It’s end-of-year reflection time, right? These days my reflections keep coming back to two quotes. One is a Kurt Vonnegut quote* in which he offers a plea for “a little less love, and a little more common decency.” The other quote is attributed to Rudyard Kipling in explanation of his creation process: “Drift, wait and obey.” When I look back at 2011 and any real growth or insight I may have experienced, the notions of waiting (e.g. patience), obeying (e.g. relying on compelling inner truths, even when not entirely convenient) and common decency (pretty self-explanatory, I hope) come up reliably.
* the book, “Slapstick,” is admittedly not his greatest, but subpar Vonnegut is still pretty damned insightful.
At the beginning of the year, I made a few resolutions that revolved around principles as opposed to concrete actions, and the one that stood out was “sincerity.” Not that I had been particularly insincere in previous years, but this year I wanted to see if I could take my basis for evaluating decisions and turn it inward. Part of this was related to my eternal quest for self-knowledge and part of it was a practical recognition that the outside world is changing so rapidly that playing catch-up is a wearying task.
One fairly unsurprising result of this focus on sincerity was the crystallization of some core beliefs. To cite one specific example, I have wondered about the “problem” of my being a bit too generous of heart. When I perceive that I can help somebody, I can get sucked in to an extent that exceeds my duty (whether it be the length of a music lesson, my level of responsibility to give support to a relative stranger experiencing physical challenges, or what have you), but this year I decided to relax about that. As a musician, I have little enough hope of “coming out ahead” by the traditional criteria that I wondered what if I just replaced the formula altogether? That sounds more dramatic than it really is – on a basic level it just means be generous when it seems like it may make a difference and I have the resources to do it, and then move on without watching to see if it “pays off” in any measurable way. If I’m living in a way that feels genuine (for example, focusing on common decency more than tangible gain), is that not reward enough? Don’t rich people spend a lot of money trying to buy the feeling that you get when you look in the mirror at the end of the day, knowing you lived that day in sync with your beliefs? (Maybe not, how would I know what rich people do?) The “drift, wait, obey” edict fits here as well, in that the belief system in question can’t really grow out of intellect. As much as I love to think, this truth is born of a deeper place – I hesitate to say that (lest I draw comparisons to George W. Bush’s “go with the gut” rationale for atrocity), but inner wisdom can’t be dismissed entirely.
This started to work its way more into my music as well. In an era where terms like “image” and “branding” are glued to the space where art and commerce meet, I had to ask myself whether being myself in that way (concerned with kindness, serious about my work but also kind of a goober) makes for a “sellable” product. For the moment my conclusion is probably not, but it doesn’t matter. I am who I am and trying to be cooler or edgier or whatever would reek of an insincerity that would far outweigh any benefits. And that’s just from the commercial angle – from the angle of feeling real, it’s a no-brainer.
A more surprising result of my deepened quest for sincerity came in the direction of my music. After I completed the composition, development, premiere performances and recording for my “Know Thyself” project late in 2009, the creative tank was very much on “E.” I made good use of my musical time through other forms of study (including a re-upping of my piano regimen that led pretty directly to this year’s “Turtle Steps” recording) but wrote less music in 2010 than at any time since I was 14. I wrote a handful of tunes early in 2011 to fill “gaps” in the programming for “Turtle Steps” and then put my energy into getting through those recording sessions.
Then in July a very funny thing happened. Ha ha ha ha. Oh, sorry, I’ll explain. My lovely wife Kate jokingly suggested a competition revolving around which of us could come up with a song based on our recipe for granola. She promptly forgot about it, but I had a bee in my bonnet for a week or so until one day I sat down and had a song come out – I could say I wrote it, but it feel s more accurate to say it wrote itself and I transcribed it. A little while later I had a day off and decided it’d be fun to record it. I own one microphone and a pretty low-tech recording setup (that I’d never really figured out how to use), and my MIDI chops are atrocious. So I just stuck the mic in front of a guitar, played the song, and then layered additional tracks, including slide guitar, bass, melodica and “drums” consisting of playing brushes on a sketch pad that was lying around. And then I sang it. And results be damned (save for melodica, these are not instruments over which I have much mastery, and my singing is notorious) I felt engaged and had FUN. If you’re curious, here it is – no teasing, please.
That would be a cute and innocuous little story, except that this was when the floodgates opened. The day after I made that recording, another song came to me – about 2 and a half hours elapsed from genesis of idea to completion of recording, this one roughly in the style of Neil Young’s work with Crazy Horse and with lyrics borne of some difficult experiences from the recesses of my past. It felt cathartic and genuine and expressive and . . . not fit for public consumption or in any way relevant to my career as a jazz musician. Uh oh. At that point I had the good sense to realize that the music-creating facet of my muse, mostly dormant for a long while, was now speaking loudly. My choices were to obey without qualification or to insert the filters of perceived usefulness/relevance, self-judgment, projected judgment of others and so on. I chose to obey and the songs kept coming. Though the ensuing months were extremely busy, I wrote and recorded an average of a song per week until I had (as of this writing) two dozen tracks – two full albums’ worth of material. Between the personal lyrics and the primitive musicianship, there are multiple layers of being unfit for public consumption. And yet, this is clearly what I needed to do, and I continued to obey, keeping at bay the questions of how this would “help” me.
These thoughts of sincerity and decency have been percolating for a good while, and strangely enough it all seems to be coming together this morning through the convergence of four disparate and unrelated events over a 24 hour stretch.
1 ) Yesterday we got to spend time with a brilliant artist whose work spans multiple disciplines. Like most artists, the tangible rewards (money, recognition, etc.) have not come on a level commensurate with her level of achievement. As such, there is an ongoing struggle between the awareness that these things can’t be controlled and the almost desperate need for a transformative event to make it all less difficult (yep, every art form has its equivalent of the jazz musician’s quest for the gig or record deal that makes the struggle less daunting). She was slightly taken aback to hear me marvel at her output, as it’s hard to see the forest from the trees when immersed in frustration over the paucity of material success.
Even when we try to rid ourselves of that fantasy, there is the temptation to seek a loophole once we start to see some benefit to our attempts to distance ourselves from the rat race (e.g. I’m just going to let my choreography flow and not worry about what others think . . . hey, that came out pretty well, let me figure out how to do more of it and then market it and then . . .). We know that concrete benchmarks of success are unpredictable and often unreliable, and we know that worrying about these things can sully the joy of the creative process, yet it’s so difficult to compartmentalize it all and to resist the lure of dreaming of the external forces that could make it all better. I certainly don’t advocate chucking all business-related concerns out the window, but it can eat us up if we’re not careful.
2 ) Yesterday Kate (and I, peripherally, while driving) spoke with a new acquaintance (let’s call her “Gladys”), a wife, mother and professional in her early 50s who recently and fairly unexpectedly took in a homeless and severely traumatized teenager in her community. The teen has a lot of stuff to work out, having essentially been victim of a system-wide failure to keep her safe on the most basic of levels, and Gladys and her family are having a predictably tough time. Okay, freeze, and evaluate your instant reaction to Gladys, with the limited information you now have. Does it closely fit one of these?
a) Wow, what a brave, awesome woman. God bless her, and I hope she gets the support she needs.
b) Wow, I totally can’t relate to taking a risk like that for someone outside of my immediate family. Seems kind of wacky, but good for her and I guess it’s great that there are some people in the world willing to stick their necks out like this.
c) Wow, what a delusional idealist. What does she think she’s trying to do, and what gives her the right to subject her “real” family to this sort of stress?
I’m well aware that my experiences as a foster and adoptive parent make “a” a more obvious choice for me than for most, and choice “b,” what I perceive to be the most common choice, largely passes the buck of responsibility but at least recognizes that civilized society depends on people like Gladys. What I wasn’t prepared for was the discovery that her “support structure” has largely reached conclusion “c.” If “a” is donating your time to a humanitarian charity and “b” is either donating a pittance or abstractly recognizing that it’s important that other people donate, “c” is spitting on the relief workers as they walk by.
Frankly, it’s hard for me to reconcile that this reaction could emanate from a person with a soul and a clue. I’ll save a full-fledged rant on the topic for another post, but is there any excuse for failing to at least offer a moment of moral support to someone engaged in a sacred service to humankind? And while I recognize the self-defeating nature of insulting my readers, let me say that if your reaction to the scenario above was “c,” now is an appropriate time to be ashamed of yourself and to begin contemplating where this comes from. The impulse to cling protectively to a blemish-free version of life is understandable, but I haven’t met many happy people who live this way. But, then, maybe I just don’t get invited to the right parties . . .
3 ) I woke up yesterday morning to discover that Sam Rivers, a vital contributor to the music world, passed away. There have been some particularly heated debates in the jazz world recently (“jazz” vs. BAM, this artist vs. that artist, whatever), but what’s most striking is not the perfectly compelling content of the debates, but rather how some intelligent, functional and generally classy adults have been reduced to threats, name-calling and other behavior typically not seen outside of a schoolyard or a pro wrestling event. Sam Rivers is now one of this music’s ancestors, alongside Hank Jones, James Moody, Paul Motian, Dr. Billy Taylor, Bob Brookmeyer and others who have left us in the last two years. What these musicians also shared was a great deal of dignity in how they carried themselves. However we feel about the responsibility to carry on any particular musical traditions, the tradition of valuing class and common decency towards fellow humans is one that it would be a shame to let go.
4 ) Last night I had a vivid, disturbing dream (literally, not metaphorically). I’ll spare you the largely surreal details, but in it, there was corruption, exploitation and violence. The young and vulnerable were in danger, the violent and exploitative were in power, and those with the capacity to step in and easily make a difference were apathetic and indifferent. I literally woke up with my fists clenched in anguish. Thank God it was just a dream, but clearly on a deep level I have my doubts that we’re comfortably far from this outcome.
So let’s summarize. Sincerity = cool. Common decency = also cool.
And so how has this all turned out for ME? Well, it just so happens that through opening myself up to the muse and embracing common decency, I made a musical and personal impression on a high-powered agent. In turn I wound up with a big-money 6 album major label record deal for my jazz work, an equally lucrative 4 album deal for my songs-with-words, a week at the Village Vanguard with my own group and “Granola” got signed up to be the theme for General Mills new line of oat cereals, with the million-dollar licensing fee going straight to a foundation to provide support for teens in foster care and the people caring for them. See what happens when you trust and obey the muse?
Oops, actually that whole last paragraph is a total lie. Dammit, I guess letting go of those dreams is still kind of tricky. But you know, I have to grudgingly admit that it’s better this way. If gaining that sort of tangible reward was my main way of “proving” the validity of sincerity and decency, then that would sully the purity of the whole thing, not unlike supporting a progressive cause because it’s what the cool people are doing. Ultimately the reason to follow that path is because its validity speaks for itself. Maybe I’m crazy, but I plan to renew for 2012.