MJF57: The 2014 Monterey Jazz Festival

In anticipation of what may prove to be one of the more memorable offerings, ever, at the Monterey Jazz Festival, I ordered Billy Childs’ Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro CD, advertised, promoted for several months before the September MJF event. My copy arrived a few days before the Saturday night performance in Monterey, and by the time I witnessed that occasion, I think I had fallen in love with and memorized much of the exceptional score. Billy Childs has long been one of my favorite pianists/composers/arrangers, and I have been fortunate to have been present at his 1994 MJF “Concerto for Piano & Jazz Chamber Orchestra”; the original compositions he arranged for vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson in 1998; and his 2010 commission piece “Music for Two Quartets,” with the Kronos Quartet.

The original Map to the Treasure CD features no less than ten top vocalists interpreting Childs’ interpretation of Laura Nyro’s songs: Renee Fleming, Becca Stevens, Lisa Fisher, Esperanza Spalding, Rickie Lee Jones, Ledisi, Susan Tedeschi, Shawn Colvin, Dianne Reeves, and Alison Krauss—with instrumentalists Yo-Yo Ma, Brian Blade (drums), Scott Colley (bass), Carl Robbins (harp), Wayne Shorter (soprano saxophone), Chris Potter (tenor sax), Steve Wilson (tenor sax), Chris Botti (trumpet), three violins (Mark Robertson, Jen Chou Fischer, Alyesa Park)), a viola (Luke Maurer) and an extra cello (Vanessa Freebaium-Smith) to flesh out the arrangements Childs and lifelong friend Larry Klum put together. It’s an All-Star cast (to say the least), and Childs brought singers Stevens, Colvin, and Fisher with him to Monterey—each of whom provided a stunning performance, along with Robbins, Colley, and Blade, also on hand, as was trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and the Quartet San Francisco.

Billy Childs altered the original order, the sequence of songs for the Saturday night MJF set, and the overall effect of the music seemed seamless to me, one of the most “together,” coherently comprehensive performances I’ve seen and heard at the Monterey Jazz Festival. The first Nyro song, “Confession,” is focused on sexual strife: the paradox of overt sexuality (“Love my lovething … superride inside …”) combined with a confession of innocence retained, the plight of a “virgin” attached to a new “winsome lover.” This blend is embodied in the fine line: “love is surely gospel,” mixed feelings that Becca Stevens portrayed handsomely (poet W.H. Auden said poetry “might be defined as the clear expression of mixed feelings.”). In “To a Child,” Sevens offered passion alongside vulnerability: the reciprocity of mother and child; Nyro’s homage to her own son, “an elf on speed.”

Next up: “And When I Die” was the first song Laura Nyro wrote (placed last on the CD, midway in the MJF set): the plaintive irony of this minor key piece about beginnings and ends beautifully projected by Shawn Colvin. “Save the Country” was introduced, splendidly, by Ambrose Akinmusire’s trumpet solo, followed by Colvin’s astutely phrased anthem-rendering (the song originally inspired by the murder of four major American political and civil rights advocates and the Vietnam War): a simple string arrangement backing Colvin’s poignant plea for better days.

On the CD, Renee Fleming renders the opening tune, “New York Tendaberry,” but in her absence at MJF, Billy Childs provided a brilliant solo piano interpretation: clear, clean, very moving lines unfolding with classical precision—an amazing, superb “substitute” for Fleming. Vocalist Lisa Fisher, a crowd favorite, sang “Map to the Treasure” with highly emotional, gospel-laced repeated lines, her phrasing fleshed out with piano/harp fusion and a jazz/chamber ensemble. The set ended with a joyous “Stone Soul Picnic”: free love friendship on a surrey saunter ride to open-field delight. The MJF audience responded to this spontaneous romp with spontaneity of its own: a well-deserved standing ovation. I found the MJF performance as spellbinding as that on the CD: a complete, truly TOTAL enactment on everyone’s part, vocal and instrumental—everything in place and held together by the taste and fine touch of Billy Childs himself.

Here he is; the Map to the Treasure CD; Laura Nyro (from the cover of an LP I have, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession; and a photo from the performance on stage at the Monterey Jazz Festival.

Billy Childs   Billy Childs Laura Nyro CD

Laura Nyro from CD   Billy Childs at MJF

Critic Scott Yanow would later write: “Laura Nyro would have loved what Billy Childs did to her music,” and when people asked me what I thought of the presentation after, I had five words: “Billy Childs is a genius.” I’ll go so far as to say I feel this piece deserves to be placed “up there” with such legendary MJF offerings as Dave and Iola Brubeck’s “The Real Ambassadors,” Charles Mingus’ “Mediations on Integration,” Jon Hendrick’s “Evolution of the Blues,” Lalo Schfrin’s “Gillespiana,” Gerald Wilson’s “Theme for Monterey,” Terence Blanchard’s “A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina),” and more recent commissioned pieces by Maria Schneider (“Scenes from Childhood” and “Willow Lake”), Bill Frisell’s “The Music of Glen Deven Ranch,” and the pieces by Billy Childs previously cited.

Childs is one of the more “poetic” pianists/composers/arrangersI know of, given his interest in and inclusion of poetry. His I Have Known Rivers CD (1995) pays homage to poets ranging from Langston Hughes (the title poem recited by Wren Brom), Walt Whitman, Rilke, to e.e. cummings—Childs offering an instrumental (solo piano) “reading” of the latter’s “Somewhere I have never traveled,” handsomely, perceptively interpreted right down to its tender last line: “nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.” This performance may well have augured his brilliant solo interpretation of Nyro’s “New York Tendaberry.”

The Billy Childs’ Quartet performed just after the Map to the Treasure triumph, at 10:45 in Dizzy’s Den. They were ready, “up,” for more of the same, and so was I. Consequently, I did not remain in the main arena for a set by the hip-hop/rap group Roots (house band for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon), although I was curious, enticed by the names of its members alone: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Tarig “Black Thought” Trotter, Frank “Knuckles” Walker, “Captain” Kirk Douglas, etc. Critic Scott Yanow called the decision to book Roots “the biggest misfire of the weekend,” citing its “lack of jazz content,” and the group’s appearance did occasion a rush of complaint at the Patron’s Booth, although I talked to a few folks who felt the experience of hearing Roots was a Festival highlight. I suspect this set may have been a “test case” (similar to the  1994 appearance of Ornette Coleman with Prime Time, which set Festival old-timers scurrying to the nearest arena exit, even though Coleman had made his first appearance at the MJF in 1959, just a  year after the event started!)—the Roots’ appearance may have been a “statement” to show that, a gesture to a younger audience, nearly “anything goes” at the MJF. Also, apparently Roots had folks of whatever age up and dancing (at midnight!) and that does not always happen now even on a Saturday afternoon once devoted to the Blues.

Whatever, I had a grand time listening to another set by Childs, more than ably assisted by Brian Blade on drums (a miracle worker whose performance at the previous set was superb—a drummer so good, so inclusive, I feel I just might be able to listen to him play solo for three days, or in the company of another miracle worker I heard on Friday night with Carles Lloyd, Zakir Hussein on tablas); Scott Colley was on bass, and Steve Wilson on alto and soprano saxophone. The group provided a set so tasteful, filled with such a range of forms and sounds that I felt I might be experiencing a blend of Beethhoven’s sonatas and late string quartets (which I love) and any one of my favorite jazz aggregates (too numerous to name, although Wayne Shorter’s term of service with Miles Davis (1964-70), the saxophonist providing half the compositions to some albums, comes to mind, or Shorter’s own quartet of 2000 that featured Danilo Perez on piano, John Patitucci on bass, and … who else but Brian blade on drums?!).

Listening, I couldn’t help but think of two lines from the poem “Art Poetique” by Paul Verlain: “Car nous voulons la Nuance encore,/Pas la Couleur, rien ca la nuance!” (“Never the Color, always the Shade,/always the nuance is supreme!”)—for that was the case with this music, incessant nuance coupled with rich meaning and full power, as in Childs’ “Hope, In the Face of Despair,” on which Colley provides his huge sound, Childs his finespun classicism, Wilson handsome lines of invention, and … well, Blade everything he does (from subtle shading to sudden explosion–and always with that Billy Higgins-inherited smile on his face!). Yet the group can turn around and offer another Childs’ composition, “Backward Bop,” filled with hard edge drive—and close with a beautiful “Stay,” a few people rising to go before the tune commenced, prompting Childs to say, “Perhaps you could call it, ‘Go!’”—those couples never to know what they missed by missing this love song that epitomizes “la Nuance encore.”

The Billy Childs Quartet rounded off its Saturday night set in Dizzy’s Den with the addition of trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, a former Oakland teen who was a member of the Festival’s Next Generation Jazz Orchestra, now a full-fledged pro at age 32 who toured with the Monterey Jazz All-stars in 2013, and was featured earlier in the Map to the Treasure performance. It would be hard to top that set, but I felt this second appearance, of the quartet alone, ranks right “up there’ as well, as a highlight of this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival.

And now I must backtrack from Saturday night performances that stand out to Friday night, opening night. Festival offerings are now so rewardingly “dense” (in that word’s original Latin sense, densus, compact, or “arranged neatly in a small space”), that I seem to spend more time on the grounds (which now sport six venues in all) than I do in the main arena, but I always make it a point to hear Tim Jackson’s opening remarks, and stay to taste the “opening act” on the Jimmy Lyons Stage, whatever that may be—this year, the much touted vocalist Cecile McClorin Salvant.

At 7:30 pm, Tim kept it short and sweet, saying “Welcome! I see you out there and I feel the energy … We have a beautiful weekend of music ahead of us”—heartfelt words, I feel, and once again, as “Artistic Director,” he’d come up with a superb range of performers when it came to programming, variety and surprise—something for everybody! I’ll confess I had a “conflict of interest” with regard to Salvant, because just as she commenced her set, Charles Lloyd and his group Sangam (with percussionists Zakir Hussein, who I’ve already mentioned as a miracle worker alongside Brian Blade, and Eric Harland, 2014 Artist-in-Residence) had commenced their own set down in Dizzy’s Den  (the Festival’s simultaneous “embarrassment of riches” presenting its customary quandary), but I enjoyed what I heard from Cecile McClorin Salvant, a 24-year-old “phenom” at risk of being touted too fiercely prematurely, perhaps, but whose opening tune, “Yesterdays” (a Jerome Kern/Otto Harbach song first sung by Irene Dunne in a show called Roberta in 1933—three years before I was born!—and destined to become a jazz standard), was richly rendered. Salvant drew out (dragged?) the phrasing, as if those yesterdays have gone by quite slowly, in slow-motion perhaps (as they may have, for some), but her range is impressive, from deep cellar notes comfortably rendered to falsetto, the same.

Cecile McClorin Salvant paid homage to predecessors such as Judy Garland (“The Trolley Song”) and Carmen McRae (“Guess Who I Saw Today”), and there-in resided a reservation I do have: I’m not sure she, as competently as the standards have been absorbed and assimilated, has yet, at age 24, decided just who or what she is herself as a singer. She teased the meaning out of each note, testing each, but the approach struck me as mannered, somewhat indecisive, technique not always at one with the “story” at hand, struggling (or still searching) for appropriate effects, theatrical but too close, at times, to parody (the “hiiiigggh starched collar” in “The Trolley Song”), although “Guess Who I Saw Today” (Salvant has a keen sense of drama) came across beautifully, right down to its “surprise” last line: “I saw you!” (that person seen with someone he should not have been seen with).

Not wishing to miss seeing (and hearing) Sangam, I hastened (as much as a somewhat elderly gentleman with a cane can “hasten,” ho ho) down to Dizzy’s Den, took advantage of my Press Pass (although I do know the “crew” there fairly well by now), and went backstage (the Den itself packed) and stood against a wall behind Zakir Hussain, who was seated, lotus style, before  a host of tabla that ranged from a small drum with the circumference of a bagel to a large drum before his lap on which he could alter pitch from resonant basso upward, this drum flanked by medium-sized “squeeze drum” tabla, a total of seven drums embracing and embraced by him in a semi-circle, all of which he maneuvered as if he had the four arms of ego-destroying Shiva, or the six to ten arms of Lord Ganesh, as if Zakir Hussain were several drummers at work and play rather than just one. Across the stage, another drummer just as proficient, Eric Harland, let Zakir show his stuff, and then commenced to show his own on his own terms, on bass drum, toms, snare and cymbals: the two percussionists trading solo time, “team” time, and intermittent response time—this universe of drum talk offered in the service of saxophonist Charles Lloyd, 2014 Showcase Artist, whom I would see in three different settings before the weekend ran out.

Zakir Hussain     Sangam CD

Hussain, Lloyd, Harland

Pictured above are: Zakir Hussain, the Sangam CD cover, and Hussain, Eric Harland and Charles Lloyd taking bows.

Lloyd, a former resident of Big Sur whose playing still bears the tone and overall “flavor” of that generous sequestered place, and displays its range of mood (from sedately meditative to blatantly majestic), made a bed or nest for himself within the ongoing percussive landscape provided by Zakir Hussain and Eric Harland. I don’t think I’ve ever heard so many different shades of sound (an extended family of sounds) as those that emerged from Hussain’s assortment of tabla: everything from bashful bonks, metallic plonks and hollow gurgles and growls to quicksilver slaps and pats; slicing, belching, burping; sustained purring, melodic sanding and shading, hiccups, stepladder ascents in pitch and sudden or drawn-out declines, bottomless boiling to mountain top squeaks.

Harland would provide his own magic within or alongside that of Hussain: steady wire brush finesse, soccer-skillful bass drum footwork, setting and holding the pace on his ride cymbal, or going all out on the complete kit. Charles Lloyd might sit out and just listen, appreciatively, for a bit, then jump back in, “return” as if emerging from some prolonged mental journey (to, literally, God only know where), return on tenor sax or tarogato (a bright red Hungarian folk instrument with “deep Arata-Magyar origins,” shaped like a wooden soprano sax), or even piano (at which he is also adept): the reunion appropriately sublime or fierce, a celebration, buoyant, liquid, earthy, a joyous reciprocity—inspirational mutual accord. The group’s name, Sangam, suggests confluence, a meeting point or place, a gathering or coming together; triveni sangam in their case: a junction of three rivers that merge and flow as one—a totally free and unimpeded flow—and that is exactly what one hears.

In Steve Lake’s excellent liner note for the CD Sangam, Hussain refers to Lloyd’s “stadium-sized heart,” one that allows both Harland and himself to “canter and gallop,” rather than be restrained or “reined in” like obedient colts. Asking what key he should tune his tabla to (they have pitch) for a particular piece, Lloyd responded, “Oh, just tune to the key of the universe” (which, Hussain claims, is Bb—which is interesting, for that’s the key of the tinnitus I’ve had for twenty-seven years, an “affliction” I shall now look upon with favor, being “in tune” with the universe at large as I am).

The opening night Sangam set in Dizzy’s Den was another very special “right up there” (when it comes to highlight offerings at the Monterey Jazz Festival) event for me, and the last word I was to jot down about it in my notebook was “stupendous.” I have several CDs at home by Charles Lloyd, but was delighted to discover much of Zakir Hussain on YouTube, including an impressive six video documentary called The Speaking Hand, which tells the story of his life from his birth in Mumbai, India; being introduced to tabla by his father, Usted (which means “Master”) Alla Rakha; already touring (a child prodigy) at age eleven; to Hussain’s own present state as an “Usted” himself.

I did manage to catch a portion of Charles Lloyd’s set with excellent pianist Gerald Clayton (this just before the Billy Childs Quartet Saturday night in Dizzy’s Den), and enjoyed their tasteful melodic excursions; and then I heard and saw, on the main arena Jimmy Lyons Stage (as the opening act on Sunday night) a complete set by the Charles Lloyd Quartet, with Jason Moran on piano, Reuben Rogers on bass, and Eric Harland (again) on drums. Our weekend house guest, Dan Ouellette—who writes for DownBeat and conducts the magazine’s Blindfold Test at the Festival) has high regard for this group—and they proved all he said by way of praise true.

Their set started with a standard, “What’s New?”, and they played it new and short and sweet. Once again, critic Scott Yanow would get the words just right when he later wrote that the group provided a “wide-ranging set that would show that the 76-year old saxophonist is still at the peak of his power.” It was immediately apparent why critics such as Dan Ouellette and Scott Yanow find Lloyd worthy of continued respect and the group itself one of the more admirable (and exciting) aggregates on the scene today. As a pianist myself (of sorts), I could not help but notice, or “hear” right away (as a separate “item,” but perfectly in place with the whole) Jason Moran’s “comping”: tasteful offsetting melodic lines; right hand repetition both heightened and relieved by left hand invention; trills, sudden glisses, full fulgent chords, a percussive approach mixed with abundant nuance; dynamics galore—the whole bag of tricks, a genuine artist’s standard musical “vocabulary” seasoned with a “flavor” strictly his own: one that acts as the perfect complement to Charles Lloyd’s own unique tone composed of soft, meditative passages, overt plaintive wails, and original riffs.

Here’s Charles Lloyd on flute; the cover for the original 1966 Forest Flower: Charles Lloyd at Monterey; the quartet together; and Jason Moran alone.

Charles Lloyd at MJF Robert Wade photo    Charles Lloyd at Monterey 1966

Charles Lloyd Quartet   Jason Moran

Jason Moran is “weird” in that I don’t know of all that many pianists who can take the fully comprehensive, inclusive approach he does, who can mix such an eclectic outlook or so many disparate “means” so successfully, and yet retain his own singular voice. And the Lloyd/Moran matchup is, in turn, fully agreeable with Reuben Roger’s large-handed sturdy full-bodied bass work (yet he, too, can play “sweet” and soft on solos) and the remarkable drumming (those soccer-agile bass drum kicks at work again) of Eric Harland.

It’s a class act all the way, right down to Charles Lloyd’s seemingly casual, comfortable presence on any stage, large or small—the saxophonist living room “cozy” in his peaked knit hat and loose open-throat shirt, strolling about (when not playing) as Theolonious Monk did, but not intrusively, just offering encouragement “behind the scenes,” granting his sidemen maximum space of their own—then providing variety and surprise because, when he “returns,” comes front stage again (the audience never quite sure just what instrument he may have in hand: tenor sax, red taragato, flute, or maybe just an egg shaker filled with seeds or beads), the reentry will make full use of, “exploit” if you will (in his own serene manner), all of its ingredients—the group’s music so continuous that, no matter what instruments are employed, or even the tunes enacted themselves, the effect will be that of one continuous tune, a “suite,” a celebration of the spirit we all possess but may find ourselves, as audience, too shy or reticent, too hesitant to acknowledge in public—which is not the case at all with Charles Lloyd—and the audience loves it!

Lloyd may suddenly offer an occasional saxophone growl, but it’s as if he were merely clearing his throat in order to continue in the same sweet groove he was entertaining a moment before. Some of the songs offered were identifiable—such as “Forest Flower,” the piece with which Lloyd first established his reputation, or legend, at the MJF in 1966; and “Go Down Moses (Let My People Go),” the familiar spiritual; but if not, they carried Lloyd’s unique instrumental voice, or in the words of writer Andy Gilbert, a sound that soars “into the either, embracing the universe … incandescent.” And then there is the small shuffle dance of joy he may employ, pleased with what his sidemen have just come up with, or perhaps himself. At the close of their set, the Charles Lloyd Quartet (like Billy Childs’ groups before them) was rewarded with a well-deserved standing ovation.

Rather than attempt a full survey of the 2014 Monterey Jazz Festival’s weekend of music in this single post, I am going to save other favorite performances for the next verbal outing. I made new discoveries, such as pianist/vocalist Sarah McKenzie and her quintet, and vocalist Youn Sun Nan, along with excellent artists I’ve heard before, such as vocalist Claudia Villela and Harvey Wainapel (tenor sax), Booker T. Jones, trombonist Delfeayo Marsalas and his pianist father, Ellis Marsalas (the Patriarch!), fine pianists Harold Mabern and Geoffry Keezer, and also my buddy Dan Ouellette with his DownBeat Blindfold Test with guitarist Lionel Loueke.

Before I “leave,” I would like, here and now, to focus on one last group which I was eager to hear, live (I had their CDs), and that is drummer Brian Blade (about whom I’ve already raved) and The Fellowship Band, which appeared on the Garden Stage Sunday afternoon. Just as I had been “prepared” to appreciate Billy Childs’ Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro through CD listening sessions, so I was more than “ready” to appreciate The Fellowship Band by way of the CDs of theirs I have, and also an excellent article by Paul de Barros that appeared in the June issue of DownBeat, “Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band: Seeking the Greater Good.” De Barros makes it clear, from the start, that whereas The Fellowship Band “has not been prolific,” they are “a profoundly important band”—one for whom “fellowship” isn’t just a word, but “a creed.” Blades’ father was a minister in Shreveport, Louisiana, “an imposing man with a stentorian voice” (writes de Barros), a man who “preached at Zion Baptist Church and had a radio ministry.” Brian Blade told the writer: “I’m sure the first voice I heard in the womb was my father’s.” Brian’s mother was a kindergarten teacher, and that vocation provided first-rate nurturing as well.

The difficult arts of truly listening and giving back came naturally to Brian Blade, of whom saxophonist Wayne Shorter (Blade appears on Shorter’s multi-award winning CD Without A Net) says, “He’s like a tailor. He makes the clothes fit the person he’s playing and interacting with.” Blade has returned to his roots in Shreveport in several ways, having moved back to his hometown with his high school sweetheart (and wife) and seven of the ten compositions on The Fellowships Band’s CD Landmarks were recorded there. Blade attended Loyola University in New Orleans with the band’s pianist Jon Cowherd in 1988, playing “duo all the time,” and Cowherd is the main reason the drummer took up composing. The group is fleshed out with Myron Wilson on alto sax and bass clarinet; Melvin Butler on soprano and tenor saxophones, and Chris Thomas on bass. The tunes composed by Blade reveal his interest in word-songs  (an interest similar to that of Billy Childs; Blade himself has performed with Joni Mitchel, Emmylou Harris, and Bob Dylan).

Here’s Brian at the drums, smiling of course; The Fellowship Band together; the cover for the CD Landmarks; and the group on stage.

Brian Blade  Brain Blade and The Fellowship Band

Brian Blade Landmarks  Brian Blade and The Fellowship Band2

I have a strong feeling (which seems in danger of becoming solid belief) that at this time in our peculiar history, this era (no more peculiar, perhaps, than that of any time or era—but it’s ours to experience), the music needs (craves?) meaning, extra-musical meaning or purpose; and I was pleased to find Paul de Barros (responding to a quote from a longtime friend of Brian Blade, pianist Darrell Grant, “I think it is not a coincidence that Brain played the drums in his dad’s church; because music was spirit. That was its function. If you come at music that way, how can you not make it spiritual?”), write: “Blade’s beliefs also drive his urge to make a difference. He holds high ideals for what music can do, calling it ‘a cosmic, healing chemical’ that can ‘fortify our lives.’”

There was fellowship galore within the group on Sunday afternoon at the MJF. You could tell, immediately, just how much they love making music together: a “joyful noise,” both secular and sacred. Their set commenced in a comfortable vein, with tasty piano chords and just a hint of melody, bass clarinet and soprano sax emerging in perfect synchronicity: a handsome entry introduction of a handsome theme, laced with Blade’s subtle drum fill, this performance making it seem as though he were merely taking up where he’d left off the previous evening in the company of Billy Childs’ quartet, trading that tight unison for being perfectly in tune, in touch, with Myron Wilson’s delicious bass clarinet deep timbre and mood. Cowherd offered a fine extended piano solo, his introspective interlude giving way to a smooth ensemble close out.

Brian Blade did not announce the names of the tunes until the close of the set itself (moving directly from one piece into another, the whole presenting itself as a suite, a single song of celebration, as had that of Charles Lloyd’s quartet), but I think this first piece may have been “Landmarks,” title tune on the group’s most recent CD, a tune about which Blade has said, “The word ‘landmark’ seemed to have an arrow attached to it. The idea is that we’re here right now, and we’re passing signs along the way that mark where we are. I like the journey aspect of Landmarks, the trip the songs seem to comprise.”

The next piece, “Return of the Prodigal Son,” is from another CD, Season of Changes, and it has an enriching (not demeaning) mournful quality to it, is a sort of sophisticated blues, and it provided the joy of watching Brian Blade at work, seated behind a set of white pearl (vanilla-silver?) drums, cross hand action, switching arms from east to west, a single deft move executed with ease (it seems—but try it!)—along with his solemn smiling concentration on hi hat. Cowherd switched to a synthesized organ sound for a Gospel-flavored “Shenandoah” (also on the Landmarks CD), bass clarinet and tenor sax meeting in the center of a generous fuzz—the  set’s music blending religious outreach with bebop-flavored finesse to introspective or impressionistic melody: an instrumental conversation containing both solemn and playful import, heartfelt yearning and urging; and then: church was over, seemingly too soon, the set ending with Brian’s adaption of vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson’s tune ‘Highway One” rendered as Blade’s own “King’s Highway.”

Which is a good place for me to end this blog post—with some thoughts on collaboration, musicians working (playing) together for a common purpose or end, an activity characteristic of the groups led by Billy Childs, Charles Lloyd, and Brian Blade which I have focused on, and which I thoroughly enjoyed (cooperation or collaboration not an activity I see much evidence of elsewhere in the world today). As a writer, I find myself spending too much time alone, perhaps, staring at a blank sheet of paper, wondering when the words might arrive, waiting for the right “notes” to fill that empty space with, locked into my own isolated world, overlarge with fragile more than likely “fake” ego (someone out there actually cares!)—and I envy groups such as those I’ve just written about and, hopefully, found the right words for: envy their genuine fellowship, “familyhood,” the love they have for what they are capable of, together, perpetually listening to what each has to say alone and the beauty made when they talk as one.

On occasion, as a sometime musician, I’ve known that togetherness—and there is little else in the world (aside from that of close family and friends) that can match it—and it was a privilege to witness this “phenomenon” (from the Greek “phainomenon”: appearance) in all its acquired meanings: “something impressive or extraordinary”; “a remarkable or exceptional person; prodigy; wonder”; an appearance or immediate object of awareness in experience; Kantianism. a thing as it appears to and is constructed by the mind, as distinguished from a noumenon, or thing-in-itself”—to have had that experience at the Monterey Jazz Festival on the weekend of September 19-21, 2014.

Perhaps the best way to sum it up is to return to Paul de Barros’ article in DownBeat, “Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band: Seeking the Greater Good,” in which he said: “As a composer, [Blade] insists the music is ‘not just notes,’ but carries important, even urgent messages. As a person, he prompts unconditional praise.” These two entities—art and a praise-worthy person—do not always coincide or arrive together, and it’s a rare and wonderful thing to behold when they do.

Next blog: more Monterey Jazz Festival.

On Writing Memoir–and the Art of Narration in General

Patricia Hamilton, who published my book The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir (Park Place Publications, 2013), has commenced a column in our local paper, Cedar Street Times (Pacific Grove, CA). Patricia’s column is called “The Importance of a Strong Family Narrative,” and it is focused on documenting one’s own life and passing what you’ve learned and known on to “future generations.”

Patricia contacted me and asked if I would respond to four questions posed by Dr. James Birren, “a pioneer in the field of gerontology,” questions which address the benefits of “writing our life stories and sharing them with others.” All too true to my nature (and “Blog Baroque” style), I responded to the questions in full, and answered them as completely as I could. In her first column appearance, Patricia only had room for brief quotation from my replies, so I would like, here and now (given the space that a blog provides), to present what I sent her in full—and even add some additional thoughts on narration in general. And I may slip in some photos at a couple of points, as  “illustrations” of what I’ve been talking about (I hope), or just to liven things up a bit, visually.

Here are my responses to the suggested benefits:

  1. Increased self-knowledge by telling your story and listening to the stories of others:

When I undertook the book project that took six years to complete—The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir—my major intent was to explore areas of my life I had deliberately avoided or ignored. I grew up outside of Detroit, Michigan: a boy who just wanted to be a boy who played ice hockey (goalie, no less), liked to box (a sport made popular by Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson), play jazz piano–and hopefully find a girlfriend. However, that boy was inundated with (imposed upon, to his mind) tales his parents told of “illustrious ancestors.” I tried my best not to pay much attention to them, swamped as I felt I was with tales of relatives who, as for their American history, went  back to 17th century New England and Middlesex County, Virginia; Civil War heroes on both sides (Confederate and “Yankee”); and notable 19th century authors who wrote praiseworthy memoir and hobnobbed with not just Mark Twain himself but Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. It would take this boy–me–a number of years to “reconcile discordant elements.” The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir told the story of that endeavor—and the extent of “increased self-knowledge” I would acquire was considerable.  Listening, at last, to so many “stories of others” and facing up to my own, I learned that we are everything that surrounds us—and I found myself part of an extended family I came to love.

(2) Awareness and appreciation of having lived through so much:

We all hope to get “better” somehow with age. Memoir is one way to make that happen. Aristotle called an act of improvement (rather than one that entails slowing down or falling short) “entelechy”: the fulfillment of potential. In theology, Thomas Aquinas applied Aristotle’s concept to pure being in a state of realization. Today, we can—by way of memoir and a thorough examination of family history—keep our individual worlds large and as complete and inclusive as possible. We can make what we have lived through ourselves and what others have lived through come alive again, on compatible terms—and the result is greater awareness of ourselves and of the gift of life which is the possession of everyone.

And here are photos of the good folks who helped put my book together–Patricia Hamilton of Park Place Publications and Christopher Hebert, editor–with the book itself in the middle. The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir is available at: http://www.amazon.com/Inherited-Heart-American-Memoir/dp/1935530712/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1415460740&sr=1-1&keywords=The+Inherited+Heart%3A+An+American+MePatricia Hamilton   Front Cover  Chris Hebert

(3) Greater comfort with other people by sharing experiences and struggles:

The lives I discovered—by way of books about my relatives and others written by them (I discovered that both my father’s and mother’s families were “filthy” with writers: good writers!); research at the Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville; visits to former “Minor” homes in Virginia, and taped conversations with my “Yankee” mother, learning the history of her family—did teach me that we are linked, through inheritance, by all that surrounds us. I discovered that many of these folks leapt off the pages of books and letters in which they had been buried for years, some to the point of becoming “close friends,” as if they were living contemporaries. I not only shared the experience of writing the book with them, but contemporaries: my immediate family and friends; Chris Hebert (the best editor I’ve ever had); and Patricia Hamilton of Park Place Publications, responsible for making the book available in print—for coming up with the innovative idea of the postage stamp-sized photos (with captions) in the opening pages, and for getting me started on a blog (this one: Bill’s Blog, with WordPress).

(4) Fewer regrets as to our life choices and “the road not traveled”:

When I finished The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir (an undertaking that came to 476 pages, “edited” down from more than 600), I did not have room left for regrets regarding life choices of my own (one of which had been waiting until somewhat advanced age to start this project). I no longer saw options in terms of Robert Frost’s “two roads,” but saw my life (and that of many others) as a very wide river, a veritable Mississippi of “roads” made up of endless options I was in a position to take advantage of. “Memoir” was originally distinguished from reminiscence writing in general in that it was an account written by someone of importance who had lived through a significant era—but what is that other than “finding oneself” in a particular era? We are ALL someone of importance, and every era is significant. And the way to make that fact known is to explore your own life and family history and write about it—“not for glory and least of all for profit,” as William Faulkner said (although perhaps a touch of both just may fall your way), but just to tell your “story” and that of all the others who helped make you what you are.

Time out for photos I used as “prompts” for The Inherited Heart—some of which I did include in the book itself, both “postage stamp-sized” at the start and in an eighteen page photo gallery–and I think I’ll contrast the “eras” in which they were taken, just for kicks. Here’s my great-grandfather’s first cousin’s son in 1861, Charles Minor Blackford, age 27, and me with his Civil War sword in Lynchburg, Virginia in 2008; my mother and father with their first born son, my brother Lance; my mother and father, at about 50 years of age, in the living room of the home I grew up in; and me feeding our two sons, Tim and Steve, when I was 24.

Charles Minor Blackford  CSA Cavalry Capt Bill Minor  3.  11  Bill as Dad with Tim and Baby Steve

When I’d finished with the responses Patricia requested, I realized that, at the time she asked me to shape them to Dr. Birren’s set of benefits, I was reading (and still am; it’s a very large book!) Thomas Mann’s major work, Joseph and His Brothers, sixteen years in construction, four “books” actually (The Stories of Jacob, Young Joseph, Joseph in Egypt, Joseph the Provider)–amassing 1492 pages (in the masterful John E. Woods translation). If a major task of memoir is making the past come alive again, as best you can, I can think of few writers who have done a better job than Thomas Mann, although he did so not with personal history but Biblical history in Joseph and His Brothers. For Mann this effort was an act of  imagination (and considerable research), not memory—or at least not memory in the sense of personal reminiscence; but he employs a narrative technique throughout that I find remarkable: one which, if I had the nerve to try it on for size, I would love to attempt to make use of in memoir. A paradox: Mann’s work reads like “memoir,” an account of one person’s experience throughout a particular era, although that era is devastatingly distant from ours and the overall point of view is not that of Joseph but the author himself.

Throughout Joseph and His Brothers, Mann takes his audience, the reader, into complete confidence, as if the reader were (for each moment of time in the book) participating in the process of re-telling the traditional story (or stories), is actually involved in the writing to the point of  assisting in and sharing decisions as to just how the tale should be told. The reader becomes a co-conspirator, as it were, when it comes to what to include, and what not, and also the approach to storytelling overall.

For example, when faced with depicting the ambivalence and intricacy of Joseph’s brothers’ feelings after they have deposited a beaten, bruised, and naked Joseph, shorn of his coat of many colors (the garment itself ripped to shreds), in the dry well, Mann writes: “Some instances are best served with only half-words,” previously explaining: “In the end, what they had done to their brother they had done out of jealousy—and everyone knows what emotion is wrenched and distorted into jealousy. To be sure, when one looked at Shimeon’s and Levi’s well-oiled brutality any reference to that emotion might seem quite inept, which is why we need to speak obliquely, in half-words.”

That “we” is not just the classic editorial journalistic “we.” Mann means “us”: you and him, reader and writer. He seems to be consorting with his readers, seeking their approval of what he intends to do, or not to do. After such consultation with the reader as to whether he should name “that emotion,” Mann makes the decision on his own to resort to “half-words.” On other occasions he’ll issue a “warning” as to possible conclusions (“Once again, let readers be warned that they ought not consider Jacob’s sons to be especially hardened louts and deny them every sympathy.”), or he will take the reader into full confidence (without providing a “no disclosure” clause in the “contract” between them!), stating, “Just between us,” when revealing why Ruben has left the brothers behind to pursue his own “very different activities.”

Mann grants useful information to the reader, so that both reader and author can decide what to make of it and just how much to reveal or “tell”; or he comes right out and asks the reader, “Would it be saying too much if one were to include in his story how even now his thoughts [Joseph’s] built an airy bridge between these meadows here and his clan at home, his father and little Benjamin?” Mann abdicates authorial privilege, allowing the reader to contemplate whether the writer may have gone too far–even though the author goes right ahead to include what he’s just asked if he should include!

Mann will also warn the reader against “playing favorites” when it comes to the characters brought to life (those both author and reader have brought to life?). He warns readers to keep their distance from, or maintain control of their sympathies (a warning to himself as well?), saying, “We are easily moved to call some situation unbearable—it is the protest of fiercely outraged humanity, well intended and even beneficial for the person suffering. Yet such protest may easily also seem a bit ridiculous to someone whose reality is ‘unbearable.’ Those who feel outraged sympathy find themselves in an emotionally impractical relationship with a reality that is not their own; they put themselves in the situation of someone else who is already in it—an error of imagination, for precisely because of his situation he is no longer like them. And what does “unbearable” mean when it must be borne and one has no choice but to bear it as long as one’s senses are intact?”

Mann is constantly reminding the reader to be on guard with regard to her or his overall attitude toward the characters in Joseph and His Brothers—again, as if both reader and author had to collaborate on just how to make the right decisions, mutual decisions, as to how the characters might best be represented or rendered lifelike.

At times, he comes right out and offers an apology, or a disclaimer: “We are greatly concerned to impress upon everyone’s imagination a lively and real sense of such all-embracing discomfort. And yet, precisely for the sake of life and reality, it is likewise our task to ameliorate things out of concern that imagination not gain the upper hand and lose itself in empty emotion. Reality is sober and unimaginative—that is its character as reality.” In other words: Please help me decide just how far–and in which direction–I should go, Dear Reader! And in a subtle manner, he’s also teaching us, the readers, how to write–the important choices involved!

I love it! What fun! He actually cares about his readers! What a different, unique “twist” on a writer’s “superior” stance—a stance Mann had every right to adopt, for he’s obviously a genius and his own authorial prestige was large and lofty. I can think of few writers who can match his majestic sentences, sentences prolonged but hypnotic (like music) in the manner in which they unfold—and he has extensive, extraordinary knowledge (hard won knowledge, I know) of human behavior, just what makes us “tick,” both on the surface of things and down in the depths (of the well, of “the pit,” so to speak) of both self and “this world” we think we know so well and another some folks may anticipate. Throughout much of Joseph and His Brothers, Mann’s own wisdom strikes me as being as overwhelming as that of Jacob, Abraham, or maybe even God.

Subtle observations such as “Sympathy with pain that we must admit we have caused is very much like repentance” put the reader in the brothers’ place, so the realization goes two ways: theirs and ours, if we “buy” the truth of it. These “truths” as one-liners pile up, and I love ‘em: “For nothing happens twice, and everything is forever only like itself.” Yet, equally true, because looking ahead (to situations that will repeat themselves in Joseph’s life): “He had to descend into the grave again, for a man’s life revolves several times, bringing the grave and birth with it once more. Man must become several times over, until he has fully become.”

Time out once more! Let’s take a break from reading to look at some more photos I used as prompts for the new memoir project, “Going Solo.” Here I am playing tenor guitar at age 15, then playing a different tenor guitar at age 37; me with a pipe while attending Pratt Institute as an art student, age 20, and then visiting friends in San Miguel de Allende (Mexico) age 44; as a fledgling pianist age 14, then privileged to play with local greats Jackie Coon and “Fast Eddie” Erickson at age 61, and as a seasoned pro (ho ho) age 74 (and thanks again, Gerry Ginsburg, for that cool photo!).

Bill with tenor guitar age 15   Bill with Guitar

Bill with Pipe   Bill in San Miquel

 Bill as fledgling pianist Bill with Jackie Coon and Eddie Erickson    Bill at Piano at Wave Street

Returning to Thomas Mann: he constantly reminds the reader of the difficulty (the dangers, the risks, even though it may seem a convenience) in telling any tale just one way, especially a story with so many overlays of history, reinvention, and mythical fabrication as that of Joseph and His Brothers. Robert Graves’ “There is one story and one story only/That will prove worth your telling” is definitely not Mann’s way of working.  He constantly reminds us of “the welter of motives that make life so murky”—and the multiple choices, options, we will run into, as both writers and readers, if we wish to get the story (stories) right. It is as if, faced with genuine storytelling as the delightful yet demanding art that it is, we need all the help we can get—both audience and writer!

Mann is a master of truly getting beneath the surface of a character’s life, and he may even leave the reader out, not consult her or him if he feels there’s an important aspect of personality the reader may have overlooked or ignored. Joseph’s true thoughts, when he is initially left in the pit, the well, “were not with his automatic and superficial pleas and wails, but rather somewhere below them: and below these thoughts other truer still moved as their shadows, their ground bass, their deepest current, so that all together, arranged vertically, they resembled agitated music that his mind was occupied with directly—top, middle, and bottom—all at once.” Mann is a master of disclosing such “agitated” music—of going where so many writers (and angels too, I’ve been told) fear to tread. He is a master of mixing and balancing both angelic and agitated music—and he produces a music all his own. That music includes humor, abundant irony, gentle wisdom, intelligence, invention, imagination, wit, originality, and suggestions (not statements of advocacy or coercive slogans that threaten to dry up or parch the prose) as to what may constitute a good life (dare I say “morality”?)–but he keeps, always, to the “very natural story,” and let’s it do the work.

In his novel, Snow White (an hilarious retelling of that tale), Donald Barthelme halts the raucous narrative halfway through the book and provides a quiz—as if to catch the reader off guard and see if she or he is really paying attention, or even still awake. If I can work up the nerve, after I complete the sequel to The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir I am, at present, hard at work on (“Going Solo”), I just may, should I live so long, commence a third memoir (Wow! I’d have a trilogy!) with a brilliant first sentence (something in the nature of “Call me Ishmael” or “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” or “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed”), and may then turn directly to the reader and ask, “Please, will you kindly tell me just where, from this point on, we—you and I, Friend Reader–should go?” Or maybe I’ll  be brave (or foolish) enough to ask readers if they feel I got off to the best start (whatever that first sentence may be) and seek permission to continue on my own!

Thank you, Thomas Mann, for the options.

Next Blog out, I will present a full summary of this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival (soon I hope, but perhaps in two parts)—a description and appraisal long overdue (well, at least two months), but kept in mind (Dear Reader, just for you) as potential writing all that time!