Thinking about encouragement, humility and grace...

A professor of mine back in San Francisco once told me while discussing my thesis project on King and Gandhi that he always bought the books that grabbed his attention the moment he saw them. "The way publishing is going," he concluded, "what you want won't be available next month when you finally get off your ass to go back and buy it. Better to snatch it up in the moment even if sits on your shelf for a few years. It might be hard to move all those unread books, but at least you'll have it when you are ready, yes?" It took me a few more years to embrace the wisdom of his throw away advice, but by the time I was in seminary I had become a believer and grabbed up everything in sight.
I remembered Professor Weinstein's words this morning as I picked up a slim volume that has been staring back at me for two years:  Jazz Poems edited by Kevin Young. I put on my new/old copy of "Blue Train" and started to flip through it with a sense of wonder. You see, I am not a disciplined student of poetry. It takes a lot of effort for me to read the classics and I need a reading partner to tackle Elliot, Pound, Dante, etc. You might say I have monkey mind when it comes to poetry. But in a subsection called "Rhythm Section," I came across "Mingus at the Showplace" by William Matthews that grabbed me right out of the gate.

I was miserable, of course, for I was seventeen,
and so I swung into action and wrote a poem,

and it was miserable, for that was how I thought
poetry worked: you digested experience and shat

literature. It was 1960 as The Showplace, long since
defunct, on West 4th St., and I sat at the bar,

casting beer money from a thin reel of ones,
the kid in the city, big ear's like a puppy.

And I knew Mingus was a genius. I knew two
other things but as it happened they were wrong.

So I made him look at the poem.
"There's a lot of that going around," he said,

and Sweet Baby Jesus he was right. He glowered
at me but he didn't look as if he thought

bad poems were dangerous, the way some poets do.
If they were baseball executives they'd plot

to destroy sandlots everywhere so that the game
could be saved from children.  Of course later

that night he fired his pianist in mid-number
and flurried him from the stand.

"We've suffered a diminuendo in personnel,"
he explained, and the band played on.

I suspect that this caught my eye because it has something to do with a novice rubbing shoulders with a pro and taking away a small slice of humility. Notice the poet didn't quit. Even when Mingus glowered - and he was a big, glowering presence - the poet listened and took the critique seriously. Notice, too, the pro didn't denigrate the kid; he obliquely called into question the truth and beauty of the young artist's poem, but he didn't shut the kid down. Even when the inner demons that plagued Mingus got the best of him later in the set, the gift of humility shared with grace remained.

Four short months from now, we'll be on sabbatical. Incredible, but true. We will spend a week in NYC wandering into clubs and whatever Marsailis is doing up at Jazz at Lincoln Center. We'll take in the museums we've never visited, stop by St. Peter's for Sunday Jazz Vespers and make sure there's time to play with grandson Louie in Washington Square Park. Then it is on to Nashville for their "All That Jazz" vespers the following Sunday - plus some more wandering and listening. On our way back to Massachusetts we'll zip up to Pittsburg to spend some time with the music and story of Mary Lou Williams. Then it is on to a three month residency in Montreal where I can practice the upright bass, take extended time for quiet prayer and get in a whole lot more meandering. (And two jazz festivals, too!)

Another poem in Young's collection cuts to what I am feeling about this time of renewal: it is a journey into refreshment and creativity for sure, but it is also a time to clarify my limits as an artist and a person of faith. At this moment in my life I am keenly aware that there is a whole lot less time in front of me than behind. So I want to use whatever time remains in a way that encourages other young artists and people of faith to go deeper. To not quit. To learn from their discouragement the way the blues teach you to cry out while listening to what the anguish of living has to offer - and then making it your own. I want to help them hone their gifts and make them shine.

Miles was waiting on the dock,
his trumpet in a paper bag.

Lady was cold ~
wind lashed the gardenias
I stole for her hair.

We were shabby, the three of us.

No one was coming so I stared to row.

It was hard going ~
stagnant, meandering...

The city moaned and smoldered.
Tin cans on the banks like shackles...

To be discovered, in the open...

But Miles took out his horn
and played.
Lady sang.

A slow traditional blues

The current caught us -
horn, voice, oar stroking the water...

I don't know how long we floated -

our craft so full of music,
the night so full of stars.

When I awoke we were entering an ocean,
sun low on water
warm as a throat,
gold as a trumpet.

We wept.

Then soared in a spiritual.

Never have I been so happy.

(The Journey, Lawson Fusao Inada)

For the next four months we'll be getting ready - and leading our small flock through Epiphany into Lent and Easter. 


Anonymous said…
So lovely. The thoughts, the poetry, and the music. Someone dear to me in the past-- a long long long time ago-- once nicknamed me "Little Wing." A lover of music that one was...

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