Today’s challenge – pulling together the acknowledgment of Dr. King’s birthday, the passing of a beloved friend, a bad decision and a little Duke Ellington. I intended to meet my usual benchmark of posting ON MLK day, but as you’ll see, things threw me for a bit of a loop . . .

One of my closest musical associates at Rutgers was the guitarist Jeff Ray, who did his graduate work there. Jeff was proficient, soulful and versatile as a musician and a deep thinker. In an environment where I often felt isolated by the preponderance of folks interested only in jazz, it was a breath of fresh air to be friends with someone who not only had a diverse range of musical interests but also a love and knowledge of the broader world of arts and humanities, from modern dance to French literature. And “Yarffej” was frighteningly good at speaking backwards (I, of course, became namreab haon).

He was also, I feel the need to disclose, somewhat troubled, something I likely wouldn’t have perceived from afar. He moved to New York and then to Las Vegas. On the surface a move to Vegas (where he worked in cover bands on the strip, played for a while with Boyz II Men and most recently had a steady gig with the musical Jersey Boys) would seem like a move of defeat for a serious jazz musician. In Jeff’s case, though, it was a stable and supportive community and one in which he found hard-fought peace and health.

The recent shocking news of his passing (he died at the age of 43, hit by a train while taking a photograph on the tracks) has been unsettling to say the least, and yet I find myself seeing the glass as half full. That is, at least he went out happy, healthy and fulfilled. After all, what more could any of us ask for in the journey of growth and self-improvement that ends only with our last breath? This could of course be seen as making the scenario all the more tragic (he finally got it together only to be cut short), but in a weird way I was relieved that the details of his demise revealed freakish circumstances as opposed to purposeful self-destruction borne of depression or substance abuse.

If you had asked me a week ago, I would have characterized him as a profound success story, and as saddened I am by his passing, it doesn’t change that perception. Indeed, I have been seeing a surge of overcoming lately. People who have struggled for years and years with their personal demons are finally attaining peace and empowerment and latching into supportive communities that their inner “infrastructure work” has enabled them to harness. It is really touching to see this – heck, I cry when I see fictional characters in movies overcome their sad or self-destructive patterns in this way, so seeing it happen to real people who I care about is almost overwhelming.

And as much as I like to think I’m in a pretty good place myself, I also know I can’t get lazy about the pursuit of my highest self. I was recently given a sobering reminder of this, as I found myself in a scenario in which my usually well-protected buttons were pushed inadvertently but potently by someone I didn’t even know. In the resulting impaired state, I responded without the sort of thoughtfulness and dignity that is central to who I like to think I am. Rest assured that we’re not talking swinging fists and bellowed f-bombs or anything, but when I wind up behaving out of character, I can’t just look away. The solution is not to be hyper-alert and anxious, but at the same time it is a reminder that even when doing pretty well overall, one can’t be passive about maintenance and growth, whether it be in the realms of health, relationships, artistic pursuits or emotional/spiritual hygiene. As much as I would like to reach a point where I can “coast,” every time I get complacent, I experience consequences. And so after a year of vigilance in avoiding controversy surrounding “post-Newtown” politics, I was momentarily undone by unexpected fear and anger catalyzed by a stranger and wound up speaking with an insulting dismissiveness I would have thought was beyond me . Go figure.

And indeed, every single one of us is fallible in that way. Toward the end of 2013, I was invited to participate in a WNPR discussion (on “Where We Live”) about Duke Ellington that included Terry Teachout, author of a recent biography which has come under fire from some in the jazz community for certain “negative” details put forth about Ellington’s life and work. Without addressing those specifics (indeed, even if I for some reason decided to invite controversy, I have not yet read the book), it led me to contemplate the notion of offering “warts and all” perspectives on people who are significant forces of good. Soon after, I had a long chat on the subject with Dave Kopperman (RMI’s Director of Communications and Social Media), and I put forth Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as an example of someone whose status as a symbol of good calls into question the validity of drawing attention to his flaws. Dave put forth the opinion that this is not only okay but in fact helpful insofar as it reminds us that these people are human just like the rest of us – indeed, deifying our heroes only distances us from the heroic within each of us.

As I’ve written before, Dr. King ultimately did not live to see his imperatives and beliefs brought to full fruition. He struggled to achieve his goals like the rest of us and he struggled to be his best self like the rest of us. This is not for a moment to suggest that he was not a profoundly great man, of course – lord knows I could never imply that. I doubt, however, that he would have wanted to be raised up as super-human at the expense of our feeling that each of us had both the power and the responsibility to find our best selves on a moment-to-moment basis. That is in a sense the best any of us can do. If the result is transforming ourselves or our loved ones or generations of people far and wide, the origin is invariably that determined and sober assessment of how to harness whatever resources we have for the greatest good. If that means changing the world, God bless you. If that means getting up today and not having a drink, God bless you. All we can really control is how we deal with the circumstances before us right now. Morals are largely subjective, but we all have access to our inner truths and the mechanisms for evaluating whether we are living by those truths.

I strive hard to find the high ground whenever dealing with other people, especially in difficult situations. This starts with seeking my OWN high ground – being honest about my emotions and dealing with whatever dissonance I find when I take inventory. As I have written before, all accomplishments of which I’m most proud can be traced back to this process. I was going to write that nobody escapes this, but I suppose that someone who does not care about him/herself or others is in a sense exempt from this, as actions and consequences take on meanings that are perverted or insignificant.  I can safely say, though, that no person of principle escapes this need to constantly seek the high ground, not even Dr. King. This may not be his greatest legacy, but it is something vital that we can all take away.

2 Responses

  • Dave

    Very sorry for the passing of your friend.

    I was surprised to suddenly stumble upon my name in there!

    I had thought a little more about it, and I think that the drive for people to keep the reputations of great men on the hagiographic side is meant to let the stories we’ve learned in our own childhoods stay intact, and to pass those same feelings they generated in us as children on to our own children.

    And that’s as it should be – after all, who would deny a child the right to believe in (say) Santa? But if you’re still waiting until your teenage, college-age or adult children are asleep before putting the presents under the tree and leaving out milk and cookies to maintain that belief, that’s… odd, isn’t it?


  • Glad to have discovered your website since I am a young 70 year old kid who this past week returned to his first love of piano and jazz after decades as a writer, and since I really possess no innate piano skills – only an undying love for jazz – I am using your book to guide me through this adventure, along, of course with a little Bach, Hanon, etc…

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