Oliver Sacks, Consciousness, and the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival

I have long been a fan, a devotee, when it comes to the work of the late great Oliver Sacks. I assigned his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat each semester I taught Humanities at the local college; I’ve relished Musicophilia as a pianist; and now, as someone who recently turned eighty years of age, and learning to accept and accommodate vestibular and vision-related medical “issues,’ I have gained much by reading Migraine and The Mind’s Eye.

What I like most about Sacks’ work is his “upbeat” attitude: the many hopeful, sanguine stories he told, working as a neurologist with patients who find ingenious ways to compensate for deprivation, with what they’ve lost, and thus turn loss into gain—possibly even finding their lives more meaningful than before, responding to their existence with increased creativity and imagination, rather than a sense of defeat or despair.

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To start anew, always! The great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam said, “Yesterday has not been born … it hasn’t even taken place yet.” Commenting on Mandelstam’s sense of renewal, of “transcendence” (finding life a great “gift” even in the midst of personal oppression inflicted on him at the time of The Terror), Kevin M. F. Platt has written, “Past epochs had become available in a new way for reinterpretation and reinscription with truer and more valid meaning”– “uncharted territory” for the future.

For the purpose of this essay, I do not intend to name or dwell specifically on the nature of my own “impairment” when it comes to sight and my balance system, but to focus on a rich awakening that has taken place with regard to the future, to what neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandrun, in his book The Tell-Tale Brain, has called “the conceptual twists and technical turns we are in for,” discoveries that are going to be “at least as mind bending, at least as intuition shaking, and as simultaneously humbling and exalting to the human spirit as the conceptual revolutions that upended classical physics a century ago”—what neuroscientist David Eagleman, in his book, The Secret Lives of the Brain, calls the “vastness of inner space” (“The cosmos is larger than we ever imagined, and so are we.”): the human brain as a “perplexing masterpiece … the most wondrous thing we have discovered in the universe, and it is us.”

Out of what I consider equal portions of healthy curiosity and “dire necessity,” I have undertaken a sort of “campaign” to understand, as much as I can, the nature of the “mind-brain mystery,” just how those three pounds of jello at the top of our heads function and why (and how) they may fail to. In the process, beginning with “vision” (every book I could get my hands on, from R.L. Gregory’s early Eye and Brain: The Psychology of Seeing, to Brain and Visual Perception by David H. Hubel and Torsten N. Wiesel–tracing their pioneering Nobel Prize winning discoveries–to Oliver Sack’s The Mind’s Eye), I have acquired a host of new words and phrases in my vocabulary which allow me to trace the amazing pathway of vision from retina to visual cortex: “fovea,” “vitreous humor,” “rhodopsin,” “hyperpolarization,” “ganglion cells,” “optic chiasma,” “thalamus,” “lateral geniculate nuclei,” and “superior colliclus.” It’s a great trip when it works, and a fascinating excursion even when compromised—the miracle, the gift, of sight.

By now, in light of the title of this essay, my musician/musical friends and blog followers may more than likely wonder just what the hell any of this has to do with this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival, but I will ask you to bear with me a bit longer, for what I’ve discovered about the visual system (how it works and when it doesn’t—and “consciousness” in general) has everything to do with the manner in which I saw, heard, and felt this year’s musical offerings. I hope to make the amazing blend, the mix of what was offered (externally) with what I was perceiving (internally) as interesting and engaging as I can (it certainly was for me!)–and I will get to a first example—the nature of the “teamwork” that can take place in the “global neuronal workspace” of the brain itself and within a jazz combo in which the constituent parts or performers interact by truly “listening” to one another—as soon (given my “Baroque” nature) as I can.

In the past, because I have a Press Pass, I would roam the Festival grounds at will, bouncing from venue to venue in synch with whatever overall plan I had of what I hoped to witness. Often, having used the back entrance of a venue such as Dizzy’s Den, I’d find my niche close to the stage and, squatting there (full lotus Zen style), take notes on the music being played—but, now, that is no longer possible, my mobility also restricted by a vertigo condition kept under control for twenty-seven years yet recently (with the advent of faulty vision) returned with a vengeance. For the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival, I was curious as to just how well I might manipulate the throng of joyous jazz fans cruising the fairway that runs alongside the host of venders and colorful displays offering everything from food to jazz “artifacts” of considerable variety. I realized that I would have to be extremely careful taking my place among that crowd, even with the cane I now employ as the third leg of the riddle Oedipus was asked to solve.

Consequently, when I showed up Friday night for the 58th Monterey Jazz Festival, I had a very specific list of times and settings for the performances I wished to see and hear, knowing I would remain for a full set of each, rather than spend time attempting to “sprint” to a suitable portion of several sets, as I had in the past. “Think small,” “Think continuity,” was my new mantra (of necessity) , and I also–attempting to keep my difficult balance–carried with me another host of bright and brilliant terms (another favorite book from my reading on consciousness is Bright Air, Brilliant Fire by Gerald Edleman, whose important work was introduced to me by Oliver Sacks)–ingredients related to the vestibular system:  “superior, posterior, and lateral semicircular canals”; “utricle and saccule,” “endolymph fluid,” “cristae and ampullar nerves,” “calcium carbonate crystals.” Again, it’s a great trip when it all works, and a fascinating excursion even when compromised—the miracle, the gift, of possessing a balance system.

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The Festival program advertised vocalist Cyrille Aimee as “rapidly rising,” a “widely acclaimed young jazz singer” who’d won both the Montreux Jazz Festival’s Vocal Competition and the Sarah Vaughan International Vocal Competition, her musical outlook international in scope, the vocalist having grown up in Samois-Sur-Seine, sneaking out (as a teenager) to “gypsy encampments,” mesmerized by the music of “those who followed the spirit of Django Reinhardt.” She added Paris, Cameroon, Singapore, and the Dominican Republic to places of residence before finally arriving in Brooklyn, where she lives now.

Having performed at a Jazz Legends Gala Honoring Chick Corea the previous evening, Cyrille Aimee brought a group featuring two guitarists—Olli Soikkeli and Michael Valeanu—with Shawn Conley on bass and Dani Danor on drums to the Night Club on Friday night. When I walked in, my first impression (I could only find a seat at the far end of the room, where I could hear but not see so well) was of a highly animated mime dressed in black, similar to her countryman Jean-Louis Barrault, whose every gesture I’d relished in the film Les Enfants du Paradise (“Children of Paradise”): Aimee herself a delightful blur of well-formed motion: vital, vibrant, sexy. Her voice, capable of a wide range of intonation, of nuance, had a girlish edge to it, a fey quality, but coy, not mannered or “cute,” allied emotionally with a fully mature approach to the mood and tone of whatever she chose to sing—as was the case of the tune I walked in on, or the tail end of it: the title song from her debut CD: It’s a Good Day.

The next song, which I heard all of, one devoid of any “girlish” inflection, took me  by surprise. It was Jim Morrison’s “People Are Strange.” The first thing I noticed, once the group was into this tune, was just how smoothly, how tightly together—in spite of whatever attention she called to herself (her gestures, the quality of her voice)—they were. Cyrille Aimee became a part of a unique blend, a unique matchup of her “sidemen” and herself, the equally young and vibrant guitars (one with an immediately engaging “gypsy” flair or tone, the other providing a smooth bop “feel” that offset the Reinhardt mode perfectly) paired with bass and drums. The five “units” or components of this group acted as one—a single, totally compatible “family,” with no degree of separation, even though Cyrille Aimee stood (or moved) in the forefront—the whole melting, as Teilhard de Chardin said of a religious experience, “into a single vibrant surface wherein all demarcation ceased.”

The interplay between the two guitars was first-rate: the rapid fire driving Reinhardt sound offset by the smooth cool—in the tradition of Barney Kessel, Jim Hall, Kenny Burrell, Tal Farlow—inflection. “People Are Strange,” a gutsy song (“Faces look ugly when you’re alone …”), was represented as a throaty, bluesy ballad, the effect enhanced by the tight interactive guitar work. Aimee emphasized the isolation, the alienation of the “voice” in her own unique, flexible manner (she did wonderfully strange things with the word “strange”), and I couldn’t help but think of some of my recent reading on “consciousness”: Antonio Damasio writing on emotion occurring in an autobiographical setting in which “feelings generate a concern for the individual experiencing them. The past, the now, and the anticipated future are given the appropriate saliences … concern for the individual self.”

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“People Are Strange” was followed by “Love Me Or Leave Me,” Aimee—in her appealing French accent—acknowledging the Billie Holiday and Nina Simone legacy of this song—one taken at a breakneck tempo (“Nina did it very fast, but we do it faster”), the interaction of guitars a hallmark again: Django hot sizzle played off against a “cool” mood sustained even at the frantic pace. The two guitars traded off on a “chase scene” worthy of Nat “King” Cole and Les Paul with Jazz at the Philharmonic—no winner but much good fun and respect on both sides. The song closed with Cyrille Aimee’s breathless “no one … un … less … that some … one … is you!”—and a sudden stop.

With her gift for pantomime, for significant gesture, Aimee is a delight to watch (even from the far end of a hall and with failing eyesight!) as well as listen to, and she maintained the French-flavored (Paul Verlaine: “Car nous voulons la Nuance encor…”) eroticism, announcing, “Shawn and I are going to do it right now,” introducing a duet between her and bassist Shawn Conley on “I’m in the Mood for Love,” playful, tasteful “suggestion” present throughout the tune, along with good clean pitch, articulation, and invention—and the vocalist’s hair tossed and shoulders hunched in fine time with the music.

The set was filled with an interesting array of tunes: Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall” (taken at a stuttering Calypso tempo—“Living crazy, that’s the only way … let the madness and the music get to you”—then a mix of tempos and textures, a percussive build up, the bright exchange of the two guitars—“There ain’t no rules, it’s up to you … it’s time to come alive”);  a song in French: “Nuit Blanche” (cheerful, skipping in the rain in Paris—“Mes levres tremblent au souvenir”—a tinkling feel, then hard scat to another breakneck tempo gypsy strum, the familiar rich mix of syllables and grooves, the group sliding smoothly from one to another); a song—“All Love”—a handsome  melody, written by Django Reinhardt’s son, the lyrics provided by Aimee herself, soft ballad nonintrusive guitar backing, tasteful, tender—“Birds flying high above you, and the smell of rain … memories you keep inside you”—handsome guitar coda ending; and an impressive original, autobiographical: “One Way Ticket”: “Smooth road, falling asleep on my baby’s shoulder … one way ticket to somewhere … I hope we never get there”: slow train ride rhythm at the start, bowl tapping drone sound in the background, her “little girl” voice on this one, giving way to scat in time with the trek, wide open rhythms at the end, and another sudden stop.

“One Way Ticket” was written about a trip Cyrille Aimee took to India (“I had some really crazy experiences.”). Hers, it appears, has been a well traveled road—as has that of her musicians: drummer Danny Danor from Israel, guitarist Olli Soikkeli from Finland , bassist Shawn Conley from Hawaii, guitarist Michail Valeanu from France and Sicily. By way of an introduction at the end, Aimee said, “These guys are not only great musicians, but they’re good looking as well”—and they are. Then, each of the musicians introduced another, a very fitting touch for such a tight as ”family” group, all boyishly agreeing that Cyrille Aimee “takes care of us like a mother”—a charming conclusion  to what I felt was an excellent, truly enjoyable set.

Taking that very “together” set with me in mind when I left, again I couldn’t help but think of what I’d read about one of the major breakthroughs in recent neurobiology. In his book, The Invention of Memory: A New View of the Brain, Israel Rosenfield devotes a section to previously mentioned  (Bright Air, Brilliant Fire) Gerald Edlemen’s Theory of Neuronal Group Selection, in order to show that brain function does not depend on “localized function and fixed memories,” but “large numbers of different neuronal groups” (units of “selection”): “a set of interconnected neurons that function together.” Various scientists and philosophers have given different names to such brain-wide information sharing or neuronal syncrony: Stanislas Dehaenes’ “global neuronal workspace,” Antonio Demasio’s global assembly or “converging zones,” the “neural coalition” of Francis Crick and Christof  Koch, even John Selfridge’s “pandemonium,” a term employed to describe the joyous spontaneous union that occurs within the overall music shaped and played by the brain’s Big Band.

Cyrille Aimee’s was not the first set I’d taken in on Friday night. A “traditionalist” by nature, I’d made certain to be present each year (since he’d become General Manager of the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1992) when Tim Jackson parted the main stage (now the Jimmy Lyons Stage, named after his predecessor) curtains and welcomed those in attendance to the event—so I was on hand for that ritual at 7:30 Friday night, but the figure that emerged to welcome us was not Tim Jackson. It was a gentleman named Clint Eastwood, who announced his name and the fact that he loves jazz—this by way of introducing the “Geri Allen Erroll Garner Project: Concert by the Sea”: a first “act” I had anticipated eagerly.

Detroit-born Geri Allen is one of my favorite jazz pianists and the set in which she participated, along with pianists Jason Moran and Christian Sands, with Russell Malone on guitar, Darek Oles on bass, and Victor Lewis on drums, was a celebration of the 60th anniversary of pianist Erroll Garner’s Concert by the Sea, a local (Carmel, California) jazz show produced by Lyons prior to the Monterey Jazz Festival itself. The program for this year’s Festival stated that there had been no plan to document the original concert, but “in one of the genius-level happy jazz accidents,” Garner’s manager, Martha Glaser, spotted a tape-recorder a “well-meaning local fan” had set up backstage, and Glaser acquired a recording from the owner that would eventually become a “runaway hit for Erroll Garner and Columbia Records”—regarded as one of the best-selling jazz records ever.

Here are: The original album, The Complete Concert by the Sea, Erroll Garner, Erroll Garner with Martha Glaser, Geri Allen, Jason Moran, and Christian Sands:

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A three CD set, The Complete Concert by the Sea, co-produced by Allen, Steve Rosenthal, and Jocelyn Allen, had been released prior to the 2015 MJF, with notes by Geri Allen in which she says, “ I became aware of Erroll Garner as a high school pianist learning about jazz and growing up in Detroit, Michigan in the ‘70s. I was moved and inspired by his innovative approach to playing and he opened up a world of possibilities … Garner embodied the very spirit of swing,  improvisation, and the blues.”

I became very much aware of Garner as a high school student and fledgling pianist myself (1950-1953), and not only collected every record of his I could get my hands on (including his 10” LP series of recordings for Savoy), but I heard him play live at an extraordinary concert at the Masonic Temple in Detroit on April12, 1952: a Piano Parade “world premiere” that featured Meade Lux Lewis and Pete Johnson (boogie-woogie), Erroll Garner (with John Simmons on bass and Shadow Wilson on drums), and the legendary Art Tatum, with Slam Stewart on bass and Everert Barksdale guitar. Just to make that evening even more exceptional than its billing, Art Tatum’s plane was grounded in Chicago due to a snowstorm, and he had to be driven to Detroit by an automobile that consumed enough time to allow Erroll Garner to play a set that lasted for two and a half hours!

The woman who would become my wife (five years later) was with me that night (even though she had a date with someone else), and Betty remembers the sight, the glint, the flash of Art Tatum’s emerald ring, even though we had seats high in the balcony. He had arrived well after midnight and provided a full set himself. What an extraordinary evening that was!—and one that prepared me well for Geri Allen’s tribute: a set that found her seated at one of three grand pianos, flanked by Jason Moran (to her left) and (right) a pianist I’d not heard perform before: Christian Sands (billed as “an emerging jazz force”), each participant paying homage, in her or his own unique way (along with the contributions of guitarist Russell Malone), to the artistry of Erroll Garner.

The three pianists, with Geri Allen stationed at the matrix, offered both brilliant unison and equally bright solo work: fine very free interpretations which, at first, struck me as too free to serve as homage to Garner’s own style–as not very “Garnerish” at all–but when I got used to the extent of license involved, I realized that each of the pianists had truly absorbed and assimilated the Master in her or his own way, declining to go the route of strict imitation in preference to independent, individual homage, proving Geri Allen’s declaration that “jazz is such a timeless experience.” The three pianists did offer familiar Garner fare from the original Concert by the Sea LP (“April in Paris,” “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” and ‘It’s All Right with Me”), with the addition of tunes not found on the LP but included in the concert itself. Eleven of these pieces can be found on the three CD set now out, The Complete Concert by the Sea.

The celebration allowed each pianist to not only pay respect to Garner’s gutsy, idiosyncratic, off beat (literally!) style, but their own individual contributions to the world of jazz. The result was what I jotted down as “concert eloquence,” a somewhat grandiose display of individual poise, pride, and purpose—a sort of “After Erroll Garner” or “Beyond Erroll Garner” Baroque homage. Familiar as I was with both Geri Allen and Jason Moran’s styles, I was impressed by the unique approach of Christian Sands, who did commence “It’s All Right with Me” in distinct “Garner” manner, and then showed the full range of the genuinely two-handed piano he is capable of (reminding me of another of my favorite pianists: Marcus Roberts), graced with a fine feel for dynamics, fulfilling the “promise” extended in the Festival program notes: “pianistic technique in abundance … a fresh look at the entire language of jazz: stride, swing, bebop, progressive, fusion, Brazilian, and Afro-Cuban … he possesses an extensive vocabulary of patterns, textures, and structures, which allow him to play in about any style.”

The Erroll Garner Project set closed with one of the Master’s own original tunes: “Gemini,” allowing all three pianists (and Russell Malone, who’d been masterful on “They Can’t Take That Away from Me”) and Victor Lewis (who provided a fine solo on “Gemini”) to jell on a fitting conclusion to a first-rate set: a homage not just to Erroll Garner but the history of jazz itself as an art form. This entire Jimmy Lyons Main Stage session was well documented, enhanced, visually (I had no trouble seeing it!) by way of a large screen that displayed the hands of each performer in action (grand hands: “It’s all anatomy,” pianist/composer/arranger Don Schamber once said to me, commenting on the fact that Oscar Peterson’s hands were so large he could play 14ths, whereas with my meager mitts I have to “roll” 10ths). Having just seen and heard what I did, I couldn’t help but “flash back” to what I’d witnessed that night in 1952 when Erroll Garner played for two and a half hours in Detroit—and that lead to thoughts on what I’d recently read about memory and, once again, consciousness.

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In previously mentioned Israel Rosenfield’s The Invention of Memory: A New View of the Brain, after showing that the brain is not a “repository” (in which images of the past have been fixed, “imprinted and permanently stored”) but a highly creative “generator” of memory, the author devotes, as I mentioned with regard to “teamwork,” Gerald Edleman’s theory of “neuronal group selection”: “maps” made of neuronal groups: information distributed among many such maps, with “incessant reference back and forth, or venting,” so that “categorization” may take place.

Rosenfield writes: “We recollect information in different contexts; this requires the activation of different maps interacting in different ways that differ from those of our initial encounter with the information”—a skill acquired “in the course of experience … We do not simply store images and bits but become more richly endowed with the capacity to categorize in connected ways.” In support, Rosenfield quotes Frederic C. Bartlett (Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology): “Remembering is not the re-excitation of innumerable fixed, lifeless and fragmentary traces. It is an imaginative [italics mine] reconstruction, or construction built out of the relation of our attitude towards a whole active mass of original past reactions or experience … It is thus hardly ever really exact, even in the most rudimentary cases of rote recapitulation, and it is not at all important that it should be so.”

Rosenfield returns to Edelman’s hypothesis: “Each person, according to his theory, is unique; his or her perceptions are to some degree creations, and his or her memories are part of an ongoing process of imagination.” Reading this, I thought, “My God, the process of memory—and the work of the mind/brain–is no different from what a writer does making art, or a visual artist—or a jazz musician! I found the idea thrilling. Memory is just like the rest of living: each of us writing the novel, creating the story of our lives. So I was now in a very favorable position to fully enjoy the imaginative reconstruction of my experience of the majesty of Erroll Garner from my first encounter in 1952 through the homage paid to him in 2015!

If, so far at the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival, I’d had solid musical lessons in collaboration (or teamwork) and memory, a set I would have to wait until Sunday night to experience, the Festival’s final night, would impart a valuable lesson in what it might be like to produce exceptional art without possessing sight.

Festival program notes let me know that pianist Justin Kauflin, whose complete set I would attend that evening, began his musical journey at age four, with Suzuki violin lessons, “adding piano four years later.” He was, by age six, “performing in concerts, nursing homes and weddings, eventually becoming concert master for several orchestras.” During this time, he also “endured many trials, particularly losing total vision by a rare eye disorder.” Mastering five grades of Braille and cane mobility, Justin, after a decade of classical violin and piano, switched to jazz piano at the Governor’s School for Performing Arts in Virginia. He attended the Vail Jazz Workshop, Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead Residency, received “top honors in jazz festivals across the U.S.,” and turned pro at age fifteen.

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In 2004, Justin Kauflin graduated, “alongside his sighted peers,” in the top 1% of Salem High School (Virginia), was Valedictorian at the Governor’s School, and received a Presidential Scholarship to attend William Paterson University in New Jersey, where he was “taken under the wings of legendary trumpeter Clark Terry, and took lessons from pianists Mulgrew Miller, Harold Mabern, and James Williams.” A documentary five years in the making, Keep on Keepin’ On, focused on Justin’s relationship with mentor Clark Terry, was “Oscar-shortlisted for best documentary at the 2015 Academy Awards.”

Sunday evening in Monterey, Justin Kauflin opened his set, assisted by Mike Cottone on trumpet, Katie Thiroux on bass, and Mike Witek on drums, with an up tempo “Brotherhood of Man,” with strong, straightahead, clear, deftly articulated bop lines, block chords (reminiscent of Red Garland), solid left hand comping matched with bright clean runs, synchronized two-octave-separated configuration—all the tricks of the trade offered with the focus and intentionality of an artist free of inhibition and distraction. “Brotherhood” was followed by a handsome solo piano intro to “Stardust,” the tune itself, once the trumpet stepped in, taken at an easy-going tempo, filled with subtle invention mixed with formal restraint that allowed the pianist to provide a “Stardust” (in spite of the song’s frequent use, and perhaps even abuse) all his own.

With an equally amiable voice, Justin announced (following “Stardust”), “All of the music is dedicated to Clark” [Terry], and he preceded to play tunes that can be found on his appropriately named second CD, Dedication. In 2008, having graduated Summa cum laude with an Honor’s degree in Music, having moved to New York, Justin Kauflin, age twenty-three, “produced, led, composed and performed on his first CD,” Introducing Justin Kauflin; and in 2013, having participated in Quincy Jones’ World Tours, he worked with Jones on the second full-length CD, Dedication, released in 2015: #6 on CMJ Jazz Chart and #10 on Billboard’s Traditional Jazz Chart.

Original compositions I heard from Dedication on Sunday night were “The Up and Up,” “Elusive,” and “The Professor.” The first commenced with a skipping Latin beat, the theme composed of the large block chords the pianist is fond of (and me too!), then settled into delightful fleet single note excursions, with steady left hand comping and resourceful, inventive emphasis—the entire group just swinging, the close out a strong melodic descent against the steady Latin vamp again, and a quick, joyous stop! “Elusive” begins with a slow chromatic ascent, then descent, injected into a rhythm set by the drums. Mike Cottone carried the theme on trumpet, and Justin Kauflin provided his clear, clean, concise comping: the tune “elusive” in the sense of a full range of effects offered, suggesting musical artists from Bach to Bud Powell (and Mulgrew Miller), but resisting any set or fixed “categorization”—the close a five note theme loaded with subtle minimalist repetition enhanced by a drum solo. “The Professor” honors Miller by way of another large chordal opening, concert “classical” flourishes, but tastefully simple and direct melodic lines, first-rate “principles of selection” adhered to throughout, each note a decision among options but seldom an accident–refreshingly spontaneous. As further honor to Mulgrew Miller, Justin Kauflin played his mentor’s own composition, “Return Trip,” a sonorous, joyous, anthem “open road” piece combining praise, prayer, and limitless respect.

Justin Kauflin learned some hard, tough non-musical lessons when he moved to New York City, discovering that “visionless independent mobility” was “painstakingly slow at best and life-threatening at worst.” To improve the situation, at the Seeing Eye clinic in Morristown, New Jersey, he was matched up with a black lab named Cindy, his service dog for three years in NYC (there’s a fine photo of Justin and Cindy out for a walk on the cover of the Dedication CD). He then returned to Virginia, where he would “headline regularly at the Havana Nights Jazz Club” before he won the VSA International Young Soloist Award, was voted “Jazz Artist of the Year” in VeerMagazine, was selected as a semifinalist in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition (Gene Seymour writing that Justin possessed “more shape, heft, and narration rigor than most of his peers”), and was “discovered” by Quincy Jones, who co-produced the Dedication CD.

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Speaking of that album, Justin Kauflin has said, “When first conceptualizing this project, I realized there was so much for which I am extremely grateful. It was then that I decided to dedicate this album to all the people who gave of themselves selflessly in order to help me along this journey.” The list that followed included God (“center and the source of the music I create”), family and friends, and, feeling himself “a perpetual student,” many “wonderful teachers,” including Mulgrew Miller (“eternally grateful for every second” he was able to spend with him—“such a gentle and humble spirit”) and “CT” [Clark Terry]—“Thank you for sharing your beauty and joy with the world.”

In an interview conducted by Marta Ramon (JazzTimes), which she began by acknowledging the “perceptible spiritual energy that lights Kauflin’s compositions,” the pianist stated that “developing a career in jazz is not just perfecting one’s musical craft, but like most things in life, it’s more about people and community. Spending time with CT allowed me to see the human side of being a great performer/musician/educator … Now, I make it a point to cultivate relationships with all those with whom I come in contact. I will always strive to grow as a musician, but I now understand how much more important it is to develop and grow as a human being.”

Justin Kauflin’s fine “character” (as in a complex of mental and ethical traits that individualize a person) shows up in his music, along with his abundant skill and imagination (with regard to both “embracing” tradition and feeling totally comfortable with, as he puts it, “a lot of music outside of traditional jazz that I’ve been drawn to”), and also the capacity I admired (for my own personal reasons) of remaining totally focused, composed, not at all distracted in performance—for which I would like to add the word “crystallization,” thinking of something the poet previously mentioned, Osip Mandelstam, had to say about that state: “O poetry, envy crystallography, bite your nails in anger and impotence! For it is recognized that the mathematical formulas necessary for describing crystal formation are not derivable from three-dimensional space. You are denied even that element of respect which any piece of mineral enjoys.”

Yet, in spite of Mandelstam’s protest, he–in poetry–and Justin Kauflin, in music (what I was privileged to hear in what he played on the Garden Stage at the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival) are able to take us to a dimension in which genuine crystallization takes place!

Returning to the man whose name initiated this essay (both in the title and opening paragraph), someone who knew more than a few things about crystallography (in both science and the art of writing), Oliver Sacks, in his book The Mind’s Eye, offers a fascinating account of the compensations of three people who lost their sight and actually feel they have gained by it. In his book, Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness, John Hull describes experiencing (in Sack’s words or paraphrase) “a gradual aftermath of visual imagery and memory, and finally a virtual extinction of them (except in dreams) … a loss of the very idea of seeing … a prerequisite for the full development, the heightening, of his other senses,” finding “an authentic and autonomous world, a place of its own … shifting his attention, his center of gravity, to the other senses, and these senses assumed a new richness and power.”

In his book, Out of Darkness, Zoltan Torey provides a full account of (again in Sack’s words) “developing a remarkable power of generating, holding, and manipulating images in his mind,” constructing “a virtual visual world that seemed as real and intense, to him, as the perceptional one he had lost—indeed, sometimes more real, more intense.” “I replaced the entire roof guttering of my multi-gabled home single-handed,” Torey writes—and Sacks comments on “the great alarm of his neighbors at seeing a blind man alone on the roof of his house–at night (even though, of course, darkness made no difference to him).” Having gone blind, Dennis Shulman found “the heightening of his other senses had increased his sensitivity to the most delicate nuances in other people’s speech and self-presentation”—through smell and emotional states (“states of tension or anxiety they might not even be aware of”), Shulman “no longer taken in by visual appearances, which most people learn to camouflage.”

In The Mind’s Eye, Oliver Sacks devotes a full chapter to his own experience of being diagnosed with an ocular melanoma in his right eye, and he takes us through the entire agonizing process: from radiation treatment to the loss of central vision, the scotoma then taking over his entire eye (”I had the sense that my visual cortex was now in a heightened or sensitized state, released to some extent from purely perceptual constraints”), hallucinations (“interesting in a way: they show me the background activity, the idling, of my visual system, generating and transforming patterns, never at rest”), losing stereoscopy (the “complete and sudden flattening of the visual world … crossing streets, dealing with steps, just walking around—things that required no conscious attention before—now required constant care and forethought.”), followed by another hemorrhage that cost him whatever peripheral vision remained in his right eye. He realized that “time will tell whether I am able to adapt to this new visual challenge.”

Being Oliver Sacks, he turns the entire “experience” into one that would transform his life “in a radical way,” finding that “questions of love and work, of what really matters most, have taken on a special intensity and urgency”—turning himself into a patient the account of whose “experience” would provide inspiration. Acknowledging his gratitude to the many patients and correspondents who had granted him their own case histories,” Sacks celebrates “the complex workings of the mind and its astounding ability to adapt and overcome disability—to say nothing of the courage and strength that individuals can show, and the inner resources they can bring to bear, in the face of neurological challenges that are almost impossible for the rest of us to imagine.”

Oliver Sacks 5       Oliver Sacks 4

I find the words, and the life, of Oliver Sacks inspirational—and a sound way to end this essay. I will continue my account of the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival in the next blog (the extraordinary pairing off of Bella Fleck and Chick Corea; then Ambrose Akinmusire, John Santos, Snarky Puppy, Duchess, Dan Ouellette’s DownBeat Blindfold Test with Pete Escovedo and Shiela E., the Monty Alexander Trio, and more), but in a manner that focuses on the performances themselves, devoid of any asides on “consciousness.” I do want to thank you for allowing me to approach Cyrille Aimee, Geri Allen’s Erroll Garner Project, and Justin Kauflin as I have—as I, given the nature of my own “experience” at this time in my life, heard and saw them perform. Thanks!

 

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Author: William Minor

I am a writer and musician who has published twelve books: most recent: Gypsy Wisdom: New & Selected Poems; also The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir, a comic novel (Trek: Lips. Sunny, Pecker and Me); three books on jazz (most recent: Jazz Journeys to Japan: The Heart Within), and seven books of poetry. A professional musician since the age of sixteen, I have released three CDs (most recent: Love Letters of Lynchburg--spoken word and original musical score commissioned by the Historic Sandusky Foundation in Virginia). I was educated at The University of Michigan, Pratt Institute, The University of Hawaii, UC-Berkeley (MFA in Painting and Drawing), and San Francisco State College (MA in Language Arts). I taught for thirty-two years (English, Creative Writing, Humanities at The University of Hawaii, Wisconsin State University-Whitewater, and Monterey Peninsula College). Originally trained as a visual artist, I have exhibited woodcut prints and paintings at the San Francisco Museum of Art, The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Smithsonian Institution. I have been married to Betty for fifty-nine years and we have two grown sons: Timothy and Stephen. We live in Pacific Grove, California where, retired from teaching, I just write and play music, both of which I love.

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