Stillness, Part Two

At the close of my last post, Part One of “Stillness,” I stated my intent to explore, in Part Two to follow, two more books related to the subject: David Brazier’s Zen Therapy: A Buddhist Approach to Psychotherapy and Thomas Merton’s Contemplative Prayer–along with three talks from jazz bassist David Friesen’s lecture series Beyond the Note…Jazz Music Essentials. I have had the pleasure (honor) of providing liner notes for several of David Friesen’s CDs, and have great respect (as I have, obviously, for the three writers discussed in the first “Stillness” piece) for his artistic skill and his ability to articulate all he has learned “over the past 60 years, performing in concerts and recording with jazz legends, [with his] own groups and presenting jazz workshops worldwide in over 31 countries including the USA.”

In Part One, I let the three writers represented speak for themselves (through extensive quotation from their books), as if they were welcome guests, “experts” taking precedence (rightfully) over whatever I might have to say about the art of stillness–and I hope to continue that approach in this post. I am, at present, reading another book—Brother Paul Quenon’s In Praise of the Useless Life: A Monk’s Memoir—which I feel would enrich our discussion of “Stillness,” and because its author was a novice under Thomas Merton at their Trappist monastery (Abbey of Gethsemani, in Kentucky), I will take a look at these two exceptional individuals together.

But first: David Brazier, British author and psychotherapist known for his writings on Zen Buddhism. Leader of the Amida Order, David Brazier describes himself as a “Buddhist priest, psychotherapist, social worker, and poet.” The book of his we will discuss is Zen Therapy: A Buddhist Approach to Psychotherapy. (Photo credit: thebuddhistcentre.com)

David Brazier Author    David Brazier Zen Therapy

Zen Therapy is a serious book, scholarly, systematic, carefully structured—seldom flirting with the frisky, spirited, teasing, testing “koan” side of Zen practice, but offering ways in which that practice and its principles function (principles introduced in Sanskrit, then defined in English; for example: Obstructions in the ordinary mind “are called kleshas. A klesha is any mental factor which produces turmoil in the psyche. Kleshas are whatever seems to prevent us thinking clearly or acting sensibly.”)–principles that might enhance or improve Western psychiatry. You will encounter just about “everything you ever wanted to know” about Zen practice here, and I found the book immensely valuable in that regard.

A chapter on “Buddha Nature” begins with a question” “What is our deepest nature?” And the answer arrives embodied in another question: “We may have a sense that there is something fundamentally sound at the core of human nature, but can we express it in our actual lives here and now?”—which in turn takes us to Zen, which, as therapy, “requires a strenuous attempt on our part to become open-minded and open-hearted—to get out of the dead box [the image of our lives as a “stone box, a coffin”] of preconditioned feelings.” Therapists need “confidence that the perfect mirror is there”—allowing clients to trust their own “buddha-nature” (buddhata in Sanskrit): what in the West is known as “a reliable constructive growth process called the ‘actualizing tendency,’ thus making room for human potential.” David Brazier’s “call and response,” or back and forth exchange of cultures (this dialogue), is handled effectively throughout the book.

Our buddha nature is “our participation in the cosmos and is the cosmos participating in us.” It is the “spiritual nature of existence: the ‘other power’ … The Zen vision, therefore, is one of primordial unity, not one of separate existence … The buddha nature is simply the fact that the universe lives in us and we in it. This identity of self and cosmos is the ultimate foundation of Zen ethics.”

Getting closer to “stillness,” David Brazier offers a chapter called “Tranquility.” He presents a very pleasant picture of a state in which our entire being is “suffused with ease.” Self-conscious-ness has faded. as if you are “sitting on the edge of a dead calm lake which extends as far as the eye can see and beyond … we are simply aware, mindful.” This is samadhi: Sanskrit for “total self-collectedness”: the highest state of mental concentration that a person can achieve–“a state of profound and utterly absorptive contemplation of the Absolute … a state of joyful calm, or even of rapture and beatitude, in which one maintains one’s full mental alertness and acuity.”  The section which directly follows this paragraph is entitled “Stillness”! David Brazier mentions the practice of zazen (‘za’=sitting), sitting in meditation. “Zen practitioners discovered the best way to control the mind is to control the body. When the body is perfectly still, the mind quietens down.” First time out, practitioners find that the compulsive states of mind will “do their best to disturb us” (even through pride: “I am doing this very well. I’m better at this than the other people here.”). But the body remains calm when the mind fights it, or disrupts it, and eventually “the mind becomes calm too.”

I’ll mention, briefly, two more chapters from Zen Therapy: A Buddhist Approach to Psychotherapy: “Mindfulness” and “Karma” (As I found in Part One of this “Stillness” blog, each book discussed contains a wealth of wisdom I could quote from endlessly, if I had requisite space and time, which I do not). “Mindfulness is both radical introspection and direct connection with the phenomenal world.” It’s not just a matter of looking inward. It’s more a matter of “being fully present in each step of life”—or as we learn in the earliest teachings of the Buddha, in the Sutra which tells us: “Do not pursue the past. / Do not lose yourself in the future. / The past no longer is. / The future has not yet come. / Looking deeply at life as it is / in the very here and now, / the practitioner dwells /in stability and freedom.” Living fully in the moment!

According to David Brazier, Karma (another Sanskrit word) is the “law of moral consequence …   all deliberate actions of body, speech and mind produce immediate effect in the life continuum, which are seeds stored for future germination. They will bear pleasant or unpleasant fruit according to their nature.”  The “message” seems clear: in Buddhism “there is no judgment: just, the world is so constructed that we bring joy or trouble upon ourselves.” The last sentence in David Brazier’s book is: “A real therapy is one with a vision, not only of the individual person, but also of how the whole planet is to be healed.” Happy Karma Everyone!

I fell under the spell of Thomas Merton’s writing in 1953, when I was seventeen—and discovered this author who, having graduated from Columbia University with a B.A. in English, was accepted as a novice at the Abbey of Gethsemani (in Kentucky) during the first Sunday of Lent in 1942. In 1946, his manuscript for The Seven Storey Mountain was accepted by Harcourt Brace & Company for publication. This book, Merton’s autobiography, was written during two-hour intervals in the monastery scriptorium as a personal project, and appearing in 1948, received critical acclaim. I was attracted to it not only because it was written by a monk, but because that monk, at Columbia, had been a passionate jazz fan, Thomas Merton’s cultural proclivities having taken hold when jazz was thriving in NYC.

Here are photos of: Thomas Merton with jazz vibraphonist Dick Sisto; Merton with the Dalai Lama–and two of Thomas Merton’s books. (Photo credits: guides.library.duq.edu; Louisville Magazine; merton.org/dalailama/)

Thomas Merton Duqueane University  Thomas Merton The Jazz Monk with Vibraphonist Dick Sisto

Thomas Merton with the Dalai Lama National Catholic Reporter    Thomas Merton Contemplative Prayer      Thomas Merton Seven Story Mountain

I relished The Seven Story Mountain, and went on to read his early monastic books: Seeds of Contemplation, The Ascent to Truth, The Sign of Jonas, Bread in the Wilderness. At seventeen, I was “attracted” to the potentiality of becoming a Trappist monk myself—until I went to “The Big Apple” (as an art student at Pratt Institute) at age nineteen, and a beautiful, talented, brilliant Irish lass (a fellow student), introduced me to the poetry of Hart Crane and Baudelaire, along with earthly delights–and saved me from the life of contemplative silence I had considered undertaking–but left me with an interest in “stillness.”

My favorite of Thomas Merton’s many books is Contemplative Prayer, in which he “brings together a wealth of meditative and mystical influences–from John of the Cross to Eastern desert monasticism–to create a spiritual path for today.” The book has a brilliant introduction by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, who offers personal recollections of Merton and compares the contemplative traditions of East and West. In the first paragraph of his Introduction, Thomas Merton states: “In positive terms, we must understand the monastic life above all as a life of prayer. The negative elements, solitude, fasting, obedience, penance, renunciation of property and ambition, are all intended to clear the way so that prayer, meditation and contemplation may fill the space created by the abandonment of other concerns.”

He defines prayer, contemplative prayer, beautifully, as “simply the preference for the desert, for emptiness, for poverty … The contemplative is one who would rather not know than know … Only when we are able to ‘let go’ of everything within us, all desire to see, to know, to taste and to experience the presence of God, do we truly become able to experience that presence with the overwhelming conviction and reality that revolutionize our entire inner life.” (He also states that the genuine contemplative accepts the love of God on faith, “in defiance of all apparent evidence.”). This is followed by another paradox: “Contemplation is essentially a listening in silence, an expectancy. And yet on a certain sense, we must truly begin to hear God when we have ceased to listen.”

Such spiritual ambivalence “proved of true value” when seventeen year old Paul Quenon (author of another totally engaging book I am reading now: In Praise of the Useless Life: A Monk’s Memoir)–when he served as a novice under Thomas Merton at Gethsemani. Fr. Louis (Merton’s name as Novice Master; the two had a twenty-five-year gap in age, which seemed “more like forty years from [Quenon’s] point of view as a seventeen-year old”) opened the novice’s eyes on a horizon that stretched from the medieval Cistercian fathers to Muslim Sufi mystics and modern Hasidic writers, from sacred scripture to contemporary poets like Rainer Maria Rilke. Paul Quenon felt Fr. Louis (Merton) inspired an attitude of “openness, inclusiveness, and integration.” When the novice asked him about a word he’d heard that was new to him, existentialism, seeking clarification, Fr. Louis replied that it had to do with “knowledge through personal experience.” When Paul Quenon requested an example, Merton grabbed a Bible and read from Psalm 107: “Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the mighty waters; they saw the deeds of the Lord, his wondrous works in the deep … [The waves] mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths; [the sailors’] courage melted away in their calamity … they cried to the Lord in their trouble … he made the storm be still … Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love.” Quenon comments: “I had no idea we were hearing from existentialists every day in the psalms—a philosophy as old as that!”

The novice concluded that, as a spiritual director, Fr. Louis seemed to be mostly nondirective. “I expected something more from him,” he writes, “but what I got was space to breathe, to be myself, and to develop at my own space.” Whatever correction Merton offered was indirect. He would describe how a third party, unnamed, was in the habit of thinking or acting. “I might guess who it was,” Quenon writes, “but the real point was not about somebody else but about me.”Thomas Merton applies this subtle approach often in his book Contemplative Prayer: “True contemplation is not a psychological trick but a theological grace. It can come to us only as a gift, and not as a result of our own clever use of spiritual techniques.” And again: stating that all the paradoxes are reduced to one: “Being without desire means being led by a desire so great that it is incomprehensible. It is too huge to be completely felt … True emptiness is that which transcends all things, and yet is immanent in all.” For a true contemplative, emptiness is “pure love, pure freedom … It is love for love’s sake. It is a sharing, through the Holy Spirit, in the infinite clarity of God.” (Photo credit: abbeyofthearts.com)

Paul Quenon In Praise of the Useless Life    Paul Quenon Abbey of the Arts

Because we are going to turn our attention now to the words of a masterful musician, I will end this section on our two monks with some of Paul Quenon’s thoughts  on the importance of music. He writes: “Some people remark on  how youthful some older monks look, and I reply that the secret of their vitality  is simple: they sing.” He tells us that monks, standing in choir, sing seven times day—and he feels that “frequent repetition of psalms after years of familiarity has its own value … Psalmody draws me along, farther and wider, stretches me almost painfully at times, and deepens my empathy for the human race … The boundary of my soul is dissolved; the person I usually am becomes broader; the center of expression is shifted from me to what is beyond, beneath and around me.”

I first heard David Friesen perform at a small club in Monterey, California, and wrote about him in our local newspaper in 1988. I was so impressed with him then, and with all that has followed in his brilliant career, I have been writing about him ever since: in jazz magazines (DownBeat and Cadence: I conducted a five hour interview with David at IAJE in New York City and it was published in the latter, in two parts, in 2005); liner notes for seven) of his CDs; and I wrote about him in two books: on his scene-stealing 1977 appearance–in Monterey Jazz Festival: 40 Legendary Years; and his USSR tour with Paul Horn—in Unzipped Souls: Jazz Journey Through the Soviet Union. I thought I knew just about all there is to know about David, until I recently sat down and transcribed three of the ten “talks” he gave included in his recent Beyond the Note…Jazz Music Essentials lecture series. I’ve long admired David Friesen as an educator (by way of individual YouTube pieces on Jazz), but this latest series proves him a masterful speaker on the art form he has made his life’s work: an superb “teacher” who can make an infinite range of material (and experience) immediately accessible—and with a great deal of “charm” (yes, that’s the right word!), a genuinely affable, personable, fully winning presence to boot!

(Here are two photos of David Friesen: playing solo at the 1977 Monterey Jazz Festival, and now (Photo credits: billminorblog.wordpress.com; Anthony Pidgeon: teutonwines.com)

David Friesen MJF 1977    David-Friesen The 13th Floor

David Friesen’s talk on “Listening and Communication” begins with a direct declaration of its main theme: “Music is a listening art form. What the artist receives depends on what he hears. What he hears depends on how well he listens.” He states that this doesn’t happen automatically on the bandstand—and that musical artists need to get “in the habit of listening. It’s a daily thing.” Why? “Inside this flesh there’s a spirit—that part that knows everything about me, knows what nobody else knows: the privacy of my soul. That makes me unique. There’s only one of me, and when I go on the bandstand to play music, I do not suddenly put on a music mask that makes me a musician.”

An individual is the same person on the bandstand as he is off it, and what is heard depends on how well he or she listens, so you have to get in the habit of listening. How we respond on a daily basis is “something that can be practiced without a musical instrument.” David Friesen here introduced the analogy of a “classroom” situation in which students are distracted from what the teacher is saying, from listening to it and absorbing it, by the door opening and a late student walking in. “We’ve got to learn to put the focus on, to concentrate on what’s the most important thing in the moment—which is what the teacher is saying.” David applied this situation to all human relationships, and the unfortunate irony that we are too often not listening to what a speaker in front of us is saying, but thinking of what we are going to say ourselves: how, in a sense, we are not listening to what it is we will respond to! The speaker might be expressing “pain, sorrow, or joy, but we are not responding to the depth of that person’s need.” Consequently, we have got to practice listening to all the situations we encounter in life. Musicians must do this so that, while playing on the bandstand, they will truly be paying attention–listening!—to what’s going on.

At this point, David paused, then said, “It works for me,” adding “It isn’t rocket science.” Such casual “asides” are part of the charm of the way he approaches each subject: his “delivery” always on a truly human level. He handles the shift to “Communication” in the same way. In commonplace human situations, we can either respond or not respond to what’s being said to us; and it’s best to wait until the end of a phrase before we respond. “It’s the same thing when we’re playing music. When another individual is playing a solo, allow the ideas to move along, and when the idea has come to completion, then add to the story yourself. Or not—but you heard it, so you can leave it alone, or add something to it. The gymnastics of playing takes intense listening—100%  concentration! Everything we learn in the practice room should give us the confidence, the technique, the flexibility to take our eyes off ourselves and respond creatively—and it’s going to be a different situation every time we play with someone. No two people are alike, and we can’t use the same licks … [and here, again, the humorous aside], well, some people do, all the time … but we have to learn to add to what is going on in the moment; you have to have respect for yourself in these situations.  Improvised jazz is daredevil stuff. You’re making split second decisions, and if your ears aren’t tuned in to every little thing, forget it! Learning to stay in the moment: that’s the one thing you’ve got to learn. Theory and technique are fairly simple, in comparison. You’re serving other people’s needs, so you take your yes off yourself, and you’ve got to be prepared to go where the soloist is going to go.”

Here are some more pertinent quotes from “Listening and Communication”: “On the bandstand, what do I listen for? The time feel. How is the drummer communicating with me (If not, it could be a difficult situation playing with that person). The efficiency of the person you’re playing with will determine what sort of chances you take—the rhythmic elements you interject. You can hear the level of the individuals you are playing with. Some have certain gifts others may not have … I listen for emotional things: the texture, the ego, the joy, fear, aggression, humility. Hearing this will cause me to respond in a certain way … In my own group–the Circle 3 Trio—I have no arrangements. I like to leave the music open. I trust these two individuals. I trust their musicality—the dedication they have to the music. It’s OK if mistakes are made. The craft of playing this music is in how fast you can re-group: to make the music as seamless as possible. Accepting each other. Jazz is full of good manners.”

Other “listening” procedures recommended are: listen, thoroughly, to the great groups: those that Miles Davis, who knew how, put together (“sidemen” John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner. Bill Evans), Oscar Peterson, The Modern Jazz Quartet, Art Blakey. David Friesen himself has played and recorded with Chick Corea, Mal Waldron, Denny Zeitlin, Glen Moore, Bud Shank, Clark Terry—so he knows firsthand how great musicians  respond to one another.

Here are photos of three Greats well worth listening closely to: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans (Photo credits: gq-magazine.co.uk; npr.org: Jan Persson; newjerseystage.com)

Miles Davis British GQ mag photo    John Coltrane NPR Photo

Bill Evans crossyed pianist photo

But on the act of transcribing solos, David Friesen advises: “Don’t get trapped in ’emulating.'” He recalls when he first started playing the music, and felt shy, “condemned” by better musicians, frightened to “take chances.” The cure for that was practicing 10 to 12 hours a day (and I remember being amazed at such devotion from our interview), until he felt confident, acquired enough technique to “take my eyes off myself,” and felt free of “preconceived concepts,” free to be himself in the music. “Great listening opens up communication (helps others play better); we are all stripped of fear. Life is not perfect, and jazz reflects life in its entirety. It has to do with love, with mercy; that’s the substance that goes into each note—that’s the substance that touches people’s hearts.”  David Friesen ends this lecture with the perfect maxim: “Listening is our life preserver in the ocean of sound. Without it … we drown.”

David Friesen’s lecture on “Patience” begins with the observation that the term may not sound that important musically, but it has much to do “with the substance we put into the music”; it denotes the musician’s “character, that calm endurance that allows a musical line to come to completion,” to not be so quick to “come out of an idea or phrase.” Here he employed another analogy: while driving a car, the inclination is to take the first exit on the freeway, rather than wait for the second. Playing with other musicians, we should allow each phrase to complete itself “as a story, instead of rushing through.”

He cited the example of “random thoughts,” the distractions we are all too familiar with in ordinary life, and says, “This is the way a lot of individuals play ideas in music”—moving too quickly from one idea to another, but there’s a story that has to be told.” He cites the dictionary definition: “Patience is enduring difficult situations.” We practice with metronomes to get “good time”; we practice intonation, scales, and arpeggios—“but how do you practice patience? By persevering through difficult times.” Patience will allow you to not criticize yourself. “You will have the patience to truly hear what you are playing. You can practice certain licks in your sleep, but they may have nothing to do with what’s going on around them when playing with other musicians. You have to take the time [and patience] to separate yourself from those licks and truly listen to the others, so that what you’ve practiced will come through in other ways. Patience is a very important commodity in music.”

David Friesen here told an extended, but totally relevant tale, of meeting John Coltrane, who was going through his “sheets of sound” phase (“Lots of notes!”), but even then, Coltrane possessed “great great patience. His calmness shown forth, his greatest asset that allowed him to do the things he did”—as a soloist and in a group. David mentioned that he plays frequent solo concerts himself, but with no one else playing with him, he requires patience to hear the music, “to follow the notes and the pulse, to feel the energy and where its taking me … rather than forcing things to happen. Patience allows the music to have its own power, its own grace.”

“We need patience to forgive ourselves, to forgive others—to allows the music to grow without forcing it or through manipulation. And there are some ways that we can acquire patience in our lives—by setting up tasks we have to persevere through. David Friesen mentioned that “a lot of books and been written about jazz, many,” but he referred to a time when he wished to dispense with them, and would just go to the piano and play a chord and then find out which notes worked best with it. “It’s not that I didn’t trust the books, but I wanted to find out what pleased me by myself, because sometimes what pleased me, playing music with others, didn’t please them—and sometimes what pleased them, didn’t please me. I had to find out how to create and mold my own personality in the music. I had to bring out in the music who I was as an individual.”

David began to come up with different tasks for himself. He would take his bass and find out where the notes he liked were on it. “Sometimes those notes in the lower register wouldn’t work well with the harmony, so I had to explore to find out which notes worked best.” He acquired “a panoramic view, melodically, of what did work best. Another thing I did was take the diminished and whole tone scales and write out my own exercises. I didn’t just pick up a book and just play the same exercises that a thousand other musicians were doing … while those books can be helpful, it’s not carved in stone that this is the right way to play. The right way is to find out what works for you—and how you can get your personality out there.”

Creating his own exercises “took a lot of time, but this is part of the persevering through difficult tasks … ‘paying our dues, we used to say’—Stop, wait, watch what happens; don’t move too quickly; in a band, take the time to express yourself and ascertain what’s going on with the other musicians.” David here offered an excellent example (a bassist working with a drummer) and the “tact” required, through patience “to keep a band together, and not create bad feelings by talking too quickly (criticism) or moving too fast—and he offered a beautiful extended example of one of the exercises he created for himself, which involved intricate “painstaking” settings for metronome time and the bass—exercises which, I’m sorry to say, I cannot represent here in detail (for lack of space), but I invite you to explore yourselves through the “Patience” video itself.

[To buy a lecture topic or the entire lecture series, contact David Friesen at:  cpm@davidfriesen.com ]

In the next section of this lecture, he did say he felt that, although digital gadgets have made certain processes “quicker,” they have eliminated “the very important patience we need,” and “lowered the quality of artists overall”—through the “condemnation and criticism  musicians go through from other musicians”: the “burden this puts on young artists, especially those with extreme originality … You have to have real strength in your life and a calling to know who you are and why you are doing what you are doing.” You have to listen and “move on,” not let criticism “get us to the point that we quit playing … Paying your dues is the only way that patience can be cultivated in our lives as a human being and as a creative artist.”

True Patience has nothing to do with limiting the notes, but the quality of the notes, the quality of the attack on the instrument, so patience plays an almost invisible role in our music. The attack, yes: the way you hit the string, the power you put into it. How long you hold the string down.” David mentioned young players in New York City emulating older players, but added that, at the time these artists were playing, “the strings were higher, so it took time to press the string down and let it up, and keep the tempo up—to get that singing sensation out of the notes, out of the instrument. To do this takes patience. You’ve got to allow yourself the ability and the confidence to hold the strings down longer.”

“We go through doorways when we utilize characteristics that make us better musicians—to play better under all kinds of situations … but when we go through those doors, there’s a whole room full of ideas and means we can use: a vast room to explore other parts of our character and the character of the music … There are great musicians out there with unbelievable technique, but what I am looking for is the substance of the music, and it takes time for that to develop, like great wine, a great vintage. It takes time in the cellar for this to mature … Homes are built on bedrock, not quicksand. So when the storms break, the foundation is solid; it’s not going to crumble.”

Here are photos of: David Friesen, (his 2016 performance of “Lament for the Lost/Procession” in Ukraine); tenor saxophonist Joe Manis and drummer Charlie Doggett of the Circle 3 Trio. (Photo credits: YouTube.com; davidfriese.net/projects.html; originarts.com)

David Friesen Lament for the Lost 2016 Ukraine

David Friesen Joe Manis       David Friesen Carlie Doggett drun=mmer

David Friesen took us to the last segment on Patience: having a calling: knowing why you are doing what you are doing, and stabilizing the use of patience in your life. What is a calling? Here, David asked his audience to hold their collective breath “for as long as you can.”  He exhaled himself after ten seconds, laughing, saying, “I’m teaching; I don’t want there to be total silence, but you keep holding your breath”—adding, “In a minute or two you are going to be gasping for breath; you’ll have to breathe.” Which proved true—the point of the experience being: “We need air. You have to do it! And that’s what it’s like to be called to play music. You have to do it! You have to breathe; you have to play music. That gives you an understanding of what a calling is like. And having a calling sets a foundation in your life for personal growth. Why are you playing music? What’s the purpose? Who created music? Who created you? Who created your desire to play music? These are deep questions.”

David Friesen asked another: “Music is fun to play, right? We go out and we have a good time—but I know for my own life, I had to find a calling. I had to know why I was playing. As I made these discoveries, it made it much easier for me—once I knew the direction of my life. Once I knew why I was playing music, it made it easier for me to persevere through difficult situations, and to acquire patience … I’m seventy-eight now, and I’m still growing in patience. It’s a continuing thing to do. It’s something I have to work at, a lot. It’s an ongoing thing, but vital.”

At this point he laughed, and said, “I can hear you gasping for breath now. The point has been made!” Then: “Having a calling stabilizes your life. It gives you a foundation.” He mentioned Charlie Parker: “a giant among us. He was like a Bach or Mozart living in our time. A true Genius. But that wasn’t enough.” He mentioned Parker’s having succumbed to drugs and alcohol—and repeated the point on the need for a foundation to sustain us “through the difficult times we will go through as musicians. We have a chance to overcome all the time. We can not only acquire patience, but sustain it. It gives us the perseverance we need in our lives to keep going forward—to not get distracted or discouraged in our own playing, to have proper growth, and even have time to encourage others. This is the type of spiritual thing that’s important. The substance that goes into the note, not necessarily the [technical] development of the note, creates the feeling, the sense of grace in the music.”

Using analogy again, David Friesen began the third lecture we shall take a look at–on “Our Individual Personality”—referring to the interviews Joan Rivers used to conduct on the Red Carpet at the Academy Awards, and the fact that she focused on the gowns the actresses were wearing: “Beautiful gowns that were five figures into six figures for just a single gown—gowns so expensive because they were originals, one of a kind.” And once again, the topic was music, because, “If you think of it, that’s what we are—one of a kind. This is our greatest asset in our creativity as an artist, a jazz musician” (and he widened the range: “painter, poet, whatever you’re associated with in the arts”). “There’s only one of a kind of each individual in the world.”

David said that when he was first introduced to jazz in the late 50s, the word “unique” was synonymous with the music. “If you were going to be a jazz musician, you had to be unique. That was just a given.” Just as, in the “Patience” lecture,  David Friesen asserted the importance of writing out one’s own exercises (rather than relying on those in a book), in this lecture he emphasizes improvising compositionally, as “a big part of personal identity, who we are as an individual,” truly unique and one of a kind. “We have to treat ourselves with respect. We can’t love others until we first love ourselves—and understand the creative process, so we can share it with others. There are different ways of bringing this out. Learning to be thankful is a musical term: being grateful for what we’ve done: the hours of work we’ve put in investing in the art form of jazz.” Here, again, David included a video within the video, the intricate details of which I won’t attempt to express—just to say it illustrates, in an ingenious way, how a student who’s played bass for thirteen years discovers just how “far he has come” within that time frame—and is “thankful, not complacent.”

Here are three final photos of David Friesen: our smiling lecturer–with his genuinely, affable, personable, fully winning presence; and at work (“practicing what he preaches”) on bass (Photo credits: soundcloud.com/davidfriesen 8; jazztimes.com; originarts.com)

David Friesen Smiling  David Friesen Playing Bass 2 WVXU David Friesen Playing Bass Origin Records

Realizing we have an individual personality offers motivation. David has all his students compose music: so they can identify who they are as individuals, what they like and what they don’t like, and so, when they approach improvisation, they are telling a story [of their lives]. Not just playing chords in relationships. Are they setting reasonable goals for themselves, goals they can obtain in their lives–“taking special care of who they are … as one of a kind?” This gives us the confidence to be able to express ourselves. “If you are going to be a jazz musician, you are going to bring something unique to share with the world. Tools and technique “are important too,  but there’s got to be a balance between what we are sharing and what tools we use. This is vital.”

OK, so I’m a unique individual. How do I get this out? How do I let other people see my originality? Once again: “inside this flesh there’s a spirit, the person I am who knows all the secret things about me—and I am that same individual as long as I am alive. I am what I am, so what I express (unless I’m quoting someone or trying to emulate someone or clone someone, or just copy) is who I am. One way to bring this out is to serve, and when you serve you are giving … coming up with musical ideas that can help another person play better. It wouldn’t make a difference what group I am in; if I’m listening and responding creatively to what I hear and staying in the moment, then people have got to hear the originality … Music is both spiritual and physical. The spiritual would be the love, the emotion, the caring, the serving, the spirit in which we respond, the energy and the relaxing element in the music—all those things you don’t practice with a metronome.”

For David, these are the things which “go into the note,” and the note is like a cup you “can’t drink from if it’s empty, if there’s nothing there. It’s the substance inside that edifies and brings comfort to a broken world. It’s worthwhile to show forth the glory, the God who created music and who created us and created our desire to play music to heal a broken world, the pain and suffering that’s going on unfortunately.  A door will open and give us appreciation of who you are as an individual, and this is something we have to be committed to … There are a couple of ways to bring your uniqueness out: learning to serve and retain our individuality in whatever band we play with this way, staying in the moment 100% of the time—and thinking compositionally: learning to compose music you enjoy, music that pleases you.

David Friesen closed out this lecture with a reference to Thelonious Monk: the “quality of his notes, the substance. “There are people who copy Monk. Musicians get caught emulating  person and find security that they can play that way—but David feels such comparisons “steal a lot of our individuality away” (“Why can’t I play that way?” “Because you are not that person.”) and he claims he’s still “coming from the unique school.” He also mentions the “pop industry” (in which you first “find out what people want”—but in jazz, if you are a serious person, a serious artist, it is important to bring out “your own uniqueness, because you can’t be all things to all people. I like to approach improvisation compositionally and tell a story with music,” He himself has recorded “something like 700 [of his own] compositions”—and he started composing when he was “five or six years old.” He likes to have students write ballads  in 7/4 time, five bars long—odd times  and odd phrases, not just the standard 32 bar song.” He mentions the originality of Wayne Shorter’s approach to composition, his harmonic variations. He ends this third lecture we’ve taken a look at with these words: “Who we are as individual artists: the possibilities are endless!”

David Friesen thinks of his lecture series as consisting of jazz-related topics that transcend customary “theory and tools” and talk about “chops,” and he hopes his audience finds the lectures “entertaining and thought provoking,” a valuable learning experience for jazz musicians—for their character and the music they’re playing. That’s the way I feel about this two part blog on “Stillness,” which I’m sorry to see come to a close, for I have learned much myself through the wisdom of those represented:  Pico Iyer (The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere: Robert J. Wicks (The Tao of Ordinariness: Humility and Simplicity in a Narcissistic Age); Brother David Steindl-Rast (Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer: An Approach to Life in Fullness and his autobiography I am through you so I ); David Brazier (Zen Therapy: A Buddhist Approach to Psychotherapy), Thomas Merton (Contemplative Prayer), Paul Quenon (In Praise of the Useless Life: A Monk’s Memoir) and the three talks from David Friesen’s lecture series Beyond the Note…Jazz Music Essentials.

I’m not sure just what I will take up next for another Bill’s Blog piece. I’m sure, having benefited substantially from “Stillness,” I will NOT offer a blog on “agitation,” “anxiety,” “turbulence,” or “noise”—and whatever topic I take up, I will attempt to keep the treatment “entertaining and thought provoking.” Until then: stay safe, sane, and healthy throughout this present era, EVERYONE!

 

 

 

Author: William Minor

I am a writer and musician who has published thirteen books: most recent Going Solo: A Memoir 1953-1958; also Gypsy Wisdom: New & Selected Poems; 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 six other 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 sixty 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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