A Year In Review

From August 2016-June 2017 I traveled to India, Thailand, Ghana, and Cuba with the assistance of a grant from the Frank Huntington Beebe Fund for Musicians. I studied the traditional music of each of these locations in addition to performing, recording, teaching, and travelling in each. In my studies and performances I sought to emphasize the ways that these styles relate to my background in American jazz. While my original intentions were to remain in India for the entire year and study Carnatic music (South Indian Classical music), a combination of personal and musical circumstances drove me to end my stay there after six months. The Trustees of the Beebe Fund were kind enough to accommodate this decision and fund the remainder of my study. After a ten-day trip to Thailand I spent around six weeks in both Ghana and Cuba separated by a brief period of intensive Spanish study in Denver.

 

This was a life-changing experience for which I cannot adequately express my gratitude. I would like to thank my friends, family, and everyone else from the US who helped me make the most of it. I feel this appreciation still more for the new teachers, friends, and professionals who welcomed me into unfamiliar environments that I could not have navigated alone. And a big thank you to the people at the Beebe fund for making this all possible financially. If you remember nothing else from this post, please remember that I count myself unendingly privileged to have done this.

 

This experience meant too much for me to summarize it effectively here. As I look back I am somewhat overwhelmed with the complexity and contrast of the year as a whole. I think the best way to give you a sense of it is with a series of images and some brief explanation.  

 

I had the opportunity to experience the inside of different countries: I sat on the floor all morning playing a Varnam for a Guru named Karaikudi. One afternoon I climbed to a Buddhist temple on the top of a mountain with a Veteran who went by Ning. I stayed up all night on a smoky porch talking with a Rasta named Agbe. I danced Rumba every Sunday on a hot, colorful street with a woman named Maria. Through music, I was able to connect with people on the deepest level regardless of the barriers of language, culture, and geography.

 

I did challenging and meaningful work: I practiced ten or eleven hours a day for a month and a half in a windowless room. I completely stopped playing saxophone for three weeks to play drums in the open air. I danced and sang and thought hard for days and weeks and months. While I did not return with newfound virtuosity as a result of miraculously accelerated improvement, my concept of what music was, is, and will be for me is more developed now than it would have been had I done anything else.

 

I felt fear: I repeatedly had things thrown at me for practicing. I felt a child prostitute’s fingers cut into my skin. I was detained by corrupt police officers. I walked outside during the eye of a hurricane and returned not knowing where my next dollar or meal would come from. While harmless in hindsight, each of these moments carried with it immediate and unprecedented emotion that stole sleep, and kept me a little on edge for an entire year.

 

I felt extreme loneliness and confusion: I went many days with no human contact. I struggled to make myself understood in languages I do not speak well or with limited English speakers. I questioned the value of the material I was learning and the importance of musical work as a whole. I felt fundamentally unsure of the efficacy of my studies, and the trajectory of my career.

 

I felt exotic and unforgettable joy and companionship: I swam in the Atlantic, the Carribian, and The Bay of Bengal. I hung suspended from a rope over a rain forest, Squeezed into a zooming skytrain, and walked along rice paddy as the sun rose. I ate meals in the homes of people the world over. I had relationships of all kinds with women, men, boys, girls, grandfathers, grandmothers, teachers, authors, artists, professionals, chauffeurs, travelers, holy men, assholes, chiefs, hustlers, doctors and musicians.

 

Music was the uniting principle of all of my actions: I soloed for crowds in a jazz club in Accra. I beat drums in a seasonal Ewe celebration. I earned acceptance from a congregation in a two thousand year old Hindu temple. I played as reciprocity for meals cooked, beds made, and friendship offered. Without this focus I would have had a year of hedonistic and fleeting pleasure. Instead I emerge with new concepts, aesthetics, and repertoire that I will study for the rest of my life.

 

These experiences prompted a lot of self-reflection and discovery. Maturation is ongoing and constructing a conclusive narrative of how I’ve grown will always feel a little cliché to me. Accounting for this, I do feel that this moment is the culmination of a year and a half of work—starting six months before I was awarded the grant and began writing this blog.

 

I now think of myself as an artist, a professional, and an adult rather than a musician, student, and child. Since the moment I left my final college examination on December 19th 2015 I was met with the vast freedom and opportunity that my background provides, along with equal feelings of vulnerability and uncertainty. In addition to traveling with the Beebe fund I made an Oberlin-sponsored trip to Jordan, Canada, and the Netherlands with my band “Echoes.” I worked hard in the run up to my audition for the Trustees, and my senior recital, but as a whole I spent my last semester at Oberlin as a part-time student striving for something vague without much direction, accompanied by the same internal churning of most aspiring artists. But the repeated privilege and gratification of amazing opportunity, met with work, resulting in happiness sculpted and solidified my personality, musicianship, and independence to something more solid that I feel proud of.

 

My feelings about this year are as diverse and complex as the year itself. I feel pride for the challenges I have overcome and the successes I have had. I feel empathy for the lives of the people I have met that are not as fortunate as me. But most of all, I feel immense gratitude. I’m thankful for this year, and I am thankful for the way that my life up until this point made it possible. I’m thankful for all of the people in my world who support me and inspire me to be greater. I have seen the results when you don’t have as much help as I have, and I deeply appreciate what I have. I am certain that for every one part of me that I am by my own efforts, there are three parts that I have been given. I can’t say it enough: Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU!

 

I’ll leave this blog up but I won’t add anything new. I hope it will serve as a little memento for what I’ve accomplished and who I am at this moment. I feel some fear, but greater excitement for what lies ahead. I don’t think I’ve reached the peak! And wherever I am on the path, I know I’ll keep climbing even if it gets rocky, and doesn’t exactly go up from here.

 

For future readers who are interested in learning more I recommend a few posts to give you a more detailed idea of what this year was for me: “Enjoy it” gives a sense of the initial excitement I felt upon arrival in Ghana. “A Change of Plans” details the reasoning behind my choice to leave India. “Cuba #2” could be a fun read about some specific musical events along with “Ego, Effort, and Ending.” Personally, I will probably revisit “My Tattoo From God” again because it provides (an exhaustively detailed) insight into how I’ve changed and where I plan to go from here.

 

…And just for fun here’s where I’ve been since December 19th 2016:

 

Oberlin, Denver, New York, Cos Cob, Amman, (New York), Montreal, Buffalo, Oberlin, Boston, (Oberlin), Greenwich, Wellsley, Boston, Hartford, D.C., New Jersey, (New York), Amsterdam, Gronigen, Der Haigue, Rotterdam, (New York), (Oberlin), Indianapolis, Denver, San Francisco, Palo Alto, Carmel, Port Townsend, Seattle, (Denver), Salt Lake City, (Denver), Chennai, Kolkata, Madurai/Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Bangkok, Chaing Mai, Accra, Medie, Kopayia, Ho, (Accra), (Denver), Havanna, Veradaro, Vinales, Matanzas, (Havanna), Denver…

Next up is Chicago.

 

Best wishes and all my thanks,

Maxwelllewis

Misunderstanding/Vacation

NOTE: THESE POSTS ALL COME AT THE SAME TIME BECAUSE CUBA HAD INSUFFICIENT WIFI TO GET ON SQUARESPACE. I WROTE THEM ABOUT ONCE A WEEK WHILE I WAS THERE. THEY ARE POSTED HERE IN REVERSE CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER. ENJOY!

 

I’m getting a little lazy because "My Tattoo" was so long so I’m just going to give a couple more brief thoughts:

 

PART 1!!!

 

My whole year has been marked by misunderstanding. This has made me much more conscious of the amount of information I present. I find I’m saying a lot more now that I’m saying fewer words. By choosing my words more carefully and clearly I’m communicating a hierarchy of importance based on omission. When speaking Spanish this is additionally limited by my “chops” or what I know how to say. This has significant relevance for music. It also made me realize (especially with digital communication) that most of the people I’ve known in the US don’t listen to all the details I say anyway. But the only way to say what I really mean is to think of those details and then do the extra step of leaving them out. Just saying less is being lazy—like what I’m doing right now. By leaving MOST of my shit out, people actually pay attention to what I say.

 

This quote is somewhat relevant to this idea.

 

“The Latin American musicians understand our music much better than we understand theirs.”

 

--Dizzy Gillespie to Paquito D’Riviera

 

From hearing a couple of jazz shows here I think he’s spot on. These musicians can play just as good as the ones in the US. And I think there are three reasons they understand our music better than we do theirs. The first is just the most obvious that I think more Latin American jazz musicians have studied American music harder than most Americans playing Latin music. The second is a topic Paquito went on to address in the letter this is quoted from. Cuban music is in his perspective and mine to a degree rhythmically richer than American music. The harmonic, and form side of the equation is pretty much basic jazz harmony it doesn’t take much more study. And I think it’s just harder to study rhythm second-hand than it is to study harmony. You can read it and listen to it on records but the in-person effect of rhythm has a bigger difference in impact for me than the gap between live and recorded harmony or form. So it’s easier to learn jazz from a distance.

 

The last reason is the most interesting to me. I think Cuban music fits so well with jazz songs and forms because they share not only common ancestors but a common upbringing. This isn’t a new idea. But as this relates to current musical practice and globalization I think it has important implications. All the music of the Americas and even the whole world are becoming one. People everywhere I’ve been love American music. In Cuba they especially love jazz. Our world is becoming increasingly connected and the language of the economically dominant countries is generally prevailing. But because these Latin American musics have such a strong influence already I’m excited to see the way there is genuine dialogue and room for more. Chris Thile said at obelrin once “our world is homogenizing so it’s our job as musicians to make sure it homogenizes for the good.” But his idea of good is pretty Eurocentric. I might modify this to say something like “homogenizing for equality.” But that is way less sexy.

 

PART 2!!!!

 

From the outside I imagine this year might look like one endless vacation free from responsibility or work. No matter what I say on this blog many people will believe that anyway. But I took a three day vacation this week to see more of the island. It made me glad that I have approached this year from a mindset of trying to learn all that I can and work as hard as I can. Vacation is laaaaame in comparison to learning. But Cuba is really really pretty. I gotta come back.

 

Ok… final conclusion forthcoming

Cruba (My song #4)

Because the last post was so long and intense I thought I’d follow up with a cute list of things that start with the letter “M” that I’ll miss about Cuba:

 

Mangos

Malecon (google it for pics)

Mambo

Miriam and Rudolfo (my hosts)

My new friends

Mujeres ;(

Music everywhere

Mr. Zalba

Ms. Lilli

Mi dormitorio

 

Bye now,

 

Max

 

My Tattoo From God

This is such a long post because as I wrote it I realized it was about something more than I thought it was. It comes out to be the longest on the blog and is more of a conclusion then the conclusion I imagine I will write. It began with evolutions in my thoughts on race in music and then developed into a rough outline of my priorities and career motivation for the next year or so. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned this year is that without a carefully conceived idea of what I want and why, I can’t even get started working on it. Although this is long, I’ve actually done still more work on what I imagine my ideal working circumstances to look like. I haven’t included that here because what I think this essay is about is the meaning and logic behind those ideals. Even though it’s really long I think this will be a reference for me about my intentions if (when?) things get dark and confused next year. It needs to be this long so that I really cover the thinking that I’ve done. I felt the motivation to spend so many hours on this post because I had a strong feeling and was compelled to reverse engineer the logic behind it. I think this was really productive for me to write and I say some stuff that I feel deeply, but also have doubts about, so I hope we can talk about it in the future if you choose to struggle through this. There are two parts, which can be read separately or together, although I think they inform each other a great deal. If you are a musician I think the thoughts in the second section are very relevant to you and often not addressed specifically enough. No pressure to read any of this though, it’s definitely a whole lot of Max time that you don’t really need.

 

What is your earliest memory? I have a few from the age of three or four but they’re mostly stories that I have heard about my childhood so many times that I have begun to think that I can really remember them. I don’t trust that these memories are my own. Until this week I thought that our memories are so fallible that this question is a little bit silly.

 

The first memory that I really believe in came back to me vividly but without much emotion when I was putting on sunscreen this Sunday. It’s from when I was maybe five or six and I was putting on sunscreen to go outside and play. I noticed that a part of my arm was a different color than the rest of it. I asked my mom if this was a problem and she kindly explained that it was not and that this was only a birthmark. I was pretty interested because at the time this birthmark covered a substantial portion of my forearm. I can also count on one hand the times that I have thought about this birth mark since then: I remember thinking about it later that summer when my skin was wet from the pool. I thought about it when I was 12 or 13 and I fell off my bike. The scar I got was the only other noticeable mark on me at that time and it reminded me of the birthmark. I remember being bored in high school and looking at the birthmark. I remember the second and last conversation I had about the birthmark where I argued unsuccessfully about what it resembles: From the first moment I was aware of this mark (with my extremely limited knowledge of geography at the time), the shape has always reminded me of the continent of Africa…

 

Part 1: “Black music”

 

After applying the sunscreen I made a ten-minute walk to Callejon De Hamel where I enjoyed an amazing Rhumba concert. It was on the level of all the best shows that I’ve seen in my life. This one amplified voices and drums and this acoustic choice combined with incredible execution, dance, audience participation, and my increased comprehension of the music led to a profound listening experience. As has happened several times this year I was emotionally moved to consider on an abstract level my place on this planet and in the world of music. Yet as I started to lose myself completely in the performance, one nagging thought stopped me from total immersion. This thought is one that I have always had and that I have understood with greater clarity as I mature, especially this year: “But you can’t really be a part of this. This is black music. It’s not yours.”

 

As the music reached a feverish pitch I felt something push this feeling aside in a way that has certainly not happened before. It felt kind of like my heart jumped into a Jacuzzi with the jets on, or made a sharp turn in a white-water raft. I was so engaged that I didn’t think much besides how much I completely dug what was happening. But once the song ended I started thinking. A few tunes later the set ended and I started walking home still mulling over a complicated mixture of issues that this feeling had unearthed.

 

I will first quote a large portion from Sherrie Tucker’s essay “Big Ears: Listening for Gender in Jazz Studies” which gave me insight into lots of intersectional issues in music. It summarizes my current feelings on race very well and I highly recommend reading the whole thing. Tucker’s article is probably my favorite thing I’ve cited on this blog all year:

 

“Critical race theorists, such as Kimberle Crenshaw, reject not only the essentialist view that race guarantees particular aptitudes, but also its "vulgar anti-essentialist" flip-side that concludes that, since race isn't a biological fact, it must be irrelevant. In jazz writing, this often manifests in the rhetoric of jazz as a color-blind, utopian, race-free space, a sonic realm of transsocial pure aesthetics that somehow matter without signifying. Instead, critical race theorists work from an assumption that race is both "not real" and "real"; real "in the sense that there is a material dimension and weight to the experience of being 'raced' in American society, a materiality that in significant ways has been produced and sustained by law (Crenshaw 1995:xxvi). Such an approach renders insufficient debates about which race plays jazz best, as well as analyses that dismiss race as a red herring that detracts from the real story (of sound, of genius, of individuals). Instead, it leads jazz researchers to explore the production, consumption, functions, representations, and meanings of jazz and race as they inform each other in a vast range of social and historical contexts.”

I think most of the loose conglomeration of musicians that find themselves under the label “jazz” resent it. For example, my teacher Gary Bartz found no use for labels of any kind in his music, John Coltrane said that to him “the word has no meaning” and Miles Davis said he preferred to call it “Black music.”

Yet at the same time Gary recognizes that the music he plays is distinct from say, the music that the L.A. Philharmonic plays. I don’t want to put words in his mouth but my interpretation is that he mainly doesn’t want genre labels to limit his creativity. And that he (rightly) sees the word “jazz” as vague, racist, and part of a broader structure of social inequity which he rejects but sees as too encompassing to focus too much of his energy on.

But in my opinion, like some other loosely delineated categories—for example, race, gender, sexuality, and religious denomination—musical genre is worth thinking about because it is a label that we use every day. Even though each of these categories carries with it some reprehensible baggage of oppression and misuse, they are here nonetheless. Our work to minimize their negative impact has to happen within the frameworks that they helped create, and actively acknowledging those murky boundaries gives us more tools for understanding what is really going on. Even if you choose not to conform to genre’s boundaries, as a responsible artist you should consider how you want to relate to it, at least because almost everyone else will.

I think I’m a classical musician. I went to school for four years to study music. I know how to read notes on paper. And I’m currently writing a pages long article on the socio-cultural significance of my artistic output. My music is meant to be appreciated for the abstract quality of the sound and not to be participated in, (danced to, sung along with etc.) even if my music often references those participatory qualities. My music is born out of the privilege of extended personal practice time and not the practical necessity of creating functional sound under time pressure.

I think my generation of college-educated jazz musicians is currently writing the history on America’s classical music. A form of Western concert music that is nonetheless significantly distinct from the European classical tradition. A genuinely international hybridized musical language that draws from the musical vocabulary of all the New World. A style that is evolving from folk to classical music so fast that only the i-phone could make it happen. I think that’s very exciting.

And I think that this American classical style is unequivocally Black music. Are there non-Black jazz/American classical musicians? Sure there are. Are there great ones? Definitely. But their legacy doesn’t change my assuredness that this is Black music. I’ll use a story about Benney Goodman as an example to combat some common counterarguments:

Benney Goodman was undoubtedly one of the best Clarinetists of the 20th century. He proved himself in jazz, and European Classical settings to have incredible command of the instrument, a variety of repertoire, and an amazing feel. He was also a huge commercial success. Ninth in a family of 12 boys in a poor Jewish neighborhood in Chicago he created the most financially successful big band of the era, and won a myriad of awards.

He also had an impressive record of racial integration. In 1936, Eleven years before Jackie Robinson played in the major leagues, Goodman hired Teddy Wilson as the pianist in his trio. A little over a year later Lionel Hampton and Charlie Christian were playing in Goodman’s predominantly white big band. After these musicians joined the band Goodman continued to perform for audiences who sometimes violently disapproved of this decision (Although there are conflicting stories on this point, some say it was widely accepted but I’m inclined to believe the former option). When New York law prohibited integrated bands, Goodman refused to play in the Big Apple for over a year resulting in a personal loss of around $1,000,000 in 1930’s money. The public outcry for Goodman’s band resulted in a relaxation of this Jim Crowe policy and increased opportunities for Black musicians.

For a while I was enamored with this story because it gave me the sense that the music I play has a history of helping improve race relations, which is a story that I want to believe. But that conclusion is like saying that NASA helped improve race relations. It was the first Federal government office to de-segregate, and the relative level of common purpose, modernity, and intelligence in the group might have played a role, but NASA is just a good thing that has also slowly gotten a little less racist. In the same way the jazz label—a framework designed by white critics to describe Black music—has claimed a wide variety of individuals whose work occurred in the context of evolving race relations and some of whom took an active part in integration.

Some might cite this example as evidence that jazz is a uniquely American art form that bears all the beauties and blemishes of our national history (another argument that I made for quite some time). But this argument gives too much credit to a country that has routinely denied opportunities to African Americans at large and the Black musicians who deserve the credit for inventing jazz. If jazz were so American why would those musicians need to fight so hard just to perform in an integrated band in the first place? If it were so American why would so many jazz musicians move to Europe in the 60s? If it is so American then why does every major city in the US have a state-sponsored concert hall for European Classical music and only Lincoln Center programs jazz? For a supposedly native art form we certainly aren’t unified in our support of it. I think this lack of support coupled with the current and past marginalization of Black Americans suggests a consistent appropriative American approach to Black contribution of all types, which in turn strengthens the argument for jazz as Black American music.

So maybe this story tells us that the practice of playing music makes individuals sensitive to merit alone regardless of the musicians background (yet another point I often made)? Obviously not, because there were no women in the band! The problem persists today; Lincoln Center has never even auditioned a female applicant and I personally know plenty of female musicians who could play very effectively with that group. The people who make the meretricious argument are often the same ones who say that jazz is Black music in another context. My sense is that they are usually making this contrary argument to combat the perception that Black achievement is racially determined. That’s an argument no one should need to make but it is still a pretty good way to do it despite the slight contradiction. As if we needed proof that your color doesn’t guarantee you abilities look to the example: Goodman didn’t suddenly decide to forego a million dollars for the cause of de-segregation. If he had wanted to do that he could have donated the money and written it off on his taxes! He was a savvy musician and businessperson and he knew that the addition of Wilson, Christian and Hampton was well worth the temporary loss. Wilson, Christian and Hampton like scores of other African American musicians made their mark on history through exceptional merit and effort not through blind luck and natural talent.

For the simplest explanation of why Benney’s music is Black music focus on the music! He’s using big band instrumentation, walking bass line, jabs and stabs in the horns, blues forms, chorus-based improvisation, Tin Pan Alley repertoire as a platform… need I go on? Every one of these jazz tropes was conceived by a Black musician before Goodman ever had the idea. And at his most famous concert in Carnegie Hall 1938 he chose to include members of the Duke Ellington orchestra because otherwise he couldn’t get the “classic… mellow” sound he needed to represent what he called “A History of Jazz.” And I’m sorry but when he plays “Honeysuckle Rose” with the guys from the Basie band that is wen the concert really heats up without that and “Blue Reverie” it would have not been nearly the success it was.

Here I should note that calling jazz, or anything for that matter, “Black” risks homogenizing the Black experience, which is as diverse and multi-faceted as the people who comprise it. Back to this idea of being “raced.” Even though different people have completely different ideas about what their heritage means to them, we live in a culture that labels people in large part by their appearances. By definition, the arts are the objects of our subjective perceptions. Such a pervasive perception as race has a “material” weight in criticism, consumption, and performance of music. This weight is worth acknowledging to better understand some of the common implications for those musicians who are or were regularly identified as “Black.” Even though naming the music “Black” risks homogenizing some of these effects it’s still worth doing because ignoring the categorization is an even greater and more costly simplification.

So what about people like Lennie Tristano, Tito Puente, and John Zorn? Non-Black musicians throughout the timeline of jazz who have made meaningful innovations. Doesn’t their presence muddy the argument that this music is the creation of Black Americans? Not for me.

Each of these men brought their own personal history and musical interests to bear on a tradition that began as Black Music. They did it in different ways; Tristano with European Classical ideas about harmony and rhythmic asymmetry, Puente with the folklore of his homeland, and Zorn with a kind of Klezmer/neoclassical fusion of both approaches. While the artistry of these men changed the way that other people played jazz after them, their careful study of the Black music that came before them gave them the foundation to make that contribution. The discourse isn’t limited to Black Americans, but the conversation will always be in that language. Some of the things that make Tristano’s music sound like jazz are the instrumentation, format of improvisation, and the homage it pays to Lester Young & Co. Again, early jazz tropes. The other influences I mentioned are what make his music unique.

So then what about The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Anthony Braxton, and The World Saxophone Quartet? Black musicians who are or were meaningfully innovating, playing music that I would call jazz, and intentionally avoiding most of the elements that I have used thus far as jazz signifiers. Is it jazz or non-jazz? Black music or avant-garde? This brings us to the minutia of defining what “jazz” is which is impossible. Jazz and all genres for that matter mean different things at different times to different people. So much so that it is humorous, for example, “Take the hypothetical simultaneity of beliefs that jazz stimulates interracial harmony, national love, subculture formation, black pride, bohemian ennui, spirituality, sexual prowess, democracy, chaos, and sales of luxury cars.”

Despite all the ambiguity, I still believe that most American’s share a very general notion of what “jazz” is. It’s safe to say that if you played someone the music of Braxton or others to most people in the US that they would probably call it “jazz” even if none of us could tell you exactly why. I also think that this general idea of “jazz” is the main benefit of keeping the word around. By choosing to align or conflict with this label you can conjure up a somewhat consistent image for whomever you wish to communicate with little effort. The flip side of our strengths are always are weaknesses though, so needing acknowledge the boundaries of genre can certainly have an adverse impact on your creativity and is primarily good for selling music not for creating it. But frankly if you have a saxophone in your hand, you have no choice but to deal with the jazz image.

People like Rashaan Roland Kirk and Nicholas Payton eschew(ed) the word “jazz” and look(ed) for other words to try to capture the meaningful distinction between the music they play and other music. They do/did this because the word is often used as a weapon by people in the culture industry to hurt artists by virtue of their inclusion/exclusion in a good/bad category. I’m not interested in trying to draw a line in the sand where one side is jazz and the other non-jazz or one piece Black music and the other not. If this discussion proves anything, it’s that thinking about race and lines can take us down a never-ending rabbit hole of contradiction and nuance. For me the reason to think of the general notion of jazz as “Black music” is to properly attribute the legacy of African-American achievement in a society that often forgets or obscures it.

Most Americans think of Elvis Presley before they think of Chuck Berry, remember Amy Winehouse before Aretha Franklin and celebrate Donald Fagan before Sly Stone. For us to remember imitators as innovators is to accept a lie about our history. Of course everyone I just mentioned made a positive impact on the world of music, but the white people didn’t have the idea first. Their color and the structure of the industry gave them outsize acclaim for their contribution. In brief: Why is Benney the King of Swing and Basie just the Count? Racism. Plain and simple.

One of the things that makes art so meaningful is the way that it mediates between social structures (like race), and social subjects (like you and me). Contemplating our place in the larger social fabric can help make the personal universal and vice versa. This isn’t a pointless mental exercise; it’s an examination of why sound says something instead of just making our ears smile. It’s a way to decide what your best options are based on history and facts.

I don’t think that any of those white musicians set out to steal from their Black counterparts. I think that they were using the tools at their disposal to communicate their thoughts as well as they could within the framework that they knew best. I am certain that every one of those people got into music because of how much they loved music… because there aren’t any other reasons to do it! If the main thing those musicians wanted was to get one over on Black people, there were and are a whole lot of easier ways for them to do it with a much greater payoff. Case in point: None of those musicians were making even a tenth what the record company was. The situation with Spotify is even worse.

But at the same time they were benefitting from Black exploitation. Just because they were benefitting less from it than other people doesn’t mean that they weren’t doing better because of it. Each of them must have made their own personal calculation about what that meant to them based on their own personal history and their own beliefs about the work that they were doing. In my mind there just isn’t any way around it: Jazz, Rock & Roll, Hip-Hop, R&B, Bluegrass, Country Western, Rumba, Merengue, Samba, Cha-Cha-Cha, Bolero, Bossa-Nova… If you want to play the music of the Americas, it’s all Black music.

So this means that I’m fated to be an exploiter? Now my brain goes running for the exits! “I don’t play Black music I play the music of Max!” “Plenty of white people made contributions, they can’t have been exploiting if they innovated!” “Jazz isn’t even the same music anymore! Now that the music is in schools it has fundamentally changed its character!”

And all of these arguments have a grain of truth in them. But none of them overcome the overriding message that I owe my artistic concept to the musicians I imitate and most of these people are or were black.

When I participated in an Ewe libation ceremony two men spent around fifteen minutes kneeling on the ground naming their ancestors and asking for their permission to teach me. When a name was forgotten someone in the small crowd assembled would shout it out. In addition to pouring the traditional hard liquor Akpateshi on the ground, these men poured out orange Fanta because that was their grandfather’s favorite drink. I saw the roots of my teachers’ obsession with the jazz tradition. While I sometimes find the parade of jazz birthdays, fashion choices, and precise recording dates a little wearisome in light of broader history I understand their importance better now: In a culture that has not the words for the scope musical achievement, nor the kinship relationships to protect the memory of great forgotten artists, our sole alternative is to pay tribute to our chosen musical ancestors. The way we remember them best is as complete individuals with personalities outside their music. Godwin Agbelli loved orange Fanta and we want to remember him as the man and not just the drummer because the artist was in both.

Even if you want to dispute my argument that jazz is Black music, I would say that regardless of any labels my music is based in Black music because that is the music that I connect with, listen to, and study the most. Sure, I could have been raised on a weird, restricted jazz diet of the first Bill Evans Trio, The Woody Herman Orchetra, and Bix Biederbecke but I wasn’t. My heroes are Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Lester Young, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughn, Gary Bartz, Billy Hart, Ron Carter, Roy Hargrove, Art Tatum, Max Roach, Keith Jarrett, Elvin Jones and Wayne Shorter among many others. And while the color of these people’s skin doesn’t necessarily mean that their music is “Black” most of them are on record saying that their racial identity is at the very least a significant part of their work, and at most the unifying characteristic of their whole artistic output. And their aesthetic decisions—at least to me—clearly reflect this notion.

So after all of this reading you can see why Gary and many others would get tired of thinking about genre and race! All this work for no tangible musical payoff, or satisfying conclusion would encourage you to take the quickest rout out and say that race and genre are all a fiction and therefore aren’t worth thinking about. But doing that is a little intellectually lazy for me. After all, this is my life’s work. If I’m going to do it, I want to have a clear idea of what it is even if the boundaries of language, history, and social structure make it difficult to understand.

So what do I do with all of this? Many theorists have said everything I’ve said here much more succinctly and accurately than I have. The purpose of me writing this out is so that I can understand these ideas on my own terms and then form a good plan of action for myself. The most important thing I’ve said so far as it relates to my own behavior is this “exploiter” idea and I’ll get to that after I broaden the discussion to encompass all the things that would stop me from playing music.

 

Part 2: My Music

 

The pursuit of musical performance has unequivocally been the central part of my life for at least five years. Second only to my closest personal relationships (and I think that this particular priority only shifted this December) working on music has been the force that most informs all my decisions. It is the thing that makes me feel excited for each day. It is an unwavering source of joy and meaning. It is the best and sort of the only way I know how to make friends. I’m tearing up as I write this, because music is just so obviously the brightest light in my life.

 

But my relationship with music is about to change whether I want it to or not. For the past five years (really thirteen) I have moved along a path from student to professional and while I still have a lot to learn about the vocation, I know already that music as a job and as a study are totally different things. Over the past weeks and months I have achieved a feeling of preparation that I did not have when I left Oberlin, or even when I left India. I feel so excited at the prospect of making music that I have difficulty imagining what would make me stop. But I see so many of my peers from school going into other fields or treading water in some sort of vocational liminal space. The two things that I see as real possibilities for stopping me from performing are lifestyle desires, and beliefs about the merit of my labor.

 

I am not going to talk too much about the first of these two. While I think it is the more likely problem that would stop me from playing, I don’t think there’s much value in thinking more about it right now. This is a little naive, simplistic, and unrealistic—but I basically feel that I have the ability to achieve anything that I really set my mind on. As long as I am certain that playing music is what I want, then I will find a way to make it work financially. I think the risk that is worth addressing right now is that I will conflate these economic pressures—which stem from a buyers market of musicians and a culture of exploitation—with my beliefs about the value of my work as a musician. The best way to combat this problem is by clearly defining these qualms now before the money sets in to make all this into a big murky ball.

 

When I had my first lesson with Gary Bartz he asked me why I wanted to study saxophone with him. I told him that I wanted to be a great musician. He replied, “You’re never going to be great. Because the people who are really great, were already good by the time they were you’re age, and you’re not good yet… But you can be a good musician so let’s get started.” This blunt statement probably would have made me feel pretty sad if he had given me any time to think about it. But he went right into quizzing me on the circle of fifths.

 

And he’s probably right. While I will always strive to be the best musician I can be I will probably never be on the level of the heroes I mentioned above. I came to terms with this a while ago as it related to my personal happiness in studying music. My catchphrase was that “as long as I can play, teach, and always improve I will be happy.” And I still believe that for my personal life, but I’m a little uncertain about how that perspective should change as it relates to music as a career. Being so-so at sax is fine for the basement, but if I’m going to spend my life on something, I’d like it to be of significant impact.

 

So could I conceivably be great at something else? My gut inclination is no, but why? I think there are two major factors in greatness: Passion and discipline. Steve Jobs told us “The only way to do great work is to love what you do.” But passion alone often leads us to work that is unfocused, inconsistent, or simply short-lived. So discipline harnesses those passions and moves our minds and bodies to work smart and hard every day. And discipline is a character trait that I believe holds true, to somewhat varying degrees, for all aspects of our lives. I have proven to myself that I have the discipline to accomplish fairly large tasks. Discipline earned me an A in a challenging computer science class, helped me complete a job at the Public Defender’s office, and help bring my High School Constitutional Law program to Capitol Hill. Hell, it got me a whole other college degree besides music! And I had a degree of passion for all of these things, but the main driving force behind them was discipline.

 

I remember very clearly a particular 2-day stretch working on a problem set for this Comp Sci class during which I did not play music. The only musical activity that I completed was teaching a volunteer lesson at the Middle School which I did a couple times a week. And just that feeling of being around music was so mentally and even physically relieving that it was obvious to me that I will always be happiest when I am working to serve music, even if this involvement is indirect like teaching. These experiences, combined with the thousands of hours I have spent practicing, rehearsing, and performing music also prove to me that I have a greater passion for music than I have for anything else.

 

KSS talked to me once about his son’s choice to go into computer programming instead of music. Music in India tends to run in families and KSS tried to encourage his son to play but was unsuccessful. He said that he had some difficulty accepting his son’s choice because he felt he had not seen the full depth of music: “Once you have truly known music. It is almost impossible to do anything else.”

 

So then the next question is what am I looking for in my pursuit of music? Should I teach, work in instrument repair, arts management, audio engineering, music law…? There are so many things that go into making music actually happen and I have skills that could make me effective in any of these positions. But I’ve done at least a little bit of work in every field I mentioned and while they are all rewarding in their own way, I find none of them as satisfying as performing which is the end result, broader service, and (hopefully) the ultimate goal of all of these professions.

 

But just because something is satisfying to me doesn’t mean that it is a good for others and it’s not enough for me to do something just because I like it. I need to have a feeling that my work is appreciated and that my efforts are reciprocated—even if that reciprocation is only abstract. I’ve watched my parents derive much of the pleasure of their work from a service mindset: While they could make more money and do easier work in other specialties or private practice they choose to apply their talents to Veterans and those less fortunate in demanding fields with comparatively less payoff. And for most people the actual labor that they do is not fun, and the principal rewards are money and this type of altruistic fulfillment. While I don’t need my career to look like everybody else’s, I need these qualities to feel satisfaction in my work. If my work is not valued by anyone and I am not making my income from performing then I won’t pursue performance because I won’t be getting enough back from it to justify the effort I’m putting in.

 

Before I move on I’ll just state the obvious: Music is valuable. People appreciate it. This year I have found in a wide variety of settings all over the world that my musical abilities win me a place in people’s hearts that no words, money, or gifts do. The confusing part is that although they rely on it, many people don’t think about where music comes from, or demonstrate their appreciation with money. But firefighters, teachers, and social workers also do immensely valuable work and are not appropriately compensated financially. Money just doesn’t follow real contribution.

 

The thing that would give me doubts is whether my music is valuable. There are usually two extremes on this point: “Nobody is better than anybody else in art so my music is valuable” and “The good musicians (like me) can’t get work because of all these bad musicians taking the money!” Often the same people argue these ideas in different circumstances.

 

The first dissatisfying to me because it risks de-valuing true greatness. A part of what makes somebody great is not only the high quality of their work but the fact that that it is exceptional. Of course there is room for debate in matters of aesthetics but there is also a fact of the matter about artistry, craft, and intention. For instance, I don’t think anyone can argue that “Headquarters” by the Monkees is as good as “Sgt. Pepper’s” by The Beatles. They were going for the same thing at the same time and one is an icon and the other has fallen into well-deserved obscurity. At the extreme these arguments become about definitions of music as a whole: “Is hail falling on a tin roof better than Mahler V???” I think these questions arise because music is so ingrained in our lives that it can be hard to distinguish what it actually is. For me, music is sound that somebody believes is an improvement upon silence… but that’s too big a topic for this post.

 

There are a ton of really good saxophone players and a few great ones alive today. A lot of musicians are fond of saying that “the world doesn’t need one more _________ player” and then saying why they are different. When I try to justify my contribution in the face of this statement my brain first goes to the “too many musicians and not enough artists” idea. But this quote is an artificial way for me to try to separate myself from others in the face of a premise that isn’t very precise. While it’s true that thinking of myself as an artist is a more effective way for me to make good music, I can’t simply dismiss my peers for being “musicians” and not “artists” because I’m afraid of being worse than them. Diminishing other people’s success is a sure fire way to know that you failing, and walking around trying to convince myself that I am the greatest sax player alive makes me jealous of others and keeps me from improving as fast as possible.

 

Most people who make this claim are speaking out of a sense that music is a buyer’s market and that it’s not possible for most people to make a living performing. They are trying to find a way to compete in a discipline that fundamentally does not adhere to free market competition and using this phrase to set people apart in a field that is too complicated to accurately describe succinctly. Once again, money doesn’t follow real contribution; therefore your ability to make art doesn’t correspond to the opportunities you get. But that doesn’t mean that bad musicians are “taking” the work from good ones. A complicated structure that has little to do with music determines who gets to play and who doesn’t. Sometimes it rewards musicianship and sometimes it doesn’t.

 

And that means that performance opportunities are worth pursuing! I used to get hung up on the idea that by performing I would be taking already scarce opportunities from somebody else. But while that is true, I see no evidence that the other person who would be on the gig is more likely to be better qualified. “Who gets what” in music is all chaos. And when you’re dealing with chaos you can only trust yourself to make good things happen, which is all the more reason to try to make good things happen.

 

Whether I am great or not shouldn’t deter me for this reason most of all: We need good musicians and not just great ones. Somebody has to play the other six nights after Ernie Watts comes to Denver. Most people can’t tell the difference between a good musician and a great musician anyway. What matters as much as your place in the greater picture of music is your ability to connect with people and provide a service on the tangible plane of your own life.  We love to watch fame and fortune, but music is valuable with or without these badges of success.

 

And then I just have this feeling that I have to at least try to perform. While I’ve dabbled in all those other music-related fields, my primary focus has been on playing music. And if I never tried because I was scared it wasn’t going to work out then I’d never forgive myself.

 

And that is a big commitment. To really try this I need to give it a lot of time and stick it out when things get tough. I’d say my minimum is about two years. If I do any less than that with a performance goal in mind then I’d be quitting without enough information. It takes a really long time to build a career as a performer and there is no defined path to follow. If I quit within a year or two, I will be quitting based on circumstances that are likely to change with some time, work, and patience on my part. Or I’d be quitting based on hearsay that is grounded in some of the cloudy thinking and imprecise rhetoric that I’ve quoted so far. That’s a only rough time estimate though and a lot remains to be seen…

 

…which is mostly bad but a little good. Because… Who knows what will happen!?! I don’t need to be in history books but I would like to have the experience of regularly playing music on a high level in a professional setting. A part of what made the greats great was the confidence to perform under circumstances of real importance. It’s not out of the question that I will have those experiences. Were I to have those experiences regularly I might even become some sort of “great” musician. And I want to play with amazing people even just for my personal fulfillment. These are experiences that I have worked hard for and I think that I can bring something to the table when/if I get the chance.

 

The last nagging thing that would stop me is this idea that no matter what I do, it’s just not going to work out because I’m not “that guy” who was made to play music on the highest level. Perhaps the reason it took me so long to unwrap all these uncertainties from my concerns about race is that I am preoccupied with this idea of predestination. While a person’s color conveys zero verifiable information, many of us sometimes (much more often that we’d like to admit) use it as mental shorthand for their genetics and an approximation of their upbringing. So when contemplating my destiny I got a little tied up in my color. But I’d say my race is one part of a larger category of what the ol’ Bill of Rights would call my “immutable characteristics.” the other major ones for this discussion are my early childhood and my natural aptitude for music. At times, each of these traits makes me feel that I wasn’t made to play music.

So now we’ve more or less arrived back at the “exploiter” idea again. Unfortunately based on the structure of American life as it stands and the privileges I’ve already enjoyed for the past twenty years, I have already taken scores of opportunities that I did not earn and that are denied to people of color in the US. But this would be true in any field I worked in, and it would be worse in many besides music. So would it be best for me to dedicate my life to greater racial equality? That is a noble goal and we need people to work on that, but I have to strike a balance between what is best for me and what is best for other people. I can do things to make our country more equitable in all kinds of ways outside of my work including my votes, my spending habits, and my social life.

 

Whenever I take an opportunity, it is theoretically a space that could be filled by a Black person. But as I said before, my absence on a gig does not guarantee a more qualified presence. And a person’s color does not necessarily make them are a better musician than me. The scarcity of opportunities and the inclusion of music in a capitalist framework makes it feel like fellow musicians are competitors. But the compensation for music has always been primarily in the quality of the art itself and more musicians only makes the quality better. The small amount of money that one of us may lose to another is just a distraction from our common purpose. We are all employees for music; which is far more important than us as individuals, not-for-profit, and has no owner.

 

I think the main reason that racial inequality makes me feel so strongly as it relates to my work is that music gives us a feeling of intense intimacy with the musician. So much so that playing someone’s music feels like we are taking a piece of his or her soul. But if the Black American legacy proves anything, it is that the human soul cannot be stolen. It can only magnify its presence through its sheer tenacity, emotion, and luminousness. I do my utmost to demonstrate the deep respect that I feel for my Black peers and musical ancestors and nothing has given me greater sensitivity to race relations in the US than my study of Black music. While I perceive and lament the ways in which my work is complicit in exploitation, I don’t think the solution is for me to stop pursuing art. Just the opposite. My choice to play music, primarily Black music, for a living is the most efficient and personally satisfying way for me to contribute to my community based on my personality and preferences. And that is the best I can do for the people around me regardless of their color.

 

The pursuit of music encourages me to ask these difficult questions of myself every day. My feelings will evolve and change because—much as I would like to put race away and not think about it—it’s here, and the more we deal with it, the better chance we have to minimize it’s negative impact.

 

Nothing has made me surer than my experiences this year that I love the music of the Black American continuum more than any other music on earth. But my travels have also made me all the more convinced that it is the most compelling for the audience to hear a person perform music rooted firmly in their personal and cultural history.

So does that mean that I am fated to never be who I want to be? To be a pale imitator of the music I love? No! As I’ve already said, plenty of non-Black people made a huge positive impact on Black music. Benney Goodman was definitely awesome and I never meant to dispute that. My music cannot reflect the Black experience because that is not an experience that I share. But I will use the musical devices that I know best to communicate my heart and mind and I will use them with the same degree of authenticity and ownership that my predecessors did. Because one thing is for sure: They wouldn’t want me to get up and play sad shit in their name.

Ok… let’s put that one away for now.

The other immutable characteristics I mentioned have a big impact too. The life that we lead in our formative years leaves indelible marks on our character and music. I loved my childhood because it taught me to work hard, take care of myself, and feel happy. These are lessons that matter more than my profession… but mine is definitely not a life story fit for Downbeat Magazine.

When I told Billy Hart that I am from Denver—perhaps with some (and therefore too much) pride in my voice—he said:

“Denver? There’s no jazz in Denver.”

When I said that I worked in Boulder for the summer Gary asked, “Do you ski?”

I said, “Yeah, do you?”

“I’m Black. I don’t ski.”

[crickets.]

And my experiences in church were just about as far from Black gospel music as you can get…

There is also the trait of innate musicality: I don’t have perfect pitch, I don’t have synesthesia, and I couldn’t tell the difference between an augmented and a diminished chord when I took the AP Music theory exam. I was a repeated alternate for statewide jazz band and in 2012 the extracurricular jazz program I participated in produced an album with all the senior sax players… except for me.

But these things are impossible to change and therefore not worth thinking about. What matters much more than what I did ten years ago is what I am doing now. Music gives us such an impression of intimacy that it is natural to feel that the greatest musicians must have been this way since birth. We feel that their whole lives and deepest selves are on display through the music, so the music must have been around for their whole lives intertwined their deepest selves. But lots and lots of very good musicians learned slowly and started late. Not only are these facts about me outdated, they can be argued with an equally compelling set of facts:

Every Sunday afternoon since before I could talk my father would play music with his closest friends in the basement of our house. I don’t have clear memories of these days, but I have a foggy sense of colors, friends, food, games, and good sounds. I sang in the choir from age 8, at age 10 I started playing saxophone and practiced every single day. At 16 I recorded in the studio with the rock band The Fray. Even though these traits don’t pin me as a stereotypical jazz musician, they don’t disqualify my music as second-rate. They just tell a different story.

Throughout this year I have been praised for my innate musicality and fast pace of learning, neither of which are traits that I would have attributed to myself before. But they were compliments granted by knowledgeable people who either did not fully comprehend or care about my musical background. Compared to a tourist with no experience I am innately musical and quick to learn. This got me thinking about what I could do if I had so-called natural ability.

While I went through a period of convincing myself that I have always been good at music this was more like blind self-acceptance rather than targeted appraisal of my strengths and weaknesses. Believing in my natural gifts merely requires a change of mindset in which I focus on the things that I have actually done well for a long time. Not only this but believing in my so-called natural ability means playing in a way that celebrates my unique personality, and intuitive strengths rather than relying on an exhibition of my work ethic and newfound techniques.

Suddenly a whole world of meaningful musical opportunities opens: I have the right to sing on a melody and not play in a brainy way to prove how much I’m working. I have the right to play a lick I’ve played a thousand times with some serious feel, undeniable tone, and without being embarrassed about it because that’s my fucking sound. I have the right to express a little dance and some muscle because, hey, it’s who I’ve always been.

I used to dance in a self-depreciating way when I heard music with a strong groove. I used to strive for more “chops” in a vague semi-European Classical way instead of really engaging in aesthetically motivated practice—a concept that now drives my every practice decision. I used to listen for certain musical signposts like motivic development, adherence to “the jazz tradition” (or coveted non-adherence) and instrumental virtuosity instead of just loving the music that sound the best to me without being so rigid. I presented myself the way that I saw myself, which was as a student and lover of music who wasn’t entitled to play it well. But after feeling the feeling I began this essay with, and thinking extensively about my role in the musical world at large I’ve redefined myself as someone with a birthright to play, which is by far the best mindset for me to express the depth of my feeling uninhibited and really make an impact.

 

This is the reason that I started the essay with the bit about my birthmark. I believe that humans naturally carry very strong and equally illogical emotions about our skin. People have often exploited this tendency as justification for unjustifiable acts of racism. But why has this justification held sway in so many different cultures in so many circumstances? There must be something innate in us that believes that our skin meaningfully distinguishes ourselves from others. Why is this? Why does it matter?

 

Why are we (especially people my age) so obsessed with tattoos? I think it’s because they signify such a strong endorsement of whatever message the tattoo conveys. If you believe in something strongly enough to have it Tattooed on your skin! Then it must be really important to you. That’s interesting. That’s what prompts small talk question #3: “what does that tattoo mean?” But unfortunately this rarely sparks much meaningful discussion...

 

We also have a taboo fascination with tattoos because on some level it feels like thwarting nature, or the divine. We were born with our skin but we can flaunt our autonomy, and demonstrate our maturation since birth by adding something more to it. The idea of modifying one’s body to represent your own choices and preferences often bears more emotional significance than simply stating those things. But why is this? A picture on your arm doesn’t achieve a fraction of the labor of your hands or the words from your lips.

 

My best guess is that skin is something tangible that we can point to to represent the aspects of our identity that we were either born with, or that we have maintained so consistently that they are perceivable to all who meet us.

 

When you read my first paragraph your initial reaction was probably some anger or confusion because it felt like I was claiming my innate right to something vaguely African. I did that partially as a way to get you to read this, and partially as a way to express the duality of my feelings about my birthmark. On one level I know that it is a random occurrence of pigment that has no significance. On the other I feel like it is too clear to be an accident. I feel like it must be there to tell me something. On the one hand I’m a white dude who geeks out over Bird. On the other hand I’m a hard-working individual who has dedicated years of his life and gallons of his soul to the African American cultural legacy. I’ve done a lot of work and thought hard about my place in the legacy of Black music, but I often experience doubts. I have made the choice to embrace the second definition of myself. When I have those doubts it’s nice to feel that right there on my arm is a reminder that I’m connected to the source, however distantly or abstractly.

 

It means more to me because I’ve had this mark for my whole life. Like it was just sitting there waiting for me to notice it. It makes me feel in some roundabout way that I have always been built to play the music I play. Of course, the memory of this birthmark could certainly be re-constructed or even entirely made up. The resemblance of the mark to Africa is even subject to debate. But I don’t believe these things. I have to believe that in a meaningful way I was made to do music. I have to believe that my commitment to music is something so central to my identity that it is literally branded on my skin. I have to believe that this is my music. I have to believe that this was a message that was meant for me and that I was meant to see it now. I have to believe that on my right arm I have a little tattoo from God that has always been there and always will. Just like the content of my heart and just like my music.

Cuba, Son (My Song #2)

Another really nice week. Tons of concerts and I’ve started the Spanish class which is fun. It strikes me that I have been out of the college setting for a while. Being back in that type of environment makes me realize how much more effective my learning has been now that it is more self-directed. Many of the things that have made this year hard have been the same things that are making me a better musician. Most notably understanding and pursuing with greater clarity and efficiency exactly what I want. That being said the classroom environment is great for language acquisition in a way that studying on my own is not. I’m the only US person in the whole program (around 100-150) as far as I can tell. Tons of Japanese and Chinese people, and an exchange program from Angola. Very cool people and it’s good because we need to talk in Spanish to communicate. Sure I could be practicing during that time but hanging out with other extranos who are trying to make the most of their time here means I find out about all kinds of music and dance opportunities that I never would know about otherwise. Plus it’s nice to be abroad but still not feel lonely all the time.

 

I thought it would be fun to just describe each concert I went to this week and what it makes me think about music:

 

“El Zorro y el Cuervo” self-proclaimed Latin jazz show by Roberto Francesco. Although these are Cuban musicians who spent most of their formative years in Havanna with restricted access to American music the influence of Tony, Herbie, and Ron is equally if not more obvious to me than the influence of people Chucho Valdes, Cachao, and Tito Puente. Granted I know much less about that music and probably can’t see the influence as clearly. My teacher played on this gig but in my opinion he was out of place in this band. He is 61 and no one else in this band can be over 40. His vibe onstage is totally geeky while the rest of the band oozes some modern jazz cool. Most importantly he very obviously has not studied the jazz tradition in the way that any of the other members have. The same qualities that made him strange on this gig also made him way more effective as a teacher to me. He is basically a classical player. He plays great clarinet and great flute and he can play the mess out of the saxophone and he has a great beat. That being said he played a lot of stuff that sounds “out of time” to me in a way that the rest of the band didn’t. I know from working with him that his polyrhythmic sense is much more mature than mine so I have to wonder why I hear him playing stuff that sounds so sophomoric? I think it’s because of the way the rest of the band is playing. I think that the way I hear time and they way they hear time is much more “filled in.” by this I mean that the hours I have spent cultivating the skill to spontaneously concieve harmonically logical streams of eigth notes have permanently altered my sense of time flow. And it has for them too. I distinctly remember when an older student at East High Evan White told me that “eigth notes are your jazz currency.” He has a point and it has important bearing on this music. Also the relationship of jazz melody to European classical melody has become more distant than Cuban melody. Perhaps because improvisation has become more abstract and prolonged in the American tradition. I’m realizing all these Cuban woodwind guys, Cesar Lopez, Jorge Luis, Vicente Viana, Paquito and Tito D’Riviera, all of them are great classical players as much if not more as they are improvisers.

 

Salsa Dance party with Michael Blanco. This was so fun and a fifth of what it would cost in the US. I was with this Berliner who has been here a few months and says he doesn’t like to salsa dance even though he goes to clubs all the time. He said he has trouble knowing what to do. It’s because the dance is so structured and technical. For me that makes it easier and less mmm… sexually intimidating, socially risky, and musically predictable. Not to say I don’t like dancing normally… Interesting to think about how this relates to improvisational techniques relating to intuition versus education, and structure verses freedom. Does this make me nerdy? Are these pants too tight? I can’t hear what your saying this room is too loud!

 

Obini Bata at Museo Casa de Africa. Very hip. All female drum and dance group with great dancing, set changes, and costume changes. They used mics for the voices and not the drums. The music and many of the dance moves are identical to Ewe songs but this amplification choice totally reversed the sonic hierarchy. Either way is fine. They put on a great show and had members the audience dance including me. I was the only male they asked to dance and that made me feel proud and confused. Maybe they saw me tapping clave on my leg or looking at them win inappropriate ardor. This music and performance style made me think of Matt Dibiase’s project and how this stuff is so related.

 

Havanna String orchestra featuring Javier Zalba (my teacher). Beautiful concert in a gorgeous old church in Havanna Vieja. Had a piece based on some Argentinian tango rhythms and some originals by my teacher. Contained some improvisation for sax over orchestral accompaniment. Kind of out of place in my opinion but interesting to hear that live and without a jazz rhythm section. Cadenzas have a lot of notes sometimes but are still articulated with more variety that most notey jazz passages.

 

Three back to back traditional rhumba concerts in the Vedado. This was also great and featured a second all-female group. Not sure if this is a trend I’m not hip to. These bands also amplified voices and not drums. I don’t think I like it mainly because they are still singing so loud which they don’t need to do anymore because that is what a microphone is for is to do that for you so you don’t need to sing so loud why would you buy one and use it if you are just going to do the same loud thing you were doing? Anyway… two of these bands play every week and I think I will be going every time from now on. The rhumba clave and son clave are actually way way more different than I thought before. Mainly in the way that rhumba clave can fit in a triplet or duple context and the way it will switch within a song, which is super awesome and totally non-notatable. Maybe son does this too though I don’t know. The second beat of the 2-side in rhumba is almost always late which is more of this invertible swing thing I’ve been thinking about as it relates to claves/bell patterns. My new catchphrase is “cyclic syncopation is positional information.” I know. It’s stuck in year head for the rest of the day. So catchy... After three hours I was hearing everything with a clave underneath it which I think is good. And interesting—its sort of a similar process to translating all my English thoughts to Spanish while I’m half asleep. Still cant conjugate for shit. Preterito.

 

People are also racist here but not so bad. The Spanish influence is different than the French or English. Better outfits. Seems like there’s still big inequality but if anyone is really rich they leave Cuba so the people here don’t have as much economically motivated resentment and mistrust of one another. Everybody looks really sharp but I don’t think I can rock tight white skinny jeans and shaved eyebrows. But I also couldn’t really rock the veeshti or kurta so hopefully I can just wear a sweater.

 

I’d like to amend my previous statement about Miles. He was a person who refused to compromise in his music or in his personal life. That leads to a lot of decisions that I wouldn’t make—like yelling at his son when he played trumpet, seeing many women at the same time without communicating with them, and acting violently towards friends, colleagues, and strangers. At the same time he was a person who felt that he needed to fight constantly for what he wanted in a way that I never have. All of those personal qualities are inextricably linked with his music, which is undeniably some of the best ever made. Of course I’m not like Miles but I can’t just write him off as a jerk.

 

I got a haircut and I knew it would be nothing like the picture I showed him but I decided to do it anyway. For the first few hours I was totally embarrassed but now I kind of like it. In the words of Miles: “sometimes I look in the mirror and go ‘Damn Miles (max?) you are a handsome Motherfucker!’”

Cuba (Latin #1)

…And I thought Ghana was the Shit.

 

First of all the weather is gorgeous. Second my host family is so nice. Third my teacher is great and we can communicate just fine.

 

I speak just enough Spanish to get around and I feel I am learning more by the day. Phone conversations are challenging but not insurmountably so. Most of the people I’ve met are very patient with me and I have a housemate from Japan who speaks great English and can help me out if I really need anything.

 

Internet is insanely slow and a little hard to find. At first this really freaked me out but now I love it. The government rations wifi connection. Instead of being regulated by “data”—which is kind of a weird idea already—internet coverage is regulated by time and location. Public parks mostly have coverage but it is so slow that you can’t make calls and you have to be very intentional about what you spend your internet time on. This is really good because it means that I put a wall around my internet time and I am all the more immersed in this language and culture. I plan out exactly what I want to do online (like this post) and do it in a lovely outdoor setting and then I leave so the emails and the calls can’t find me or interrupt me. This is probably the last time in my life that I will be able to disconnect like this and I am relishing it.

 

That being said communism is a bear and while I am mostly insulated from it I get little tastes here and there. Before I learned to use the good ol’ black market I tried to buy an internet card through the government vendor. I waited in line for an hour and then the mob by the door was literally shoved away by a man with a club and I had to get back in line… because I was in the line for Cubans and not for tourists... and the tourist line was even longer. The other day I asked the guard at the university why he missed work one day and he told me that he was at the grocery store.

 

I eat most of my meals in the house where I am hosted by a lovely retired couple who can only be described as “delightful.” The father of the house Rudolfo literally drives to the countryside to pick up fresh fruit for his kids, wife, my housemate and I. He describes growing up in revolutionary Cuba with the same frustration that my teacher does.

 

My teacher lives in an apartment on the 20th floor of a building in Havanna central. From his windows you can see a 360 view of the whole city. He says that when he went on tour up until the 90s he had to get a saxophone in the country that he was visiting because the government wouldn’t let him back In the country with one because it epitomizes American music which was banned… but there is also a statue of John Lennon here that Castro put up because he though “Imagine” was pro-communist so it seems contradiction is rife with La Revolucion.

 

My practice room is a huge soccer stadium in the university where I have a nice shady oning and I watch the dudes practice soccer while I shed and they are serious. Very cool to see the different ages progress.  This stadium also has an amazing view.

 

It’s a place where I often feel like I’m getting the best of both worlds.

 

I’m comfortable but not lethargic.

 

The music is foundational but not rudimentary.

 

The music is familiar but not obvious

 

When I practice I am never lonely but always by myself.

 

Everyone notices me but nobody bothers me.

 

People are interested in the saxophone but not in stealing it from me.

 

 

 

This is the first place I’ve been besides Thailand that people from the West go to on vacation. And I can see why. It just feels great to be out on the street here. My first few days I just took these hours long runs because I just wanted to see it all and I didn’t mind getting lost.

 

All this being said it’s not perfect. It took me 4 hours to get out of the airport because they lost my bag. They gave me internet cards there but those had expired a year ago. I went to the place I planned to take drum and dance classes and found out the whole group is on tour now. The Spanish class I though would start last week actually started today… Neither of these is a total setback because I had a little more time to explore the city and get oriented. I was just excited about this particular group because I know a little of their music.

 

Music:

 

My teacher is way into “Tumbaos” which is not a particular groove as I used to think but is just a word for “riff” or “lick.” These idiomatic phrases define the different styles from different parts of Cuba and even other parts of the Carribean and Latin America that influenced Cuba. One nice exercise he does is one of us plays the tumbao and the other solos over it. It’s actually pretty hard to but the engine of the music like that.

 

These phrases are repetitive and require a great deal of clarity in tone, rhythm, and most importantly articulation which Javier calls “diction.” What gets me about all this is that Gary was obsessed with articulation too but was not as into teaching as Javier is. Javier is a great classical sax player too and he is showing me something that Gary would do but didn’t demonstrate explicitly.

 

What I gather from the things Javier demonstrates is that the articulation is what justifies the sort of metered rubato that is present in jazz and Cuban popular music.

Because we’re borrowing most of our melodic content from rubato Europoean sources and playing it in a semi-metronomic Afcricanish framework, melodic instrumentalists have a challenging tightrope to walk: On the one hand you could play right in the center of the beat all the time and that would keep make the time flow happen more homogeneously. But it wouldn’t properly weight the harmonic information that you’re delivering which is unequal. So your articulation as it relates to the style you’re playing in gives the ear the sense that you are playing right along with the rhythm section even if the actual lengths of your notes are elastic and aren’t always “in time.” Might sound a little esoteric but it helps me think about something that I think seperates the good from the great.

 

These guys play notes short. I’ve been to some shows and they just don’t hold their eight notes as long and in some ways that’s harder because you have to have a clearer sound and a crisper attack and your note makes more of a statement on the beat then if you’re slurring most of the time. Javier calls me out for playing too many notes and using “sound effects.”

 

Thinking about these tumbaos makes me think more about the rhythmic vocabulary in jazz. I have found myself returning to Sidney Bechet, Charlie Christian, and Benney Goodman recordings that I haven’t listened to since high school. The currency in these recordings is more in riffs and less in lines compared the music that came 10-20 years later. Charlie Parker and Bud Powell filled in a lot of gaps that I didn’t really think of as gaps before.

 

Again language arises from culture. I lucked out that I was born in the US because just like the English language the jazz vocabulary is some of the most esoteric, dense, contradictory, vast. verbose, and counterintuitive stuff out there. But then again we could all be speaking Tamil and it would be even harder so who knows what’s best.

 

I’m just about done with the Miles biography and man was that guy a jerk... Cat could play though, he could tip…

 

I think I will look back on these weeks as some of the happiest of my whole life. To anyone reading, I’m sorry I’m not in touch directly but you are in my thoughts and I can’t wait to see you in person in just a few weeks!

Homeschool

This was a great month.  It just snowed here and that was wild because it is so normal but it’s been so long since I’ve seen it.

I’m proud of my progress. I worked on Spanish, some job apps, and getting musically prepared for Cuba. I also caught up on sleep and hung out with my parents and friends which was also great. The scene here is so familiar that I don’t have much exciting news to report. So this will be a pretty brief post.

My life after Beebe feels a lot closer now. I spent much of this month thinking about it and the weight has shifted: Instead of the future feeling like a distant release from extended travel and study it now feels like reality… with this as the vacation. I’m not treating this trip that way but after about a month the US feels like “real life” again.

 

My family is great. It was so nice to be around them. My sister came home. My grandma came over. My Aunt was in town. It was a big hang and those relationships don’t atrophy the way some of my friendships from high school do. That’s one of the things that makes family special and worth preserving.

Saxophone is super fun. It’s fun to work on music more abstractly but it’s also really fun to play sax. Harmony is alright too...

That’s about it. I head out this evening (happy birthday to me). More soon.

"Yo"

Please excuse the delay this was yet another whirlwind week. After my last post I spent one more week at Dagbe cultural center in the village of kopayeia and then traveled back to the capital Accra for 10 days with African flute master Dela Botri.

My final week at Dagbe was good. The two weeks I spent there were probably the most authentic musical and cultural experience I got. Those guys were there for me to learn and they didn't mess around. They pushed me hard and I really got a lot out of it. They were loving and welcoming but had little patience for a slow pace of learning so I was really working hard to keep up. The environment there is hard to describe coming from the west. It's a small village right on the border with Togo of about 500 people total. I couldn't find it on google maps when I searched it. There are no industries except (mostly subsistence) agriculture, crafts, alcohol selling and fermenting, and this music center. Like Medie there was this grandfather figure with his picture on the walls who had four wives and everybody around there seems to be descended from him. There were people with some serious health problems that were visible and it generally felt like a totally different world--more so than anywhere else I've been. It's also the major birthplace of American scholarship on west African music. The founder of this school Godwin Agbelli seems like he was a super enterprising musician who saw the market for westerners to learn African drums and just worked tirelessly to corner that market and spread his culture. This week I read some books about ewe drumming and the majority of the pictures were from this village. I even recognized a childhood picture of one of my instructors. Crazy.

It was also a little bit of an uncomfortable place for me. The inequality was just a little too in-your-face. I had many teachers ask me to leave clothing, medicine, and money behind. I got scammed a couple times by the people I thought I was making friends with, and after observing a group of kids playing a sort of patty cake game, about ten of them followed me all the way to my room asking for money.

I saw two more funerals which are just huge all-day parties that are so fun and musical and highly alcoholic. I woke up at 4:30 am to drive with one of the teachers to the city of Ho and we arrived at 6:30. By 7:30 we were sitting around and everybody was getting sauced... Including me... And I was like "oh my God I would not even be awake by this time if I were in Denver right now"

They ferment this wine from palm oil there and it's really delicious (haven't gone blind yet) but then they leave it for longer and it becomes this hard liquor called apateshi (sp?) that made me cry when I first had it. Many people seem to drink it every day. It also gets used in a lot of ceremonies so It's this weird mix of spirituality, alcoholism, and poor man's boredom. It was nice to get away from that, I don't think I've felt that much of a constant presence of alcohol since orientation at Oberlin. Kind of fun but it starts to mess with your sleep after a while and communicating "no, I'm wasted" was always a struggle.

Then I drove to Accra hoping to apply some of this rhythmic knowledge to the saxophone and this antenteben Ghanaian flute. I took my first lesson with Dela and it went really well. He's just a super nice guy and I think he was pleasantly surprised that I know a little about music already. He invited me to sit in at his gig the next day and then things really got fun!

Like India there are very few good sax players here so the band was excited to hear a new sound. I ended up playing every gig with them that week and recording a track in the studio with them. Dela and I "composed it together" which means I sat there and learned it as Dela had flashes of inspiration.

I Learned more from this than I can put into words. I'm realizing more and more that we don't have adequate words for rhythm and emotion and that that is sort of the point here. But Basically I really heard the application of the "solo like a drummer" woodwind mentality and I got to get a feel for playing in a band after spending a month learning more about what that band is actually doing. I also made one genuine friend in Ghana. That means a lot to me. I kind of made friends in India and KSS was something sort of like a friend, but Dela and I really hung out and developed a bond that was something more than money or obligation or a job.

It helps that this music and this culture is way more similar than anything I learned in Asia. It also is just nice to play sax with a band that doesn't suck. And oh man this percussionist he uses is in the national traditional music ensemble for Ghana and he is just such a beast and so musical and also hilarious.

I'm headed home now and I don't know quite how to feel. I really loved Ghana and I want to go back there more than any place I've been before. It's corny but there's something here for all of us I think. Something way under the surface about just being a person. Again cheesy but it's a soulful soulful place. These words aren't quite it but: joy, suffering, and a connection with our ancestors and the natural environment I just felt these things thicker in the air than I feel elsewhere.

I'm excited to go to Cuba and I'm excited to have a little rest. I've been gone about eight months now and the way things are shaping up I might go straight to Cuba to Stanford to moving so it will be good to spend some time with my family. It's funny because I'm going back but it's no grand arrival, my life is just going to keep moving and I just need to try to keep learning and focusing on the music. I don't feel super happy or super sad... But I definitely do feel very grateful.

**Interesting side notes from my reading this week: Ewe-along with many west African languages-- has no word for "music." There are names for songs or particular dances but the art form isn't named in the abstract. Perhaps there is something so omnipresent and internal about music here that it needs no separation from just "life."

Also the word "Yo" is one way of saying hello and goodbye in Ewe. I always thought that "Yo" as we use it was some sort of distant relative of "hello" but this seems like a more compelling and likely source. In either case, language clearly is related to music and I think this bears similar parallels to other details in music: Ex. is the swing beat more of an africanized french march or an anglicized axatse pattern? Most think the former but what is the real truth and does it matter?... 

Ewe wew eww weeeeee!

I’m posting these two entries at the same time because my sim card didn’t work out here so I only got a new one a couple days ago. I think it’s funny how much my opinions have evolved, changed, and clarified in only a week.

--

I think one of the themes of this trip is realizing how much is out there. I’m in a region just three hours drive away from where I was and the instruments, language, and culture are all totally different.

 

The days here start reeealy early so I’ve been getting up at 4:30 to go for these long runs in the dark with this guy Odante. Really nice guy and passionate about the arts. We go at that time because there are no cars on the road and that’s the only place to run for a long way. We ran right up to the border of Togo which was cool. In the night (early morning?) time you can see all the lights from the city Lome.

 

I’ve been to two funerals and I’m realizing that they are so important because most of these tribal religions are based on the worship of one’s ancestors. These religions seem to be coexisting with Christianity here sometimes within a single person. This also explains why everybody in Medie and here all seemed to be related because they are! I think that up until 2 generations ago it was commonplace for men to have four or so wives with like ten kids each and this led to huge families that made up these tribes who all live in the same place and develop their own cultural and musical languages. That’s probably not exactly the factual story but it’s the impression I get being here and talking to people.

 

I’m feeling continually excited but also a little worn out. This music is very physical (dancing and drumming involve a lot more movement than playing alto) and I’ve been really trying to push myself to learn as much as I can every day. But I’ve been doing that for three weeks and the content is all in my memory so I’m a little tired. I’ve also been staying in a new place every week or so since January and I’ve been out of the US since August and that is a long time for me. I’m hoping I will still get the most out of these next couple weeks but I took today to listen to some of my recordings and try to reflect and solidify some of this knowledge.

 

I like this place because rather than playing in unison with the instructors I’m being asked to dance and drum and sing my own parts while they play theirs which obviously takes another level of independence and confidence. I’m learning just a couple of drum and dance routines but on each instrument in the drum choir which is actually way more information than just learning the lead parts like I did in Medie. I also need to respond in the moment to some of the “calls” and arrangement changes in the music which is a great exercise in being aware of what the rest of the ensemble is doing rhythmically. It also has made me more aware of the drumset when I listen to recordings that are not African music. Wayne Shorter’s Juju came on by accident yesterday and I just left it on because I saw all this beauty and complexity in what Elvin plays on that record that I never noticed before. It kind of just sounded like a really groovy current for Wayne and McCoy to play over. What this reveals is that learning another music also changes the way you hear any music, especially when the styles are linked like these are…

 

This gets me to my next point: The Indian math can be applied to the African bell. I only know a little about the brain science of this but I’ve been “chunking” a lot of the info I’m hearing by thinking of it in terms of numbers like the Indian musicians do. When I do this it helps me remember the information until I can really internalize the phrases by singing or playing. But it also opens up some creativity. Like what if you add another 5 to the typical 5 and 7 patterns? It sounds nice. And this makes me very excited for what I can do with these materials. Coming to these places makes me learn a way of thinking not just some different language from my own perspective. And so that makes me hopeful for my future creativity.

 

But I also realized that when I do this it is a different way of thinking than the Ghanaian musicans are doing and that’s interesting too. The way they teach and more importantly the way that young children play music reveals that their thinking is polyrhythmic from the start. By this I mean that they are feeling a consistent pulse and a bell pattern at all times and then playing phrases as they relate to the bell pattern and dance motions. These phrases are not always related to four bar phrases or four beat measures but often are. The music is gestural and contextual meaning that certain sounds are linked to certain movements which in turn have their own affect and message. I’m sure there is a lot of more informed and well written scholarship on this but this is what I feel being here.

 

Last point is that I’ve changed my mind about what I wrote last week. I said that the rhythms I’m learning here only relate some to what modern musicians are playing. Even if that’s true these rhythms are clearly the root of those. And more importantly the aesthetics of this music—for example rhythms as units to react from like speech, density as intensity, music as accompaniment for dance, music as a connection to one’s cultural and familial heritage—are so deeply rooted in today’s American music that you can’t distance them as much as I was in my last post.

 

…Ok so this post is a little all-over-the-place but I think there’s some interesting stuff in here if you are willing to read it a couple times. Promise next week will be more organized.

En Rout to the Volta Region

I am writing this in the car as I drive from Medie to kopayeia where I'll be spending the next couple weeks studying ewe drumming. Up until now I’ve been focusing on music from the Dagara and Sissala tribes. I'm writing now partially because this feels like my first free moment and partially because I want to distract myself from the crazy driving out here... I don't want to give the impression I was going super hard 24/7 but the days were definitely full and intense in their own way.

 

This was an amazing couple of weeks. My time in India was mainly valuable for the reflective value: studying a completely foreign system revealed a lot about my own music. But this is valuable in a more foundational way. I'm studying the tradition that gave birth to most of my music.

 

I've learned a lot. I learned two fairly complicated drum and dance routines (the two are inseparable) and seven tunes on the Gyil all of which have their own polyrhythmic coordination to get together and some of which have new and interesting bell patterns. I also asked of myself the same consistency that Dr KSS demanded of me--playing things 4 times in a row correctly. While I was not able to play all the sequences in order with this level of execution I could play each individually which I think is good enough for how proficient I can become with two weeks on an instrument. Here were the thoughts that usually kept me from playing perfectly:

 

"Damn it's hot"

 

"What was that shit Alex just played!?!"

 

"Man, I'm sounding really good"

 

"It would sound so hip if Matt played this but with a Maj7(#9#5)"

 

"Does this all matter for saxophone? Yeah dude it definitely does. But will it help you shred? No bro that's not the point. Shit! I just messed up..."

 

 

 

In terms of quantifiable pieces of repertoire I've already learned more than in India, but that's because the main thing I got out of India was a rigor of thought in practicing and in thinking about rhythm.

 

It's also because this is folk music. It's not systematic and pedagogically linear the way the classical Carnatic system is. The tradition is more the sum of many functional stories (deaths rains dances etc) than an ornate and abstract whole. There isn't much benefit in exercises detached from repertoire. There is also a lot more room for inefficiency and disagreement that we could all really avoid if we could just get organized geez... All this leads me to think about the jazz tradition which is in a 21st century accelerated process of becoming a classical tradition.

 

Jazz has its own rhythmic and harmonic language that is distinct from the European language that I studied in depth at Oberlin and African language that I am immersed in now. The trope that "jazz is African rhythm mixed with European harmony" is obviously simplistic. Jazz, if it exists at all (see nick p.), really is an American art form and tells functional stories about the American experience (who's American experience I think is an interesting question). Ive heard some rhythms that I think of as characteristically Jazz rhythms (the "bo diddley" second line beat and "ooh bop Shabam" are some examples) but they're presented so differently that they don't really function as the same rhythm anymore. I feel like once a rhythm carries more harmonically complex information with it, it has to become a little less assertive to make room somehow... Especially now, the American experience and the music that fuels the imagination of modern jazz artists is very distant from what I hear around me. What I find here is rhythmic vocabulary that relates more to early Jazz and then an undefinable "spirit" of something that I've called swing but is maybe just human rhythm expressed through instruments more generally. The second feature as I've defined it is pretty hard to put into words except to say that it is captivating and unattainable and familiar and exotic all at the same time.

 

One music nerdy thing that I heard that is crazy is this Gyil player (Alex) playing a clave in triplets and an ostinato in eighth notes. It took me like three hours of listening to the recording to figure out what he was doing and after I had the mental shift where I began to believe that this type of poly rhythmic playing could come from a single person then I felt like I was part of a special club and I felt special because of it. Some of you will probably think "African music has rhythms that are between eighths and triplets" and that is true and it was what I was listening for in this recording but you could but the metronome on and this shit would be exact and it's really crazy. I bring this up just because it's cool but also to illustrate the polyrhythmic nature of the music which is really difference then the Indian cyclical thing or even the way we (at least I) think of time in Jazz. We kind of anglicized these rhythms to fit into a linear framework and a little bit of the dance was lost in translation. Just clapping and singing melodies when you're not clapping every quarter note is hard! That's how mono-rhythmic I am! 

 

I've been documenting a lot in audio and I'm waiting to write it down until I'm home partially because I want to focus as much as I can on learning what's out here and already inside me right now and also because I want to continually test myself to remember what I've learned without the aid of written materials. I'll post some of that stuff when I get back so you can have a look. Thanks for reading.

Enjoy it

Yep. Ghana is the Shit.

 

I don’t want to spend too much time writing this because I feel like I am learning so much every minute that I spend here.

 

In just a week I’ve learned five tunes on the Ghanaian Xylophone and a 12 series dance and drum routine.

 

I feel highly motivated to learn everything so I am learning at a much higher pace.

 

I have completely abandoned my practice routine—which I thought I needed when I arrived in India and was faced with the opportunity of complete immersion like I am experiencing here.

 

I am learning about aesthetics and not the saxophone and that doesn’t scare me like it used to.

 

I believe that I’m an artist and that studying aesthetics is worthwhile. When I arrived in India I still wanted to be a musician—which in my mind was a technician—being a musician meant that I was doing “real” work and not art, which to me was not real work. I know now that even harder than playing the saxophone is deciding what I like, what I don’t, why, what to do about it, and believing that it all matters. (https://nicholaspayton.wordpress.com/2011/11/27/on-why-jazz-isnt-cool-anymore/) A couple Nick Payton quotes:

 

“too many musicians not enough artists”

 

“Life is bigger than music unless you love an/or play jazz” his point being that jazz is a limited, outdated, racist idea (something Gary Bartz also believes that’s has been on my mind a lot lately).

 

My desire to be a good student always led me to be a good jazz player now my desire to be a good student pushes me to be something else. Which makes me re-define what it means to be a good student.

 

The music center I am staying at is great.

 

The musicians here don’t think of time in terms of 1-2-3-4 they think more in terms of the interrelationship between different cycles of rhythms.

 

The metaphor I keep thinking of is a graph with the x axis un-labeled. The information that is emphasized is the different lines and not their exact measurements even though those measurements are still mostly present.

 

Unlike European rhythm, which emphasizes precision and unity of attack, this approach emphasizes consistent rhythmic dissonance (my beat vs. your beat) which makes the rhythm more like speech or heartbeat (arrhythmia).

 

Christianity is deep in the culture here and that single fact makes it feel much much more like home than Thailand or India ever did and shows how deeply that religion influences American culture.

 

The root of every music we could call “American” comes from here.

 

If music reflects culture what does this say about the debt that Americans owe to enslaved Africans?

 

I visited Cape Coast Slave Castle and to me it feels like an un-payable debt.

 

I am SO glad I went to India before I came here. If I had never studied rhythm seriously and had not experienced the inconveniences and fears of living in the so-called third world I would be more lost and distracted than I am now.

 

This is great. My teacher keeps telling me to “enjoy it” in reference to the feeling of what I am playing.

 

I’ve been dancing and yesterday I actually had a lot of fun doing it.

 

I feel a passion that I haven’t felt about music for a while.

Aja

This was another amazing ten days. I am again floored by the depth and size of our world. Just a short plane ride away from India, Bangkok was like an entirely different planet than Chennai. It is a city of around 15 million--twice the size of NYC. It felt a little bit like coming back to the US and it was a relief in that way. I shopped in a grocery store without worrying about the quality of the produce, I ate in a restaurant that served hamburgers and French fries along with Thai fare, and the room I stayed in was a part of an apartment complex with decorations and amenities that reminded me a lot of apartments I have visited in New York and DC.

 

My hosts (huge shout out to Thanisa and her family for being so kind to host me!!!) were very friendly and just about every person I met was eager and willing to help me find my way around and experience Thailand. My teacher Klu Nuek was willing not only to meet with me for several hours every day but also to let me accompany him in his life as the baddest Thai woodwind/percussion player in town. I saw him perform in a temple ceremony (and I played gong thank you very much) and rehearse student and professional ensembles. I also saw him perform with a western style string quartet called JEEB playing pop-ish repertoire along with excerpts from the Brandenburg concerto and the like. I think the concert was trying to introduce audiences that mostly listen to Western popular music to European and Thai Classical music. It was set in a beautiful concert hall that reminded me of the one I saw Cecile McLorain Salvant in in Rotterdam. Just being in this space was like a huge breath of fresh air. People were engaged in the music, they didn’t get up to leave in the middle like the audiences in India, and the room was equipped with adequate sound reinforcement, lighting, and seating… it also was like an hour instead of three.

 

While it was only a short trip I feel I got a decent look into the East Asian aesthetic. Obviously this is a huge generalization and I still have no idea of anything but I saw the realization of the continuum of culture from Africa to Asia first hand and I heard some real similarities to the music of India. Ku Nuek told me that few instruments come directly from India with little alteration like the Piee  the Thai version of the indian double-reed Nadaswarnam…. Equally badass… I learned maybe six or seven tunes and I got some circular breathing together. When there is a little seven-year-old girl doing it next to you like it’s normal it provides a little incentive to improve.

 

It struck me that this place has lost a lot of what distinguishes it from the West. There were so many Starbucks and KFCs that I could have been anywhere in Europe or America and I could go down most of the block without seeing any sign of where I ways. I am realizing that much of our world looks this way now and you almost have to go to a place as far removed as Chennai to escape that cultural colonization.

 

But after living in Chennai for six months I understand a little more why this shift towards wWstern culture happens. People just want those things. Western infrastructure means comfort, convenience and security. While there are big cultural casualties, this type of change wouldn’t happen if at least some people didn’t want it to.

 

Of course it’s more complicated than this because there are international forces that make people think that they want some things that might not be “best” for them because it is profitable for people in the West. For example the people in the advertisements everywhere I’ve gone look very white and that is not a realistic beauty ideal for people in Asia to aspire to. There are also people like my teacher who are working tirelessly to preserve their native culture. I can’t help but think that he was so welcoming towards me in part because there are few students even in his own country that take a serious interest in Thai Classical music. It really is tragic to think that this culture that is thousands of years old could be more or less extinguished by a couple of generations of McDonalds.

 

The other thing is the prevalence of Buddhism. About 95% of the population is Buddhist and they teach the doctrine in schools. I can’t help but think that the relative number of rules and rituals in Hinduism is part of what keeps India more culturally distinct. Buddhism seems to be more compatible with Western culture. But at the same time it is still an organized religion with strange inconsistencies and sexism. I think in the West we sometimes use Buddhism as a catchall for being spiritual on our own terms—but that isn’t quite right either.

 

This is a very under-developed thought but I’ve been considering the similarities between religion and musical genre. In a sense neither of them exist because each individual’s relationship to faith varies so widely even within denominations of a given religion that any categorization is virtually meaningless. But in another way they do exist because we use them as organizing principles for behavior and we refer to them constantly. If we take the relationship further I’ve been considering that it might be a necessary step to really study one religion to figure out your own spiritual convictions kind of like studying a style seriously before (or while) really trying to develop your own musical concept. Without understanding some of the formalities of religious structure maybe you’re trying to write a symphony without studying counterpoint? My attempts to read the Bible and study religion more seriously have always been driven almost entirely by discipline with basically no passion. One thing is that I’ve learned recently is that I have a good amount of discipline but that when you’re dealing with these highly emotional subjects like music or faith that discipline can’t be your only tool. Especially in the past month or so where I’ve been playing a lot less and doing more thinking about music and aesthetics instead I have been almost forced to appreciate emotion and lived experience more than I used to. These are the artifacts of passion and they are the content that all the technical facility delivers. When I see these predominantly religious places it forces me to consider my own spiritual convictions which –similar to aesthetic convictions—I think I have largely lacked for most of my life. I wonder if I’m cultivating the beginnings of a passion for spirituality. I’m not sure… When I hung out with Arijit the Hindustani vocalist he recommended looking inside for my religion and seeing what comes. Is that too easy? God? What do you think?

 

Headed to Ghana ;(

To Thailand

I am sitting in a beautiful hotel room outside of the Kochi airport waiting to take my flight to Thailand this evening. I am looking out on a serene lake surrounded by palm trees and I am overwhelmed by the sheer size of everything. I feel I'm a whole universe away from Chennai. But then... as I write this, a jackhammer begins to clamor away on the floor above me… Funny and I think kind of fitting.

 

The last week did not go exactly like I planned. I was unable to complete the meditation retreat I had hoped for because the location where I was hoping to complete it turned out to be sub-optimal. After a few days of trying to make it work for myself while moving around I concluded that the time wasn’t right. I chose to see more of Kerala and I am glad that I did. I took a boat ride down a backwater, swam in a warm ocean in February, and ate great Keralan food in a homestay. I had a great time and grew closer to my new friend Robert Mummundey who was a joy to be with. I felt like I was a whole universe away from Chennai and I felt more relaxed with each day.

 

I also realized after a few three hour sessions of meditation that it is a practice that takes time to build just like music. Trying to meditate for eight hours a day without ever doing more than thirty minutes before is kind of like trying to play saxophone for eight hours after taking a few weeks off. It just doesn’t get you that far. Meditation (and music) is more aof a way of living than some vacation I can do once… and then check enlightenment off my bucket list.

 

I think most of my reflections on my experience here in India are best said in my post “Ego Effort and Ending.” Right now I don’t really find myself thinking back on my time here too much. As I sit here I am writing a couple tunes, working on teaching applications, and planning my movements in Thailand/Ghana. India was so complicated and so intense and I learned a lot, but right now I think I’m more focused on what’s next! It should be a lot of fun, and I am just hoping to stay safe. More to come.

I'm out!

Maybe I'll post more philosophical stuff about India later but I've been scrambling to take care of everything I can while I have wifi. I'm headed to Kerala for a few days. I'm planning to do several days of intensive meditation and flute practice to clear my head and--in the words of my friend Bailey when beginning a medically questionable and legally dubious LSD micro-dosing regime--"see how I change"

Just to be clear on my future plans: I still have funds from the Beebe grant so I am using them to take a survey of several foreign cultures that I see has having more direct relevance to jazz than South Indian music. I will be spending about two months each in Ghana and Cuba but before I go there I am taking advantage of the insanely cheap travel in South Asia and learning a couple of flutes--Carnatic Bamboo flute and Thai Khlui... let's see how all this goes.

 

;(

Ego, Effort, and Ending

...not sure when these next couple of entries will post as the government has been hampering wifi services because there are protests in Chennai (what!?!?!) and things are eeeven more slow... So i just loaded them and waited to see when the spinning wheel makes enough revolutions to bring you more information on yours truly...

 

From the 14th-18th of this month I took a trip around Tamil Nadu (the state Chennai is in) with my Guru and a few other students from the school. This trip was an incredible experience that revealed even more of the history, diversity, and culture of South India. It was the sort of trip that you can only take with real connections to a place. I was welcomed into friends’ homes as a guest, guided through ancient temples with my Guru as an expert guide, and shown the real inside of the Tamil culture of the South. It was a really amazing experience that gave me a sense of closure about my time here. Even though I have a couple more weeks before I actually leave India, seeing some new places and spending some quality time with Dr. KSS make it feel like like the culmination of my studies.

 

The other thing that made it feel this way was the prevalence of performance on the trip. The main purpose of the trip was for the students to perform at Puddakkotta Temple in Trichy but we also performed at two of the family’s houses. And held group lessons on the bus and in the temples.

 

In the culture of South Indian music there seems to be a divide between the pursuit of “study” and of “performance.” Previously I had thought of the study of music as the pursuit of the performance of music but that isn’t how they roll in India. There seems to be a general understanding that Carnatic music is so hard that it takes about ten years of constant practice before a student is really ready to perform. Because I’m on a little bit more of an accelerated timetable than that I was given the opportunity to perform at the temple.

 

So the week before we left I started to get a little anxious. Every time I made a mistake Gurji would stop and correct it and then I would need to play it correctly four times in a row. The piece is twelve and a half minutes long in the first speed and I need to play it in five speeds so its like a half an hour. The probability of me doing that whole thing without making a single error is just so small that I didn’t think I would do it.

 

So I started asking if we could play it though like I would perform it. Guruji would say “oh yes yes once you have really learned it you can play it one hundred times!” and then we would have a lesson and I would mess up and we would go to correct it. And ever lesson would go like this.

 

So when we got on the bus to leave I realized that I had no idea how to play the piece. Was I supposed to play it in all speeds? That seemed pretty unmusical. Was I supposed to give an Ragalapana and Taanam improvisation? Every time I did that it sounded bad so that probably wasn’t a good idea either.

 

Then we get to the house in Trichy and eat this amazing meal of never-ending Dosa and Sambar on a banana leaf and eat a small ripe banana and laugh and chat with our hosts of thirty people (big family!). And then KSS gets out a Veena and plays a Gitam and the other Veena students play and I’m feeling at east and then KSS asks me to get my sax and I’m like “what?!” in my bran.

 

I said that the people looked tired and that I shouldn’t play but he insisted so I got my horn and sat on the floor.  And I asked ”what should I do” and he just said “all the speeds!” So I tried playing the Varnam in eighths triplets sixteenths sextuplets and thirty-second notes.

 

And I just sucked. Like SuuuuuUUUUUUUUuuuuUUUUUUUUUUUUuuuuuuuucked.

KSS was playing Tala on his knees and he just stopped because I was so out of control terribly awful and bad. And it just went on and on for like 25 minutes and I didn’t stop because you shouldn’t stop if you’re performing but I wanted to because I was really sucking so hard and everyone hated life while I played the saxophone on the floor there in Trichy.

 

And then I just kind of got up a little flushed and we all went to bed. Nobody vibed me or anything they just kind of looked disinterested. And then we got up the next day and saw some temples and an old-school Brahmin neighborhood from the 1800s which was deep.

 

Then we went to KSS’s brother’s house and he asked me to perform again and I’m like “what?!” in my brain. In my brain I’m also like “dude, you have spent every waking moment with me since I last performed and you know I haven’t practiced how do you expect me to play well?” but out loud I just said “ok.” And then he said that I should use a metronome because he couldn’t follow me the night before and I was like “oh shit this is even worse.”

 

And it was. I sucked even worse than the night before. Which didn’t seem possible at the time. I had to stop probably five or six times because the Tala cycle on the metronome was just screaming at the whole room about how I wasn’t in time and that I was ruining music in a broad sense and we needed to reorient or the whole sonic globe might fly off its axis.

 

And then I started to get really anxious because I knew KSS was going to ask me to perform the next night in the temple and I knew that I was probably going to suck even worse then. So I pretty much stopped talking to everyone and just practiced the piece in my head for the next day. I didn’t sleep too much and I just went over and over all the little things I needed to remember to get it right.

 

After another day of travel we set up in the temple. Karthick tied my Veshti around my waist (picture forthcoming) and I sat down to play. There was about 15 minutes of stress about microphones and metronomes and everyone was all frazzled but I just tried to breathe deeply and remind myself how little this all matters. When I looked out into the crowd I saw about thirty onlookers who were hoping that my music would help them pray in this sacred place. It was a lot of pressure but I felt a little detached from everything because I was pretty tired and obsessed with this stupid Varnam.

 

When I started to play I felt a little nervous but after a few lines it faded away. I started to feel pretty good and I played the first coupel of speeds correctly. It was then that I realized this was going to be a battle with my ego. I was so excited that I might get this thing right that I could hardly keep myself from messing everything up for myself. So I spent most of my mental energy just trying to think about nothing. Somewhere along the way I closed my eyes. I imagined I felt a slight breeze. But actually that was some hilarious Temple dudes who just bought a portable AC unit and decided to test it out on me in the middle of this tune. I got through the whole thing with almost no mistakes. I never got lost and I even sounded good at some sections. When I opened my eyes it was a classic Indian “larger than life” experience. The audience had doubled in size, my hair was blowing back under an artificial breeze, and two photographers from The Hindu were taking our picture.

 

Perhaps sensing the positive energy in the room KSS asked me on the spot to do an Ragalapana Improvisation with him. This is an unmetered statement of the Raga and I don’t relaly know how to do it. The nice thing is that the accompaniment style is really imitative so I just listened to KSS sing and then played back what he played with a little bit of embellishment. This really had a positive reception. I am just so much more at ease improvising than playing something planned out.

 

After the show I felt amazing but not in the way that I’ve felt before. I felt some personal relief that I got through it but I also felt something new. This is also probably cheesy but I felt a satisfaction that was greater than my ego. I realize now that almost all of the joy I’ve gotten from performing was from me sounding good. At this show I got a tiny glimpse of what it is like to submit to some more universal sound and realize that I am not sounding good but that I am just allowing music to sound good coming through me. This is a little cheesy and it’s not totally true. A lot of my good feeling was just my ego again and I have thought that I have experienced this before. It’s just a new depth of both feelings and another striking blow for my ego.

 

I had many people come up to me afterwards and congratulate me on my performance. Of course I didn’t actually sound very good and I am much more of a beginner than any of the other students but it made me feel like this time in India has at least been good for some learning.

 

As I walked out a shirtless man who spoke only Tamil and worked for the Temple gave me a kind of awkward hug and got chalk from his chest on my shirt. I felt pertty good about that too.

Ordered chaos

Things have calmed down after what was really three weeks of constant change. This has made me reflect a lot on what makes me happy and what doesn’t. If I had told myself last year that I would have four days where somebody made me meals and I had no responsibilities to leave the house or check my email I would have called that heaven. But the four days I spent between going to Bangalore and my family’s arrival were an extremely stressful and lonely slog. When they arrived I was both overjoyed at the sight of a familiar face and frustrated about my inability to make the experience wholly enjoyable for them. What I could not control was the reality that India is an extremely chaotic place. Buying groceries, taking a cab, just walking outside is a stressful and overwhelming experience for a Westerner. It’s stressful even for the people here. I know that because I see the strategies that people who live here use to keep themselves from going crazy. The woman who lives in the room next to me takes a walk to the end of the block twice a day. Other than that I think she hardly leaves the house. She only goes that far because if she goes any further she is exposed to relentless honking, yelling, and pollution. I see my other housemates take about forty-five minutes to an hour each day just staring at the wall. When I first observed this I thought “ha! Look at these Indian people just chilling so hard!” (see “Racism” for why this thought arose). Now I realize that they do this because they are so over stimulated that they need to just take a break from everything but they don’t have the peace of mind to take a nap. My guru takes a one-hour walk on the beach every day… at 3AM to avoid the crowds…

 

The world is big. It is so so so hugely enormously big and we can’t comprehend it. Sure, there are structures in place like seasons, currents, and the rotation of the Earth but as homo-sapiens we can only understand these abstractly. Gravity isn’t something that we feel; it’s something that we know about intellectually. But it seems that we have something ingrained into us that makes us want to understand the chaos around us. Just behind eating and reproducing I would say this is actually our third priority. What’s my evidence? All the abstract structures that we put into place to guide our actions: Some big ones that jump to my mind are Economics, Religion, and Marriage.

 

Think about all these structures give us: Structured commerce, weekly social and spiritual interaction for a local community, and even stable homes for children. These structures are great! Living in India has made me realize how lovely it is to feel like there is an order to things.

 

But there is also a dark side to these structures. If a trained economist and a monkey throwing a dart have the same statistical likelihood of predicting the performance of a particular stock (true), and Christianity led to the crusades (true), and over fifty percent of marriages end in divorce (true) then our structures for creating order are pretty futile aren’t they? They are so futile that they come pretty close to a lie in my mind. Anyone who lost it all in 2008, or has been touched by a preacher, or has gone through a really bad divorce has to agree there is a major downside these conceptual frameworks. Most economists I know would say that statistics can be used to prove anything, and religious people would say that it isn’t God touching that little boy it’s a bad person, and most married people would say that their marriage is strong and those people who got divorced shouldn’t have gotten married in the first place. But I don’t think any of those arguments are strong enough to prove that the structures I’ve mentioned are stronger than the forces of chaos. I think they just prove how badly we want to believe in our structures. If our structures are a lie would we just be better off without them at all?

 

I have come to the conclusion that we would not. Even for all their faults and for all the challenges they present I think we need these structures to keep from going crazy. Even though these formats differ across cultures humans have an instinct to believe in an order to commerce, and spiritual life and kinship relationships. Even for all the badness Wall Street gives us and the Church and the institutionof marriage I just don’t feel right without them around.

 

But I think that music is the best structure of all because it doesn’t pretend to be anything outside of your head.

 

Since thinking more about Indian “harmony” I have dispensed with my previous conception of the so-called “elements” of music in favor of a simpler model that my friend Jack Laskey introduced me to: Sound and Time. Once I opened up my mind and started accepting the music that I hear here as beautiful and different from me then I started to really enjoy it in a way that I didn’t let myself enjoy it before because it was too unfamiliar. This made me realize that my schema for what music is was holding me back from enjoying what was around me.

 

My friend Aakash Mittal who made a 10-month trip to India recently wrote an article for New Music Workshop in which he made the claim that music is a choice in the mind of the listener. It’s cool I’ll link it here: http://www.newmusicbox.org/articles/street-music-noise-and-the-city-of-joy/ He used the noise of an Indian city as his example. If you make the choice then he argues that you are listening to a natural orchestra.

 

But….

 

I can’t go this far with him. The noise here sucks. It has made me go a little crazy. And that isn’t my closed mind holding me back that’s just the way I feel. As I write this I’m realizing I don’t have much of a concrete point except for the way this stuff makes me feel…

 

So my reason for putting these up next to each other as it relates to this post is that our internal framework for what a piece of music sounds like is central to our identity. It is different for every person although there are huge similarities cross-culturally. I think just about everyone in the world would say that they like music. Even if they don’t think about it much or they only like a couple songs, they like it and they use it to make themselves feel better. I think that it makes us feel better because there is some kind of order to it and it makes us feel like the world makes sense and that all the chaos at least has a soul. We really need things to be structured. It’s good for us to open up to what those structures can be because it exposes us to a lot of new pleasures... but we also gotta have some order in the chaos.

A Change of Plans

Sorry to be slow, I’ve been without wifi since Hurrcane Vardah which struck Chennai on the 12th of December.  Other catastrophes including the impossibility of acquiring cash and the death of the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu were also in the mix. I don’t mean to be dramatic but it would not be an exaggeration for me to say that this hurricane and its aftermath was the hardest week of my life. Like many hard things though, I think it paid huge dividends. The full story is pretty complicated and I think the details are important… but that’s just because it’s my own life and I think all the details are important! I attached a full account below if you want to read but I imagine most of you don’t because it’s probably more than you really need to know.

 

The bottom line is that the practical realities of living in India combined with realizations I’ve had about the music that I’m learning have prompted me to end my stay here at the end of January. The details of where I’m going to go and what I’m going to do are still in progress (first stop: Thailand) but I know for certain that my only course is outside of this country. Some might view this as quitting but I know in my head and my heart that staying in India would be missing out on this opportunity and not vice versa. The only reason for me to be in Chennai is if studying Carnatic is so important to me that I need to be immersed in the culture 24/7. I don’t love this music that much. You’ve probably sensed it in the tone of my entries but I’ve also been trying to disguise it to myself and others because that truth made my former decision to stay here too obviously illogical. I have learned so much here and I am deeply thankful for my Guru and the community here, but I need to pursue my aesthetic as directly as I can and I can't do that in India.

 

There are several abstract lessons that I got out of my experiences that I think are relevant to all. As cliché as this may be, I believe fervently that my trials of the last month were true coming-of-age experiences and the following are some of the mental shifts that I imagine I will carry for the rest of my life:

 

You are ready right now. Somewhere in my heart I’ve known for a couple months that this place is not the best one for me to improve but I kept telling myself a story that kept me complacent; “oh, there’s lots of time to practice” or “just give it a couple months and then you’ll have X thing together and then you’ll be ready for a career in music.” But my desire to be the perfect musician when I leave was 1) unattainable and 2) a misunderstanding of what music is and why I play it. Aiming to eventually impress others with my newfound virtuosity was a fantasy and an indulgence of my own ego. That type of motivation leads me to making decisions that won’t make me the happiest (like staying here). What I really love is the pursuit of music and the feeling that I am always applying the skills I have to best serve music (which I am not doing here). Furthermore, there is no perfect musician and there is no single point that we are striving for. Every musician and probably every clear-thinking person on earth wishes to be better at what they do. We have never arrived and never will. I am ready right now. Even though I will learn for the rest of my life I am putting the “student” mindset aside. I am as professional as they come.

 

Other people’s opinions don’t matter. My complacency was also an expression of my own fear of playing music for a living. I feared that if I was not good enough I wouldn't be able to do it so I was looking for a way to hide. And when I really examine my motivations for coming to India I think that was a significant part of why I applied for the grant in the first place. I wanted the “wow” factor. I wanted to be able to say I had a plan for after graduation that was in pursuit of music but not playing music professionally. I didn’t want to say that I was going to try to go out and gig because I was so afraid of the feeling of saying “I’m going to move to New York and try to play saxophone professionally.” I was so afraid of the raised eyebrows and the tone of “well, good luck.” I was so afraid of people asking, “so what do your parents do?” And me replying, “they’re both doctors” and the interested party writing my off as a lazy rich boy.

When I was clearly distressed everyone wanted to offer me advice about what to do. Everyone’s advice differed: "Stay in India for the rest of the grant! Leave tomorrow! Stay forever!" Not only this but the idea of telling my guru and friends that I was leaving “early” made me feel awful because I felt like I was disappointing them. But we all have to do what is best for us and no one can really tell us what that is except ourselves… which leads me to my last point.

 

You don’t need help but you want it more than anything. The hardest part of this entire experience was the feeling of being isolated. I don’t really have friends here and the people who I would call friends are so different from me that we basically can’t relate. Without Internet and cell service I lost my last connection to home and to a feeling of being with others. I was stuck in a house of three people who only spoke Tamil during a hurricane with no money and no way of getting out and I couldn’t talk to anybody (see “The Full Story” for details). I was working through incredibly complicated emotions of guilt, regret, independence, identity etc. all by myself with basically no input. I worked through these feelings and I came to some conclusions about what I would do just about entirely within my own head. That is what I need to be able to do because nobody knows my situation except for me. But I learned something even more important than this lesson. My experience taught me that the company of people I love is the most important thing in the whole world to me. I think part of leaving this “student mindset” behind is realizing that there are other things that are important to me besides music. I have made the pursuit of jazz my number one priority since starting college and that’s not who I am. Some people can do that and they may be greater because of it but I love people and I need them around more than I need to shed.

 

So I hope that’s relevant to you and I hope the lessons aren’t too obvious. A lot of the people reading might roll their eyes because “duh other people’s opinions don’t matter.” That would have been my reaction 6 months ago too.  All I can say is that this experience made me really believe these lessons in a way I didn’t before. Saying it really doesn’t do justice to what feeling it has done for me.

 

----

 

The Full Story

 

Before I start the story two important pieces of background are that India is going through “demonetization” to combat counterfeiting so there is a severe dearth of cash resulting in zero ATM service and bank withdrawal limits of 2,000 rupees ($15). The lines are usually over two hours long and I have no way of getting cash without a bank account. A few days before the storm the Chief Minister of my state Tamil Nadu died which resulted in a complete shutdown of the city for two days and some minor rioting. Apparently in years past there would have been major destruction with a public death like this. After those two days there was a weekend so none of the ATMs were stocked that day either.

 

The hurricane struck Monday and I felt fine and secure when it started. I even practiced while the storm raged outside. There are three other people who live in this house and all three of them speak only Tamil. Our communication is very limited but they seemed to be telling me that I should rest and not practice. I ignored them because I felt fine! Around noon the power went off and I knew it was going to be a while before it came back on. I lit a candle and watched it burn all the way down. Around 6 the storm abated and one of my housemates (who I now know is somewhere on the Asperger’s spectrum) asked me to take my last 200 rupees to the store with him to buy food for us. I realize now that he did this so that I would see what he was spending the money on. None of the rest of them have cash so they needed to ask me for this. In retrospect going outside was an incredibly dangerous choice. The city was almost completely dark except for the temple in my neighborhood where the Nadaswarnam and Thavil were still playing under bare fluorescent lights. We bought food and watched our last candle burn away. The storm started in earnest again and lasted until the middle of the night. At about 7 I sat and thought for a while in complete darkness and got into bed with the light of my cell phone.

 

The next day I started to feel anxious because we had run out of food and had no power, wifi, or cell phone service. There was no way to buy food because no one had power and we were all out of cash. This effect of demonetization was felt severely all over the city. Even though one of the teachers came to the rescue after about 6 hours. The fear of hunger was a totally new stressful feeling that I have never experienced.

 

By the next day I had still not spoken to anyone in English and I was feeling pretty anxious. I couldn’t get more than a few seconds in when I tried calling someone before the call dropped. I had no way of getting a cab to go anywhere because I had spent my last cash. So I left the house determined to get some cash. I went to every ATM in every direction within 20 minutes walking distance of my house.  There were guards outside most of them who just shook their heads when I walked up. One of them said

 

“come back at 11:30” so I came at 11.

 

He said “come back at 1” so I came at 1.

 

He said “Come back at 3”

 

so I came at 3.

 

He said “come back at 4”

 

so I came at 4.

 

He said

 

“come back tomorrow”

 

I said “when?”

 

…and he just shook his head.

 

Every one of these walks was through fifteen minutes of honking, shouting and ceaseless noise... both ways.

 

I went to the US consulate and sat in the waiting room for an hour and a half. I went to the window asked if there was any way to get cash and they told me there wasn’t and that they were just getting by with their credit cards.

 

It was the first continuous English conversation I had had in three days.

 

As I walked home I freaked. I mean I really really FREAKED dude. I’ve never freaked that bad in my whole life. I couldn’t practice that day. I looked at the saxophone and just sat and did nothing for more than an hour. Then I spent 3 hours listening to the tapes of my lessons with Gary Bartz. About midway through the day my housemates came in and paid me back 200 rupees so I had enough to take one cab ride somewhere but not back. I called to make a lesson appointment and I just barely understood through the broken reception that I should come the next morning at 11AM.

 

Then it got dark again with no power. I called my parents (hemorrhaging money in the process) but the stress of the terrible connection and the situation made the 15-minute conversation about equally isolating as helpful.

 

I barely slept and woke up still totally freaked. I paced around the room like a caged animal and then I ordered a cab to my teacher’s house.  While I was in the car one of the other students called and said that the lesson had been postponed until 4PM. This is just part of guru-shishya culture but in the situation at hand it made me crazy.

 

So then I went inside the apartment and sat down to talk to a couple of other students who were there. I started to complain about what I had experienced but I found that I didn’t feel any better. One of them said that there was an ATM working a few blocks away and so I tried to go there.

 

I waited in line for an hour and then everyone (probably about 40 people) was told that there was in fact no cash in the ATM.

 

Then I went back to the apartment and the same student said there might be another working ATM. So I went with him on an hour long walk to two neighboring machines neither of which had cash.

 

So now I had no money to go anywhere so I was trapped at my guru’s apartment.

 

Then I went back to the apartment at it was around 1. I had planned to play a gig in Bangalore the next day but I called (this apartment had some reception on the landline) and said that I couldn’t do it without 6,000 rupees in my hand before I left Chennai. I just didn’t feel safe going anywhere if I didn’t have that. The organizer said he would see what he could do.

 

Then I sat while the other students practiced trying to work through all that I was feeling. And I just couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t clear my head. So I went up on the roof to try to practice. I played for maybe three minutes—for the first time in two days—and I felt horrible so I went back downstairs. The three students all looked at me like I had just tortured a cat. They clearly hated every note that I had played.

 

Then I paced around that apartment for another fifteen minutes trying to clear my mind and I couldn’t. So I asked if any of the other students had any workout clothes. They said they didn’t so I just got up and walked to a gym 20 minutes away.

 

I stormed into the gym and got on the treadmill in a collared shirt, jeans, and muddy shoes. If anyone had told me that I was not dressed appropriately I probably would have shouted.

 

I ran a full 10K, or maybe a little more. I put on my headphones but I don’t think I put on any music. By the end of the run I felt better—I always do—but I still didn’t feel quite right. I walked around the gym and one of the people there asked “you are looking for something?” I shook my head and he said “Ah. You are thinking something!” I looked in the mirror for a while and I felt something physically shift in my body. At the time I didn't know quite what it was but I realize now it was the beginning of some real learning.

 

I walked back to the apartment and it was around 4. I had a lesson and told my Guru that I felt I needed to leave India. A part of me was expecting some deep Guru-type stuff but really he just asked me why and offered some logical solutions. He offered to focus on other subjects. But he had offered to teach some different material before and I just don’t see the content of the lessons changing. He offered to give me money but he didn’t have any at that time. He offered to make the lessons free but he has promised things for free before and then someone else ends up asking me for money. They are great lessons but ultimately they are in a style that is different then what I want to do. The finances aren't the problem it's just that it's nearly impossible to stay organized in this environment. I just wasn’t convinced things would change.

 

We finished the lesson and I haggled an auto rick driver to take me home with my remaining 40 rupees. I got a call saying that they would give me cash if I came to Bangalore so I decided to go. I took a shower and they paid for a cab for me to get out to the outside of town where I was supposed to meet one other member of the band.

 

As we drove from the city center the traffic was absolute bedlam. Huge downed trees were laying in the road and people were driving around them on sidewalks and literally standing holding up trunks to get through. As we progressed further things got scary. There were no power and thus no lights on the outskirts of town.

 

We stopped in a neighborhood that was pitch black. While I was sitting there in the car wondering how I was going to find the other person two people opened the door and offered to take my stuff. By this time I was a total wreck so I just screamed "NO!" and held my saxophone to my chest like a baby. then I heard someone say "Max?!" and the person I had spoken to on the phone came out of the darkness. He took my stuff and led me to the car with his two "associates." He paid the cab driver and beckoned me into his already-packed van. He handed me 6,000 rupees and I felt a little like a gangster. Even though we passed streets of downed power lines and almost complete darkness I was glad to be leaving Chennai.

 

As we drove I realized that it wasn't going to be that fun. I slept for a while and then they started lighting up a joint with a cop right in front of the car. I was so overwhelmed by everything I didn't even say anything. We stopped at a Dominoes shining out of the darkness like a horrible ship. I realized I hadn't eaten in over a day.

 

We kept driving and hit several pot holes. the highways in India are not well maintained but I felt safe because I was at least with some locals. I had enough money to get me home no matter what and I was on my way away from the coast.

 

It was funny how our estimation of the time we would reach Bangalore changed. "We'll reach by 2:30 or 3AM MAXIMUM!" "Oh maybe by 3:30..." We ended up getting there at 5:30 in the morning and everyone was a little on edge.

 

They stopped at an apartment complex on the far North side of the city. They stopped the car and gestured for me to get out. I said "aren't you coming?" And they said they were staying somewhere else. I asked them to take me in and they agreed. When we got as far as the parking garage they tried to leave again. I demanded that they see me to the door of where I was staying and so my main contact took me up the stairs to an apartment. As soon as the door opened he waved and walked away. I was so tired I didn't protest.

 

When I got inside I was met by two twenty-somethings watching a censored TV-version of "Pineapple Express." They greeted me and offered that I sit down.

 

Trying to be nice I said “is there anything I absolutely have to do before I leave Bangalore?” and they said “well it depends on what you like; drugs, women, its all here for you.” I laughed awkwardly and they looked back with a completely inscrutable expression.

 

Then they offered me a drink and I said “no I just want to crash” to which they replied “no you need a drink” and poured some terrible whiskey into a dirty glass. I pitched it into their fake Christmas tree pot when they weren’t looking and then asked where the bed was.

 

They just gestured to the couch.

 

So around 6 I fell into a fitful sleep on the couch while they finished Pineapple Express in the same room and the Christmas lights flashed lurid colors in my eyes.

 

I woke up at 7:30 in the morning to the sound of one of them snoring and then half screaming each breath. As their (untrained) cat crawled on my stomach, I heard the other man cursing in his sleep in the room opposite. I looked out the window at the field next to the apartment. There was a crew of shirtless laborers tying a rope to cut down the last coconut tree in the field to build another building. The buzz saw started around 8.

 

And I said to myself “well here we go. You are in hell. You are in a shitty apartment with two drug addicts on the outskirts on Bangalore, India. You can’t call a cab because the only money you have to pay for it is in 2,000 rupee notes and you can’t change those because all the stores in the area are not going to give you change for that much money. And you can’t call anyone because your phone has no reception. And you can’t sleep because there is no bed.”

 

So then I said to myself “OK. What are you going to do?”

 

And then I just thought about it. I didn’t have any flashes of realization, I didn’t have any profound understanding (unless you think the stuff I wrote earlier was profound), and I didn’t come to any complete conclusions except this: “I have to leave.”

 

That was the realization that I had in the gym the day before but couldn’t name. Maybe this all seems stupid after I describe this situation. You’re thinking, “duh, of course you should leave.” But for me it is really hard to quit on something I said I would do and the idea of going back home to Denver and missing out of this opportunity seemed awful, the prospect of planning something else short term-seemed impossible, and the idea of staying in India one more minute seemed unthinkable. So I just spent four hours or so chewing on what my motivations are and how to make the best choice. I was also so sleep deprived and crazy at the time that I knew I shouldn’t make any lasting decisions, but I went a long way in figuring out what I want and what next steps to take and I have to believe that there were also deep and indescribable things shifting in my mind that I still don’t quite know of.

 

The rest of the story is unremarkable. I demanded a different place to stay. I played the gig. I drove back. A few days later my family came on a previously planned vacation. They were so kind to come and see me. But I really haven’t been on sure footing until a day or two ago. This place can really turn your head around and I think I probably still don’t know the full impact of this experience. But I’m moving towards new goals and I’m excited to make the most of my last month here. Thanks for reading if you got this far. Much love to ya.

Tradition and the Individual Talent

I don't have too much to add this week but I'm trying to stay regular with my posts.

I feel I've turned a corner both personally and musically. Although I still feel the ups and downs I feel like I have just about "gotten used" to living here. There is so much about day to day life that is so different and caused me a lot of anxiety when I first got here that I am now accustomed to dealing with an even makes me feel powerful to overcome.

I tend to think that improvement comes about 2-3 months on the heels of work so I think it makes sense that this week I felt a couple of things click in my mind. They're simple realizations but they have lasting effects on my music.

The first is that Carnatic music is all centered around imitating the human voice. Much like jazz the lyrics are of paramount importance and they shape the entire composition. I have found myself thinking of my saxophone as a voice in a real and complete way. this is something that I always strived for in school but I somehow never understood what it feels like. I have a new and different feeling of playing now that seems much more directly related to my voice. I don't think this is something i can quantify or prove to anyone but I know it is true and that it feels better.

The second is that I am experiencing time more cyclically than I have before. In the same way that Oberlin taught me to see the notes a c e and g and know immediately that those notes formed an Amin7 I am noticing that I will see a string of eighth notes followed by a half note and know that that is a 10 meaning that there are 10 pulses (8th notes) that could be stretched in difference subdivisions repeated on themselves or manipulated in other ways. Both these types of thinking are just emerging in my mind but I feel that they will have a lasting impact on my music.

I have also been contemplating my individual sound a lot more than I ever had before I came here. Being removed from any kind of jazz culture for more than 3 months has made a big change in my aesthetic. It's for the better. I think I was getting a little obsessed with how to play jazz the best and maybe losing sight of how to play the best music. Of course those goals are closely aligned but I don't think they're exactly the same.

My guru wrote his doctoral thesis based on this essay. I think there area  lot of good thoughts in here and I'll pull a couple quotes. Like a lot of good writing I feel it is hard to pull any sound bite from this article without more explanation. But I'm still digesting the content and I don't really feel I have much to add to what's already in the essay... so the quotes are a little long. I think this one is worth a full read though.

http://www.bartleby.com/200/sw4.html

"The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. "

"To proceed to a more intelligible exposition of the relation of the poet to the past: he can neither take the past as a lump, an indiscriminate bolus, nor can he form himself wholly on one or two private admirations, nor can he form himself wholly upon one preferred period. The first course is inadmissible, the second is an important experience of youth, and the third is a pleasant and highly desirable supplement."

"When the two gases...are mixed in the presence of a filament of platinum, they form sulphurous acid. This combination takes place only if the platinum is present; nevertheless the newly formed acid contains no trace of platinum, and the platinum itself is apparently unaffected; has remained inert, neutral, and unchanged. The mind of the poet is the shred of platinum. It may partly or exclusively operate upon the experience of the man himself; but, the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material."

 Much love.

Racism

If you’re a living, breathing American this topic has been on your mind a lot lately. Racism takes a lot of different forms and it is so hard to remove from your thinking because whenever you notice it somewhere it has a way of creeping up in some other form somewhere else.

 

Just to be clear this isn’t about my own experience of racism here. Although I am a little discriminated against people generally assume I’m rich, harmless, and clueless rather than poor, dangerous, and stupid. I can also leave this place any time and go back to a country where my color and social status afford me opportunities denied to most. What I can say is that my experience of mild discrimination and animosity here has given me a much deeper insight into what it means to be an ally and how it can feel to be an outsider.

 

The first week of this Hindustani vocal workshop was very hard for me because I was incredibly out of my element. I’ve gotten used to this feeling in social situations, at the gym, on the street, and in private lessons with guruji. But I hadn’t yet experienced it in a classroom full of musical peers. In school I had kind of gotten used to the feeling that I was sort of OK at music. I could hang. I could read and I could play changes. But this was a classroom full of Carnatic vocalists and instrumentalists interested in learning Hindustani music. For most of the first few days I timidly patted my thigh as solfege syllables (sverras) and increasingly rapid subdivisions passed me by. I mumbled along tunelessly as I tried to keep up.

 

A big part of me wanted to just quit and go back to my room and practice saxophone. I said “this isn’t helping me at all! I’m getting worse! I want to play long tones I know how to do that!” I felt pretty miserable because not only was I terrible I was also embarrassed in front of the rest of the class who could do the work that I couldn’t.

 

And then the second day Donald Trump got elected and I went a whole night basically without sleeping. At 5 in the morning I got up and went on a run because that’s what I do when I go a little nuts. On my run this big dog jumped at me and I felt terrified. I went to the gym and I was the only one there except for the television and the guy opening the place up. There was a Tamil kids program on TV and I ran on the treadmill and started to feel better…. Then he turned on the news and the headline “Japan hopes for stable, healthy relationship with Trump” screamed at me from the TV. That afternoon Guruji said that I looked tired. When I got home I looked in the mirror and realized that I looked awful.

 

But I kept going in the class and took some time off from playing the horn and I practiced all night each night. By the second week I could keep up with the morning exercises and by the third I was making it through the pieces we learned. I still have no grasp of the phrasing and I was still by far the worst in the class but at least I could hang. I could read the sverras and keep the tala. This was hard but not as hard as my first few lessons when I arrived. I feel like I’m getting more resilient and each time my ego is taking less of a firm hold. To be hones though I still don’t know if it was really worth it. I feel some great benefits and I’m really appreciative of them but I’ll never know if I would have gotten better with three more weeks of intensive practice on sax. But either way I’m glad I did it because I’ll never have these opportunities again.

 

On the first day of class the teacher Arijit said that “it’s a common misconception that Indian music doesn’t have harmony. But harmonic principals are central to the way melody is constricted in Hindustani music.” Perhaps seeing a look on my face he said, “what do you think about that Max?” I paused, privately thinking that he was disrespecting harmony and said, “it depends on what you mean by harmony, I guess.” Seeming annoyed Arijit replied “yes if you mean Western chordal movement it is not harmony but if you mean principles of multiple notes sounding at once then it is harmony.” I nodded and remained silent, privately resenting him and all of Indian music in general.

 

Racism.

 

My ego was feeling hurt because I couldn’t keep up in the class and here was this Indian guy trying to come and take something that is mine! Harmony! White people music!

 

But after a month of singing and listening I know that he was absolutely right. In fact I might go further and add that “Western” harmony is no more rich or even less rich than the harmony in Indian music. The microtonal inflections and the depth of the sound are just as much a study of multiple resonances as Bach or Beethoven. When listening to Arijit sing I repeatedly had the thought “his sound is so deep that the melody note sounds like the root.” This is my conservatory-trained brain trying to make sense of sounds I’ve never experienced before and can’t quite put into words. The best that I can say is that what I was experiencing was harmony. Harmony in a universal sense. The movement of his melody was the chord change.

 

Notice that the way we think about music is colonialized because that the guys in wigs have a monopoly on a whole element of music. The rhetoric goes something like "Sure, that spicy, rhythmic ethnic music is great but it has no harmony." In saying this the musical hegemon denies to most of the people in the world a whole THIRD of the musical trinity (melody harmony rhythm). Harmony signifies intellect, and study. At Oberlin our pedagogy has words and numbers for harmony but rhythm is just something you feel. Well I’m realizing that that is a whole load of BS and even more importantly it is racism! The real lesson is what Sullivan Fortner so wisely said which is that “Melody, Rhythm, and Harmony are one.”

 

Hafez Modirazadeh has a nice article called “The Convergence Liberation of Makam X” (http://www.criticalimprov.com/article/view/943/2393) in which he talks a little bit about this expanded notion of harmony. I’ve returned to this several times but only at the conclusion of this workshop did I actually read the entire thing. I highly recommend you read it but I know you won’t. It carries the unfortunate tone of verbose academic writing. While I think the ideas are wonderful they are presented in a way that seems to say: “I’m smart so I must be right. If you don’t agree you’re probably just dumb.”

 

So I’ll give you the highlights: Modirazadeh names the Harmonic series “Makam X” and talks about achieving a sound that is beyond any one culture and expresses the universality of human experience.  The “Convergence Liberation” principle extends beyond music and posits that through a combination of cultures in art we can actually be freed from our perceived differences. This is a lofty ideal and one that I had contemplated before I cam to India but it’s the sort of thing that I would kind of think about and then pass over. It sounds nice in theory but after three weeks of looking really stupid I think it resonates more with me. He makes a few detailed pointes that are interesting:

 

The first is that achieving this universality requires vulnerability and friendship from the participating musicians. This is something I experienced in this workshop. I had to be willing to sound really really bad in front of new people. But these people became my friends and I feel a connection with them that I never would have had I not played music with them. Maybe more interesting though, I feel a deeper connection with them than I do with any jazzhead who said “yeah man” to me at a jam session. We really dealt with our differences and both learned. That is a whole different kind of relationship than what I’ve experienced before.

 

The second is that letting go of “personal ambition” and more interestingly “sacrifice” are what makes this type of collaboration possible. While he doesn’t say this explicitly I think sacrifice means giving up some of your time and effort to something that maybe you don’t really want. Frankly a lot of the stuff that I’m learning now doesn’t interest me. I might even dislike it a little. But that was true in Undergrad too I just didn’t question it as much. I think this was at least in part because it was mostly white people telling it to me and I was in a circumstance that was familiar and comfortable for me. When I’m here and totally out of my element I think I get a little more why a lot of students fail Music History 101… But if I want to learn this music I should learn it in it’s own terms. Sure I should focus on what interests me most just like I do in my study of jazz but that doesn’t mean that I get to just take what I want and ignore the rest.

 

The last point I really liked is just a quote from John Coltrane that I think says more than the whole article “If you want to look beyond the differences in style, you will confirm that there is a common base . . . take away their purely ethnic characteristics—that is, their folkloric aspect—and you’ll discover the presence of the same pentatonic sonority, of comparable modal structures. It’s this universal aspect of music that interests me and attracts me; that’s what I’m aiming for

 

Maybe this is corny but we are all one people. We need each other now more than ever. Trump won because we were afraid and our egos were hurt. Music can really do this if you do it right. I don’t see a world where we need more efficiency and computer programming. I don’t see a world were we need another great invention. I see a world where people’s hearts are sick. I see a world where there is enough to go around but there is a family of four sleeping on the floor of my house. Some people aren’t sharing.

 

I was going to finish up with Trane but I’m going to end with a Modazariah quote because, even though it’s verbose, it’s twisty and it makes you think. I needed to counterbalance that touchy feely paragraph I just wrote anyway:

 Is it possible then for improvisation, as a study inherently subversive towards the very parameters that set such up, to carry enough empowering potential to usher in an ultimate finality for institutional boundary altogether?

The Meaning of the Blues

I’ve had a great week or so here. I’ve been practicing a lot and I feel like I’m really making progress. Starting tomorrow I will be undergoing an intensive workshop with a Hindustani musician for 3 weeks. I’m guessing I will be pretty strapped for time because class goes for 12 hours a day (yikes) so I doubt I will be posting for a little less than a month. I Played my first gig for a largeish crowd and that has really led to a lot of opportunities. That is exciting and I’ll have to see where it goes. There are definite downsides too because I’ve really been enjoying the private practice time and much of the music I’m playing is not particularly fulfilling… And the gigs don’t really pay much… but the people are nice…

 My main point in this post though is something I have been thinking a lot about lately. I’m seeing a divergence of approach between musicians trying to learn “everything” and musicians who seek to know a small number of things very well. I’ve been listening to a lot of the Cool School (Tristano et al) because some of the rhythmic stuff in the melodies I’m learning weirdly reminds me of Lee Konitz minus the harmony (so minus everything…??). Tristano’s goal of “total improvisation” is obviously unattainable. The masters of that approach had enormous jazz vocabulary but even they had gestures they gravitated towards. I see similarities in the music I’m learning now. In my first lesson Dr KSS gave me a small packet with stressed and un-stressed subdivisions in 3 4 5 7 and 9. I posted one of these in three early on. I’ve been steadily practicing that for a couple months and the rhythmic clarity of my playing has bumped up a couple notches for sure. But I will never be able to know with confidence every possible accent in every possible subdivision right? So why am I doing it? Well, it seems just the process of doing it is good for you. And that is what the musicians here seem to believe. They spend a ton of time practicing these scalar and rhythmic exercises, not necessarily this exact one but a something like it. I met one musician who’s literal goal in life is to learn 6,000 songs. No kids, no marriage just 6,000 songs. Whoa. So this gets me thinking about how it affects the music.

 Composers like Stravinsky have such diversity in the timbre palate, the melodic harmonic and rhythmic content, and the form of their music. I attribute a large portion of this diversity to the fact that their compositions have theoretically infinite time to take shape. Jazz and Carnatic music on the other hand are limited by what a musician can do at digital speed. The idea that if you practice “everything” then your music will have a similar sort of diversity is an appealing one. My thoughts tend to go like this: “I want to sound good! If I know everything then I will sound good. I’m a hard worker lets hit it and learn everything!” Then a couple hours later I’ve learned a tiny little thing and I say “well lets do it again tomorrow!” But this attitude tends to lead to practicing too much of some things and not enough of others in an attempt to learn everything. I remember after my sophomore year of college I spent like 3 months trying to play these two patterns in every permutation I could in all keys at 300bpm and frankly I play those patterns way too much and they don’t even sound that good.

 Then there’s this other side that Jonathan Kreisberg planted in my head in Groinigen. He talked about playing “smart blues” which he described as “being smart but trying to sound dumb.” He went on to say that a blues musician usually has a much smaller vocabulary than a jazz musician but that as a result blues players learn how to “make that phrase work.” And it rings true. Elmore James had one lick that he played on every song. And he has had a far greater impact on music than I ever will.

 Steve Coleman talks about how Charlie Parker’s playing is a sophisticated form of the blues. I used to try to deny that Bird played just a bunch of licks because licks are un-hip but if you just look at the scientific facts he has about 100 licks and that’s all he really plays. People have done doctoral theses on this so I trust them. And I find it much more immediately likeable and listenable than the abstract and complicated lines that Lennie Tristano plays (although I’m really liking that too). I think this is in large part because every note Charlie Parker plays he’s played like a thousand times. If you do something more it sounds better. So even if it’s repetitive it still grabs the listener because he really learned how to “make that phrase work.”

 It’s a trope in jazz education to say that jazz comes from the blues. Its musical origin is certainly there but I think the connection is even deeper. Even more than what is actually being played the approach to learning jazz is similar to the blues. Most of my favorite jazz players had a vocabulary of phrases that they used in a wide variety of situations that are captivating and personal because of this process of self-discovery and refinement.

 At Oberlin there was definitely a student culture that playing licks was lame. This stemmed from an idea that if you’re playing a lick you’re not really in the moment interacting and playing something based on what’s happening with the other musicians. But the truth is that it is impossible not to play licks. Students acknowledged that at Oberlin but somehow it was still a knock to say “I heard that lick you always play.” If you have to play licks to some extent and if playing a lick more the best rout to playing something that sounds really polished then the process of working on licks—or for more specificity and universality, musical content related to the context in which it will be applied—is really just the process of deciding how you want to sound. And this is actually a lot harder than practicing scales in some ways because it requires some commitment to the material you’re working on. You have to really love that lick and want it to come out in your playing. Do you? How much do you love it?

 So are licks hip? Yes.

 But I want to go back to the idea of trying to learn everything because that has merits too. First of all you have to develop an idea of what everything is. Which is an interesting cultural phenomenon. For instance in Carnatic music there are 72 ragas. There are only about 10 widely used in Hindustani music. So the notion of “everything” changes there. Plus there are no chords. But in European classical music you’re not dealing with metronomic time so there’s a whole world of rhythmic opportunity that is lost.

 And there is the force that drives people to learn everything. There’s class and spirituality pieces to that that I think are interesting. You have to have the time and the money to learn about what “everything” is and to actually begin pursuing that totality. There’s only a tiny sliver of the population that can do that. Most of the rest of the world just needs to make the gig if they can even afford to do that! That’s certainly the blues musician perspective. And most of my favorite blues musicians weren’t even really aware of all the harmonic and melodic possibilities open to them.

 And then there is this spiritual element to it too. In late Colrane and Beethoven and in Tyagaraja there seems to me to be this underlying sense that if we can grasp everything that we will then know God. And that by seeking everything we are getting closer and closer to God. Trying to learn everything is almost like celebrating the infinite and that which is beyond life. Sticking to a few things and making them work is more about celebrating what is right in front of you, it’s about celebrating life as we know it.