Sunday, October 2, 2011

Full Bore Ahead

When you prepare for a classroom presentation of material, you get the kind of traction you seek by identifying four or five elements about the subject at hand you can approach with enthusiasm.  Anything else begins to gnaw away at you as having the potential for boring the audience rather than instructing it.  You know from long experience how dreary and sodden the material can be if it is a heavy lift, going in.  You also know how difficult it is for you to get material off the ground that is boring to you from the outset.  You know this because you have been at both ends of the bell curve; you have been bored, you have returned the boredom of others in kind.

A dear friend from your younger days, the splendid alto saxophonist, Sonny Criss, gave you a role model when, as a relative unknown, was invited to appear at an early “Jazz at the Philharmonic” concert at the Shrine Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles, directly across the street from a university where you would ultimately teach for over thirty years.

Criss was invited along with some of the most talented and revered saxophonists of the time:  Coleman Hawkins, Wardell Gray, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Dexter Gordon.  “They so love their instruments and the music,” he told you.  “They bring the music to life.  What I have to do is love the music more and bring it to greater life.”  He did.  You once had an old vinyl recording of that time and would cherish a digital remaster now.  But you don’t need it.  You remember when the time came for his cadenza on “How High the Moon,” and the roar that went up from the audience scarcely before eight bars.

At the time, you thought it was his drive and energy, his great strength and technical skills.  You wanted to write like that.  Be in control in that exciting way where the feelings fit so well into lace, like laundered shirts that come folded.  

While Criss was still alive, you came to understand how much he already knew when he told you what he did about loving the music.  He was four years older than you in chronology, light years away in understanding.  It speaks well of you to have had such a friend at such a fragile time in your own life.  From time to time, Criss would give his saxophone a loving caress.  “This,” he’d say, “is my UCLA.  This is where I get my education.”  In your time, you learned that the work is the education. When you reach the point where you love it, you and it intermingle so that it is difficult to tell you apart.

When you set forth to write something, the original impetus will have exploded somewhere within and without, splattering you with drops of enthusiasm and audacity like dropped garden hose at full water volume, both of which you need in order to execute the plan.  You are buoyed by the knowledge that by the time you get the once wobbly craft back in sight of the shoreline, you and it will have gone through some change in shape and attitude.  What an excitement it is to know that if the project works at all, you will both have grown, traversing your way through a landscape neither of you had expected.  You do this with friends and loved ones all the time without articulating it, taking the process for granted.

The most difficult thing of all is for you to edit; frequently you are called upon to deal with things you barely tolerate, which sets you in arrears with your feelings and abilities.  Here, you are in a sense a translator, thinking to discover authorial intent where there might be none, reminding yourself of an actor taking a role for which there is mild enthusiasm if, indeed, any enthusiasm at all.  You are circling, much like Sally trying to smooth a spot on her already smooth bed, even to the point of moaning in frustration that there is no such place.  Yet.  You are circling to get a sense of the work, fretting until it begins to speak to you.  The sadness comes when it does not speak.  Ever.  And you are stuck with it; hopeless and helpless as you get these days.

They all meet in the recreation room of enthusiasm, which is of itself a circular thing.  You have to find the entry port so that you can simultaneously fill it with you and you with it.   When you are enthused, audacity and anarchy threaten, but never, never boredom.


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