This month I am choosing to focus on how the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. modeled the aspirational life, an existence governed by what could and should be. The older I get (and the scarier the threats become to my country’s moral fabric) the more essential this view of life becomes to me. It also becomes more difficult for me to separate it from the cosmic possibilities that exist in music, something for which John Coltrane is Exhibit A (and quite possibly Exhibits Bb-G# as well). I have long viewed these two figures as aligned, but what is most significant is how these lessons can be applied by any person who chooses to, regardless of career path. Few of us would herald Dr. King today if not for the balance he struck between the moral and spiritual profundity of his “dream” and the corresponding day-in and day-out work.
The biggest reason I chose jazz music as my life’s work is that it has such a high capacity to be an aspirational music. I love the aesthetic aspects of how jazz sounds, but the revelation that made the difference was that jazz could be pursued and improved upon with virtually no end in sight. At age 17 I realized that I could already play all kinds of fully-composed music (from Mozart’s “Turkish Rondo” to “Wild Thing”) about as well as I ever could expect to, while in fleeting moments playing jazz I experienced what it meant to pursue something that was simultaneously deep and ephemeral, in the now yet unattainable. I was inspired by the vastness of the possibilities and the endlessness of the quest on which I was embarking, and it allowed me to hear those qualities in other non-jazz music I loved, whether it was the textures of Stevie Wonder’s “Talking Book,” the soaring of Aretha Franklin’s high notes on “I Say A Little Prayer,” or the gnarly phrasing of Hubert Sumlin’s guitar behind Howlin’ Wolf’s voice on “I Ain’t Superstitious.” Each time I accessed some of these sounds it was so exciting, but I knew even then I would never fully grasp the divinity of which they offered a glimpse. In spite of that, and to an extent even because of that (masochistic though that may sound to some), I needed to put my whole self into the pursuit. On some level, I knew this aspirational sort of person was who I needed to become. I was never drawn to laboratory science or religion, and at that point didn’t even know that life as a social justice activist was even a thing. So when I became aware that music could be a mechanism for that kind of life, it seemed too good to be true.
Meanwhile, last week a musician I know put forth a survey of his colleagues on the topic of how they make a living in music, and the conversation became something of a referendum on why we do music and what it means to have that as a centerpiece of our lives (fun? attention? money? expression? Impacting others?). Not surprisingly, this got me thinking. Maybe I have a different perspective because of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and the way it both limits my physical strength and illuminates the ongoing specter of further limits, but I made the choice years ago to forge a relationship with music that put the pursuit of transcendence front and center. That may sound touchy-feely, but there are various tangible ways it has manifested. For example, a few years ago, I had a taste of “success” with writing/recording music for TV, and considered delving deeper into that world. There would have been nothing inherently wrong with that, I know musicians who do wonderful work in that context, and I even find it pretty enjoyable. However, on closer examination, it became clear that my finite physical and creative resources would then be largely allocated to a pursuit that to serve its function properly would require stifling some of my most sincere musical impulses. I left some money and opportunity on the table, but that prospect worried me less than the prospect of looking back at my life and realizing that my window of opportunity to create something profound and deeply personal had shut.
The other day, with all of this percolating in my mind, I had a chat with a student about the innovative and risk-taking work of the late 1950s and early 1960s, obviously a time when the idea of revolution went far beyond having a less conservative relationship with standard chord progressions. John Coltrane’s name figured prominently in this conversation and we discussed various aspects of how he embodied music as an aspirational pursuit in which the possibility of getting at something new and deep took higher precedence than the guarantee of executing something cleanly. We discussed how higher pursuits often require immersion in the mundane, which Coltrane embodied so deeply in his tireless practice. When we hear him (or certain other like-spirited musicians) “go for it” there is a risk involved, and yet that risk is mitigated by the dedication to mastery of the things that can be controlled (this student made the observation that this must be why there isn’t an album called “’Trane Wreck” – well played).
In that sense, the idea of a dichotomy between people (musicians or otherwise) who value experimentation and spontaneity and those who value craft and meticulousness is a romantic notion and not a particularly helpful one. It is possible to pursue mastery AND take risks. It is possible to be a free-thinker without being oblivious to the structures that guide others. Indeed, the greatest freedom is often a reward for discipline. Sure it’s possible to become stagnant when focused on the mundane, and sure the spirit of discovery is often at its most exciting when we are children, blissfully ignorant of things like expectations and broader context. Once we’re adults with lofty goals, though, it becomes our job to simultaneously nurture all of that. It’s not an easy job, for sure, but neither is it futile.
But, again, I would not subject my readers to all of this if it only applied to music (much less only jazz music). At this point in history it is SO easy to give way to despair and hopelessness. And yet that makes it all the more important to maintain both the integrity and the vision to operate by the higher principles that some in power seem to have tossed into the scrap heap. So how do we do this? How do we embrace the aspirational in a concrete way? As promised, here is a grossly oversimplified but hopefully useful overview:
1 ) Tune in to the ideal with passion and focus.
2 ) Work diligently on all the mundane things that are needed to bring that ideal to fruition.
3 ) Continually calibrate the balance between these.
The first two are straightforward, if hardly easy. Demand equality. Love another deeply. Be generous. Look out for those who are in need. AND do the gruntwork to manifest these things in daily life and the world around you. Task #3, the reconciling of the two, is where things get particularly tricky, but regardless of your feelings about 1960s Coltrane, Dr. King brilliantly shows us how it’s done. That we are still slogging our way towards the mountaintop he helped us identify invalidates neither the utter necessity of the climb nor the inner rewards of giving ourselves fully to an aspiration that rationally speaking we know we will not live to see brought to full fruition.
I remember listening to hours of MLK speeches on a long road trip four years ago. I was doing it less for the content and more for the oratory, and I was disarmed by how mundane some of it was. Yes, we’ve all heard him raise the roof as he teaches us about love and justice and equality. Personally, though, I had never heard him illuminate the painstaking minutiae of implementing protests and boycotts targeting specific Midwestern businesses. I knew that he was involved in these things, but accustomed to his most passionate big-picture oratory, I was struck by how many hours of these recorded speeches revolved around explaining these micro-elements that were so methodical and patient.
This helped me understand the need to put these pieces together. If we view his work merely through the lens of idealism, we lose sight of how hard he and others worked to make tangible change and undo tangibly oppressive systems, while if we view it merely through the lens of gruntwork, we can lose sight of the higher substance that is at the root of it all and that hopefully gives us renewable inspiration to persist and keep working. There have always been and will always be threats to love, justice, and equality, but we must remember that stubborn pursuit of the ideal DOES make change, not to mention serving as the foundation for a life well-lived.
I am so grateful to see you back here, Noah.
Funny how this year has been a year of reconciling polar opposite perspectives on King; my minister (you would like him) also preached on King as both revolutionary and man of nonviolence, knitting together love and justice. I love this connection between the small/mundane acts (like walking everywhere for 380+ days) to the oratory we all know. We need both the aspiration/vision, and the small steps forward move us ever-closer to the dream.
Well-written and well thought out observations, Noah. Music can be and often is community building. I watch and admire you for all the hard work you put in on your music plus the teaching, the books, and the concerts series at the Russell Library.