I think I may have figured it out . . .

Though with this Friday’s big CT debut of the Jazz Samaritan Alliance at Firehouse 12, my Ripples release tour is not yet in the “wrap-up and assess” phase (stay tuned for “tour diary”), I have begun the contemplation of where I go from here. As such, on a broader level, I’ve been chewing on the question of “why do I do it?” This is useful for anyone, but given that Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome makes playing music (and especially travelling to do so) a somewhat questionable choice, I feel an even greater obligation to have my motivations be clear.

After all, there are myriad reasons why one can play music. I’ve actually been addressing a lot of this in my teaching, particularly in the context of helping students see the differences in approach between folk music, commercial music and “art” music, along with all the grey areas in between. We can do music because it moves us and/or because we have something we need to express. We can do it because it’s simply a part of the fabric of our lives (something that, sadly, is increasingly rare in American society). We can do it for personal gain of either an external nature (money, fame, sex, status) or a more internal one (pride, validation, attention). Or maybe it’s just fun.

As I was contemplating this, yesterday I came across this lecture by the always thought-provoking Derek Sivers

(you can read the transcript here).

I enjoyed the lecture, but there is one very little part that rubbed me wrong. It is probably just semantics, but sometimes it takes getting your buttons pushed by something to put our own thoughts and feelings in sharper focus. When discussing all the things that MIGHT illuminate the meaning of life (time, learning, memory, choice), he considers some other possibilities and makes the statement “Life is LOVE? Too ambiguous.” Sorry, Derek, but I disagree.

Love is courage.

Love is truth.

Love is compassion.

Love is feeling responsible for the well-being of your sons and daughters, your brothers and sisters.

Love is awareness that all humans are your sons and daughters, your brothers and sisters.

Love is God. And if you don’t believe in God, it’s the life force that propels us all.

And that doesn’t even count all the things such as kindness, respect, patience and affection that maybe aren’t love, but that, when you add them up, represent the methodology for embodying it. I will concede that this is all ambiguous if clarity is synonymous with quantifiability. However, on a deeper level, we all know this and need only tune in to it (easier said than done, I realize) to understand, even if it can’t be articulated as clearly as some things can. Love is, after all, the force that brings meaning to virtually everything and that inspires us to keep going.

And then it HIT ME: music is love.

Not always, mind you. Music can be pretty mundane in plenty of contexts, whether it’s a lounge pianist phoning it in to an empty hotel lounge (been there) or the formulaic background music for a diaper commercial. But at other times it is utterly transcendent. When Aretha hits the goosebump-inducing high note or Howlin’ Wolf grumbles low. When Elvin slams the snare drum while McCoy pounds and Coltrane wails. When Sweet Honey in the Rock admonish us to be responsible or Otis admonishes “Gotta Gotta Gotta.” When Joni delivers sweet poetry or Ella scats sweet nonsense. When Stevie soars above a previously-unimagined musical landscape.

These are the sorts of unquantifiable things that, for me, resonate in the same way as the other trappings of love. These are the things that have hypnotized me. And this is why I do it. I don’t know how much time I have on this planet (none of us do), but I know that the more of it is filled with love, the better off I am. And I know the more of that love I share, the better off I am AND the better off the world is. If music didn’t have this capacity to soothe, inspire and generally affirm the meaning of life in ways that words will always fail to do, then it would just be another leisure activity alongside backgammon and tic tac toe.

Just as kindness and patience are important tools for love that need to be practiced in order for one’s actions to embody love, I devote a lot of time to studying and teaching the corresponding tools in music. A lot more of my musical practice time goes into technique than expressiveness, but that is so I can better communicate and so that on the bandstand I can focus on aiming for that feeling. I don’t always get there, but those fleeting moments when I do are enough to fuel the devotion. And when I have moments like I have had so humblingly often on this tour when an audience lets go of limitations and preconceptions and feels the inspiration along with me, that’s why I endure.

I don’t know how much longer my body will allow me to keep going, never mind whatever other mundane factors will invariably have a say in the future (economics, presence or absence of opportunities, other unpredictable life circumstances). But I am fortunate to at least have a mission, and I will keep pursuing it as long and as vigorously as I can!


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