Looking For the Heart of Jazz

IMG_1037“I’m a classical guy,” says Larry, the pianist. “I’m used to having a score in front of me and just playing. This is a whole new mindset.” Jazz is a mindset–I’m in total agreement.

We’re meeting for the first time, the five of us, having answered the call to form a jazz combo. The call came from the jazz program at the Levine School of Music in Washington, D.C. Technically, it’s a class—we had to pay for the eight weeks—but more than that, it’s an experiment in learning to play music together.

I came to play drums, although I’m not really a drummer. That is to say, guitar, and not drums, is my instrument of choice. I also play bass guitar, and in that role I was part of a folk/rock band for four years. Over the years, though, I’ve dabbled with the drums and as a bassist, I have a good sense of rhythm. But I’ve never pursued drums seriously, or any instrument for that matter. I’m a musical hobbyist.

When the e-mail arrived saying drummers were desperately needed, I thought to myself, Why not?

We enter our practice room located in the Music Center at Strathmore, a performing arts facility. The room has an almost excessively high ceiling, nearly as tall as it is wide. One wall is lime green and one baby blue. The other two are white. A whiteboard extends along the length of one wall.

There are five pianos, not counting the electric keyboard, and a drum set, fairly stripped down, with a snare, the kick drum, one tom, and a floor tom. Guitar amps and music stands are scattered about, and chairs are stacked in the corner.

Lyle, our instructor, greets us. He knows Larry and one of the guitarists, Andrew, from before. Lyle is probably in his mid-thirties, handsome with a Latino flair. His instrument is saxophone, but he can hold his own on the piano. He is in effect our bandleader and “cat herder.”

We start playing right away. I don’t have many jazz songs memorized, so I concentrate on keeping the beat steady while listening for the changes. Lyle tells me what the groove should be–he always says “groove.” He’ll say it’s “swing” or “bossa nova” and I take it from there.

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“I don’t know much jazz stuff,” Andrew, one of the guitar players, tells me at our second class. “I come from blues and folk music.”

I nod. The five of us have different musical backgrounds, but we are all in this combo for one reason: to learn more about this music form called jazz. And Lyle does his best to help us in the one hour we have per week.

Lyle clearly loves jazz. He gets excited as he talks about the songs we could do. He’s here at eight o’clock on a weeknight. You only do that if you enjoy it.

IMG_001He talks about common jazz forms, such as the II-V-I chord progression. And he talks about soloing. In jazz, it’s all about the soloing. Lyle explains soloing as if the notes were food on your plate. If you’re really hungry, he points out, something simple will suffice, just to get you by. Once you’re full, though, you can start being choosy, picking things that are more interesting, that have more flavor. It’s the difference between using an F major scale in your solo, or playing in the Locrian mode.

Even though I’m the drummer, I still pay attention to all the music discussion. I hope to be able to apply it to my guitar playing someday, to absorb the jazz feel, to gain more insight into the musical form.

Neil, the trumpet player, and Mazyar, the other guitarist, handle most of the solos. As the only horn player, Neil is in effect the lead instrument. The rhythm players—the piano, the bass, and drums—all support the horn. We are to let the horn lead, taking cues from him, Lyle explains. In doing so, we abandon pathways we’re heading down if he leads us in another direction.

I don’t feel strongly about soloing on the drums. Actually, I find drum solos a bit annoying, so I don’t wish to inflict that on others. By the fourth class, I’m getting more comfortable with the swing, bossa nova, and funk grooves. I listen and watch, trying to keep it in the pocket.

Lyle says that we could try something called “trade fours,” where every four measures everyone drops out except the drums. It’s a way to feature the drummer for a few bars. To do this, the bandleader holds up four fingers during the song. The drummer always has the option to shake off the suggestion, like a baseball pitcher taking signals from the catcher.

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The final class of the session is to be a performance. Lyle wants us to have arrangements for the songs we’ve worked on to make them more interesting, make them stand out as not the same old thing. We try different tempos, different openings and endings. We try to take songs that have been in circulation since the 1950s and ’60s and make them our own.

On performance night, a younger combo goes first, all high-school boys. They are very good and most of the audience is there to see them. I’m nervous as I sit through the young guys’ set. When it’s our turn, I climb behind the kit. I’ve been onstage before, but every time it feels new, raw and unscripted, wide open to the possibilities.

Performance night.

Performance night.

And then our four songs are done. As with most musical performances before, I am absorbed by my mistakes and all of the things I could have done differently. But my family and friends say it sounds great.

I guess we succeed in pulling it off. Considering that we’ve only spent eight weeks together, we do as well as possible. But that’s the heart of jazz. It’s a group of individuals coming together to speak through music. We hear what each other has to say, and hope that those listening will find our sounds worth their while.

Extending an Offer

When I was laid off from my job four years ago, everyone told me that it was not a reflection of my work, skills, or commitment. It was just the nature of the business.

“I know that you are not happy with what happened,” the general counsel who handled my severance said in an e-mail. “However, for what it’s worth – I want you to know that I enjoyed working with you and if you need anything, feel free to contact me and I will try to help however I can.”

I tried not to take it personally, I really did. I secretly hoped that someone would step forward and tell me that my years of service were appreciated. “We don’t want to lose you,” I imagined they would say. “We have an opening in another department we think you’d be good for.”
the corporation

But that didn’t happen. And since then, I wondered whether that kind of thing happens only in the movies.

Recently, though, I overheard a conversation between a couple of colleagues. One said that when she’d first applied to the company, she thought she was well-suited for the opening. But the company liked her so much, they made her an offer for both the job for which she’d applied and one for which she hadn’t. “We know you didn’t apply for this position, but we think you might be interested,” she recalled the HR person saying.

It was two for the price of one for my colleague. Those HR people recognized in this colleague some skills badly needed, which, of course, is as it should be. But more than that, they took the initiative to extend an offer that she hadn’t known was there. I guess the key is having the skills, and making sure that others know you have the skills, that are in need at that time.

So this really does happen. It just didn’t happen to me.

I personally know of at least five people, in addition to me, who were laid off and subsequently rehired by the same company. If you consider the payouts for severance and the subsequent costs to publicize the position and reintegrate the workers into the corporation, it seems like an inefficient process. I’m not sure who benefits from this. I certainly didn’t.

Where Do the Days Go?

If I had work where I felt fully engaged, where I felt that I was using my skills for some helpful purpose, where my efforts were recognized and appreciated, then I would be able to go home each night with a feeling of accomplishment, satisfied with the knowledge that I’d done good that day. Evenings would be relaxing down-time, and I would be available for whatever was needed, whoever needed me.

As it is, I feel that my work hours are wasted time. I feel that I’m making the trek each day to fulfill an obligation, waiting for the time when I can go home and when my real life will begin.

Unfortunately, the daily ritual, in all its unsatisfying ways, grinds me down, so that by the time I reach home again, I’m running on a nearly empty tank.

If we have something planned for the evening — a school activity, my son’s baseball game — then I go with it. It will provide meaning for the day.skycranes

When there’s nothing, though, I drink some wine before dinner to recharge. It helps to bridge the gap between my lost work hours and the precious few that remain in the day. And I find that I need to seek out a task. Many people plop down at the TV for the rest of the evening, but to me, that’s more time wasted.

So I pay bills or balance the checkbook. I help one of my kids with homework or organize my desk. During summer, when the days are longer, I’ll mow the lawn or do other yard work.

And when there’s none of that to be done, I’ll want to play my guitar. Except that my nails will be too long, so I’ll have to cut them. Then I don’t want to bother with pulling my guitar case from the corner and tuning up. So I don’t.

Or I’ll think of all the great writing I could be doing. But I don’t.

I just sip my wine and wonder where the days all go.

Honesty Is Not Always the Best Policy

Promise?

When I was 18, I was naïve about many things. Prominent among those things was how to behave around girls. While most boys were busy learning the social rules, I blundered along in my ignorance. So the day when a pretty girl in my grade offered to give me a back rub, with my shirt off, I accepted without reading anything into it. Sometimes a back rub is just a back rub.

She had me lay face down and, using some lotion, she began the massage. Honestly, I wasn’t enjoying it much. I was having trouble relaxing as I wondered what to say when she was done. I’d had better massages before and I’ve had better since. I decided that I should just be honest.

“How was that?” she asked as she sat back.

“It was okay,” I said.

“Okay?!” she said, with a look of amused surprise, and perhaps a trace of hurt.

In hindsight, I should have lied. I should’ve said it was great, fantastic even. Anything but what I said. But I said what I was thinking. And I’ve regretted it for decades.

I guess that, sometimes, honesty is not the best policy.

Just to be clear, I’m not advocating deliberate deceitfulness. I’ve been around enough liars and truth-benders to know that it’s never a sustainable way to be. What I want to consider instead is the value of sticking to unvarnished honesty at all costs. Perhaps there is room for a place that exists somewhere between a hurtful lie and the brutal truth.

My dictionary defines honesty as “truthfulness” and truth as “honesty,” but perhaps it’s not as simple as all that. Gandhi understood that there exists a distinction between truth and full disclosure. “Who can say how much I must give and how much omit in the interests of truth?” he wrote in his Autobiography. To focus overly much on bald-faced honesty ignores that there are more subtle forces involved.

The Biblical Ten Commandments include the following: “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” All my life, this has been interpreted for me as “never lie.” Strictly speaking, this would require unvarnished honesty at all times. Under this scheme, the so-called “white lie” is still a lie and should not be tolerated.

Technically, though, the commandment is less universal than that, requiring only that no “false witness” be used against your “neighbor.” What about when talking with your husband or wife, for instance? If you tell them you are happy to be married in a moment when you are not entirely convinced of the truth of that statement, is that false witness? What about with your child? When you tell them their popsicle stick collage “art” is beautiful, is that false witness? Maybe an occasional dishonesty is okay, even in the eyes of God.thou-shalt-not-lie

In the farcical movie Liar, Liar (1997), Jim Carrey plays a man condemned to always tell the truth. Quickly, it becomes apparent that all honesty all the time leads to awkward situations and hurt feelings. Even when people say “be honest” they often don’t mean, literally, honest. The story implies that a little dishonesty once in a while acts as a type of social lubricant, easing the friction of our daily lives. Take that away and we are faced with the loss of a measure of civility.

Does this suggest that we will all descend down the slippery slope as we abandon honesty? I don’t think so for a few reasons. For one, with the exception of young children and those with mental health problems, people normally understand when a small lie cross the line into more sinister territory. As long as we have some kind of value system, we can maintain a distinction between the two.

For another, many people frequently find themselves in situations where they feel they have to “fake it.” As the author Susan Cain points out in her book Quiet, this is often true for introverts. It also can be true for those stuck in an unsatisfying line of work or difficult family situation. The trick is not mistaking a surface level of feeling false for a deeper-rooted inauthenticity. The inner compass should remain true, despite of moments of uncertainty.

Truth, honesty, lies, and deceit—there’s plenty of all of them to go around. So what is the best policy? In the end, I suggest a better guide is “Be polite and be authentic.”

Run Baby Run

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There are decals that I have noticed recently on cars in my area. They seem to be everywhere. For a long time I wondered what they meant because they simply are some numbers. Eventually, I figured it out.

26.2.

The number of miles in a marathon.

It seems that marathons are having their day.

As I have said before, I have a certain amount of ambivalence about exercise. I do what I need to do and no more. Marathons, to me, seem like way more than what’s necessary. So why are they so popular?

And when a “simple” marathon is not enough, how about one of these:

Antarctica Marathon — Run 26.2 miles on the coldest continent on Earth.

Death Valley Ultramarathon — Run (or walk) 135 miles in the hottest, driest place on Earth.

I don’t know whether to admire these people or feel sorry for them.

In another context, this would be considered self-flagellation.  And people generally think of self-flagellation as weird and vaguely fetishistic.

So why would the Antarctica Marathon attract 110 people in 60 days for its inaugural run? And why are there are 94 runners in the article about the Death Valley race?

What’s really going on here?0923130719 - Copy

I don’t buy into what the organizer of the Antarctic race says: “These are people who take the reins and ride life hard. They’re not afraid to take some risk and live life to the fullest.”

Personally, I don’t shy away from living life to the fullest. I’ve written for publication. I’ve played music in a band in front of live audiences. I’ve donated a kidney.

But I think there is something unhealthy about all this so-called physical fitness. I don’t think of these marathon exploits as living life to the fullest. Rather, I think it’s madness.

Maybe that’s just me.

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