Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Doddering Ahead of the Crowd--Way Out Front

This could also be titled "A view of the Labyrinth from the Garden."

Facebook has brought a Truth to light! My adult daughter recently listed me as a friend on Facebook. I gladly accepted. Her daughter informed her that it's generally frowned upon to have parents as "friends" on Facebook. When I told another friend that, he admitted that he has a Facebook page, but his daughter won't accept him as a friend because she thinks he's weird.

This calls for action, so I urge adults to unite! I have implemented my own action plan.

I do everything I can to be part of the NOW generation: I even have those little bud headphones dangling from my ears as though my Ipod is on all the time. Generally, I don't know where it is, but I wear the headphones anyway as a badge of belonging. My jeans are as low as I can get them (which isn't very), my sandals are unbuckled, I'm designing several hip tattoos and gaining a lot of weight so I'll have more room for them. Actually, I could say that the more weight I gain, the more I look part of a certain segment of the youthful population. I also play my car stereo as loud as possible with the windows wide open, even when it's raining. Boy you should see the envious looks of the teens when they hear that Glenn Miller! As far as hip currency goes, I'm leaving the younger age far behind. I've got a cabinet full of colors for my hair (black, brown, reddish--all the latest Mr. Clairol stuff), a closet full of red and green tennis shoes, t-shirts with aggressively offensive logos, my hair is in various kinds of disarray (what there is of it). What more do I have to do??? It's cruel, I tell you, cruel, of the young to be so callous toward their elders. The age wars are replacing the culture wars.

Let's get our own planet.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Dead are there to Eat

On the way home from rehearsal at Forest Lawn tonight, we saw something heartwarming: deer eating the flowers off people's graves.

Before rehearsal, coyotes howled in the hills.

St. Paul had two heads: in the middle ages, two different churches claimed to have "the head of St. Paul" in their collections of saints' relics. Peter Bartholomew, in the First Crusade, had to have bodyguards, lest he be torn apart by the crowd, who wanted body parts for relics.

In Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, there is a glass cabinet with strands of beard from, I think, Muhammed.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Jazz and Discrimination

Jazz and Discrimination

Anyone even distantly familiar with the history of jazz knows that African-Americans suffered indignities, insults, exclusions because of their race—they played for people who would not let them stay in the same hotels, prohibited them from entering by the front door, and would not sit with them on a bus. Paul Whiteman couldn’t get a person of color on the same stage as his all-white orchestra. Overall, it was an ugly period, and persists, perhaps less overtly, into more recent times.

There has been a kind of reverse discrimination at times as well—the idea that only African Americans can play jazz authentically, or have the true, soulful spirit required for the deepest expression of jazz. At a concert by the Clark Terry band once, I heard a very fine white trombonist’s solo get a mild reaction, while a black trombonist’s much less technical but more blues-inflected solo drew enthusiastic response. Acknowledging, for the record, that technique by itself does not a fine solo make, it seemed to me that the audience was responding to the second soloist’s racial background as much as to his ideas, which were pretty shopworn.

Jazz is for all players, and there are many kinds of jazz. The Japanese have adopted it enthusiastically, and one of the finest bands in the world is fronted by a Swiss pianist/composer/arranger, George Gruntz. His musicians play like forest fires, and they come from everywhere; over the years, they have included many of the most notable American jazz soloists, black and white. For probably unpleasant reasons, jazz has been more widely accepted and admired in Europe than in America. Americans who hadn’t been able to get a career started here were able to do so in Europe. Bertrand Tavernier’s film Round Midnight depicts the experience of many African Americans in Europe.

But then, America has often been behind the curve when it comes to the arts and international politics.

I give thanks for jazz. It isn’t that African Americans forged from their grim experiences something that others have been able to rip off without going through the suffering; it’s that African Americans brought to the surface a dimension of universal humanness that others recognized and responded to, then discovered in themselves. The reservoir of the inner was enlarged with the creation of jazz, and it transcends race and culture.

Racism is shameful, a nasty, small-minded impulse with devastating consequences. To the extent that The Other represents something universal, discrimination is ultimately a rejection of part of the self, a fear of acknowledging that you might be something you haven’t realized. It is a terror of the self. I remember a powerful statement by Ishmael Reed from one of the essays in his book Airing Dirty Laundry. He realized, after years of collecting stories about racism, that white people’s accusations and fears— that black people represented savagery, lust, violence—were really projections of their own nature, fears of their own impulses. Ralph Ellison hits the nail on the head in his depiction of a black family where the father has had an incestual relationship with his daughter. The man is an innocent, good-hearted father who didn’t intend harm (as he relates the incident). White men drool over this story: in their conscious minds, it confirms their stereotype of the unbridled lust of the black man; Ellison makes it evident, however, that white men relish the story because this black man has done something they wish they could do. The character Emerson, in fact, has had an incestual relationship with his daughter. As a wealthy New Englander, though, he is able to keep his shameful act a secret and send his daughter to a European boarding school to cover up her shame. He recognizes in the black man’s situation a mirror of his own.

I am certainly not advocating incest, nor was Ellison. His point was, that as humans, regardless of color, we share a great deal. By coincidence, one man’s secret shame is another’s public shame. In all this mix, hypocritical self-righteousness is the greatest shame. We see that in leaders of the Church who have been found out to have mistresses, or who fulminate against homosexuality but are caught soliciting gay sex.

True terrorism is the rage against aspects of our own nature. It results in the suppression of women; it results in the repression of sexuality, it results in brutal treatment of homosexuals, male and female.

Western religion is one institutional manifestation of that terror—its deepest principles—hostile to joy in daily life—were formulated for everyone by men who rejected fullness in their own lives and recommended that choice as the right one for all. St. Paul and St. Augustine, to name only two, lived single lives (St. Augustine, after he had fully accepted the Christian faith—he had a mistress and child prior to accepting the faith). St. Paul was explicit: he wished all could be like himself—celibate, not distracted by the vicissitudes and demands of daily life. Paul’s allowances for married life were just that: concessions to the “weakness of the flesh.”

We’ve had our heads on backwards about that idea for centuries. What terrified many in America about both black people and “their” music (blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, rock and roll) was the insistence on strong feeling, its tendency to be like a hurricane, or a flood, or a tidal wave, leaving the listener helpless. The European composers were much safer (until the modern era)—their music stayed safely within the bounds of decorum, or had an acceptably romantic tinge (Beethovan and his successors could be pretty dangerous, too). Performances are “correct”—whatever happened to improvisation in “legit” music? Bach and Mozart were both superhuman improvisers; now classical musicians study how to produce the most accurate and sensitive rendition of stable musical texts.

It isn’t an accident that the Seven Deadly Sins refer to acts like overeating, overindulging in sex, wanting too much, getting too angry. At extremes, these can be destructive. But these impulses bubble up from the same well as jazz, or Beethovan’s 9th Symphony. This may be one reason why so many artists’ and musicians’ strong impulses spill over from their art into their personal lives. The problem is fearing strong emotion and impulse in any form (like jazz, which, well-played, has the fury of unbridled greed, lust, anger, appetite, or envy). People seem to have trouble distinguishing between the acceptable, the unacceptable. In order to avoid the destruction they fear, they reject everything.

Everyone is everything. Whites have the savagery and lust in their nature, as well as the humanity, the joy, the sense of intensity. Jazz is a gift to the world at large, a gift of self-realization, and a key to the inner nature of its source. Ostracizing it is cutting yourself off at the pass, as my grandmother did: for her jazz was Gene Krupa, and Gene Krupa was the Devil: a heroine addict, He Who Must Be Shunned, along with his music and everything about him and his associates.

My grandmother—the one portrait she had done of herself (pictures taken by others are less severe) shows her in her rocking chair with her Bible. If we misbehaved, she was Armageddon herself, storming the house with a strap. No wonder someone wrote a tune called "Ain't Misbehavin'." The archetypal grandmother with her strap threatens us all and makes us fear music that "misbehaves."

The Garden of Brass

Humboldt Brass Ensemble Workshop.

“Garden of Brass” sounds oxymoronic, but it isn’t. Labyrinths are baffling, confusing, frustrating. The garden is peace, achievement, exhilaration, satisfaction. I just spent a week in the garden of brass—chamber music for brass, that is.

It’s a modern version of monastic devotion, without the self-denial or the threats of eternal punishment. Adults of all ages, genders, and skill levels assemble for one or two weeks at Humboldt State University to play brass chamber music, from trios to nearly orchestral size ensembles, in configurations from horn and trombone choirs to tuba and euphonium choirs. Adults spend precious vacation time here, or they plan retirement trips around a week or two at this workshop. Like the monastic life, it is a time of intense focus, a chance to withdraw from the day-to-day world of politics and paychecks. We lived in small (dorm) rooms, spent morning, noon, and night rehearsing and playing. I ignored the world at large for six days, except I found out that there had been an earthquake strong enough to knock knick-knacks off shelves at home. The only un-frugal thing was the food, which was served with high-metabolic-rate college students in mind. I ate and ate, and now have to renew my dedication to weight loss from a higher board, so to speak, which means a longer, more dizzying time in the air before I plunge into the water with my (hopefully) diminished body-mass. The penalty for self-indulgence is the inferno of self-denial.

But I also acted for the greater glory—playing and learning. Nurturing the spirit, so to speak.

The workshop has a wholesome and humane theology—complete with an end-times vision. The most important commandment is this: copying is forbidden, unless to practice a part, or make a page-turn easier. A composer writes to write, but also to live; publishers publish to make money—why should we begrudge them? If we take one composition and copy it 80 times, the publisher and composer have lost 79 opportunities to live. This is worthy of the Catholic church’s institution of fish on Fridays to help the Italian fishing industry centuries ago.

String and woodwind players have acres of chamber music from the last four centuries. Brass players, whose instruments evolved into their present niches more recently, lag way behind. Discouraging composers is self-defeating. Like the organic world, the world of music changes over time; there is no single, comprehensive, act that established a static universe. So: nurture composers, who in turn will nurture players in a glorious, thriving symbiosis.

Me—I was a tuba player among ten or twelve other tuba players, nearly all of whom were more skilled, but I learned not to be bothered by this: I played as well as I could and didn’t do badly, even when I missed notes. The more important thing, I was told, was to be able to keep moving with the music and the ensemble, which I could do. The skills will continue to develop with practice.

Too many helpings of decent food aside, though, the real hunger is for more music, more opportunities to be among people who, whatever their regular activities—computer programmers, teachers, social workers, retirees coming back to play instruments they haven’t thought about for years—yearn for the camaraderie of music. A further hunger is for more writing of music—as a composer, it’s very exciting to be among people who want to play music, and to see that your music can be played (even if only once). I don’t particularly write to make money so much as to get music out of my head, so I can go on to more music. I have at least a dozen projects inspired by the camp. They sit in my head, or in a notebook, while I look at the next month before I have to go back to teaching, and wonder how much I’ll actually get done before the real world closes in around me.