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 on websites hosted by other organizations.
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which might have cost me my friendships as well as my sanity, or withered into an irrevocable mess of self-pity and withdrawn into total seclusion or escape into a world of drugs and alcohol.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; I’d 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 Rubén 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 Rubén’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 Rubén and his band. To sweeten the deal, it turned out to be Rubén’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 Rubén 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, Rubén came in from stage right, accompanied by José Masso, longtime host of WBUR’s Con Salsa, and a good friend of Rubén’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 José had made it happen. Rubén 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 Rubén 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 the case.
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.
March 22, 2014
I’m going to tell you why it’s a good thing I’ve managed to stay in touch with my college girlfriend 40 years after I graduated from college and nearly that long since we broke up, and what that has to do with Easter. For one thing, there are people she’s kept up with better than I have, so I get news of those people. And recently, she passed along some very disturbing news about one of them, a guy named Jim, who was one of our college’s original hippies, and also probably the best artist on campus during our years there. He was a friend, though not one of my closest friends, and he married another friend, Michele, who was one of my former girlfriend’s best friends, not only from college, but going back to high school. He went on to get an MFA and teach art at another college, and he and Michele had some kids. I’ll come back to this.
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 ½ 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 teaming 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? Isn’t 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 pastoral excellence.
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 café. 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: lot’s of “Uh, huh’s and “OK’s. 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!