Three thoughts running around my head: part three

Today is the last day of my vacation.  Most of it was spent in Istanbul, Turkey with the Sister City Jazz Ambassadors.  (At the end of August, we will take two more weeks to travel to Thunder Bay, Ontario to visit our friends Peter and Joyce in Canada.) So for the past few days I have been taking time to reflect on and explore some of my inititial reactions to our experiences. Before leaving, I read both Phil Cousineau's The Art of Pilgrimage and Rick Steves' Travel as a Political Act.
While these are very different books, both offer guidelines for taking any trip into the deeper territory of pilgrimage.  Both authors agree that spending time at the end of the experience to savor and ponder all that took place is essential. Otherwise, like so much else in 21st century American living, we will be rushed from the intensity of travel to the fullness of work only to forget how our hearts were touched.  And a periodic shuffle through a slide show of our digital pictures on a cell phone will not be enough to explore the contours and hidden insights the journey holds for us.

"Integral to the art of travel," Cousineau writes, "is the longing to break away from the stultifying habits of our lives at home - and to break away for however long it takes to once again truly see the world around us. This is why 'imagination' is more important than knowledge as Albert Einstien noted and why the art of pilgrimage is the art of reimagining how we walk, talk, listen, see, hear, write and draw as we ready for the journey of our soul's deep desire... the deeper truths of a journey are there in the strange voices, the alluring spices in the market you never knew existed, the thrilling moment when your longing is finally fulfilled."  But it takes time and quiet listening for these truths to rise to the surface.

So let me spend a little time with the music - one of the key reasons we traveled together as a group - and one of the ways this trip was different from any other I've ever taken.  It seems to me that a few things were going on with our music and each is unique.

+ First, we were sharing a breadth of American jazz in Turkey.  Jazz is a uniquely American genre of music that has been embraced and reinterpreted throughout the world - but it is still American.  There are sounds from the slave era and the Black church, there freedom songs in both spirit and style, there is dance music and esoteric explorations of modal themes as well as blues and rock and swing.  We are not a "purist" jazz band - like many artists before the "be bop" generation - including the boppers themselves - so we take ALL styles of music and try to find the beauty, the swing and the soul of the song through improvisation.  Clearly, Herbie Hancock is one of the masters in this genre-bending type of jazz...

Guitarist and producer extradinaire, T-Bone Burnett, put it like this:

You know, there's this place where a river runs into an ocean and the fresh water and the salt water all get mixed together.  And that's what America is all about and that's what American music is all about and that's what rock and roll is all about.  Jazz, too, and it wasn't totality invented by anybody - it is not just black and white - it's Mexican and Appalachian and Gaelic and everthing else that comes floating down the river.

That means that Stevie Wonder is just as righteous as Miles Davis - that the cool sounds of a Bossa Nova (new wave) are likely be followed by the raucous honking sax of "Shake, Rattle and Roll" a la King Curtis and Ivory Joe Hunter - or that we will do "Blue Skies" in an Afro-Cuban style one day and a jazz standard version another - or that Andy will use a fuzz/wah wah pedal sometimes and a clean warm sound, too.  In other words, our jazz is about inclusivity and freedom not genre purity and snobbery.  Clearly there is division in the jazz world about this tension - check out the movie "Icons Among Us" for a taste of what this means - and we have chosen one path. 

So we are spontaneously intentional about this call to freedom and beauty - and I trust that as we grow more and more aware of what it means to play together - we'll get even better at both the freedom and the beauty.  Because that is part of what the audiences have responded to - the combination of freedom in search of beauty - a quest for joy and commitment not only in the song but in real life, too. "The quest for freedom with a small f," writes John Litweiler, "appears at the very beginning of jazz and reappears at every growing point in the music's history."

+ Second, our jazz is not simply about technical skill but also joy: while our guys are stunning players - and can riff and solo with incredible virtuosity - the goal of each gig is not ego.  It is about working together to have fun and create something both beautiful and joyfilled for ourselves and the audience.  You know the difference, right?  Part of the ossification of some types of jazz - especially since the 1970s - has been the over emphasis on technique with a subsequent loss of heart and soul. 

That was one of the things that jazz critic Ralph Ellison used to rant against in the 50s when some performers began to literally turn their backs on their audiences during a gig in pursuit of their own technique, sound or experience.  This made him crazy for two reasons:  first, it meant that the artists had lost touch with the early dance roots of jazz - and in doing so also lost touch with some of the fun in the music; and second, this disdain of the audience - especially when it involved black performers in a mostly white audience - was just another version of racial injustice.  Ellison likened it to a jazz re-enactment of the experience black men felt whenever they entered a white shop keepers store. and became invisible.  No matter the real offense - and it WAS a real offense - Ellison concluded that jazz needed to take us through the pain to something greater rather than simply perpetuate the hatred in another context.

Our hope is to keep in touch with the fun - as well as the beauty - so that our jazz experience unites the past with the present as well as the artists with the audience. Now, if you've seen our pictures, we are not black artists.  We're white guys - with a white female vocalist - who are careful not to rip-off the early Black jazz pioneers.  Our hope is that we pay respect to these artists who have touched our souls while bringing something of our experience to the music, too. 

Like Jesse Jackson used to say, "At some point it doesn't matter what ships brought us here, we're in the same boat together now."  Our jazz makes that statement whether we're reworking something from Gil Scott-Heron or Rumi.  We are at pains to give proper credit - that is a matter of justice - and at the same time see how the older inspirations might teach us something new, too.

That is why most of our songs are jazz - not rock or blues - songs that go back to Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong as well as Miles Davis, Dizzie Gillespie, Nina Simone, Sonny Rollins and Thelonious Monk.  This is the jazz core - with some Brubek, Afro-Cuban and Brazilian sounds added, too - and we are committed to the core.  But not bound to it like a cover band - for that would violate the quest for both freedom and beauty, too, yes?  And all the time we are aware of how each song - not each solo, but each song - is working for us and the audience.  It is a treat when people get up spontaneously to dance - that's part of what is supposed to happen - people respond to the joy.  In another tune, it does our hearts good when people recognize the creativity and beauty of a solo improvisation - another part of the jazz world - with applause rather than dancing. With us, the sum total is greater than the individual parts - and there are some incredible individual parts, too.

+ And third there is a spiritual/political content to our jazz.  In the 21st century we are keenly aware that we don't live in a vacuum.  As white American artists we must take sides - we can neither remain neutral in the wake of hatred and fear born of American arrogance - nor can we claim that we haven't benefited from it, too.  At the same time, we have been wounded by the greed and fear of our culture and seek to offer an alternative.  One of my inspirations for playing freedom music on any type was the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Here is what Dr. King said at the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1963:

God has wrought many things out of oppression. He has endowed his creatures with the capacity to create—and from this capacity has flowed the sweet songs of sorrow and joy that have allowed man to cope with his environment and many different situations.

Jazz speaks for life. The Blues tell the story of life's difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph. This is triumphant music.  Modern jazz has continued in this tradition, singing the songs of a more complicated urban existence. When life itself offers no order and meaning, the musician creates an order and meaning from the sounds of the earth which flow through his instrument.

It is no wonder that so much of the search for identity among American Negroes was championed by Jazz musicians. Long before the modern essayists and scholars wrote of racial identity as a problem for a multiracial world, musicians were returning to their roots to affirm that which was stirring within their souls.

Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from this music. It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down.

And now, Jazz is exported to the world. For in the particular struggle of the Negro in America there is something akin to the universal struggle of modern man. Everybody has the Blues. Everybody longs for meaning. Everybody needs to love and be loved. Everybody needs to clap hands and be happy. Everybody longs for faith.

In music, especially this broad category called Jazz, there is a stepping stone towards all of these.

Such is part of the spirituality of this music for me; another has to do with the creative process of working together to create something vibrant, new/old and beautiful.  It is one thing to be a solo performer - and this has its place and unique type of fun - but it has always been my greatest joy to make music together with friends and artists searching for a common goal. Always:  as a rock and roller in my first garage band, in playing with folk musicians for the past 40 years, in church choirs and ensembles and now with the Jazz Ambassadors and Between the Banks.  There is something prefigurative and hopeful about working together for beauty and joy in music.  Something that feeds my sould like almost nothing else.  Something prayerful and hopeful and very hard.

Beethoven put it like this: Music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life. Although the spirit be not master of that which it creates through music, yet it is blessed in this creation, which, like every creation of art, is mightier than the artist."  

Quincy Jones put it like this:  You got twelve notes and those notes don't know the difference who's using them.  Some of 'em are black and some of 'em are white and that's just how it is.

And the poet Willis Conover put it like this:  Jazz is people talking, laughing, crying, building, painting, mathematicisng, abstracting, extracting, giving to, taking from, makin of... in other words: living!

And I think that's about as good as it gets!


You have certainly turned your trip to Turkey into a journey of the mind and spirit, in addition to music.
I have spent the last hour or more reading about the pilgrimage and the preparation for it.
It sounds like it must have been one of the high points of your life.
I also want to thank you for including my blog in your links.
Grier Horner
RJ said…
Thank you so much, Grier. I love your work and value the depth and beauty you share. I am grateful that you took the time to read my postings. Indeed, it has been a highlight.

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