable resource for additional insight. I only met Dave once, but he is a true mentor, in every sense of the word.
Gracious God, thank you for mentors willing to share the wisdom of their years with a generous spirit. May we learn from their example and pass their wisdom along to the generations which follow us. Amen
October 27, 2018
I'm seeing the world through a different lens now. Literally. I underwent the second of two surgeries a couple of days ago to remove cataracts and implant new lenses in my eyes. For the first time since I was 10, I can see the world, and even write this message, without the aid of glasses. In some ways, I see with greater clarity than I have in years. Unfortunately, a lot of what I see hasn't changed at all. I write on a day when a Jewish house of worship has been assaulted in Pittsburgh, murdering 8 and seriously injuring many more, close on the heels of the attempted murder of a number of Democratic politicians and non-partisan news outlets through mailed pipe bombs, all at the hands of right wing maniacs emboldened by a despot whose only response is to bemoan the negative effect this might have on his party in the mid-term elections, and blame the victims for the terror wrested upon them.
I'm a musician, and I often respond to events in the world through music; yet I know that music is insufficient to change the wretched state of affairs in which we find ourselves. At the same time, I believe that we need music which heals, affirms, proclaims and emboldens desperately in times like these, not as an end in itself, but to help energize us to go on, survive, and do the necessary work of making a difference. In some ways, it seems trivial to play music in response to forces which seek to murder opposition, foster hate, and dismantle democracy. In other ways, it seems a vital source of hope. For a much deeper glimpse into the challenges of creating and playing music in the face of death through the eyes of some who live much closer to it, I highly recommend the film, The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble.
I've lived the past few weeks at a slower place than I'm used to, with no gigs and restrictions on my activities and even practicing my instrument. I've been in a process of re-evaluating my priorities. This has led me to leave a band which I'd been a part of, though I liked the music we played and continue to value the friendships with people in the band, which includes some of my closest friends. It is also causing me to re-think and possibly re-shape other musical endeavors, and it has led to the birth of one new one.
Doug Rich and I have been playing music together for the past 21 years in a wide variety of configurations, including a couple of long-term bands and a plethora of pickup bands. We've played at hundreds of worship services, dance parties, weddings, funerals, clubs, concert series and more benefit concerts than I can recall. Very occasionally, we've played a song here and there as a duo. Now, as I find myself drawn more deeply into music which is intimate, meditative, and experimental, and encouraged by an invitation for the two of us to play a concert in the Midwest in June, Doug and I are taking our duo playing to the next level and making it a more formal partnership. We call it "The Ballad Project," and we will be making our debut on Sunday, November 3 at Edwards Church in Framingham as part of a concert featuring multiple acts, starting at 6:00 pm. This concert was inspired by recent renovations to the church's Tracker organ, and will feature organist Cheryl Elkins, pianist Susan Minor, the church choir, and the church's own bluegrass band, On the Fence, as well as Doug and I. I think this concert will present an interesting program of music overall, and I invite you to join us.
Doug and I will be playing two pieces. One of them is something I wrote with this setting in mind while on my enforced Sabbatical. It's called "Lament for Christine and For Us All." The Christine in question is, of course, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. I'm very much looking forward to beginning this new exploration with Doug, and I sincerely hope it will contribute to healing and hope, leading to action.
I will also return to Old South Church in Boston for our regular Thursday evening Jazz Worship services beginning on November 8. That evening I will be joined by my partner, vocalist Zoë Krohne, who has been doing a wonderful job of leading the music in my absence, along with Doug Rich and pianist Austin Marks. We begin preludes at 5:50 and all are welcome!
Be well, love your neighbor, work like hell for justice, equality and sustainability, and vote!
August 19, 2018
I usually write to tell you about gigs I have coming up, which is what you signed up for, after all. But this time, I'm writing to tell you what's NOT coming up in the way of gigs. And this is a good thing. I shall explain.
About a year and three quarters ago, the day job that helped pay the mortgage and my daughter's college tuition came to an end when the grant that funded the organization I worked for ran out and the funder decided to throw their money in another direction. A bit of mild panic, a couple of investigations into other possible jobs and some discerning later, I embraced the idea that I could once again be a full-time musician, as I had been in the pre-kid years, and leapt into it full force. Being of an age, well 65, in fact, had two implications on this: I realized that in a few more months I could start receiving social security checks, which is important in that full-time music work, in my experience, is usually rewarded with part-time compensation (at least as far as the money side of "compensation" goes); and not knowing how long my physical and mental capacities would permit me to play at a respectable level, I was motivated to do as much music as possible in whatever playing situations came my way. And I did, as you know if you've read any of my previous epistles.
There were many good things about this. I hope I've said previously what those good things were, or if you came to any of the gigs, there was enough there to give you a glimmer. But now at 67, I've come to a new understanding of how I hope to continue to do what I love in a way that brings joy to me and, I hope others, serves the values I hold dear, and allows me to accept the limits of age in a more rather than less graceful fashion. To that end, I'm intentionally slowing things down by taking a semi-Sabbatical and plan to return with fewer projects and more focus on what's most important to me at this stage of life. It's a "semi-Sabbatical" in that I will continue to serve as the Music Director for Jazz Worship at Old South Church, so you will still find me there on Thursdays, with preludes starting at 5:50 pm. In the 13 years I've been involved with this, it continues to be one of the most satisfying experiences of my life, bringing together my love of jazz, my quest for a spiritual and spirit-filled life, and my desire to promote justice, equality and sustainability in all settings of human interaction and endeavor. There will be a 3-4 week hiatus in my participation in the service (though not in the service itself) in October and early November while I have cataract surgery. I also plan to continue to provide music for jazz services at churches which invite me into their communities on Sunday mornings; however, I plan to limit myself to one Sunday a month rather than accepting all invitations.
In addition to my work in church settings, I plan to focus most of my musical energies on my duo partnership with vocalist Zoë Krohne (often augmented by bassist Doug Rich). This is a setting which allows a lot of possibility as a performer and as a songwriter. Through this partnership, I have the opportunity to bring together long term interests in a variety of genres of music which have long fascinated me and provides an outlet for my experience as a guitar player and singer as well as a saxophonist. Zoë's extraordinary singing inspires me and our partnership allows us to do things together that neither of us could do alone. We work well together, have a common vision, and we feel that we've barely begun to tap into what's possible for us, so there's a lot to explore. When we add Doug to the mix, the possibilities expand even further. We've loved the intimacy with audiences in venues like Roots & Wings, and at Linda Marks' Music Salon, where people come to listen and we feel a real connection between ourselves and our audiences as the songs we choose express our shared experiences and understandings of the human condition and possibility. One thing we won't be pursuing is settings where people are primarily at the venue for some other reason, like eating and drinking- fine pursuits which we've been known to partake in ourselves, but not ideal for the kind of connections we're interested in making with people.
I've also come to realize that my tolerance for loud music has become extremely low, whether as a listener or a player. When the first thing I have to do on entering a venue is put in earplugs, most of what follows is usually unsatisfying at best. This was brought home to me (again) when I attended the Newport Jazz Festival not long ago. The performer I most wanted to see was jazz vocalist Gregory Porter, whose recordings have moved me and who composed a couple of songs Zoë and I have performed. He played late in the day on the main stage, and about 20 minutes before his set began, we made our way to a standing room only area right in front of the stage, putting us about 20 feet away from Gregory and his band. I don't know how to describe what came next, other than to say that it was like going to church, in the most profound sense of that. It was musically complex and thrilling, it was deeply soulful, it was inspiring, it was hopeful....in short, it was all the things I want music to be and aspire to in my own music, done in an exemplary way. I felt filled up and grateful. Directly following Gregory's set, a funk band of legendary status (which shall remain nameless) came on. Now, this band is significant in the history of the music, helping define a genre, and they are still very competent at what they do- and a large portion of the crowd was totally into their performance. It was extremely loud and incorporated a great deal of strong language, shouted at the audience in service of spiking up the party. I dig a good party, and at times I've done my best to bring on da funk; but for me, coming on the heels of what we had just received from Gregory, there is no other way to say it except that in this context, I felt assaulted. So we left before the first song was over. And you know, it's a good thing we did, too, because as we were leaving the grounds we saw Gregory signing CDs, quickly bought one, and got to meet him. And he was the same person off stage as he had been on.
I'm not comparing any of the bands I've played in to the band that followed Gregory, either in significance or manner. I'm grateful for the opportunities I've had to play a wide variety of music which I love and for the friendships which have grown with fellow musicians and audience members. Aretha's passing brings home in a bittersweet way how much the sweet soul music I grew up with still means to me, and, I think, to us as a nation. But I find that at this point, when the music is loud and the earplugs are in, I'm less authentically the musician I am in quieter settings, where the way to bring it out is to go deeply within, and more is said with a glance, a single perfectly chosen note or a note not played at all than a shout or a staccato fill, even when played with the best of intentions. So as I age, accepting the diminishing physical powers that come with the territory and the understanding that while we never know how much time we have to do what we're put here to do, I doubtless have an increasingly limited amount of time to get to it. As my good friend, Doug Rich said about Aretha, "It's sad, but she got it done." I hope the same can be said of me when my time comes. My calling is not the same as Aretha's, but it's time to hone in on what needs getting done in my particular case.
Recently, when someone found out I play the saxophone she asked if I thought I was John Coltrane. I do not. Do I think I'm Gregory Porter? Not a chance. But I do gain inspiration from both of these deeply searching, socially aware artists, and aspire in my own way and with my own gifts and limitations to do something they've both done for me: to move and inspire people, to give hope a voice, to speak truth, to release beauty into a world in desperate need of it. Given the limits of time and age, this is what I intend to focus on going forward in the ways that feel most authentic to me and most reflective of what I'm able to do best.
So, look for me at Old South through the first week in October, then I'll be gone for a few weeks, and after that, I'll be back at Old South, perhaps at some other churches, and then, eventually, I'll write to tell you where Zoë and I will be.
Until then, may you find peace and my you live in hope.
March 23, 2018
What are human beings, that you make so much of them, that you set your mind on them, visit them every morning, test them every moment? Job 7:17-18
I worked alongside and became friends with Andy several years before I learned his backstory. I knew him to be a deeply faithful man, a very supportive co-worker, someone who liked to share a laugh, and who was very good with math. A lot of my office contact with Andy came in the form of me asking him to run some numbers that only Andy would know how to calculate, or with questions about the arcane database which we used, and which only Andy seemed to fully know how to coax into spitting out the information we needed it to yield. Sometimes my trips to his office led to deeper conversations, talks which moved me and inspired me to want to be a little more like Andy. He seemed to be plugged into something deeper, in possession of something hard to define, but led by an abiding and profound faith. Yet his manner was, if anything self-effacing and perhaps a little nervous- certainly not someone who set himself up as some sort of guru, though in the public presentations he gave on stewardship issues he was always confident, sharp and funny.
So it came as a shock to me when, several years into this relationship, another co-worker sent an email around the office which contained a link to a newspaper article commemorating the anniversary of an extremely tragic event. The story told of the day Andy returned from work to discover his wife and two children murdered in the home they shared.
I can't imagine how difficult it must have been for Andy at that moment, or at any time going forward. I can't predict what my response would have been, whether I'd have exploded in anger and hatred, seeking revenge and going on a rampage which might have cost me my friendships as well as my sanity, or withered into an irrevocable mess of self-pity and withdrawn into total seclusion or escape into a world of drugs and alcohol. I know it wasn't easy for Andy, and I know his recovery from this terror took time. But I know he eventually emerged from this as the man I knew and found inspiring even without knowing his history. And whatever crisis of faith he went through in his darkest hours, he returned to the church and became so dedicated to it that he gave up a successful law practice to work for the Massachusetts Conference of the UCC, undoubtedly for less money. And he learned to let himself love again, marrying and raising a family with his second life-partner. If that wasn't an act of faith, then I don't know what is.
Somehow, in the midst of unimaginable pain, Andy made a space to find a way out. And not only to survive, but to thrive and to live a life which encouraged others to live their lives fully, to not only have faith, but to act on it. He came to embody a life lived with compassion. Yet, he never used his experience as either justification or motivation; in fact, he never mentioned it. The only time he alluded to it in my presence came during my last visit with him, less than a week before he died from esophageal cancer. His situation was dire. He was not able to eat solid food and had been through surgeries and chemotherapy that left him gaunt and weak. I asked him how he was doing, and he said, "I've been through worse."
If Andy was able to make space to recover from this tragedy, even to the point of having compassion, if not outright forgiveness for the person who caused his suffering, what spaces do I need to make in my own life, a life of incomparably less pain? What petty grudges can I let go of? What vain ideas of myself? What un-necessary things I covet? What shallow comparisons of myself with others? I hope I will never have to experience anything remotely similar to what Andy did, but I hope to God I can become more like him. Thank you, Andy, for pointing the way.
Through the storm, through the night, lead me on, to the light: Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.
You can read the full story of Andy Gustafson's journey in Rev. Betsy Waters' book, Testify to the Light.
March 11, 2018
They were all under the direction of their father for the music in the house of the Lord with cymbals, harps, and lyres for the service of the house of God. I Chronicles 25:6
And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. John 17:11
The beautiful Steinway grand piano which sits at the front of the Edwards sanctuary feels like an old friend to me. As I look upon it now, I see it in my mind's eye stationed at the front of the sanctuary at the old location of Grace Church, next to the police station downtown, where we first met 21 years ago. After Grace sold that venerable building with its lovely stained glass windows and charming parlor and moved to a much smaller building, the Steinway was loaned to the Performing Arts Center, just across the street from its former home. There, we met again, when I was part of a creative worship service that gathered in the black box theatre at PAC on Sunday evenings for about a year. Now, several years on, we are re-united through the joining together of our two sister worshipping communities. In each of these locations, I've had the pleasure of hearing this sonorous instrument blend with my own, its beauty released into the world through the hands of many inspiring musicians whose artistry made my own playing better and, I hope, served the greater purpose of bringing people into deeper communion with God and each other.
I did not have to consciously make space for this piano as it persisted in threading its way through my life; the space was already made, and all I had to do was open my eyes and ears to see and hear what's in front of me. I think maybe this is a pretty good metaphor for our relationship with God. God has already made a space for us, and the trick is to open our eyes, ears and hearts, and take in what's before us. Rather than make space, we need to recognize the space that's been made for us. Of course, given the demands competing for our attention, some admirable, some shameful, and some unavoidable, this is not always easy. Yet, if we are attentive, it's there for us, waiting, even as we traverse to different locations and stages of life.
When Grace Church joined with Edwards, both communities had to make space by letting go of some things, and both brought gifts which are mutually beneficial. Those of us who were members of Edwards had to understand that this coming together was particularly challenging to the Grace community. We had to try to accept some changes, to not expect folks from Grace to do all of the adapting to our ways of being. Some of what Grace members were giving up was intangible: an independent identity; a particular worship style which they found meaningful; a community which would not remain intact in the same way. But some of the loss was physical. Given the downsizing which had to take place and the fact that the Edwards facility was already well-equipped, not all of the physical treasures of the Grace community may have been perceived as such by Edwards.
How serendipitous, then, that just as our former church musician moved his Steinway out of the Edwards sanctuary, the Grace Steinway found itself in need of a new home! Here, in this instrument, is a gift treasured equally by the former Grace and Edwards communities, a gift that serves all of us well, that carries the past into the present, that brings us onto equal footing in gratitude for its role in our worship. Here, in this piano where we find common ground, is the most perfect metaphor for the union of these two communities into a new community. This piano, an offering received with gratitude, benefitting all. This piano, which found a space already made and waiting for it when we opened our eyes and saw the value of joining these communities together. This piano which says, "We are all one, and we are stronger when we join together in the name of God." This piano, which seems to follow me around, which has made a space for me, which has brought me full circle through my spiritual journey from Grace to Open Spirit to Edwards. Surely, it is no mortal who sounds its tones each Sunday, but an angel with wings extended who soars low to pluck its strings, releasing chords of love back into the heavens from whence they came.
Great Conductor, help us see the spaces you have made and await our recognition, and remind us that when we heal the broken body of Christ, we heal ourselves. Amen
March 1, 2018
Oh, for the days when I was in my prime, when God's intimate friendship blessed my house, when the Almighty was still with me and my children were around me. John 29:3-5
Now Israel's eyes were failing because of old age, and he could hardly see. So Joseph brought his sons close to him, and his father kissed them and embraced them. Genesis 48:10
George and I have been friends for 40 years. In the early days we lived several blocks apart, saw each other with great frequency, played a lot of music together, and partnered in a number of projects, travels and adventures. For the past 30 years George has lived in another part of the country; yet we've remained close. As I prepared to take on the responsibilities of fatherhood, George joined me in a last fling as an itinerant musician for two weeks of playing music aboard a cruise ship off the coast of Alaska.
I'm fresh from a three day visit with George in Washington, DC, where he lives, the most time we've had together since that boat trip 23 years ago. We passed this visit within the confines of a rehab facility where George is recovering from surgery to remove implants from his brain which were intended to counter the symptoms of his advancing Parkinson's disease, but became infected and had to be removed. While I'd been following the progress of the disease from an occasional problem to something he tried to hide from those who hired him to direct the music at Washington's most prestigious theatres, to hands he could not depend on and a condition he could no longer hide, I was nervous when I learned he had decided to undertake this risky procedure. Even before he was scheduled for the most recent surgery, I knew I needed to see him, and made a plane reservation.
For me, this was both an obvious decision, and a big one. I tend to find it difficult to break away from the busy-ness of what I see as my work; I don't spend money easily; I'm concerned about the carbon footprint I leave when I take to air travel. It's easy to find reasons to put things like this off. But a year ago another old friend was ill, and I'd told myself I was going to visit while never finding "the right time" until my good-bye to her came over the phone. This time, I had to make space for what and who is important in my life.
The greater making of space, however, comes in the balance between accepting the inevitable changes that come with age, the fragility of life, the diminishing of powers, on one hand, and the ability to retain hope which allows whatever time remains to be time well-lived, time lived with gratitude rather than given to resentment or despair.
I needed to make space for the changes I observed in George, not knowing which were the temporary effects of recent brain surgery and heavy medication, and which the permanent result of his disease and ageing. I listened as my friend traversed from the sharp-witted, soulful beam of light he had always been to man who could not remember the name of his life-partner of 14 years. At times, I pushed his wheelchair around the halls of the facility, and at other times, as he sprang to his feet and made off under his own power, I followed closely, taking his arm to guard against the possibility of a fall. He was at once the old George I've known and loved all these years, and by turns a stranger to himself and me.
In making space for the changes I observed in George, the challenge is not only in accepting the decline in George's health, but accepting my own diminishing abilities and mortality as well. I am not in control, and one day it may be me whom others visit in the rehab facility. This is where faith comes in, and it's where one learns to cherish each moment of life we've been granted.
And so we told stories and laughed about our past adventures while in the midst of this new one, which involved both emotional and physical intimacies as I attempted to step into the role of a personal care-giver. When George said, "We've crossed a barrier to reach a new level," I took it to be a reference to those physical intimacies. And he continued, "the time we were in the old folks' home together." Sometimes we need to look at ourselves in all of our frailty and vulnerability and make space to accept exactly where we are, and laugh and love our way through it, giving thanks for each precious drop of life.
Ageless God, help me make space for what's important, and to have the wisdom to know what's important and the grace to accept it. And may I remember that there's a bit of you,
and a bit of George, in everyone.
November 30, 2017
I hope you had a good Thanksgiving....it was an odd one for me, and I suspect for many of you reading this. On one hand, we live in a world which seems to have completely lost its mind (not to mention its soul), with each new outrage and injustice creating a new low in incomprehensible insensitivity to the plight of our fellow humans and the earth which sustains us. Little to be thankful for there. On the other hand, I live a privileged life, my modest lifestyle a surfeit of luxury compared to most of the world, where I make choices every day about the direction I want to give my life while others are focused solely on survival. A lot to be humble about and infinitely grateful for there. I'm encouraged by the numbers and spirit I witness at demonstrations of like-minded folks who are committed to justice, equality and sustainability. I continue to be grateful for friends, for meaningful work, and for sharing in making music which lifts my spirits, and which I hope does the same for others.
November 16, 2017
When the world seems to be falling apart at the seams (and it does), there are two things I can generally count on to lift my spirits, especially when they come together in happy synchronicity: music and friendship. I will add to this, doing something, anything, however small or insignificant it may seem in the face of monumental problems and suffering. The hopeful news is that when enough of us come together to do a small thing, we can collectively make a difference. I'd like to invite you to join me and some of my musical friends at a couple of upcoming events which will benefit organizations which are working to make our communities more just, welcoming and safe for everyone.
This Saturday evening, October 21, I'll be playing solo saxophone from 5:30 - 6:30 pm at the Beechwood Hotel Ballroom in Worcester at the LGBT Asylum Task Force Gala. The evening will include a full buffet dinner, a silent auction and dancing the night away to the acclaimed Dale LePage and the Manhattans. The LGBT Asylum Task Force is dedicated to supporting and empowering LGBTQI individuals who are seeking asylum in the United States. Its constituents are people who have escaped situations in their country of origin where their life is endangered because of their sexual identity. They have supported over 100 individuals in the asylum process since beginning their work. For more information, please visit www.lgbtasylum.org/.
On Sunday, November 5, I will be playing with my quartet at a benefit for the Neighbors Fund called "Singing in Solidarity with Our Immigrant Neighbors." This concert will take place at Greater Framingham Community Church, 44 Franklin St., Framingham, from 4:00 - 6:00 pm and will feature Nick Page of the Mystic Chorale and a number of groups representing a variety of faith traditions and cultures. The Neighbors Fund of the Framingham Solidarity Network supports immigrants who need legal or bail assistance and immigrant families who are in crisis. Joining me that day will be vocalist Zoë Krohne, bassist Doug Rich, and pianist Consuelo Candelaria-Barry. This event is free, and donations will be collected on a free-will basis (and can also be made on-line if you'd like to contribute but are unable to attend the concert).
To make a donation, please click here.
I hope you will be able to join me at one or both of these events. I believe that when you attend an event like these, not only will you enjoy the evening itself, but you will feel
better- much better- for being part of a larger, like-minded community, and for the knowledge that by doing this small thing you've helped make a meaningful difference in the lives
those who are the recipients of your generosity and support. Whether or not you're able to attend one of these, I encourage you to find the small thing you can do that will become a
big thing when many others join you.
August 25, 2017
I was very proud of the way Boston responded to an attempt by white surpremicists to spread hatered in our city under the guise of "free speech," emboldended by the pathetic response of a person who is supposed to be the supreme defender of justice to the horrific events in Charlottesville a week earlier. Though the media played up the few minor disturbances caused by a fringe group of counter-protesters in search of conflict with the supremacists and the police, the great, great majority of the 40,000 of us who showed up on Saturday were there to stand up to declare an end to white privilege, to follow the leadership of African Americans in their continuing struggle for full equality, and to do it in a loud and clear, but peaceful manner. I believe in free speech, and I don't believe hate speech, which is based on the lie that some races are inferior to others, is free speech. I believe that our collective, massive, strong voice in opposition to hate speech and white privilege made the point quite clearly, and there was no need for confrontation with the tiny group of people who somehow felt the need to hold a rally to defend an indefensible, arrogant, and morally corrupt position. And I'm happy to say that the police, as well as the mayor, were on our side, and were there to protect everyone on all sides from harm while clearly supporting the majority of us who were there to stand for equality and justice. We were allies in this, which is the way it should be.
August 15, 2017
I just got back from a visit to a number of musical "shrines" with an old friend: We saw twelve live bands between Newport and Chicago, visited two museums, watched three long-form music documentaries, listened to a five CD road mix and talked music non-stop over 2200 miles in 8 days. The music we experienced in one format or another covered a number of distinct jazz styles, and included hearing jazz icon Benny Golson playing a stirring rendition of my favorite of his compositions, "I Remember Clifford" to blues, rock, metal, Irish, Americana and soul. I stood inches away from Jimi Hendrix' guitars and the drums Ringo Starr played on the Ed Sullivan Show in '64. Other than spending extended quality time with one of my oldest and dearest friends, the highlight of all of these encounters was unquestionably our visit to the Woodstock Museum in Bethel Woods, NY, on the site of the original Woodstock Music and Arts Fair, which I attended just before starting my freshman year in college in August of 1969. (Yes, you read it right- I was there, baby!)
Truth be told, I was only there for part of it, and even the part I was there for was so out of my understanding of the world that I didn't really get it even as I sat in Max Yasgur's mud-drenched fields watching Joe Cocker sing his inspired and physically incomprehensible version of "A Little Help from My Friends" and passed along the joints that were coming down the line without taking so much as a toke myself. But I was changed by it, as were all of us, as the spirit of this gathering changed the culture whether we were there or not, and this was one of those experiences which had a greater transformative effect in the aftermath than in the moment. For while there were some incredibly inspiring performances at the festival- most of which I missed- by artists like Richie Havens, Carlos Santana and Jimi Hendrix to name a few, the music was what brought us there, but in the end, was more the context in which the truly transformative nature of the festival took place than the thing which made this event so significant to so many.
Both the museum and the feature film about the festival (which we watched in the 3 hour plus director's cut after visiting the museum) make this clear. The very first exhibit in the museum contains a large quote from Bernice Reagon of Sweet Honey in the Rock talking about the significance of music in social change movements like the Civil Rights Movement which she participated in as a member of the Freedom Singers prior to Woodstock, providing the context in which the festival took place. And the turning point at the festival came when the business partners who organized the festival made the decision to stop collecting tickets and declare it a free concert despite the implications this had for recouping their $2,000,000 in expenses. The spirit of the Hog Farmers, who came to feed the masses and provide medical assistance also became the dominant culture at the festival as people put in time to help cook and serve others, and as those who received medical assistance stayed on at the make-shift infirmaries to assist others once they had recovered themselves. Even the townspeople, farm folk who were invaded by 400,000 long-hairs, got into the spirit by helping provide food and water for their uninvited guests. And all of this was echoed in the music of Richie Havens singing about "Freedom," Joan Baez keeping alive the spirit of "Joe Hill," Carlos Santana and his multi-racial band bringing Latin culture to rock music, Sly Stone invoking the crowd, even those in the way back, to take us "Higher" and Jimi Hendrix re-interpreting the Star Spangled Banner to a diminished audience at 8:00 AM on Monday morning, well after the festival was to have ended, in a way that invoked the turmoil of the Civil Rights Movement and the War in Viet Nam and simultaneously bespoke the beauty inherent in our complicated, divided country of mixed cultures, ideologies and beliefs. It was a culminating statement which reflected both musical genius and a deep understanding of social reality, and would have had far less significance if either of those qualities had been absent. This patchwork fabric of sentiments, actions and cultural expression combined to make a powerful statement which became the ethos of the day. We strove for peace in the face of war, community and respect in the face of racism, love in place of hate.
Yes, I know this sounds like an idealized, white-washed version of reality. There were bum trips (don't take the brown acid) of various sorts, and not all of the townsfolk got into the spirit of this. We had and still have a lot to learn about racism, about the strength, power and worth of women, about the rights of LGBTQ folks, about how to resolve conflict and a myriad of other things. Woodstock wasn't perfect, nor was the culture which flourished in its aftermath. But the dominant ethos, imperfectly played out as it was, was in support of peace, justice and equality.
While on the road, Sox and I observed a news blackout. We didn't listen to the radio or read the newspapers, and the few times I checked email I skipped over the dozens of pleas for petition signatures which continually flood my inbox without so much as reading the headlines. This contributed to the relaxed state I found myself in, which, along with my re-ignited Woodstock vibe and buddy time resulted in a more patient, kinder version of myself than is the norm. And so it was perhaps an even greater shock than it would have been anyway when my wife picked me up at the train station at the end of this journey having come directly from a demonstration in response to the horrific events in Charlottesville and the obscene response of the insensitive tyrant who sits in the Oval Office. The contrast between the Woodstock generation, however idealized, and the current climate of unabashed racism, xenophobia, hate and gun-worship could not be more stark.
But of course, neither of these polarities tells the whole story. For me, the Woodstock legacy lives on even in this era, hopefully informed by a great deal more information, a lifetime of work in community,
ongoing reflection and (one hopes) maturity. And I know that I'm not alone in this- not by a long shot. So as we stand with those whose rights are threatened and stand against violence, I see the current
shows of hatred and ignorance as the last vestiges of a dying culture in what will prove to be an unsuccessful attempt to turn back the progress that we've made in the years since Woodstock and will continue
to make. That doesn't mean an end will come to this quickly or that it will be easy, or that many people won't suffer before alt right takes its last foul gasp of air; but inevitably, we, the Woodstock generation
along with those who came before us and those who've came after, are the ultimate victors. As Desmond Tutu proclaimed in the face of apartheid, we have already won, and it is only for others to realize it.
June 13, 2017
I recently listened to some recordings that a couple of old friends made many years ago, Seeds, from Dean Stevens, recorded in 1989, and Ben Tousley's compilation, Open the Gates, which was released in 1998 but includes songs from recordings going back to his 1978 LP, Standing There with You. I hadn't listened to either of these in a long time, and though I was involved in the making of each, and on one level on intimate terms, I heard them with fresh ears. In both cases, I was struck by the strong selection of songs, both those composed by Dean and Ben, and those they had chosen by other songwriters, the poetry of the lyrics matched perfectly to the melodies and rich harmonies which carried them. While addressing different themes in different ways, personal, political, head-on and poetically abstract, in the end, each album presented a unified, coherent statement, a world view that had to do, at its fundamental core, with resilience and hope growing out of love. I was struck by the meticulous care that went into the arrangement of each song, the appropriateness of the instrumentation to deepen the meaning and mood, the range of bare voice and guitar to rhythm section and horns. I paused at the realization that my too soon gone friend Stanley Swann's drums graced several of these performances. And I was swept into the beauty of the singing and guitar playing throughout. At one point, as I listened to Dean sing "Seeds" while driving along the Mass Pike, I was overcome with the feeling that this simple yet majestic beauty is exactly what I need to survive these cruel times, and I thought, "Attempting to create beauty is all there is now." And then I was immediately struck by what a privileged thing that is to feel, that it has to also be about working for justice. But as I thought about this, and thought about those collections of songs, some addressing grave situations, terrible in their beauty, I realized that though beauty can and must thrive even where there is no justice witness jazz, for starters) there can be no justice without beauty. Thanks, Dean and Ben, for sharing yours.
These and other recordings by Dean and Ben are still available through their websites:
Dean Stevens: www.deanstevens.com
Ben Tousley: www.bentousley.com
April 11, 2017
I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.
1 Corinthians 1:19
This passage from First Corinthians sounds like a policy statement from our sitting president, but is attributed to none other than God. In fact, as we read the bible, God as God and in the human form of Jesus makes a habit of speaking in ways that contradict our sense of logic and reason. Yet, we shouldn't be surprised by this as our lives are filled with paradoxes and seeming contradictions.
In Nicaragua in the 1980s, armed soldiers in uniform were present everywhere I went as the country was at war. Yet when I spoke with soldiers, though they knew that my government was sponsoring the military force against whom they fought, they not only treated me kindly, but asked me to tell people at home that they wanted peace.
On the other hand, I will never forget the shy, innocent-seeming teen-aged young woman whom, over time, I learned had stood vigil at night, protecting the village's crops from being set ablaze by Contra soldiers, and firing the AK47 rifle which she carried at would-be arsonists when necessary.
Those trained to fight sought peace; those whom seem innocent were trained to fight.
Few would argue with the bravery of soldiers in combat, or the bravery of a teen-aged girl charged with protecting her village's food supply against armed intruders in the dead of night, for that matter. The question of whether violence ever makes us safer is less clear-cut. If we don't respond to protect the targets of violence, are we passively participating in a form of violence ourselves? Is pacifism a luxury which only those who feel no real threat to themselves can proclaim? Yet how can responding to violence with violence lead to anything but more violence? As someone who advocates non-violence, these questions are a continual cause for discernment. Life is full of paradoxes.
Later in First Corinthians 1 we're told that God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength, and that God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.
And in this lies our hope: While there's a lot we will never understand and will remain forever a paradox to us, God's ways are not our own, and God's wisdom, beyond our comprehension, is immeasurably greater than ours. If we are to find a "safe space," it will be found in giving up our desire for safety, and trusting that God's justice has already been won. It is in embracing this paradox that we will be set free from our fears, safe in the midst of present danger.
Henri Nouwen said it better than I can:
In Christ, human suffering and pain have already been accepted and suffered; in him our broken humanity has been reconciled and led into the intimacy of the relationship between the Father [sic] and
the Son. Our action, therefore, must be understood as a discipline by which we make visible what has already been accomplished. Such action is based on the faith that we walk on solid ground even when we
are surrounded by chaos, confusion, violence, and hatred.
From Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life,1983.
Dear God, may we be brave enough to give up our safety, secure that we are safe in the victory you have already won. Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms.
March 30, 2017
Wade in the water, wade in the water, children. Wade in the water; God's gonna trouble the water.
Safety is at best a relative term. None of us is ever really safe--you can live a healthy lifestyle and still come down with a debilitating disease. You can lock your doors, and someone can still break in. I had a friend who was waiting patiently on the sidewalk for the light to change so she could cross the street, and a truck made a turn too sharply, crossing the sidewalk, and killed her. In the end, we're all going to die. Some of us have had the luxury of living under the illusion that the bad old days of slavery and racial inequality were a thing of the past, while others have known all along that simply driving your car through the wrong neighborhood is putting your life at risk. As a parent, there's nothing you wouldn't do to keep your child safe, but every day when you send them off to school there are a myriad of dangers over which you have absolutely no control. Yet we know that we would not hesitate for a heartbeat to put our own lives at risk in an attempt to keep our children from harm.
God never promises us safety. What God promises is to accompany us through the danger, walking with us through the unsafe space that is the homeland of this sometimes treacherous journey of life. We are made in the image of God, and God lives in us. Our call, then, is to be like God, allowing the God within us to act, and accompany others in their journey.
I first encountered a movement founded by people of faith called "accompaniment" in the 1980s, when I spent time in Central America. During that time, civil war and severe government repression raged in several countries. To be poor was to be seen as an enemy of the state, regardless of whether you participated in any public dissent, and you could be "disappeared"- woken from your bed and arrested in the dead of night without warning, never to be seen again, but surely to face torture before death. As it happened, the US government was often aligned with and supporting these repressive regimes. The accompaniment movement sought to provide safety when North American citizens physically accompanied people whose lives were at risk, under the belief that the perpetrators of the violence would not want to risk harming citizens of the country which was their benefactor. This proved to be true.
The origins of the spiritual song quoted above are in several biblical passages. It refers to the parting of the waters so that the Israelites could pass safely out of Egypt described in Exodus 14, as well as in John 5, where an angel troubles the water of a pool, turning it into a cleansing bath that heals whatever disease one has. The song is also said to have been a code to those escaping slavery in this country, advising those on the journey north to travel in waterways to throw the pursuing dogs off the scent.
But I think there's another meaning. I think the song is telling us that life is not a safe space, and it's not our job to try to make it so for ourselves. Rather, we are invited into danger, and, like God, accompany others, trying to create relative pockets of safety for the most vulnerable while being unafraid to step into the troubled waters ourselves. Not a safe space, but a brave space. A holy space.
I'm not always capable of such courage or purity of heart.I'm selfish and I'm scared a lot, and sometimes I allow myself to become so overwhelmed with the toils and snares of life that I find it hard to act at all. But ironically, when I manage to dip my toes into the troubled waters, putting my fears, doubts and apathy behind me, with effort, I find that my small actions against insurmountable obstacles are what give me the hope to go on. When I accompany others, not only am I helping create a measure of safety for them, but I feel safer myself. My salvation is in theirs. May I remember this the next time I hesitate to act, fearing the roiling sea which stretches out to the horizon.
Lenten Reflection 2017
My goal is to make my life a prayer, which sounds pretentious, but it's a motivation rather than something I expect to achieve. I come closest to realizing this when I play music, either as a solo meditation or with others who play with me or actively listen. When I'm in the right place with this, which is not all of the time by a long shot, music serves as a conduit connecting me with both God and my fellow human beings, the closest thing in my experience to that Zen concept of us all being One. Jazz improvisation in particular, I find to be a very good metaphor for prayer, as it calls on me to both speak from my heart and listen intently to others, often altering what I might have "said" because of what someone else has offered. It reminds me that my preconceptions are a starting point which I may need to let go of. Sometimes the message I get from another musician or from God is not the one I thought I wanted- but it may be a better one if I allow myself to hear and be changed by it.
Playing music is at once a cause and expression of gratitude. How can I not be grateful for the mingling of souls in the act of spontaneous, shared creation- a blessing both powerful and humbling, a noble and intimate assertion of love? The closeness I feel with God when the music takes me out of myself is the purest encounter with the holy I know next to holding a baby. When I play, I hope every note is a sweet whisper to God saying, "Thank you, thank you, thank you."
January 30, 2017
You're on the list of people who receive mailings to hear about my musical endeavors, and so I don't want to go on a long rant here about non-musical things, but I will say this: I've always seen my music to be an expression of my deepest values and spiritual longings. I believe music has the power to create and celebrate connections between people, and to be fundamentally an expression of love. It knows no borders, is as purely democratic as anything I know. When we feel the same beat vibrating in the center of our chest and are deep in the groove, swaying together, no matter where we come from, what we look like, or who we love, we are one family. My politics, spiritual life and music are not separate things, but different expressions of the same thing. Having been to three major of gatherings in the Boston area in the last three weeks to have my voice counted in demanding equality in the face of an attempt to dismantle democracy and fairness, I am both horrified by the speed at which everything I believe in has come under attack and moved by the response of the thousands who have stood up to say that we won't allow this to happen. In this context, playing music which is intended to unite us and celebrate our diversity feels like both an act of love and an act of rebellion.
A few things I want to let you know about:
The RPS Band will bring our brand of funk/soul/R&B juju to a new venue for us, Thunder Road in Union Square, Somerville on February 9. We'll be playing one set starting at 10:00 pm. There will be other acts that night in what's being called the "First Annual Thunder Road Boogie Night," with the featured band being the Connecticut-based Broca's Area, who will go on after us. Thunder Road is located at 379 Somerville Ave. There is a $10 cover charge. For more info and advance tickets: http://thunderroadclub.com/event/brocas-area-soulfunk/
After 15 years of working a day job, I'm now back to being a full-time musician, which is both an exciting and somewhat scary undertaking. I love having the freedom to practice saxophone, flute and guitar and work on songwriting, and to develop new musical partnerships and repertoire while strengthening existing relationships. I'm also looking forward to getting back to teaching, as some of the most rewarding relationships I've enjoyed over the years are with students. So:
If you or anyone you know who lives within range of Framingham is looking for lessons on the saxophone, flute or guitar, I would love to have you study with me at my home studio. I feel very comfortable with beginning and intermediate guitar students, beginning flute students, and saxophone students at any level. I'm open to giving lessons via Skype to those who find the distance daunting. If you're interested, please feel free to respond to this email. I would also appreciate you forwarding this information to others who may be interested.
Second, if you or anyone you know is looking for live music for a party, wedding, work-related event or church service, I would appreciate it if you'd keep me in mind. I work in many different configurations and styles of music, ranging from duos and trios to larger ensembles, from jazz to folk to funk.
Finally, I want to call attention to two duos I'm part of, one old and one new:
For a number of years I've done occasional performances with pianist Jacqueline Schwab, most recently at the Homegrown Coffeehouse in Needham on the evening of the Boston Women's March, where many of us had been earlier in the day. (We thought people would be too tired to venture out that evening after marching through the streets of Boston, and were pleasantly surprised to be proven wrong!) Jacqueline and I would like to up the ante in our partnership, performing together with greater frequency. We play a mix of Americana, spirituals, Celtic and Latin American music, calling our act, Soul, Spirit & Step: Music for Steinway and Sax.
In addition, my musical partner at the Old South Jazz Worship service, vocalist Zoë Krohne and I are in the process of forming a new duo, which I'm very excited about. We're incorporating elements of folk music, jazz and contemporary songwriting influences to come up with our own identity, which will be different from anything I've done before. This partnership is giving me an opportunity to return to my roots as a guitar player, while also allowing us an opportunity to bring in other instruments and sounds, including some that may surprise you!
Please look for these groups and come see us when you can- and keep us in mind if you're planning an event which would benefit from live music! I will provide updates in this newsletter, and you can always find out where I'll be playing and what's new on my website, which is updated frequently: www.williesordillo.com.
Finally, I continue to lead the music for Jazz Worship at Old South Church in Boston every Thursday evening. We're now in our 12th year, and this is one of the great joys in my life. When I said above that my politics, spiritual life and music are not separate things, nowhere is that more in evidence than here. Each week, Zoë and I are joined by a changing cast of some of the Boston area's finest and most soulful musicians. In coming weeks, we'll be partnering with Carrie Cheron, Mark Shilansky, Elinor Speirs, Mina Cho, John Baboian, Jordan Pettis, Doug Rich, Carolyn Wilkins, Deborah Silverstein and Billy Novick. We start preludes at 5:50 pm and all are welcome!
Thank you for reading!
Peace and courage,
December 5, 2016
I'm finding myself too frequently in the awkward position of being asked, innocently enough, "How are you doing?" and being unable to say, "Fine" yet not wanting to say how I'm really doing. But because of the former, I usually end up in some degree of the latter, which starts with something like, "Pretty much up in the air." The specifics of this have to do with the election (which I will not dwell on), my day job and source of the greater part of my income coming to an end two days before Thanksgiving, the sudden, unexpected death of a friend and colleague, and news of serious illness from two other close friends. I won't go into great detail about all this here, other than to say that I value friendship above almost all else, and am especially appreciative of my friends in this time; and the end of the job, while a bit scary, is also something I can be grateful for: it was there when I needed it most to help pay for my daughter's college education, and I now have the opportunity to (once again) create something new and hopefully fulfilling.
All of this has got me thinking a lot about what's of value to me, how best to respond to a climate which I find both alarming and dangerous, and how to organize my work life around something that feels like a "calling" while providing sufficient income to get by reasonably comfortably. Part of moving forward is making peace with the past. For those who might be interested, I attempted to address this to some extent as pertains to my day job in a blog which you can find in the November 18 post below.
I'm not sure what my life will look like a month or two from now, but the events of November have led me to a few conclusions in the meantime: When times get tough, community matters more than ever, and we need to value and build ever-widening, welcoming communities to proclaim and protect the rights of all people, with particular vigilance to those whose rights may be threatened because of their race, ethnicity, religious beliefs, country of origin, gender, sexual identity, expression or orientation, or environmental advocacy. When times get tough, deep friendships matter more than ever- the kind where your friend remembers/knows things about you that you don't remember yourself. Every minute with them is more precious than gold, and to be cherished. In times like these, music matters more than ever, because it binds us together in community, marks our friendships with shared understandings and associations to specific times in our lives, and because it speaks to and expresses our souls in ways nothing else can.
What's helped me in recent days: A rehearsal with the RPS band the day after the election; playing at a multi-faith healing worship service at Trinity Church with my close friends and musical partners Linda and Zoë several days later; a visit with George; playing a song at Harry's memorial service which Harry and I used to play together and listening to stories about Harry's life from people who knew and loved him deeply; listening to David sing "No More Auction Block" in a worship service centered on racism; a dance party; improvising to Gregorian chant in a candlelit service without spoken words.
As I discern the shape of my life from here, I will be guided by these words from someone in a good positon to know:
I've been thinking music is a service. Music was invented because it does something to create community. Yes, musicians need to live, they need to have food. The transactional part comes further down the chain. But if you make that your first priority, you're not a musician. You're just doing something as a tradesperson. The actual purpose of music is an offering. It's a service. If you have that attitude, you can't go wrong, because you're always in the right place. You're in the right state of mind to make that offering. Yo-Yo Ma
I wish you well in these times of turbulence and opportunity. Our voices are needed more than ever, and we need each other more than ever. I hope to see you soon.
November 18, 2016
Ministers, whether serving in a local church setting, a denominational body, chaplaincy, the seminary or another related institution are by necessity masters of negotiating transitions. You've been invited to walk the thin places where lives are transformed from unbaptized to pledged into the care of the Church, from independent to committed to others for life, from life on this earth to life everlasting, guiding the less experienced into the unknown. And you've likely learned to gracefully say good-bye to communities which have depended on you as much as any family member through times of both conflict and unity. You may have provided a steady voice to help your flock close their doors forever, or transform the church that was into something that carries its spirit forward, but otherwise bears little resemblance. Transitions.
The Pastoral Excellence Network, too, has been attuned to transitions, whether the transition from seminary to first call ministry, understanding the joys and challenges of mid-career ministry, or preparing for the life which follows a last call.
And now it is time for our own transition. For the past four years, thanks to a generous grant from Lilly Endowment, Inc. we have been dedicated to fostering a network of organizations committed to encouraging and supporting excellence in pastoral ministry. We have sought to help churches and related organizations provide opportunities for pastors to find support and learning throughout their professional lives. We have worked with congregations and organizations to help new pastors get the best possible start in ministry. And we have helped equip experienced pastors with practices that sustain their vital ministry, particularly through peer learning groups. As our grant period comes to a close, so will our doors, and our two person staff, director Larry Peers and I, will move on to other endeavors.
I'm not an ordained minister, but I've had my own practice making transitions, having recreated my work-life, and in some senses, my identity, several times in the past. I began as an elementary school teacher, worked as a full-time musician, and, for the past 15 years, have been involved in support roles in church-related institutions while continuing to play music in a variety of church and secular settings. The constant in my life running beneath all of this has been a desire to contribute to creating a more just, equal, peaceful and sustainable world.
In the course of a lifetime, one learns to let go. I've grown close to students, gaining something like a parent's pride as I've watched them grow, attended their school recitals, and witnessed their transition into young adulthood, moving away of my care, in some cases to forge their own careers as professional musicians whose concerts I attend. I've raised and been educated by my own daughter, now on the verge of graduating from college and poised to strike out on her own. I'm at an age where the shock of the death of a longtime friend is too frequent to be unexpected, though it always is. The movies taught us that "love means never having to say you're sorry;" but I think love means being there to guide and ask questions, to learn from those we teach and mentor, and then learn how to let go- not of love, but of the feeling of responsibility for helping shape another's life, except by unspoken example. We hope to have made a difference for the better, but we reach a point where it is up to those we've loved and worked with to take what they find useful from us, disregard and in some cases forgive the rest, and make a life of their own design. Our hope is that some thread continues after we've left, eventually finding its way into a tapestry more beautiful than we could have ever imagined.
As I write, I'm not sure what my next "right livelihood" will be. It may include some alchemy of several of the things I've done in the past, though life being what it is, it will necessarily include some new challenges as well. I'm sure music will continue to be a central part of my identity and work.
As I prepare to move on, I have two hopes for you who read these words. One is a hope that we have served you well these past years, and that you have found our efforts to be of some value in your own work and aspirations. Second, I hope that you will carry these beginnings forward, continuing the work we have started together, and helping it grow.
And so, I let go of this and say good-bye. Thank you for the honor of partnering with you.
Go in peace.
June 19, 2016
It's been exactly a week since we woke to the news of the latest mass killing, and it's Father's Day. You don't need me to point out the cruel irony of that for the parents of those we've lost. I received as loving a card as I could ever dream of from my nearly 22 year old daughter, along with a book she knew I'd like. I could not feel more grateful. And those other parents. I can't even begin to imagine.
While their pain has no analog, and those murders have left a deep scar on the LGBTQ community in particular, tearing fresh blood from old wounds, it's been a hard week for most people I know. I was driving to Concord to play for a church service when I heard the news, a kind of news which is getting to be so redundant as to almost defy the term "news" on one hand, while being too profoundly painful to take in on the other. Focused on getting through what I had to get through, I kept it at bay until much later in the day, when its shock was overwhelming.
Part of processing this for me has to do with the fact that, as a straight man, while I want to stand in solidarity with the LGBTQ community, to take on their struggle as my struggle, their pain as my pain, "We are all Orlando," the truth is that I will always be outside of it, never having lived their experience. And this latest instance of targeted violence incorporated so many threads, further complicating my ability to fully comprehend it. It was not only violence against the LBGTQ community, but the Latino/a LGBTQ community in particular; and there were the references by the killer, while in the midst of his mayhem, to ISIS and the Tsarnaev brothers; and finally the reports that he had frequented the gay club scene, bringing self-hatred into the picture. Do we have enough compassion to include him in the count, I wonder, and maybe even to see him, in part, as a victim of a gay-hating culture? And then there's the issue of gun violence and the refusal of our elected representatives to take even the most basic common sense measures to protect the innocent, time and time and time again, as if a quick prayer is all it takes to wash off the stain of responsibility.
The day before the shootings was a day of hope and of celebration. I played at a worship service which was part of Boston Pride, and which honored both Elizabeth Warren and my good friend, Judy Hanlon, who initiated and leads the LGBT Asylum Task Force. While Judy's work reminded us that there's still plenty of work to do, our celebration of over 10 years of marriage equality in Massachusetts and the recent Supreme Court decisions opening up marriage nation-wide allowed us to feel that here, at least, we'd made significant, measurable progress. Inspired by people like Elizabeth and Judy, we had reason to feel joyful as the worshippers descended into the streets to become rainbow-clad marchers. And then...
Tuesday evening, about a hundred of us gathered on the town green in Framingham, where I live, and stood in silence, holding candles and placards for nearly an hour while the world passed by and TV crews reacting to the discovery that one of the survivors grew up here filmed us as we stood. It was a windy day, and the candles kept blowing out, resulting in a fair amount of wordless asking for and receiving a re-light from someone whose flame still burned. At first, I found all this attention to keeping one's candle lit irritating, a distraction from whatever "deeper" thoughts and feelings I hoped to have as I meditated, and I wished the organizers had left the candles out of it. But after a bit, I began to see this as less a distraction than a metaphor for the larger situation. The candle is always being blown out, and we are always tasked with receiving and sharing the flame with others, keeping it going.
Thursday, at the Jazz service at Old South Church, we took a different approach: instead of focusing on mourning, we proposed to turn the chapel into another kind of sanctuary, one resembling a club like Pulse. A member of the church who works as a theatre lighting director transformed the space. We found a musician with a different repertoire than we usually present. This time, in place of silence and soft singing, we answered with the joyful defiance of an all-out boogie-down party. Our hymns were "Born this Way," "Dancing Queen," "We Are Family" and, of course, "It's Raining Men. This was the kind of response I saw the LGBTQ community clamoring for, and they turned out, and they rocked the house. I needed both of these gatherings to help me get through this week.
This morning, I played in another church. I had been called on short notice by a well-known and very highly respected music director to fill in while he was out of town; though I've had a very full schedule and could have used a morning off, I was honored that he thought of me and didn't want to refuse him. And I did not want the music to disappoint.
At some point during the week I watched a short video of Herbie Hancock talking about a time when, as a young man apprenticing in Miles Davis' band, in the midst of one of Miles' gorgeous solos, Herbie hit a wrong chord. Miles paused for a second, and then played something which made Herbie's chord the "right" chord. For Miles, Herbie explained, there was no judgement: this was just an event that took place, and his job was to figure out how to respond to that event. Herbie said he learned a lot about music that day, but also a lot about life.
That story came in handy for me this morning as, after playing a few warm-up notes, something in my saxophone went horribly wrong, rendering a goodly swath of notes un-playable. While I spent the first portion of what would have been the rehearsal with my band tinkering with a tiny screwdriver, one of the ministers got on the phone and called another saxophone player. About 15 minutes before the service started, his alto saxophone was in my hands. It, of course, had its own quirks, as saxophones are want to do, so while this was an improvement, it was no magic bullet as I attempted to learn on the job, what kinds of blowing adjustments I needed to make, what range to use minimally, and how to get the most out of an unfamiliar instrument which ultimately, depends on my own breath in addition to as much of my creativity and soul I can pour into it.
Earlier in the week, a minister-friend who's also a yoga teacher said to me, "There's no such thing as being in balance; it's always an on-going process of balancing." This, too was useful wisdom. And in the end, the reasons we were gathered took precedence over all of these considerations. We were there on Juneteenth Day to remember the emancipation from slavery even as we honored the recently dead. None of it was about me or the saxophone, or anything I can control or understand, but all of it was about something much greater, much more important, and much more sacred. You can take that any way you want. But it was that bigger thing that got us through it, and will.
Another friend, in wishing me a happy Father's Day said, "The way you love her will always lift her up and protect." I'd like to believe that's true, and I hope the part about lifting her up is. But I can't quite bring
myself, in light of Orlando, and Charleston, and San Bernardino, and Sandy Hook and on and on, to believe that protection is ever more than an illusion, no matter how strong the love is. But maybe it's not
about protection and more about what we do when it goes wrong. When somebody plays the wrong chord, how are we going to react; what will we do to continue the on-going process of balancing?
There are few certainties in this world, but here's one: I'm a better person for being a father, and my daughter is unquestionably the best thing and most extravagant gift of my life, bar none. And this: Love and beauty and only love and beauty will overcome fear and violence; love and beauty are the countervailing weight in the process of seeking balance. So love with everything you've got. Spread your beauty wildly, leaving its scent filling up the nostrils of all who pass by where you've been. Don't worry about wasting it- you'll get back more than you give, and with enough excess to throw to the wind or at a passing stranger.
March 24, 2016
As we enter the final week of Lent, we walk into the darkest night of the Christian year. It is a time for deep reflection and discernment. We meditate on Jesus' forty days of wandering in the wilderness, and think of our own wilderness wanderings, perhaps less deliberate, less profound, and definitely of less grand consequence than Jesus' walk, but nevertheless significant in determining who we are and who we will become, often marked by the struggle between worldly temptations and heavenly calling. We watch as Jesus' closest friends deny knowing him or just fall asleep when he needs them most, thinking we'd never do that, yet knowing we already have.
When I was a freshman in college, I once abandoned my gymnastics team towards the end of a meet rather than competing in the last event of the competition, sacrificing my contribution to the team's score, so that I could surprise a long distance girlfriend whose choir was performing much closer than our usual proximity, though still some distance away. The ill-begotten journey involved a bus ride to Washington, DC, where I stood on a street corner in a risky neighborhood to catch another bus before finally taking a taxi which deposited me at the site of the concert just as it was coming to a close. When I caught up with the object of my affection, my one minute visit was just long enough to be told that I was not welcome. Dejected, I walked out to the highway, put out my thumb, and was eventually picked up by a threesome of hippie-types who consoled me as they drove me to the bus station. I arrived back in my college town as dawn was breaking, and instead of going to my dorm, went straight to the off-campus apartment of a senior who had taken me under his wing, where he listened to my tale of woe, fed me breakfast, and gave me a ride back to my dorm. He was a member of the team I had abandoned the night before. From him I learned that we lost the meet in a very close contest, a margin we likely would have overcome had I stayed and contributed.
From my current perspective, I see this is a metaphor for our faith life. Despite our best intentions, we are all too easily tempted to abandon our principles and our "team" to chase after a false God which is but a manifestation of our ego. We travel a circuitous route to realize the emptiness of our travail, yet are taken in by kind strangers offering comfort, before finally coming home to the arms of an older, wiser, deeper and forgiving friend- a friend we had cast aside in favor of a less noble pursuit, yet never abandoned us, but stood ready to receive us upon our return.
As we walk into this last week of Lent, let us reflect on the ways we have turned our back on God and our fellow travelers, and repent. Let each step we take through the darkness carry us into deeper self-examination as the candles are blown out one by one until we are engulfed in pitch black night. And let us know that there is new light awaiting if we will but accept its glow, believe in its promise, and keep walking toward it.
Forgiving God, thank you for giving us yourself in Jesus' human form, that we might understand his struggles and appreciate the choices he made. Let his example inform our own struggles. Forgive us our sins, and give us strength to start anew with resolve to do better, knowing that we will require many new starts.
December 28, 2015
Re-watching Bruce Weber's 1988 documentary film on trumpeter/vocalist/heart-throb Chet Baker has brought me back to thinking about the relationship between an artist's life and her/his art. For those who may not be familiar with Chet, he was a brilliant jazz trumpet player who played as a sideman in Gerry Mulligan and Charlie Parker's groups, among others, and who received a lot of support from fellow trumpet master Dizzy Gillespie. He was also an incredibly engaging vocalist who sang softly, but with intense emotion, and in much the same style as his unfettered trumpet phrasings, which were, in part, a result of his West Coast roots and lifestyle.
A charismatic, strikingly handsome (I would say, "beautiful") man, he was featured in several films and turned down an offer as a contract actor for one of the major studios in favor of the freer life of a musician on the road. He was the kind of person for whom things seemed to come easy, whether it was his intuitive understanding of music, his ability to attract people- and particularly women- or his ability to act on the big screen. And he was a junkie and con-man who treated people- particularly women- badly much of the time.
All of this is captured vividly in Weber's film, which incorporates footage of adventures with Chet shot specifically for the film as well as shots of studio recording sessions, live performances and interviews with Chet, some of his musical collaborators, his family and some of his former romantic partners. Before going further, let me say that as documentary film-making, this is an exquisite piece of art in its own right and worth the price of admission for that alone. Add Chet's charisma and talent and you've got something riveting. As it happens, the price of admission is quite affordable, as you can view the 2 hour plus film in its entirety on youtube: www.youtube.com/watch?v=et3a_3WedwE.
What's striking to me is that Chet's music, and particularly his singing, is shockingly beautiful of a magnitude I can't begin to describe. Yet there's nothing beautiful about the life of a junkie who served time on two continents and was banned from returning to Europe for a period, was beaten up and had his teeth knocked out, preventing him from playing trumpet for a three year period, who conned people for money to cop, and who left a trail of broken hearts in his wake. The pain he caused lovers, his mother and his own children is evident in the interviews they grant Weber. I see music as a spiritual expression, a means of communicating one's particular experience of the world in a way which affirms the commonality of the human condition and, at times, lifts us above it, pointing to something transcendent. We take the pain and beauty of life and attempt to give it a voice which words alone are unable to fully convey, and which speak directly to the hearts of those who participate through their listening or co-creating, affirming our common humanity, and giving us hope. It expresses the profound emotions of love, loss, hope, joy, and most importantly, gratitude. How then, is it possible for someone who's life was so ugly to create such powerfully beautiful, deeply affecting music?
I suppose part of the answer to this is that there's a lot of tragedy in all of our lives, and the acknowledgement of that through an art form is, in its own way, affirming and beautiful. And I think another part of it is that in my observation, genius is gift with a price, and that price is the obsession with developing the gift to the exclusion of other aspects of the human experience. Anything that threatens to interfere with that obsession is an irritant to be cast aside. One becomes very sophisticated at expressing one's deepest emotions on an instrument, and totally incompetent at more mundane forms of human interaction and social convention. Not having developed other means of expression or even an appreciation of other's needs, the only means one has to express the tragic beauty of life is what comes out of the horn; once that's done, there's nothing left over- but what comes out of the horn is profound, moving, and we are grateful for it.
I watch this film with this perspective, thinking I'll see through Baker's conning, insensitivity and misogyny, expecting that my experience of his music will be tempered by this knowledge. It isn't. It's still as affecting as ever, drawing me into its bottomless well of beauty, dark though it may be, and maybe the more beautiful for its darkness.
I think I've figured out why. In all of the scenes of this movie where Chet is singing, I believe him. I don't think he's conning or acting- I believe he's totally there, in that minute, meaning every word of it, feeling it as deeply as if the stories the songs tell were playing out for real, right then and there. And when I see him interacting with women, though he may have an eye for many, when he's with one, he is completely with her, looking deeply into her eyes, giving himself to her fully, the rest of the world an out of focus backdrop. And I believe that, at least in that minute, he is totally in love with her, and there is no one else on earth who matters. It is no wonder women loved him, whatever his faults.
This is not an argument for selfishness as a road to artistic greatness, or an attempt to excuse bad behavior in the name of art. Nor is it to say that all great artists follow this path. Clifford Brown and Dave Brubeck come readily to mind as innovators who lived lives of integrity, and others, like John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie became increasingly spiritual as their lives progressed, whatever wild or unhealthy indulgences they may have had as younger men. And I'd much rather witness someone whose art is the result of the beauty and depth they experience in the wholeness of their life, whose musical expression is an expression of the deep connection they have with others, a measure of the balance they've achieved. But sometimes we have to make a distinction between the art and the artist, and take the art on its own merits. If we don't, we miss out on Chet Baker's heartbreaking singing and playing, and that would be a tragic loss of its own kind.
November 12, 2015
I've been living in a liminal place for a little under two weeks now; the kind of place between salt and honey, tears and laughter, longing and gratitude that only death brings on. In this case, it was the death of my longtime musical collaborator and friend, Stanley Swann, whom a number of you reading this also counted as a friend. I last saw Stanley at Tufts New England Medical Center on the afternoon of the Thursday before he died, stopping in between my day job and Jazz Worship at Old South Church. He was wired up to a million tubes, and in an out of consciousness, but I left feeling hopeful. The doctors had just diagnosed the root cause of his ailments as Lupus, and I knew Lupus to be manageable. And though he seemed to be sleeping, at one point, as I spoke across the bed to another musician, mentioning a band Stanley had put together which we'd called the September Quartet until we learned that another band had beat us to it, and were thereafter known as The Other September Quartet, when I spoke the words, "September Quartet," the erstwhile sleeping Stanley raised his head and resolutely said, "The Other September Quartet." So I knew he was still there, still feisty and funny, and not going to let me get away with anything. The following Sunday morning I was playing in church with another member of that Other quartet on All Saints Day. We were playing songs about death and the continuing presence of those we'd lost in our lives- in church terms, who'd attained everlasting life. Sainthood. It was the season for that; Id been immersed in it for the previous three weeks at Old South, and had just finished reading Atul Guwande's Being Mortal. Little did I know as I sang "All Is Well" that Stanley had joined the great gathering of Saints at around midnight.
On an earlier visit to the hospital, one which he'd gone briefly home from before returning for his final stay, Stanley reminded me that it had been two years since we'd seen each other. He'd been living in Brazil, and we had played together when he'd been back for stays in the States, but his illness had prevented those visits for the past couple of years. Still, I was surprised that it had been that long, as we'd talked on the phone from time to time, and Stanley had sent me videos of himself playing with his students. Two things stand out about those conversations: Stanley always wanted honest feedback- he was a lifelong student, and though he was one of the finest musicians I knew, he never stopped working to get better. And Stanley loved to laugh. At some point in pretty much every phone call I ever had with Stanley, he'd say something in his quiet way that was so funny that the conversation would come to a standstill while we just laughed for a long time. I'm going to miss that.
Last Saturday was Stanley's funeral service at St. John's Baptist Church in Woburn where Stanley had not only been the house drummer, elevating all of the musicians who played there, but also the Chair of the Trustees. The church was packed with family, friends and congregants, and many, many musicians. Along with Doug Rich, I had the honor of accompanying Linda Brown-San Martin on a song at that service. This was not an occasion for mourning, though- it was a call to celebrate a life well-lived by a man well-loved. Each person who spoke reinforced the superb quality of Stanley's musical gifts, and of his character. And they spoke of his constant support of other people, people who, in many cases, had far less talent than Stanley, but whom Stanley lifted up to a higher standard than they thought they were capable. And all that love Stanley had put out there, and all that we felt for him just rolled around the room, and any hint of competition between musicians was vanquished by that love as we supported each other. Finally, all of the musicians in the room were invited to come forward for a jam session, a celebratory send-off that was as spiritual as it was musical, where everybody's voice counted equally. Stanley wanted to make sure we got the message, and at least at that time in that place, we did. This was his parting gift.
At the Jazz service at Old South following my final visit with Stanley, we played one of my favorite jazz ballads, "I Remember Clifford," Benny Golson's moving tribute to the great jazz trumpeter Clifford Brown, who died much too soon. I've played that song a lot of times, but never like that. That was Stanley coming through.
This week, I wanted to play one of Stanley's compositions as the postlude. The thing about Stanley, though, was that he kept a close eye on his originals. He'd pass out the music before the gig, we'd play it, and then he always made sure to get it back before we parted ways. So neither I or any or the other musicians I checked with had a copy of any of his charts. So I wrote something to dedicate to Stanley, and called it "A Flower Is a Day, a Friend Is Forever." We played it as the service was breaking up, so it was noisy as people greeted each other and got a bite to eat. I don't know how many people heard it or if it's a good song or not; but I know I needed to write it, and it felt good to play it. Stanley, I miss you, brother.
October 24, 2015
Not long ago, a young man I'd never seen before walked into our chapel before the start of our weekly jazz worship service with an electric guitar slung over his shoulder. When he introduced himself and it became clear that he was expecting to play, I welcomed him and explained that this wasn't a jam session, meaning that the musicians were people I knew and had hired in advance. He said he understood, and proceeded to unpack his guitar and plug in his amp. He took a seat about three feet from where I was set up and stared intently at me throughout the service, occasionally asking if he could play along as I counted off a song. At the end of the service, he approached and began to berate me, my lack of understanding of Christianity and the unwelcoming posture of the church. I did not respond well.
Since that day, I've replayed the details of that encounter countless times, identifying ways in which I might have handled the situation with more grace. He was, of course, responsible for some of the difficulties between us; but I'm older, should have been wiser, and can see in retrospect how I worsened matters. I've added this young man to the list of people I pray for whom I've wronged in my life, or who might see me as an enemy. I ask God to forgive me and bless these souls; yet, in every case, I continue to feel guilty, often many years after the fact.
It occurs to me that my guilt reflects my vanity and weak faith. How else to explain my refusal to believe that through God's grace, I am forgiven? Taking responsibility for one's actions is good; nagging guilt, however, is evidence of self-absorption, a turning away from God. Mature faith means letting go of self-importance, allowing God to cleanse us as only God's love can. Mature faith means believing that when God says we are forgiven, God means it, and God, not we, has the last word.
September 20, 2015
So, I just finished reading William Finnegan's book, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, a Moby Dick-like account of a lifelong passion for surfing and the quest to discover and master great, unknown wave breaks around the world. Finnegan is a long-time New Yorker staff writer and author of several books about world affairs, notably apartheid South Africa, where he taught black South African youth to earn money while on an extended surfing expedition and found his life changed in the process. I was impressed with his relentless dedication to surfing, even while developing his strong concern for the injustices of the world and his skill as a writer, continuing unabated through marriage and parenthood, and on into his 60s. His writing is both passionate and detailed, recalling very specific waves, the weather, wind and other conditions of the day, how particular waves broke, second by second accounts of how he responded to the wave, and all sorts of other obsessions of the serious surfer. He manages to pull this off with a sense of humility as he reflects on his younger self and his surfing skills relative to others in the world of serious, globe-trotting, non-competitive wave chasing.
I owned a surf board at one time, but by Finnegan's standards, I can't say that I was ever truly a surfer- I know enough to understand the attraction, enhanced by a close friendship with someone who spent summers surfing the Jersey shore (at whose beach home my board was housed for a number of years), who keeps me posted on goings on in the surfing world and entices me to watch hard-core surf flicks when we're together. Of course, I'm attracted to people with strong passions for almost anything, and I relate best to Finnegan's memoir as an allegory for chasing the perfect note.
But around 400 pages into a book I had trouble putting down, as Finnegan described some hairy situations he put himself into now in his 60s, I started to get an uncomfortable feeling. Unlike Kelly Slater, one of the greatest competitive surfers of all time (and my friend would argue, the best overall athlete of all time), who has said that he doesn't care what size a wave is, he can have fun on any wave, Finnegan, at least as much as he's in love with the art and practice of the activity, is addicted to the danger. Though he's matured in many ways from the younger self he describes, he has not learned to accept the limitations of age gracefully, or to love the art more than the danger. Though he has experience, knowledge and skill which have allowed him to finesse a number of close calls, I suspect that he will eventually die in waters more prudent folks would avoid.
The surf/music analogy is a very imperfect one: my most reckless saxophone playing will never get me killed. But the lesson here is obvious: I need to learn to accept the fact that as I age, my physical capacities are diminishing, and if I'm going to continue to do this in a way that's life-giving to me and meaningful for those who listen, I need to concentrate on the deep, essential, spiritual aspects of music, and strive to play always from my love for it, rather than to attempt to prove that I can play a lightning fast lick I copped from Charlie Parker and could (sort of) pull off as a younger man. (I suppose it also means there are certain venues I've played which should be avoided at this stage as well.) It means not caring whether the venue is prestigious or the crowd large, but playing for the love of playing, with as much commitment to every note I play as I'm capable, regardless of the circumstances. And it means keeping my life choices in perspective. In surf language, it means trading in my short board for a long board, making it easier to catch waves but harder to maneuver, and loving it just as much.
August 23, 2015
In Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks describes the relationship between a man with amnesia and his wife:
He greeted her several times as if she had just arrived. It must be an extraordinary situation, I thought, both maddening and flattering, to be seen always as new, as a gift, a blessing.
My first instinct was to replace "both maddening and flattering" with an ellipsis, and make the obvious analogy to God's love for us. After romanticizing our relationship with God, I was going to encourage us to see each other in like fashion. I was going to say, you know that feeling; think back to the birth of your child, when you were filled with awe at the miracle of life; when the best thing in the world was to be awoken by her cry in the middle of the night, to hold her to your breast and give her nourishment, the world still around you, your heart overflowing with gratitude you didn't know you had, with a kind of love you didn't know existed. That's how God loves us, and it's how we should love God, and each other.
But a few sleepless weeks in there are times when that awakening cry makes you want to cry yourself as you wonder how you're going to get through the next day. Your baby loves you like no one else, but she's demanding, and you have needs of your own. Maddening and flattering. God's love is something like that love we feel for our newborn, only more so; yet our perceived needs and desires keep us from accepting it fully. Embracing God's love, like parenthood, means accepting certain responsibilities. It can be demanding. It turns out that love, while easily idealized in song, can't be sanitized by placing an ellipsis where the hard parts are. It's a gift, a blessing, and it's complicated. We get it right when we accept the whole, messy, maddening package, and find a blessing in the mess.
Loving, forgiving God, thank you for seeing us as always new, a blessing, and giving your love freely to a bunch of complicated, messy, maddening humans who need your love badly, but don't accept it easily.
July 11, 2015
Though I probably have a program to verify the date somewhere deep in my archives (read "flyers and programs from 40 years of playing music in public, stuffed into files in no particular order"), this concert took place around 1991 or '92. I know for a fact that it took place at the Berklee Performance Center in Boston. The band I was in at the time, Flor de Caña, was the opening act for Ruben Blades, one of the greatest salsa singers of all time, and at the top of his game, backed by his spectacular group, Seis de Solar. I was a huge fan of Ruben's. Not only was he a great singer who had cut his teeth with the Fania crowd and made a name working with Willie Colon, but his lyrics, rather than focusing on romantic love, told narratives of life in the barrio and cried out for justice for people throughout the Latin American diaspora. And they made you want to dance at the same time.
So you can imagine what a thrill it was to open for Ruben and his band. To sweeten the deal, it turned out to be Ruben's wife's birthday, so I got to eat birthday cake with him in his dressing room after the show. But the real high point for me came before the show had even started, even before the audience had started to enter the theatre.
We had completed our sound check and were on our own until showtime. Seis de Solar was on stage doing their check, but Ruben had yet to make an appearance. I don't know where my bandmates were at this point, but I settled into a seat in the front row of the hall to listen to these cats blow. Some time into this, Ruben came in from stage right, accompanied by Jose Masso, longtime host of WBUR's Con Salsa, and a good friend of Ruben's as well as to all of us in the Latin music community, whether world famous or local and aspiring- we had gotten this gig because Jose had made it happen. Ruben greeted the other musicians in a relaxed way. He looked like an average guy running into some friends, with nothing special going on at the moment.
It was time for Ruben to check his mic. Given his laid back demeanor, I guess I was expecting him to do a quick, casual check, just make sure the sound
was basically OK and that he could hear the band and himself. But when he picked up the mic, he went from casual to passionate. I don't remember what he
sang, but I do remember that instead of singing to the audience of one which was before him, he sang full-out, as if the hall was packed, and this was the
most important gig of his life. His voice shot through my body like a bolt of electricity. That's when I learned that whenever you pick up an instrument
or raise your voice in song, no matter what the occasion or how big the audience, you play it like you mean it. Otherwise, you might as well leave it in
March 25, 2015
I awoke Thursday to the news that my friend Marcia had been killed, hit by a truck while on her bicycle. I'd known her for nearly 40 years. She was a founding member of the New Harmony Sisterhood Band, one of the earliest feminist women's bands and a source of inspiration and empowerment to women and anyone who cares about social justice. She was also a labor organizer at Harvard, where she did clerical work for 30 years, a song writer, a writer of prose, an advocate for women's rights and bisexual equality, and not least, a wacky personality who hosted Bizarre Song parties. She travelled alone, usually on her bike, and always brought joy with her. She never married, never had kids, but had a huge family, one she created through the many groups she helped found and worked tirelessly on behalf of and through the sheer effervescence of her spirit. That family started mourning and celebrating her life on Facebook, where personal remembrances were joined by tributes to her remarkable, too short life from National Public Radio and the Boston Globe. Amidst the posts was one announcing a gathering the following night to share remembrances.
Though I'd lived in Cambridge for almost 20 years and felt very much part of that scene, I was nervous about going to this gathering alone. I last saw Marcia about a year ago and wondered if I'd know many in her current circle. I worried I'd feel isolated and awkward, embarrassed I'd come. I called a friend to see if we could go together, but got her answering machine. I dreaded the solitary drive in. I worried about parking. But I went.
When I arrived, the floor and wall space were packed. I took one of the few remaining seats, and soon a woman sat down next to me. I looked into her eyes, the eyes of someone I'd been lovers with 30 years earlier. Whatever had caused us to part was of little consequence now. We greeted each other warmly. As I looked around the room, I saw more familiar faces, including that of my former housemate, Sara, who had invited Marcia to dinner so long ago, because, as an aspiring folksinger interested in social change new to town, she noted, "There are some people you need to meet."
We went around the room, each person talking about how they knew Marcia and saying something about what she meant to them, what role she'd played in their life, and maybe sharing a story. From time to time, we sang a song that we identified with Marcia. We were artists, musicians, members of the LGBTQ community, social change activists, people living "alternative lifestyles": '60s people regardless of our age. Some of the stories inevitably referenced other people in the room. My name came up a couple of times. As I said my piece, people who knew my story chimed in supportively. At some point, as I remembered my earlier apprehension, I thought, "I know people here, and I am known here." And isn't that the definition of community?
Though a number of us met Marcia in the '70s, many in the room had come along later, including a contingent of fellow choristers from the Baptist church she'd recently joined. Marcia's community included people of all ages and ethnicities, and transcended cultural differences; an African American woman who'd recently moved from North Carolina told of her challenges in adapting to Cambridge, and how Marcia, a white northerner, had enabled her to feel a sense of home here. And though there were many I'd never met before, the stories we told made clear that through our connection to Marcia, and through a shared vision of the kind of just world we want to live in, we're connected to each other in this sacred community which is Marcia's family and my family and our family. In bringing us together to have this sacred conversation, this realization and embodiment of our connectedness, Marcia had given us her parting gift.
March 4, 2015
Some of the most profound conversations I've ever engaged in, conversations which have resulted in many further conversations and lasting friendships, have taken place without uttering a word. In these conversations we listened deeply to each other, we each initiated and responded to communication, but not a word was spoken. I'm talking, of course, about the conversation between musicians playing together.
These wordless conversations are, for me, a lot like prayer. You communicate what you need, what you are grateful for, what you feel deep within your soul, and you trust that it is understood on a deeper level than you have words for; you trust that it is understood even before you say it, on some intuitive level. You also listen with open ears and an open heart, both during the space between your own words while the other is speaking, and even as you are in the act of responding. You reflect on what you hear, hoping that you correctly interpret what's being said to you. Your response is sometimes an expression of acknowledgement or sympathy, but you might also be expressing an insight which takes the conversation in a new direction. At all times, you strive to allow the conversation to go where it will, rather than where you intended it to go when you started. You allow yourself to be transformed by it. When you're in the proper spirit, though it requires focus, commitment, confidence, and a check on your ego, none of this involves the least bit of strain; in fact, it feels like you're being lifted on a cushion, floating effortlessly and connecting deeply with the other communicator.
One of the great advantages of this kind of wordless conversation is that it has the ability to cross what might in other circumstances seem like a barrier to meaningful relationship. I remember being introduced to a lesbian feminist in the 1970s when many women felt a need to separate from men in an effort to reclaim their own identity. We nervously took out our guitars, played and sang, and from the first song, knew that we would become musical partners. Years later, I found myself in a pickup band in a church. A man from the Island of Trinidad with skin much darker than mine set up his keyboard behind me as we prepared for a rehearsal. We played through the first song, and at its conclusion, I turned around and we looked each other in the eye as he and I shook our heads and smiled, wondering how it was that we'd known each other all of our lives, yet never before met. In both of these instances, and in many others, the ability to have a conversation without words has led to friendships which were initiated through our musical connection, but transcended it, and which have lasted. Though Leslie and I have not lived in the same part of the country for many years, we're still in touch, and David and I continue to play music and remain friends on and off of the bandstand to this day.
None of this should be surprising; music is, after all, a language, and finding a common language, a common desire to communicate and a subject of shared passion are the starting points of conversation. From there, it's all about having something to add to the discussion and knowing how to listen. Good to know that God is always a willing partner in this, no?
March 3, 2015
Several years ago, I found myself in the middle of a very painful situation in which a close friend was in danger of losing his job, and another close friend was one of the people who would decide the outcome. I respected both people and valued their friendship deeply. I was committed to supporting my friend whose job was on the line; I was also determined not to take sides.
A year later, Mary, the friend who had been the decision-maker, invited me to embark on a major project together. I was interested, but something was holding me back; I realized that I could not go forward without first clearing the air about the matter involving my other friend.
Nervously, I sat down with Mary and confessed my reservations. Within a very brief time two things became immensely clear: Mary was willing to be much more candid than I had believed possible, and I had severely underestimated her ability to comprehend the many nuanced complexities at play. This filled me with a deep sense of shame. How could I have failed to trust my friend's intelligence and ability to see all sides of the situation?
A day or two later, I initiated a second conversation with Mary. This one was to apologize for underestimating her. Her response was surprising. Her first question was, "Why did you think you couldn't talk to me about this?" Then, in forgiving me, she brushed off my guilt saying, "How could you be expected to know what I was thinking?" Then she told me that she and her mother had had frequent disputes, but once an argument was resolved, it was over, not to be held as a grudge or brought up again. When the air was clear, it was clear. Mary had internalized this practice, and was offering it to me as a gift. I knew then that this was someone I wanted to work with, and whom I wanted as a friend for as long as we both lived.
February 24, 2015
One of the people I've admired most for his wisdom, understanding, compassion and undiminished passion for life, Oliver Sachs, recently learned that he has very advanced cancer and will likely be dead within a matter of months. At 81, his curiosity and enthusiasm remain in full bloom; having published five notable books in the last 15 years, his autobiography will be published in April. If he weren't about to die, you might say that he's in the prime of life. In response to his prognosis, he says, "I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight."
I remember with clarity the feeling I had when my father died, as I spent time with my mother, brother and sister in the days which followed, that the purpose of death is to help us appreciate the incomprehensible preciousness of life, and to bring those of us who remain closer together, if only for a brief window. It was a time of heightened intensity, of shedding things that didn't matter, and of letting down inhibitions around showing emotions. My conversations with my siblings, in particular, have never been deeper. How much more intense this sense of precious gratitude and fat cutting must be for one looking her or his own death square in the face!
I would imagine, were I in Oliver Sachs' shoes, that every conversation I had would become a sacred conversation, regardless how mundane the subject matter. Were I to bite into a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, how I would savor it, knowing that its familiar but fresh taste might be one of the last sensations I experience. But if I had a choice, I would want most of my meals, and most of my conversations to be extravagant gourmet affairs, where, surrounded by my closest friends, nothing was wasted, and following the main course, we indulged ourselves in deep red wine, unlimited dark chocolate, and wild dancing.
But here's the thing: We're all looking death square in the face every second of our lives. The trick is to live like we know it; to speak every word as if it mattered; to cut away the fat; to connect; to know that every conversation is a gift, and is sacred.
February 19, 2015
Sometimes it's not the words spoken that make a conversation sacred so much as the context in which the conversation takes place, or the fact that it's taking place at all. When Israeli and Palestinian leaders sit at the same table and engage in conversations about peace in good faith, the fact that they're meeting at once makes their conversation sacred, even if their impasse cannot be bridged.
Many parents of teens and young adults share the experience of having their best conversations with their children when alone together in a car. No one can walk away or claim they have something else to do, and while electronic devices can be a distraction, in my experience, they're less of a factor than one might expect, which I think reflects the need our children have to connect with us, as well as ours to connect with them.
In the past year, my now 20 year old daughter and I have driven together from Framingham to Miami and back, Framingham to Greensboro, North Carolina and back, round-trip to New Jersey, and from Pennsylvania to Framingham. In total, this adds up to 16 days of car time, driving 6-8 hours on many of those days. These trips have included visits with relatives and overnight stays with people I became friends with in college, high school, and even elementary school, giving her a window into my past. They included visits with a relative in the final stages of her life, and the long drive home following her memorial service.
Certainly, all those days together were not spent in deep conversation about matters of major importance, but significant conversations centering around decisions Nina was in the midst of making about the direction of her life emerged from time to time along with all sorts of other talk, whether logistical, silly, or casual. Not a small part of our conversations were sharing our thoughts and reactions to radio podcasts which Nina had downloaded prior to our trips, were of mutual interest, and which provided a non-threatening context in which we could relate to each other by relating to something outside of ourselves. For me, all of it was sacred.
Just as significant as our talking, though, were the spaces between the talk. Easy silences are, perhaps, the greatest marker of intimacy; the understanding that just being together is more important than filling up all of the spaces with words. Just as meaningful conversation requires attentive listening as well as thoughtful speaking, meaningful relationship requires the ability to sometimes sit together in silence, and for that to be enough. Though in many ways I hate long drives, find them exhausting and stressful, productive of environmental guilt, and, at times, the cause of fear for my life, I wouldn't trade this sacred time with Nina for anything.
Transporting God, help us appreciate the sacred in the everyday, to be grateful for time spent with loved ones, whether talking about the big questions, just shooting the breeze or sitting in unhurried silence. And when world leaders can't see eye to eye, please send them on a long drive together.
Last Week in December, 2014
I decided to give myself a little writing assignment. Each day for five days running, I wrote a short blog highlighting one of the artists who've most influenced me in live music performance. Here are the results:
Sonny Rollins, The Ballroom at the Charles Hotel, Cambridge, MA, mid-1980's
I've seen Sonny perform several times over a period spanning a couple of decades, and each one has had a distinct feel to it. I've found his choice of material to range from sublime to celebratory to corny, but his playing always elevates the material. Sonny is the absolute master of building a solo slowly and subtly from a deceptively simple beginning to a complex and emotionally thrilling climax. He can play a couple of choruses using one or two notes and a rhythmic motif with variations and say more than most musicians do with a hundred notes. Like Charlie Parker, perhaps his most profound statements are rhythmic, though the harmonic sophistication of his playing and high level of technical proficiency sometimes mask this more subtle gift.
On this particular night at the Charles Sonny was really on. He played with a quintet he'd been working steadily with for some time, featuring Clifton Anderson on trombone as an able foil and sparkplug. (Anderson is Sonny's nephew, so there's a partial explanation for the chemistry between them.) I was at a table fairly near the front of the room, stage left. The room was packed and the sound was good. Sonny's choice of material that night was more on the sublime side, and everything that needed to fell into place- the right alchemy that you always hope for but can never force or predict. What I remember most about that concert was Sonny's deep, deep well of creativity- he could play 27 choruses of a song, constantly building, never repeating, with a seeming endless supply of fresh ideas. It was easily the most abundant display of sheer creativity and genius I've ever witnessed.
As I was leaving the hotel after the concert, I ran into an acquaintance who asked me, "Doesn't that make you want to give up the saxophone?" My answer was, "No. It makes me want to go home and practice."
Not that I thought that any amount of practice would enable me to play like Sonny Rollins, but that's not the goal; if I thought I was competing with Sonny, or Bird or Trane or even the best local players in
Boston, I would give up. But the goal is to learn as much as possible from these masters and find my own voice; not to profoundly influence the development of jazz, as they had, but to say something which
other people might find of value, and which connects us as human beings. So I was surprised by my acquaintance's question, because where she saw competition and defeat, I found inspiration. Sonny's
playing lifted me up and made me want to be the best me that I could be. All of Sonny's technical prowess and creative genius would have been for nothing if it hadn't been in the service of something deeper,
and that deeper thing is the ability to move people. Sonny had communicated.
Dave Brubeck Quartet and Two Generations of Brubeck, Scottish Rite Auditorium, Fort Wayne, Indiana, 1975
I was introduced to the Dave Brubeck Quartet as a sophomore in high school by a pianist two years my senior who pulled me aside after a band rehearsal to recruit me to play in his Brubeck-inspired quartet. Though I hadn' t realized it, I'd heard Brubeck often over the school intercom as I arrived for class; it turned out that our principal was a Brubeck fan. This invitation had the combined thrill of being taken seriously by an older, accomplished musician whom I respected and introducing me to music which resonated deeply with me and would become important to me for the rest of my life. Until then, my exposure to jazz was limited to the kind of pop jazz that our high school big band played and the Al Hirt and Pete Fountain records my mother brought home.
Though it's easy to portray Brubeck as white bread and commercial compared to innovators like Armstrong, Ellington, Bird, Trane and more (not to mention more experimental players like Eric Dolphy, Cecil Taylor and others who were so out on the edge that they would not achieve much success even within a more limited world of hardcore jazz fans), and I've heard complaints about Brubeck's rhythm being inconsistent, this was the door to those other artists for me, and I still find profound beauty, creativity and inspiration in the band's playing. Yes, it's true that Duke should have been on the cover of Time before Brubeck (as Brubeck is first to concede), and that other artists had also been experimenting with challenging time signatures without the commercial success. And white musicians were always more likely to reach a mass audience than African Americans. That said, Brubeck was one of the first white musicians to integrate his band, and turned down gigs where the promoter asked him to replace his bassist with a white player, though it cost him money. And whether or not he was the first to play in 5/4, he did it in an engaging way.
Paul Desmond was both a sublime player and an independent voice on the alto saxophone. In a rare radio clip which I have on cassette, Desmond interviews Charlie Parker, a notoriously difficult interview, and the mutual respect between these iconic voices comes through clearly. I think Parker admired Desmond precisely because when everyone else was trying to imitate Parker, Desmond was staking a claim to sound like nobody but Desmond, and his lyrical, fluid, deceptively simple approach marked a unique territory which contrasted with Bird's torrent of notes and both harmonic and rhythmic complexity (though it, too is extremely lyrical in its own, unique way).
My introduction to the quartet took place in 1965, but though I collected a substantial number of Brubeck recordings, it wasn't until 1976, after the quartet had officially disbanded, that I witnessed them live, on a "reunion" tour which also featured the band Brubeck put together with his sons, Two Generations of Brubeck. Two Generations opened, and quite frankly, blew me away. Had the concert ended there, I would have left the auditorium fulfilled. I couldn't have imagined that the music could get any better. But from the moment the "classic" quartet with Joe Morello and Gene Wright took the stage following intermission, things went to a higher level. There's nothing like playing together for 30 years to create the telepathic empathy between musicians that can lead to great music.
The moment which stands out for me came when, in the course of a Desmond solo, Brubeck and Desmond, without any visual cue, modulated keys- it was only after the simultaneous, spontaneous shift that the two men looked at each other, and exchanged an impish smile. This kind of mind-reading as a result of profound knowledge of self and another musician happens every once in a while, and it's one of the deepest joys of music for me; actually one of the deepest joys of life. It happens in small ways on a regular basis- when playing jazz standards, we almost never know how the song is going to end, though through a combination of being able to recognize familiar progressions, careful listening and knowing the musicians we're playing with well enough to predict their likely choices, we regularly end in ways that sound practiced, often after surprising and joyful permutations along the way. I can think of other instances where deep empathy between musicians has resulted in an extreme experience of telepathic communication.
I read that Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, writing partners who were often separated by distance while the orchestra was on the road and Billy remained in New York, would sometimes have a brief conversation on the phone where Duke might hum the beginnings of a composition, then both musicians would work independently to develop it before talking again. When they next compared notes, what they came up with separately was often surprisingly similar, and sometimes matched note for note. And when they had face to face meetings, these sometimes consisted of sitting in a room, staring into each other's eyes and saying nothing. Period.
Once a pianist hired me to play a gig with him and asked if I knew a bassist who might be available to join us. I recommended my friend, Doug Rich, who I play with a lot, and in many disparate situations,
ranging from church services to straight ahead jazz gigs to backing up a James Brown impersonator. He's also one of my closest friends off the stand, the kind of friend with whom we'll find ourselves in
deep conversation on the car ride home after a gig, and after the hour and a half drive, continue talking for another hour or two parked in front of the house before calling it a night. On this occasion, the
pianist wanted to rehearse with us before the gig, but Doug couldn't make the rehearsal. Doug said to me, you rehearse with him, and tell him that if the two of you are on the same page, we'll all be on
the same page. I did and we were.
Yo-Yo Ma, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA, January, 2004
In early 2004, the Peabody Essex Museum partnered with Yo-Yo Ma for a residency and exhibition called Creative Exchanges: Sights and Sounds of the Silk Road. Rather than a traditional visual art exhibit, this was instead a major installation and a series of performances and cultural activities bringing great works of visual art from the museum's collection together with the international music and storytelling of the Silk Road Ensemble which Yo-Yo had founded in the late 1990's. This collaboration culminated in a day-long, family-oriented festival featuring many performing artists, including story-tellers as well as musicians, in addition to tours of the installation, question and answer sessions with Yo-Yo, and even food tastings. Yo-Yo was everywhere that day, playing with different consortiums of musicians, seeming to be in several places at once, and it was not uncommon to see him sprinting down the hall to get from one venue to another.
I was there with my wife and 10 year old daughter, and at a certain point my wife and I found ourselves in need of a break from the sensory overload, and wandered off into a small gallery that was not part of the Silk Road exhibit. A bit into this, we were approached by a docent who merely said, "Excuse me, but I thought you might like to know that a very special presentation is going to be taking place in the room next to this one in a few minutes." We thought, "Why not?" and wandered over.
There, in another small gallery, we found a small circle of chairs and took a seat with a small group of others. A few minutes later, several young string players emerged, followed by Yo-Yo, and began to play.
What can I tell you about sitting 15 feet from Yo-Yo Ma's cello, which he played standing up, ebullient, smiling, making lots of encouraging eye contact with his fellow musicians, emanating pure joy, pure love
of music, of life? Only that being blessed with a profound artistic gift is but the first step; that hundreds, nay thousands of hours of practice, merely the second; and that a giving spirit, the desire to deeply touch
people and the ability to openly share one's passion are what make art happen. What does love sound like? Yo-Yo Ma's cello.
Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, Great Woods, Mansfield, MA 1999
Arguably the two best singer-songwriters of the generation which came to prominence in the sixties/early seventies (though I wouldn't want to leave Joni Mitchell or James Taylor off that list, not to mention Lennon-McCartney, whom I would put in another category), this is a concert I wanted to see badly from the moment I heard about the tour. I'd been listening to both of these artists intently since high school- actually middle school (which we called junior high back then) in the case of Simon. I owned bootleg copies of Dylan sessions way, way before these became common, and Dylan, in particular, inspired me to try my own hand at songwriting. In fact, the first song I learned to fingerpick on the guitar was a Dylan composition, "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." I love the fact that both of these artists have continued to grow long after they became hugely successful and could easily have rested on their laurels and royalty checks (take that, Billy Joel!)
Having recently had a conversation with a respected friend around the controversy surrounding the recording of Paul Simon's Graceland album in South Africa in contradiction to the call for a boycott by anti-apartheid activists, I want to make one quick statement here before moving on: Artistic genius aside, off the stage, both of these guys have acted reprehensibly at times. The same could be said of Charlie Parker, who was known to borrow saxophones from friends when his was in the pawn shop, and then pawn the friend's sax after he finished the gig. And I've seen Joni act ugly on stage as well. Despite human flaws, even egregious ones, the power of their music remains. So I'm judging the music on its own terms here rather than evaluating it in the context of the defects of the people who created it. (Lord knows I've got mine!)
On this tour, Dylan and Simon took turns being the "opening" act, and on the night we saw them, Simon went first. Thanks to a family connection, I was given a couple of extremely good seats to this concert, under the shed, slightly to the left of the middle of the stage, maybe 10 rows back. This is significant, because the proximity made me feel almost as if I were sitting on stage with the musicians. And what a band Paul Simon had! It was a large ensemble which included several South Africans who'd been with him since the Graceland days, including the wonderful guitarist, Ray Phiri, whose style epitomizes Township Jive and the amazing bassist, Bakithi Kumalo, whose riff on "You Can Call Me Al" is forever imprinted on my brain. In addition, the band featured two keyboard players, one being Alain Mallet, who had been part the Boston area music scene, the great session drummer and longtime Simon stalwart, Steve Gadd, a second lead guitarist and multi-instrumentalist, Mark Stewart, and a very fine tenor sax player named Andy Snitzer. The sound was huge, the songs were great, and Paul seemed to be both truly enjoying performing and greatly appreciative of the talents of his sidemen. A moment which stands out for me came after the only featured sax solo that Andy got all night- he made the most of it, and when he was finished, Paul applauded along with the rest of us. I also remember being struck by the comradery of the musicians, who seemed especially supportive of each other, shook hands or slapped fives when leaving the stage, and like Paul, projected a sense of joy in participating in the creation of this music.
An intermission followed Paul's set, and the show continued with a brief set in which Dylan and Simon played together. I wish I could say that I remember what songs they sang- I think "The Boxer" was in there- they did a couple of Dylan's and a couple of Simon's. Though I remember thinking it was very cool to see them together, singing each other's songs, apparently this portion of the show made less of a musical impact on me than what came before or after.
After, of course, was Dylan. Unlike Simon, I'd seen Dylan previously, though in his chameleon-like way, his concerts have taken many shapes over the years, and seeing him in one guise does not necessarily
prepare you for seeing him in another. The band he performed with here was definitely country-tinged, and featured an acoustic bass and the very fine guitarist Charlie Sexton, who's played off and on with
Dylan from 1999 through the present. To the best of my memory, the only additional musician was a drummer, and Dylan himself played both keyboard and guitar. It was a bit strange after the monumental
sound of Simon�s band churning out African rhythms with two synths, mucho percussion and dueling lead guitars, but hey, it was Dylan! What I remember most about the set was the joy in Dylan's playing-
and this is one of the reasons I continue to admire him as an artist. Not only has he continued to write songs and tour constantly, but he continues to evolve. Here's a guy who could easily have retired into
some kind of myth-making, reclusive life, turned bitter and turned his back on it all, but he actually appears to be as hungry to make music now as someone in the early stages of his career, struggling to make it- he persists not because he can, but because he needs to do it. And whereas the younger Dylan was too involved in playing games to give an honest answer to anything, I felt that his passion for music was given an honest expression that night. He played a lot of guitar, too, including taking some solos which I thought was pretty bold in light of the obvious talent of Charlie Sexton, who stood just a few
feet away. You can say what you want about Dylan's voice or his quirky songwriting, but this is a man who still lives on the edge all these years later. It's all about the risk!
Final Blog in the "Five Concerts" Series
As I sit down to write the last in a series of blogs on five concerts I attended which had a profound impact on me, I find myself torn at the prospect of choosing between a number of great performances. Do I go with Stevie Wonder at the Boston Opera House in the early '80s, the Band at the Felt Forum in late '69, Dylan in Columbus backed by a huge band featuring GE Smith, or an Ali Jackson gig featuring Wynton Marsalis at a small club in Faneuil Hall? And what about Norman Blake at Washington University, or Leo Kottke? Or Bruce Cockburn, acoustic or electric? Sweet Honey in the Rock in South Bend in 1976, Holly Near and Meg Christian together the same year, Doc Watson, Traffic, James Taylor, Dizzy Gillespie? What about Ruben Blades at Berklee Performance Center, The Buena Vista Social Club at the Beacon Theater, where Ruben sat in front of me in the audience and was called to the stage by the Cuban masters, or Sun Ra at Northeastern, hmm..Sun Ra.....How to choose? And after all, I made up this little writing assignment for myself, so what's to stop me from changing the rules and writing about them all?
But I think part of the thing that makes this interesting, regardless of the arbitrariness of having set the limit to 5, is having to work within a limit. So here goes.
I mentioned in an earlier episode that through family connections I'd been given primo tickets to a Paul Simon/Bob Dylan concert at Great Woods. The event that I'm going to write about for this final installment is also the result of those family connections, so I'm going to give credit here to my daughter from my wife's first marriage, Isobel, who has worked in several capacities in the music business in New York. One of her positions was as a personal assistant to Wynton Marsalis, and it's one which has had a few nice benefits for me.
On this occasion, the event was not actually a concert, but a closed rehearsal in a small space in the City, where the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra was preparing for a concert honoring the music of Ornette Coleman, and featuring tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman as a very special guest. Dewey was Ornette's collaborator from 1968-1972, and went way back with Ornette, having played with him in their high school marching band in Fort Worth. This rehearsal took place in early 2004, and by that time I had met Wynton a couple of times and established friendly relationships with several of the members of the LCJO; yet I wanted to respect the fact that I was an outsider who was privileged to be permitted to witness the proceedings, and my goal was to be as inconspicuous as possible. I was seated toward the front of the room on stage right, a mere few feet away from the great baritone saxophonist, Joe Temperley, and had a good view of everyone in the room - but nobody was far away!
When the band started to rehearse, Dewey had not yet arrived, but there are so many things that made this an extremely interesting experience from note one. To begin with, I found it fascinating that the LCJO was choosing to pay tribute to Ornette at all! Wynton had often made harsh public pronouncements damning free jazz, and Ornette was the man who put free jazz on the map, creating waves of controversy and criticism from the established New York mainstream players both for his unorthodox style of playing, which eschewed the highly structured rules of jazz harmony and traditional swing in favor of Ornette's own system of "harmolodics," and because he didn't pay his dues as an apprentice to an older established jazz master in the New York scene before going out on his own as a leader, but arrived in New York a star in his own right. So how strange that Wynton would devote his energies to honoring Ornette! I will say this about Wynton: In my limited contact with him, I got a sense that he cares less about whether people agree with him than that people debate the issues he's raised- his real goal is not to be the sole determiner of jazz aesthetic, but to keep jazz vital. And, I also sensed that he's mellowed as he's matured, becoming a little more open and a little less bombastic.
Second, Wynton has spoken a lot about jazz being an expression of pure democracy. While I understood what he meant by this, I was surprised by the degree to which this played out behind the scenes in a setting which was so strongly associated with his leadership and fame. Each composition which the band rehearsed was arranged by a different member of the band. Whomever arranged a particular piece conducted it. As they played through the arrangements, other musicians would ask questions, make comments, and occasionally offer suggestions for improvement. While the final decisions rested with the arranger/conductor, everyone who wanted to have a voice did, and the manner in which the musicians addressed each other was respectful. Wynton, seated in the back with the other trumpets, offered his feedback in the same manner as others. As he's a pretty large personality, I found this highly impressive!
Also impressive was the level of musicianship being displayed by all of the members of the orchestra. These charts were extremely challenging. I don't know if the players had access to the charts prior to the rehearsal, and came practiced, or if they were sight reading- either way, the execution of the written material as well as the solo improvisations was impressive. These cats can blow!
At some point Dewey entered, and after a little banter with people around the edges- some of his friendliness was aimed in my direction without being intended specifically for me- took a seat looking over the shoulder of one of the other men in the sax section. He had his horn out, but hadn't really warmed up. After a song or two, when there was a break for some discussion in the middle of one of the tunes, Wynton said, "Why don't you let Dewey take the solo this time?"
There have been a few times in my life when I've witnessed extremely high level playing by younger and/or less well-known musicians and thought to myself, the only difference between these cats and Joe SoandSo (name any famous musician in the genre) is that somehow the famous guy got famous- and then heard the famous guy play and understood why they got to be the famous guy. This was one of those times.
I don't know how to describe what made Dewey's playing better than anything I heard that day or most days- all of the musicians were technically amazing players with sophisticated musical language and enough experience to understand that technicality is just a tool to the real thing you're trying to express. But whatever that indescribable thing is that takes things to the next level, that cuts right to your soul, that elevates art to ecstasy, Dewey had it. Maybe it's like Charlie Parker famously said, "Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn," and Dewey just had more living under his belt. I don't know, but I know that whatever it is, Dewey had it. Though I had every intention of being an invisible, silent fly on the wall, when Dewey finished his solo, I found myself clapping before I knew I was doing it. I don't think anyone minded, and let it go as the sign of respect that it was. I think we all had something to learn from that solo.
Meanwhile, in my church, our Lenten theme this year has had to do with "the hard questions of faith," with an emphasis on asking the questions rather than providing the answers. Sitting around a table at a coffeeshop with a bunch of fellow questioners of a Friday evening can lead to a pretty good discussion which ends with the only conclusions possible, the obvious ones we came in with: God is unknowable, and we tend to attribute to God our own projections of who we want God to be. In my case, and the case of most people I know who go to church, we want to credit good things that happen to God's doing (thereby proving the existence of God in the process), and deny that God is responsible for cancer, terrorism, earthquakes and the like. And when we pray for something and don't get it, we say that God has other plans for us. In other words, we think we have free will and that God doesn't intervene, except when we want God to, and then not always. We want our cake and we want to eat it, too.
So maybe a month ago I heard from Paula that our college friend, Jim was in desperate need of a liver transplant, that he would die without it, that he'd been on a waiting list for some time, and time was running out. And the news came with a request for prayers of intercession on Jim's behalf. So I prayed.
A few nights ago, having no news, I emailed Paula and asked if there had been any progress. She wrote back that she hadn't heard anything for a couple of weeks, but would forward Michele's last update, which she did. It was the kind of email I had become familiar with when a neighbor became very ill a couple of years ago, written by his wife, who had become, as the loved ones of very sick people do, a kind of lay medical expert, using terminology which had become internalized to her, and meant only one thing to me: This is bad. This is very bad. I don't know what all of these letters stand for or these terms mean, except they mean this person is very, very sick. Despite all of her caring and all of the prayers that were said on his behalf, our neighbor Steven died this past fall.
In Jim's case, the gist of it was that he had contracted a number of infections while in the hospital from things like contaminated tubes, and was now too sick to withstand surgery even if a liver became available, so they had taken him off the waiting list. I continued to pray. What else could I do?
Then, the next evening, another email came from Paula, again with an update from Michele, this one written only a couple of hours before I read it. In a stunning fast forward from the two week old news I'd read twenty-four hours earlier, I learned that Jim had found a donor and would be going in for surgery within an hour. That meant that he was in the operating room receiving a new liver as I read this news.
I can't begin to tell you how this made me feel. I can tell you that it took my breath away, that it made me cry, and that at that moment, I absolutely believed in miracles more strongly that I ever have in my life. And I thought, "This prayer thing works." It's not that I thought it was my prayers in particular that did the trick, but I knew that I was one among a great many who had participated in this. And though I may be giving God the credit because that's who I want God to be rather than because that's who God is, I'm OK with that. Would I have blamed God and lost faith if instead the email had said that Jim had died? No. Is this a contradiction? Probably, but I live with contradiction in many other areas of my life- I think of myself as a strong environmentalist, but I'm willing to jump on an airplane and fly across country or across the ocean to visit my daughter. So why should faith be any more free of contradiction than the rest of life? Since we're dealing with unknowable mystery that I can only understand as a projection of my needs, I need to believe in a God who's all love, and only intervenes to do good. So I'm OK with this because you know what- people need to have hope- I need to have hope, and we need to believe in something that's bigger than us. We need to believe in something good. And we need to believe that we can make a difference.
And really, this whole Easter deal with rising from the dead can seem like a stretch at times; but then I look at this, and I see how an organ taken from someone who had recently died lives on and gives new life to someone else, and I think, well, there it is. If that's not a resurrection then I don't know what else to call it. And I think about when my father died, lying in our family's dining room, which had been converted temporarily into a hospice, and how after his funeral, at a reception in that same room, I sat in a chair right about where his head had lain, and held the infant daughter of two of my closest friends and thought, "Out of death, new life." And that was before I was going to church.
I'm playing a concert tonight in West Brookfield. None of the songs I'll be playing are about Jim, about this miracle of resurrection, this early Easter rising; but all of the songs are about it. I'd like it if you were there, too. Because music is another of those miracles I like to attribute to God, and for me, it's one of the ways I feel most strongly connected with the rest of humanity, or at least the people in the room. For me, every song has the potential to become a resurrection, and every one is a prayer. Do you know what I mean?
March 2, 2014
I met an 8 year old today who told me she liked to practice her music. I asked what instrument she played and she said, "The viola," which she pronounced with a long "I." So I asked her why she chose the vie-ola, and she said, "Because I like the low sound compared to the violin, and because it's the only instrument in the world which has its own clef," which she pronounced "cliff." I said, "You like to be unique," and she said, "Yes." "What kind of music do like to listen to?" I asked. "Mainly blues. And some jazz." And I thought, "She really is a unique 8 year old." And so she is, and so are we all. But at the same time, I couldn't help but think how one of the most basic things we humans have in common is the very un-unique, fundamental pull towards music, something I'm reminded of in a lovely way every time I play in front of people even younger than Faye, as people barely able to walk find their way as close to the musicians as possible and move to the music, teaching us that we all have rhythm and we all know what to do when we feel the beat, or at least we did at one time.
I also know that music has the capacity to unite people, and even help us overcome some of our differences, if even only temporarily. And I think that's
true regardless of what kind of music it is or what the music is about, because our response to music happens on such a deep, unconscious level when we
give ourselves over to it. But it can be doubly powerful when the context has explicit meaning, or when the music being played carries specific meaning
that's acting on the more conscious, intellectual level in addition to the subconscious.
January 2, 2014
This fall, I took my yearly trip to Ithaca to visit my friend of nearly 40 years, Sox. In addition to our usual conversations on politics, spirituality, relationships, music, and surfing, these days we spend a fair amount of time talking about ageing. Rather than focusing on our aches and pains, this part of the conversation is more about how we embrace our role as elders with experience and knowledge gained over years of work and practice. We talk about the people who mentored us when we were younger (and who continue to mentor us), and how to mentor others.
A couple of days earlier, I attended a party hosted by friends whose son is a former sax student of mine. In the years since our last lesson, he's continued to grow as a musician, and he led the band which provided entertainment for the party. Comprised of people in their 20s, I've watched a number of them grow up. Playing a repertoire that ranged from Aretha and Stevie Wonder to Cee Lo Green, they rocked the house! It was a beautiful sight to see the mostly 50ish and upwards audience swaying to the music, unable to stand still, unselfconsciously digging the scene, not because they were kids we knew and cared about, but because they were just that good. As I sat in with them for a jazz set, feeling like a proud father as I played alongside my former student, I was keenly aware that mentoring is as much a gift and as much a learning experience for the mentor as the mentee.
I am coming to realize that mentoring can be sometimes intentional, sometimes accidental and sometimes essential. In an article in the July 29 issue of The New Yorker, Atul Gawande talks about why some ideas often lifesaving in import catch on relatively quickly while others linger for decades or more, despite proven effectiveness. The ability to readily witness the phenomena in question is a factor, hence the relatively rapid acceptance of the use of ether to quell pain during surgery in contrast to the dismissal of antiseptic practice decades after the publication on such techniques. These discoveries took place in the mid-1800s, yet despite a current cultural climate which by and large takes for granted invisible scientific and technical phenomena, some habits remain nearly intractable.
In Northern India, infant mortality is ten times higher than it is in high-income countries. In one hospital, four percent of babies die shortly after going home. Two of the greatest causes of this are lack of hand-washing by attendants and hypothermia, which could be prevented by placing newborns immediately on their mothers' skin. Even with training and the use of punishment and reward systems, these simple practices were not broadly adopted. But, a study conducted by the BetterBirth Project found something that's making a difference.
Everett Rogers points out that mass media can introduce a new idea to people; but people follow the lead of other people they know and trust when they decide whether to take it up. In other words, real change comes about through mentoring. Simply put, when birth attendants in Northern India developed trusting relationships with nurse trainers, change took place.
This is the philosophy behind the Transition into Ministry program. Trusting relationships are built between experienced pastors and new clergy, and between congregations and clergy. If we are to prepare our churches to meet current challenges and sustain into the future, we need to foster these relationship webs.
Sox lost his primary mentor this past December, and as I get older, I feel more than ever the need to honor these
relationships, as both mentor and mentee, and to think about how I can become better at both. One thing I'm sure of, whatever it is we know, we need to
pass it on, even as we let it go to become whatever it will in the hands of the person who receives it. And we need to allow ourselves to be changed in
the process, to learn as much from the student as we hope to give. This, I think, is what makes getting older not only bearable, but sustaining.
December 14, 2013
As I write, our daughter, Nina, is somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, scheduled to land at JFK in two hours and two minutes. (More or less!) From there, she is to have a 5 hour layover before departing for Boston, with an intended landing at 9:25 PM. She has been studying in Seville this semester, and her parents, eager for her return, are planning to be at Logan with open arms upon her arrival. Yet, as I write, predictions of a snowstorm cast doubt, raising questions about both her safety and the drawing out of this already 18 hour journey. A reservation has been made at the airport hotel in New York, just in case planes are grounded this evening, though this is complicated by the fact that we must decide by 4:00 whether to keep the reservation, which she may not need, and pay for the room anyway, or let it go. And should the planes fly, will it be possible to traverse snowblown roads to and from the airport?
I'm in a heightened state of anticipation, and of unknowing. While the future is ever a mystery, the number of things up in the air at this exact moment is higher than normal- or at least it feels that way. It's not only the extra cup of coffee I drank this morning which creates that tingling sensation in my spine, puts all my senses on alert, causes me to be both more present in the moment, more aware of time passing, and yet more unsure of how to proceed than usual. How like Advent is this moment!
What if I had this same sense of eager anticipation for the birth of the Christ child that I have this second for the return of my own child? What if Advent were not about how much I have to do before Christmas day arrives, how overwhelmed I can feel at this busiest of seasons, or even how disgusted I am with the commercialization of this most sacred of times? What if, instead, I looked forward to this homecoming the way I look forward to my daughter's homecoming, keen to the passing of minutes and hours, vigilant in monitoring weather reports and flight schedules, anticipating a joyful reunion, in wonder at the miracle of global air travel, even as I am uncertain of what will happen as the day progresses, or what it will all portend once the plane is on the ground?
Advent is the season of waiting, of anticipation. We know that Christmas will come. Of that, we are more sure than I am of the safe, and certainly timely arrival of my daughter. As part of me lives with that certainty, can I also embrace this present moment of unknowing, eager anticipation, of a blessing to come which will always be a blessing of mystery? Can I remember what it's like to wait for my daughter, unsure of the weather, yet ready to weather any storm to be reunited, with Nina, with Jesus? Can I feel this deep in my bones? Can I truly live in Advent?
Father/Mother God, as I give thanks for the birth of my daughter and pray for her safe return home, may I be as grateful for the birth of your son,
as eager for his arrival, as joyful that he is in my life. May I embrace this mystery, of life, of Jesus' life, of all life.
October 21, 2013
All I have needed thy hand hath provided- Great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me. Thomas O. Chisholm
Great is Thy faithfulness. I love to sing it, but what does it mean for God to be faithful? Most of the time, we talk about our faith in God rather than the other way around.
When I slow down enough to really consider the lyrics of this song, I find a swirl of beautiful images, soothing, but not always in keeping with my reading of scripture. "Thou changest not...as thou hast been thou forever wilt be." Really? Tell that to Moses. Tell that to the gentile whose child Jesus healed. "Peace that endureth?" Not in my world.
And what about all those times when it doesn't feel like God is being faithful to us, when we ask but don't get the help we were hoping for, a response we might interpret as a betrayal if a human companion similarly withheld what we desperately want? Most commonly, we either lose faith ourselves or struggle to find a reassuring explanation: "God always answers our prayers; it just may not be the answer we want to hear." Or, "God answers in God's own time, and God is always right on time."
I think God's faithfulness is about trust; God's trust in us that despite all evidence to the contrary, despite our continued addictions to war, money, sex and power, despite enslaving our fellow human beings, despite our brutality towards women, people who don't fit into comfortable sexual identities and expressions, and pretty much anyone else who isn't just like us, God trusts that we'll somehow work it out. That doesn't mean that God thinks we'll eliminate evil once and for all, attaining perfection on earth, but that we will continue to engage in the struggle, pushing things a little more towards justice, even knowing that things may tilt again in the other direction a few years (or a few days) down the line. Mostly, I think God's faithfulness has to do with a trust that we will see God's self not in miracles, and not always right on time, but in each imperfect, broken, screwed up, beautiful soul we meet. And in so doing, we will be expressing our faithfulness to God. That's some kind of faithfulness.
Dear God, may I be as faithful to you as you are to me; may I be worthy of your trust, and grant the benefit of the doubt to those I encounter, no
matter how difficult I find them (and they find me). May I know that when I try to work it out with them, I'm working it out with you.
October 1, 2013
I remember a time when there were signs posted on the beach at the Jersey Shore warning of medical waste contamination; there was that infamous day of the "Syringe Tide Incident" in 1987. Wildlife sightings were rare, unless one ventured to protected areas like Island Beach State Park, and even then, it was a good day when you came across an egret.
So one early morning a few years ago, standing on the dune, the sleeping house behind me, the endless sea before, I felt encouraged when a dolphin swam into view not far off shore, my pleasure multiplied when she was joined by a couple of mates. Soon, they were a pod. I woke Sox, and together we carried the kayak down to the water.
Wanting a closer look, but mindful not to scare them off, we paddled within maybe 50 yards of what was by now an uncountable swarm, a silvery blue swath of constant motion, diving and rising, but moving together as one body across the horizon.
Then, as we sat in still silence, drifting, something unusual happened. Almost before we could register it, we found ourselves surrounded by this mass of moving, playful flesh, which had been gradually approaching us. We paddled; they stayed with us, as close as a couple of feet from the kayak, seeming to look us right in the eye when rising from their dives. We turned; they turned. We were playing together, and it was their idea, having invited us into the game.
This, I think, is how it is with God. We are fascinated; we want a closer look, but we keep our distance. We venture out, hesitant, not wanting to disturb; fearful of God's retreat if we come too close, ask or risk too much. But God comes swimming to us, inviting us to play, turning with us, if only we let her. Life teeming where before there had been waste.
God of the Seas and all things living in, around and over them, teach me to swim with you, toward you, trusting that even when I sit still, you are
swimming toward me.
September 7, 2013
I don't know about you, but for me, this first post-Labor Day week, following a surprisingly restful end of summer, has felt a lot like diving into a pool of ice water. I survived it, and I'm toweling off, but I'm definitely shivering. All I have to do is think of my to-do list and my neck tenses up, let alone look at the thing.
Which is not to say the stuff on the list is bad stuff to be doing. Or that those last weeks of summer weren't sweet and warm. Part of my end of summer travels took me to Ithaca to visit my friend of nearly 40 years, Sox. He's the guy I watch many hard core surf, music and generally off the beaten path movies with, take long walks through the gorges and falls with, eat incredible meals cooked out of the garden and CSA with, and have deep and continuous conversations on topics ranging from politics to spirituality to relationships, and of course, music and surfing with. And these days we spend a fair amount of time talking about ageing.
But not so much about our aches and pains, though I've got those, if you want to hear about them. More about how we go into this as elders with experience and knowledge gained over years of work and practice. We talk about the people who mentored us when we were younger (and who, in some cases, continue to mentor us), and how to mentor others. This turns out to be a much more interesting and satisfying conversation than the one about that burning sensation in my lower back.
This installment of our ongoing conversation came at a nice time, as just a couple of days before going to Ithaca I attended the anniversary party of some good friends whose son, now in his last year of college, is a former sax student of mine. In the years since our last lesson, he's continued to grow as a musician, and he led the band which provided entertainment for the party; and what a band they were! Comprised of mostly people in their 20s, I've watched a number of them grow up at the arts camp I taught at for 7 years, where many of them started out as campers and are now counselors themselves. Playing a repertoire that ranged from Aretha and Stevie Wonder to Cee Lo Green (and a lot in-between), with a horn section, multiple singers, and frequent swapping of instruments (it seemed as if they all played saxophone in addition to whatever else they did), they rocked the house (actually, they rocked the whole neighborhood, as this was a backyard affair). And what really impressed me was that they played this great, generation-crossing range of material with both precision and an exuberant looseness. It was a beautiful sight to see the mostly 50ish and upwards audience swaying to the music, unable to stand still, unselfconsciously digging the scene, not because they were kids we knew and cared about, but because they were just that good. They were so good, in fact, that when I sat in for the jazz set in the middle (yeah, they did that, too) I was nervous that people would expect me, the "teacher" to be at a higher level than these guys, and that I wouldn't be.
Now I'm not going to take too much credit for this. This young man, my former student, was always the kind of student teachers dream about: passionately interested, always prepared, creative, and willing to take direction as well as set his own course. And he's continued his studies as a college student with a very fine teacher. He deserves the credit for being the musician he is. But I'll tell you, I felt like a proud parent just the same. And my nervousness quickly dissipated when we played that jazz set together, easily falling into that comfortable zone you find when you've played with someone a lot and know how they think, and you know how to listen to each other. And you remember that mentoring is as much a gift, and as much a learning experience for the mentor as the mentee.
Sox lost his primary mentor this past December, a remarkable man named Jim Koplin who taught at Hampshire College (the school my former student now attends) when Sox was in the first ever class there, over 40 years ago. As I get older, I feel more than ever the need to honor these relationships, as both mentor and mentee, and to think about how I can become better at both. One thing I'm sure of, whatever it is we know, we need to pass it on, even as we let it go to become whatever it will in the hands of the person who receives it. And we need to allow ourselves to be changed in the process, to learn as much from the student as we hope to give. This, I think, is what makes getting old ok. (Or if not, I'm in big trouble, 'cause let me tell you about my back!)
Also at the end of the summer I took a quick road trip to New Jersey with my daughter to see the East Coast premier of a documentary film called Project Censored: The Movie, which I wrote a song for. This film about the mainstream media's failure to report many critical news stories has won some awards, including for Best Director of a Documentary Feature at the Madrid Film Festival. Among those interviewed in the film are Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn (shortly before he died), Daniel Ellsberg, Dan Rather, Oliver Stone and Phil Donahue. The film makers have decided to release this on DVD and as a download rather than go with a theatrical distributor, and are hoping for an October release. If you'd like to know more about it, please visit www.projectcensoredthemovie.com
September 4, 2013
In 1984, I went to Nicaragua with a group of musicians and artists. There was a war going on at the time and the infrastructure was in bad shape. Transportation was dicey, and on our second day we were not surprised as we awaited the late arrival of a couple of pickup trucks which would take us to our gig. We had passed the time when the concert was scheduled to start, and I had assumed the gig was off by the time the trucks showed up and we were told to load up. When we arrived at the site well over an hour after start time, I was dubious that anyone would still be hanging around to see us play.
But to my great surprise, the amphitheatre was full, and as we stepped out of the trucks, we were greeting by thunderous applause which continued during the entire time it took to unload, set up our equipment, tune up and ready ourselves to play. Now, it's not like we were the Beatles; we were complete unknowns, a blank slate save for one fact: While our government was funding and training rebels attempting to overthrow the very popular Nicaraguan government, we chose to come here on a mission of peace.
How easy it would to have been to hate us, citizens of a country whose taxes paid for the bullets which rained down on the loved ones of those who now stood and applauded us, even before we had played a note. I remember well the young soldier who engaged me in conversation saying, "When you go home, tell the people there that we want peace." Yes, love is stronger than hate.
God of all people, as we stand on the precipice readying our missiles to kill others because we disapprove of the killing they have done, help us to know that love is always the better, though harder way. Forgive us for our lack of imagination and creativity. Forgive us for deluding ourselves into thinking that violence is ever an acceptable response to violence.
August 17, 2013
Many years ago, at an age of great trust or great foolishness, I hopped a plane to Mexico on short notice to meet an author I'd been corresponding with whose writing had affected me profoundly. The foolish part was that I had not made arrangements for accommodations once I'd arrived in Cuernavaca, and my Spanish was less than functional. I did have a list of places offering housing to travelers and was destined for a convent. Using mostly sign language, I managed to befriend a man who indicated which bus I should travel on and where to get off.
A long ride into the countryside later I arrived not at a convent, but a monastery, and the brother whose work I interrupted seems to have been unimpressed with the verse cited above. He grudgingly permitted me to use the phone and I began calling every number on my housing list, most often resulting in a hang-up when my Spanish failed. Finally, someone on the receiving end handed the phone to a native English speaker.
After ascertaining where I was, she informed me that I was far from any lodging, the last bus back to town had long departed, and no taxi driver would fetch me unaccompanied. "The only way you're going to get back is for me take a taxi to come get you," she said, and directed me to go out onto the road and wait.
Time passed. Darkness fell. Coyotes howled, sending chills down my spine as they mocked my foolishness. An eternity later, a taxi pulled up about 20 feet ahead of me; a young woman burst out, ran to me, threw her arms around my neck, kissed me and whispered, "You're my husband. I'll explain later."
In short, the taxista had attempted to take advantage of a woman traveling alone, and had driven in the opposite direction from her instructions. She was only able to discourage him by telling him she was pregnant and needed to get to her husband.
In the end, this woman escorted me, a complete stranger, to a hotel, saw me safely registered and bid me farewell, asking nothing in return. She began this rescue mission understanding full well the risks to her safety as a single woman travelling alone at night.
If she could do this, what can I do to welcome the stranger to my church, my neighborhood, and across any border which might separate us?
Lord, help me welcome the stranger, knowing that when I do, I welcome not only her, but you.
July 11, 2013
At a recent denominational gathering we asked the question, "What does pastoral excellence look like?" People were invited to respond in a few words on a Post-It note, which they attached to a cardboard human silhouette. Answers ranged from "good listener" to "calm in the midst of conflict." But how comfortable are you, as a pastor, in thinking of yourself as "excellent," and what do we mean by excellent anyway?
The framers of the Lilly Endowment Sustaining Pastoral Excellence grants chose this word deliberately. When they did, they were clear that "excellence" and "perfection" are not synonyms. While setting a high standard, they also intended something which is not only desirable, but achievable.
My teenaged daughter, when we're engaged in a project together, often admonishes me to be a little less exacting, saying, "It doesn't have to be perfect." My usual response is, "Believe me, I'm so far from perfect there's no danger of that; but I'd like to do the best I'm capable of." It seems to me that in so striving we may, through effort, study, guidance, support, cooperation, and experience reach ever higher levels of success and achievement, leading toward excellence, if not perfection. As Paul tells us in I Corinthians 12, "But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way."
Working against this are countless pressures, internal and external. Go to amazon.com and search for "good enough parenting," and you will find about a dozen resources. The thrust of this movement is an intention to help parents relieve guilt at not being perfect as they seek a balance in meeting the needs of parent and child. But I wonder if catch-phrases like this, which become disseminated in the culture among many who have never read the books, have the deleterious effect of sanctioning mediocrity. And I wonder about the effect of accepting "good enough" on the health of our churches.
In a time of diminishing membership across mainline denominations, I wonder if our desperation to fill the pews doesn't sometimes lead to a culture of mediocrity. I wonder if we've lowered expectations for membership under the false notion that more people will join if we don't ask much of them, and in the process, diminish the value of membership and the commitment of these members.
I once observed a rehearsal for a church Christmas pageant. It was fairly chaotic, as these things often are, but in addition, there were low expectations for rehearsal attendance, as well as for learning lines. With Christmas Eve rapidly approaching, the prospect of this coming together looked slim. The parent in charge, though well-intentioned, laughed it off, saying, "Well, whatever we do will be good enough."
My immediate thought was, "Good enough for who? Doesn't God deserve our very best? And what about the self-esteem of the children? Isnt it in their best interest to experience the satisfaction and confidence won through hard work leading to a job well done?"
I don't believe most pastors strive for or easily accept
mediocrity in themselves or the churches they serve. But some may hesitate to go so far as to claim an identity of excellence. Through embracing this
understanding of their ministry, pastors can strive for the best they have to offer, and in so doing inspire their congregations to set a similarly high
standard for themselves. Instead of accepting "good enough," let's demand of ourselves and our congregations the best we're capable of. The next time
somebody asks you, "What does excellence in ministry look like?", tell them, "You're looking at it!" After all, like my new barbeque apron proclaims,
"God likes it well done!"
March 15, 2013
It is with deep sadness that we mourn the death of our sister in Christ, Susan P. Dickerman. Sue was to have co-directed the Pastoral Excellence Network with longtime colleague and friend Chris Braudaway-Bauman. Sue suffered a recurrence of cancer which took her life on Valentine's Day, February 14, 2013.
We will miss Sue's tireless spirit, her deep faith, her easy laugh, her exceptional ability to organize events and projects large and small, whether in her local church, where she served as CE Director, the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ, where she served for 26 years, most recently as Associate Conference Minister for Leadership Development, or on a national level. Sue's can-do attitude was matched by none, responding to setbacks and obstacles which would send most of us into despair with a cheerful, "Not a problem!" And she backed it up with action, every time. Told at midnight that she needed to find a better instrument for a state-wide 200th Anniversary event for thousands, by 8:30 in the morning a borrowed, moved and tuned grand piano stood in place ready for service at opening worship.
Sue co-authored the original Sustaining Pastoral Excellence grant proposal to the Lilly Endowment for the Massachusetts Conference, UCC, and for the next 10 years directed the program in Massachusetts and its extension into other parts of New England. She was a tireless, cheerful, and tremendously productive worker, but Fridays were reserved for time with her grandchildren, even if that sometimes meant bringing the bassinet into the office for a few hours.
Somehow, in addition to conceptualizing and overseeing an ever-expanding clergy peer learning program, Sue found time to get to know each young person under her wing at Edwards Church, UCC, often writing personal, handwritten notes to thank them for a job well done, congratulate them on some personal accomplishment or encourage them in some upcoming pursuit. Sometimes this care extended to a quiet, behind the scenes act of grace, as when she purchased text books out of her own pocket so that a deserving teen of modest means could attend community college.
Sue was often a pioneer lighting the way for the rest of us. She was an early advocate, creator and educator in the Safe Church movement. She was a mentor to many and an educator at heart, serving not only locally but as a Christian Education consultant for the UCC's national setting.
Though it remains a mystery to some of us how she found time for it, Sue was an avid gardener and enjoyed deep and lasting relationships, some at a long distance. She is survived by two sons, Peter and Andrew, two grandchildren, Erin and James, and a myriad of friends and people who were strongly affected by her ministry.
We miss Sue every day, but we are deeply committed to carrying on the work we planned to do together to support and strengthen
February 6, 2013
I read an article recently which talked about a study in which people (in this case, all of them male) were asked to place an arm in a tank of ice water until they reached the highest pain threshold they could stand. Their pain responses were then measured. When music was introduced to the subjects, particularly music of their choice, their pain response decreased dramatically. Which is to say, here's the science to back up what we already knew: Music is a healing art. But the news is even better than that, and I'll venture this with a high degree of certainty even without running a science experiment that deliberately inflicts pain on its subjects: The healing which music induces benefits both the listener and the practicioner in equal measure. For this, as a practicing musician and sometime music teacher, I am grateful; and I believe that gratitude is also a source of health and well-being. To take it one step further, I believe that creativity, contrary to popular conception, is a communal act, one which may demand many hours of isolated work and practice, but which is ultimately realized in a public setting.
I got an email this week from a former student, someone I hadn't had contact with for about 10 years when she was in middle school. Now a young adult, she is re-acquainting herself with the saxophone, which had taken a backseat to earning an MFA in fiction writing. It was a wonderful email to receive, and it reminded me what an honor it is for people to allow me to enter into their lives doing something I love. It's an amazing thing, music; a means of opening doors into people's joys and sorrows, crossing borders, cultures and languages- or sometimes just crossing the street, to find that mysterious common air between us, that thing we can't quite put into words, but which we all feel. I am humbled with a great gratitude for this opportunity to meet with you, for your welcome to me, for this recognition of our human-ness together. Thank you.
I'm sometimes struck by the injustice of the fact that by doing this thing I love, I am often rewarded in ways that other people, equally passionate about what they do and equally hard-working and at least as talented, are not; it so happens that our culture has evolved in such a way that when I and other musicians play a piece of music, if people like it, they provide immediate positive feedback in the form of applause. Wouldn't it be a better world if every time a teacher gave a great class, every time a social worker provided some useful assistance, every time a mail carrier delivered a letter, people applauded?
I like to think that when people are applauding musicians, what they're really doing is giving voice to the recognition that through this two way street of playing and receiving music (and any performing musician will tell you that the latter is an active process without which no performance can succeed) we've named, in a sense, our common humanity. We're saying, "Yes, that's it; that's exactly how it is with me, and I see it is so with you as well." Though applause does not happen in every setting, common recognition can occur in all sorts of contexts, from sitting down with a middle school student who's becoming familiar with the language of song to a church service to a soul-food bar in Roxbury where the band is getting down on a 50 year old "hymn" by James Brown to celebrations marking great passages through life, and of a life which has come to an end. Every time, every time, it's a privilege to be invited into this thin space, to be entrusted with the guidance of a young person, to mingle in the mysteries of joy, hope, affirmation, and profound sadness, to join with you in creatively seeking the ultimate source of creation.
I could sit alone in my music room and play happily for many hours, and I would receive a benefit. But that benefit is multiplied many times when you are there not only to witness my playing, but to take part in it, through your active, creative response. For in this communal act we are creating together something which is far more than the sum of its parts; we are healing not only ourselves, but in our own small way, this broken world of beauty and pain which is our home. For this, I am grateful.
June 25, 2011
Back in early December I wrote a rumination about getting older, making a living, and being true to one's calling in life. Though I believe it helped me move forward, I've continued to think about and deal with those and like issues; any illusion that I had resolved all that was given the heave-ho as I neared a significant birthday, which I was more reluctant to celebrate than any in my life. The birthday came and went, I had meaningful talks with old friends on the nature of aging, of making a living as an artist of one sort or another, and of creating a body of work which is tangible and aspires to be meaningful, lasting, and representative of where we are at this point in our life's journey. Several of my longtime artist friends had recently achieved what seem to me to be masterworks- really impressive, major projects which broke new ground for them and reflect a lifetime of preparation: a jazz opera about the murder of a labor organizer in a Ford plant near Detroit in the 1930s, performed in several cities by a multi-racial cast with a full band and recorded in CD form for posterity; a performance of original, personal yet universal songs by a respected musician who, though performing inspired renditions of other writers' songs, had never composed before, on the occasion of her 60th birthday, with a companion studio-recorded CD.
So, I thought, what I need to do to get through this birthday is to have a plan to do something creative and concrete: I need to make a new CD before my next birthday. Seems, simple enough. Musicians do it all the time. I have a year to do it, I have 18 original, unrecorded songs that, as material written for a worship context, reflect my current musical identity and work. I know plenty of great musicians I'd like to work with on the recording. The main problem is to come up with the money to turn the vision into a reality. I had some ideas for that, including hearing about a website that's set-up just for the purpose of helping musicians raise funds to make CDs. Plan in place, I felt better.
Ah, but life has a way of intervening with plans. Sometimes it's dramatic, like it was for the people of Central Massachusetts when on an otherwise normal Friday afternoon a tornado blew through town and left a lot of them homeless. When you visit places like Brimfield and Monson, as I did, and you see the destruction close up, meet some of the people affected- and most importantly, see the ways in which neighbors are responding to help neighbors, it can make you a bit ashamed of worrying about whether your songs are recorded on a CD or not.
And sometimes it happens in less dramatic ways, as it has in my life. In my case, summer came, and I've found myself focused mostly on my daughter, who will turn 17 in August and begin her senior year in high school in the fall. After that, if all goes well, she'll be off to college, and then, well, off on her own, to make a life for herself away from her parents. So this summer we've been visiting colleges, learning how to drive, getting settled into a summer job. Ordinary things.
Which takes me back to something my old friend Peter said many years ago, when his first child, now several years out of college, was born: Parenting is the one extraordinary thing ordinary people can do. There's a lot of wisdom there.
Maybe not the one thing, though (and maybe that's not even the exact wording of Peter's statement.) I've also been thinking about going to Nicaragua for the first time in 1984 for what turned out to be a life-changing experience. There I met a lot of people who, upon meeting, seemed "ordinary," but, because of their circumstances, had done extraordinary things. I have a vivid memory of a sweet, seemingly innocent young woman the same age my daughter is now who had fired a gun at people when she was assigned to guard the cornfields against Contra attempts to burn them at night. I met peace-loving people who had lived through the hell of war, and who had overthrown a dictator propped up by the most powerful country in the world. Because these ordinary people had done extraordinary things, had risen to the occasion, had answered the call of history, I came to believe that anything was possible; they gave me a sense of profound hope I had never had before. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
So I may not get to that CD this year. Maybe this is the year to do something really extraordinarily ordinary. Maybe this is the year to visit more colleges, fill out more financial aid forms, spend more terrified hours in the passenger seat being driven by someone who has even less of an idea what she's doing than I do, and live as fully in the moment as I can, and enjoy the ride. Maybe this is the year to believe that playing music for church services is more important than recording the songs I play there, that the really extraordinary things happen when you least expect them, when the tape recorders and cameras aren't rolling (if that can still happen in this digital, youtube age). Maybe this is the year to celebrate the ordinary. It could be an extraordinary year.
January 26, 2011
Maybe it was because of the reading I've been doing these last months, falling deep into the rich, complex words and worlds of two authors previously unknown to me, Siri Hustvedt and Abraham Verghese, both of whom bring together passion for and profound knowledge of the sometimes disparate worlds of science, art, human psychology and good story-telling salted by uncommon wisdom and compassion. Or maybe it's the heightened awareness brought about as I sit on a precipice, my daughter's life as a child under her parents' close watch on one side, and on the other, her much anticipated life as a young adult preparing to leave home and make her way in the wide and sometimes unforgiving world of independence. Maybe it's being of a certain age, (a thought reinforced by my 91 year old mother-in-law's choice of Christmas gift to me, a book entitled, Anti-Aging Super Foods for Seniors). Maybe it was the knowledge that I would be waking up in my own bed on Christmas morning, spared the grueling traffic to Pennsylvania for the first time in a dozen years. For whatever reason, I was more deeply affected by this Advent than any previous in memory.
I think this probably started with two jazz vesper services I was invited to be part of early in this season of waiting and watching, both at churches not close to home, but which have grown to feel like home through my collaborations with them over time. Both afforded opportunities to engage not only with those communities, but to spend some relaxed time with old friends too infrequently seen from other parts of my life. Those meetings with friends changed the way I moved and made sense of the world on those days, linking past and present, reminding me what's really important in my life, working their way into the music, and into the swirl of meanings these services uncovered; the loss and promise that define the season. Advent made its transition into Christmas for me during the course of a jazz service at Old South Church on December 23 which began with a recognition of the blueness the season portends, and then moved toward joy as we walked out of Gordon Chapel singing, and continued around a bonfire in the middle of the city, a sidewalk sanctuary open to all. Come and get your cup of hot chocolate! Christmas is here! A miracle is about to happen; nay, is happening!
It was all going well until a little after 10:00 on Friday evening. My wife, the afore-mentioned mother-in-law (her surprising gift still a secret) and I watched a good, old fashioned Christmas movie in black and white starring Cary Grant as a charming angel not entirely immune to Loretta Young's own charms as The Bishop's Wife. I drove to the mall, parked the car and awaited Nina's emergence from her long and doubtlessly busy shift in a gelato cafe. Patience turned to frustration and then to worry when she didn't appear. Here's that line again- when does over-protective helicopter parenting give way to legitimate concern and a need for intervention? At 10:20 I called. No answer. But in a few minutes, my cell buzzed. She had been doing her own Christmas shopping before starting her shift. The bag containing her purchases, well over $100 worth, in addition to her purse containing debit card and driver's permit, were missing from the storage cabinet where she always left her possessions while working. Did she want me to come up? No, she was trying to work it out with the help of the manager, to figure out who might have accidently taken her bag, to call and ask them to bring it back.
More time pacing in the lobby as the mall emptied for the night. Finally, Nina coming down the escalator empty-handed, barely holding it together, starting to walk by without noticing me as she headed for the door, then bursting into loud sobs as I held her. Our perfect Christmas, or the illusion of it anyway, was coming apart at the seams. And just to punctuate the pathos, her most expensive purchase of the day, accounting for the bulk of the fruits of her shopping, was a gift for my wife and I. Her generosity, it might have seemed to her, thrown back at her, unfulfilled and unrewarded.
Somewhere during the course of that sad drive home my strong parental desire to comfort my little girl began its descent into anger directed at the perpetrator of this pain to my daughter, of this intrusion on our perfect Christmas, my outrage outflanking her own. I can understand and forgive an honest mistake; but the likely parties responsible for this mistake had left the mall hours earlier, and surely would have discovered their error, would have had plenty of time to return what wasn't theirs. Any decent person would realize the impact of walking off with someone else's Christmas gifts, would have done whatever necessary to make it right, no matter the inconvenience to themselves, wouldn't they? Or could it have been purposeful, or maybe an accident turned into something unintended, but worse? The manager had tried to call another employee while I awaited Nina in the mall lobby, but had gotten no answer. He said he would call again in the morning and check with her and with some relatives of the owner who had also left and retrieved packages that day. My outrage at least had the affect of calming Nina, who, fearful of her old man being rude to her boss or co-workers, was willing to accept that this was just an inconvenient mistake which would be straightened out in the morning.
I spent a restless night and slept little. Not being able to take it any longer when Nina remained asleep late into the next morning, I knocked on her bedroom door at 10:30. She reluctantly got up and made a call to the manager, and informed me that there was no answer and would be none until noon, when the place opened for business. It was later than that when I came out of the shower to hear her end of the phone call: lots of "Uh, huhs" and "OKs". It didn't sound good. He told her that he had spoken with the employee and with the owner's teenage relatives, and none had Nina's things. He said there was a security video and that he'd looked at it and didn't see anyone take Nina's bag. He said he was sorry.
Now Nina, still fearful that I'd be rude, was at least willing to let me call back and ask if we could come and view the video ourselves to see if we saw anything he might have missed, our stake in this being higher than the manager's. I called, I was polite. I was told we could come view the tape on Monday. I reminded him of the obvious, that the package contained Christmas presents and this was Christmas eve. He said he was sorry.
Now we were in agreement that my earlier threat to go to the police was in order. After a call by Jenny (being the less hot-headed of the two of us) during which she was told that we could either go to the station or fill out a form on-line followed by an unsuccessful attempt to download the correct form, Nina and I headed off to the police station. When we got there, it was practically deserted. The desk sergeant's first response was, "You can fill out a form on-line." I said, "But we're here; can't we give you a statement or at least fill out a form now?" He said that all of the officers were out on calls, and that if we wanted to wait until one was free, we could, but it might be a while. And so we took a seat, and sat in silence. Finally, a few minutes before the time when I had agreed we could leave if no one showed up, we were called into an interview room to make our statement.
The officer was helpful, wondered why we hadn't called the police immediately when Nina noticed her things were missing so they could come to the mall and question people before going home that night? I told him that we believed an honest mistake had been made and that whomever had taken Nina's bag by accident would realize it and return it. We thought the manager would help. When the bag wasn't returned and the manager didn't want to be inconvenienced to do more, when it seemed more possible that this was, indeed, a theft, perhaps even with the manager covering up for the relatives, we came here. He excused himself to call the manager. As we waited, I looked out the window just as a wee sheep and shepherd walked past, a momentary relief from the tension and a reminder that Nina was herself to be a narrator in the Christmas pageant at our church in a couple of hours. But we left the station only with the assurance that the officer would himself go to the mall to view the security tape and would likely get back to us on Tuesday. Though on the way to the station Nina had said she was worried about offending the people she had to work with, now she stated that she felt better for having gone to the police. At least we'd done all we could.
I was at my computer an hour and a half later when Nina yelled down the stairwell, "They have my stuff! Someone has to meet the manager at the mall at 5:00!" Nina had to be at church at 4:30, so I said I'd drop her off and go to the mall, then meet Jenny and my in-laws at the church. We were ecstatic! Christmas was going to come after all! In the car Nina said, "Maybe there is a Jesus!" and I responded, "Two things: Yes, maybe there is a God, because I was certainly praying this would turn out right, and second, it's a good thing we went to the police!" But she was still worried that I might offend the manager. I assured her that as long as he didn't say anything to me I would wish him a Merry Christmas and be done with it; but that if he dared ask why we'd gone to the authorities, I would tell him in no uncertain terms; Nina's bag had been with the owner's relatives after all- either he hadn't checked with them and lied about it, or he hadn't been willing to ask them to check again more carefully; and he certainly had not seemed to care whether a teenage employee's Christmas was dampened because he couldn't be bothered. Since he had told us that neither the employee or the relatives had Nina's bag, we would have to assume that it had been a theft. What else to do but go to the police? He'd left us no choice. And funny how the bag materialized just after that call from the officer!
In less than 24 hours, I'd gone from feeling that this was an unusually blessed Advent and Christmas which had affected me more deeply than most, to feeling despair and anger, and back to feeling that indeed, something special, something from a thin place, something blessed, had occurred! While part of me felt guilty with the knowledge that this was such a small thing to suffer in light of the much more real challenges so many people face every day of their lives, I felt nonetheless, that something deeper was happening this Christmas, and all the more so for the experience of loss and return. It seemed to me that having been rescued from loss and despair, no matter how trivial the cause, resulted in a greater appreciation for the gifts that had been returned and the gifts that really matter- like my daughter's generosity in her gift-buying, and in her belief that a mistake had occurred and would be corrected by those at fault. And yes, I couldn't help but see this whole affair as a bit of evidence that indeed, with the help of God (and the Natick Police) all things are possible.
I read somewhere that one must suffer to develop compassion, and I think maybe that's so. And just maybe, just maybe, such personal suffering over a matter of such small accord is a kind of tetanus shot that infects us just enough to keep us well, giving us a brief taste of the disease to serve as a reminder that for the many, things don't always have such a happy ending. But at that frozen in time moment I was overwhelmed by joy and gratitude, and from there on out, it was as if nothing could go wrong- I was in the zone; my angel was flying. I arrived at the mall to find a parking spot near an entrance close to Nina's place of employ. I had made such good time that I was there before 5:00, and thought I'd have to wait for the manager; but just as I arrived at the gelato place I saw a young man carrying a shopping bag walk through the employee's entrance. He was apologetic as he explained that Nina's bag was mistakenly taken by the teenaged relatives along with their own. I told him we here happy to have it back, thanked him and wished him a Merry Christmas. We shook hands and smiled. I was back at the church before Nina finished her first narration. As I sat down, someone passed a tinsel halo down the isle. I put it on my head, an angel to be called forth later in the pageant. It was miraculous!
December 31, 2010
This fall my daughter's high school English class was assigned to write a 6 word autobiography. It's a challenging task: figure out how you'd sum up your life to date, what you think has been its most defining feature, and say it concisely. There's a bit of poetry involved, and a bit of self-analysis. How honest do you want to be; how revealing? How well do you know yourself? On parents' day, the assignment came to us, and the standard had been set. The fruits of the students' writing was on the wall (literally), and some of it was breathtaking; stories about being an immigrant, coming out stories, stories about the death of a parent. All in six words. Here's mine: Always followed passion; can't ever retire.
This life-summation coincided with the end of a period of several months of what might politely be termed "reflection" and is maybe more accurately called "depression". There was a lot going on that I won't go into, but suffice it to say that a good deal of it had to do with career, money, approaching the age where people start thinking about retirement, all that. And while one of the nice things about Facebook is that it provides the opportunity for an instant re-connect with people I knew in high school and college but had lost touch with and might have wondered about (were the cool people still cool, or did the rest of us end up having cooler lives in the long run?), the down side is that while I'm looking at the impossibility of ever retiring, some of these people have been retired for years!
It's easy (well, kind of) from here to look back and say, maybe I should have done this or that differently; but really, I'm not sure I had much choice in the matter. Ultimately, our action or inaction, the choices we make, are a reflection of our nature, and, I like to think, our calling. So I stand behind my 6 word autobiography, and I mean it both ways: I can no more retire from following my passion than I can afford to retire from working. It's who I am. It would have been nice if who I am had made a little more dough over the years and could think about the big chill, but, hey, it ain't over till it's over, so who knows what the next few years might bring? I think it's not my job to worry about that; I think it's my job to stay true to what I think I've been called to do. But what is that?
If you've been following my ramblings over the past few years, you've probably noticed that most of the "gigs" I end up blathering about these days fall into two categories: church services and benefit concerts. This is not where I thought I'd be 10 years ago, though benefits have always been in the mix. But while this isn't exactly a great formula for feeding a 401k (or a family) it's what I've come to think of as my calling. And the upshot of my period of "reflection" is that I've had to come to terms with what to me is the inherent contradiction between a calling to play music in service of a higher power and the need to make a living. (Part of this comes from an instinctual belief in the teaching that if one does the right thing without regard for compensation, needs will be provided for- a belief which has been borne out to a pretty high degree if I compare my living conditions to those of most people in the world, and if I reflect on the opportunities I've had for travel, personal growth, and the generosity of people who have more money than I do.)
And there have been other benefits too rich to measure: being invited into profoundly personal life transitions- memorial services, marriages, ordinations; experiencing the sacredness of deep connection with strangers and friends alike in worship and work; the occasional glimpse and knowledge of the steady presence of a greater than human source of creativity and love; the good feeling you get when you do something to benefit someone other than yourself. And let's not forget the joy of playing music with great musicians, and sometimes experiencing a one-ness with them, with the music itself, with the higher power and everyone in the room- a one-ness that takes you out of yourself, transcends everything, puts you firmly in the exact moment you're in and leaves you floating on a cushion where thinking becomes being and every note is the inevitable right note.
Somehow it doesn't seem right to bring commerce into this. I've been around this crazy scene long enough and witnessed enough personally and among my peers to have a sense of the alchemy of self-promotion, hustle, commercial taste, timing, luck and, yes, talent involved in success. It can be a fine dance to believe in yourself and your art enough that you can keep on getting back up regardless of how much rejection you receive, and not lose yourself in ego when the answer is yes and the people are applauding. And there's a lot of pressure involved in knowing that the number of people who come through the door determines whether you'll make a few bucks or spend more than you took in paying the band, getting a good photo, making a nice recording- no matter how good the music is on stage and how much it may have moved the few people who were witness to it. I'm not saying it's harder than any other entrepreneurial endeavor; but let's face it, it's just that- it's a business. So just how do you engage in the business of the sacred without losing the sacred part? How do you not get caught up in "If what I do has value, why am I not earning more money doing it?"
These are the kinds of questions that were driving me crazy when I was in my period of "reflection". For a while there I was thinking, maybe I should just get out of this, get a real job where what it's about is making money, play little gigs on the side if I feel like it or not, store away a few bucks, then in a few years disappear into some dune on the Cape and live happily ever after. (Fat chance of that in this economy even if I could bring myself to want it enough to try.)
In the final analysis, I believe that people have a right to earn a respectable living doing things that matter, that aspire to the common good. And work should be something that we enjoy, that we can be proud of, that brings satisfaction on its own terms. So here's where I've come: Whereas in the past, I've refrained from soliciting work playing for church services, waiting for the contact to be initiated by churches, I am now, for the first time, actively approaching churches to propose that they hire me to bring jazz and gospel music to their congregations. While this may not seem like a big deal revelation requiring months of reflection, getting there has been for me, a pretty big deal.
So why am I telling you all of this? (And why would you want to read it?) I guess I think that maybe a lot of us of a certain age are re-examining our lives, that while the particulars of mine may be different from yours, some of the questions behind the questions are common. And I know that some of you are artists, musicians, small business operators, free-lance dreamers, and otherwise kindred spirits who may be able to relate to some of this. (And oh, hell, I'm probably writing all this down and sending it out as some form of therapy for myself.) But ultimately, dear reader, what this means for you, is that if I'm successful and you keep reading my blatherings, you will find even more church services listed within these missives and on my website than you have in the past!