Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life

I gave up my horn about 10 years ago because truth be told I wasn't even mediocre, and even if I practiced for hours a day I'd never be great. I want to be a lot things, but I have no intention of getting in the habit of spending my time being mediocre. I love jazz, but I couldn't play it. I just don't have that ability. My creativity is in my writing. 

So for years now I have socked away all of the academic knowledge I built up around the music. (I studied it for a year in college and played in a few different bands.) People ask me if I miss playing, and truth be told I don't. I never even think about it. Playing music doesn't hold any kind of magic for me, but I still very much enjoy listening to it, and really what I enjoy is the history, all of the stories that come along with musicians. And there are plenty of stories to go around. 

My brother is a trumpet player and because he is 6 years older than me, I learned about Wynton Marsalis and the Marsalis family at a very young age. When I saw that Wynton would be at my local Barnes and Noble I decided to go hear some of his stories. He was so engaging and charming that I bought his book on sight, which I never do at author readings. And once I started reading Moving to High Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life, I couldn't put it down. (And it helps that his co-author is the brilliant and well-spoken historian, Geoffrey Ward.)

For me the genius of this book is not to tell you about all the drugs that musicians have done, or all the women they've had or how down and out and poor they were. It talks about what the music has to teach us about living other aspects of our lives. How we treat each other. It teaches us about acceptance and nurturing and compassion. Wynton lays out the value is studying jazz not to be great, but to realize a certain aspect of humanity that comes through generosity.  Its is a living, breathing thing that connects the generations. It allows us to learn from generations of people who were long gone before we were every a twinkle in our parents' eyes.  

Wynton goes on to talk about how we all hear something different in the music. He talks about arrogance and greed and the darker sides of our personalities that the music uncovers. But mostly he talks about how musicians with disparate styles can come together, should come together, to create something wholly different than they could ever make on their own. Nobody gets through this world alone in the same way that no jazz musician builds a career alone. Jazz is a way of capturing what it means to be out and about in this world. It's a way of sharing that experience with others whom we will never meet but for whom our music could be a beacon of freedom if we are strong enough to tell our own stories, look them in the eye, and harvest the very best of what they have to teach us.

Wynton's thoughts on community come at a particularly poignant time. Throughout the book I thought a lot of about the state of our world. How scary all these moving parts are - the economy, our national security, our political systems, health care, education. There is a lot to be afraid, maybe even more to be afraid of than at any other time in our history. What jazz, and musicians like Wynton teach us, is that the only way we can be safe is to let go of that fear with the confidence that those around us will support us. Their harmonies will carry us through. And if all else fails at least the swingin' will give us enough encouragement to keep our chins up and the rest of us moving forward with grace.  

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