Friday, January 22, 2010

Love and Risk...


As the world continues to salivate over the next twists and turns of the love-lives of the "rich and famous", an article I read recently reminds me of some observations I made long ago in my own quest for love and mutual understanding.

In Agn├Ęs Poirier's article for the Guardian in the UK, she compares some of Tiger Woods travails along with the public's reactions, to some higher philosophic writings by Alain Badiou who recently wrote a book I should probably read called "Eloge de l'Amour" (Eulogy of Love) and even Plato to Samuel Beckett. Not that the general public would spend a moment considering such philosophical pursuits, but I think the article brings to mind some solid elements of truth when it comes to love and commitment.

The key axiom is basically that "without risk there can be no passion". Most elemental humans have experienced one or many relationships with a love interest that either never had any chemistry, or was primarily based on the SEARCH for such chemistry. Some of us have tried to turn friendships into romantic love while we have also found it challenging to do the opposite...reposition from romance back to friendship.

There are few core "truths" that I find absolute for everyone living, but one that I would stick my neck out on is that "people want to be loved". Even the most prickly pear in the human bunch is usually just handicapped in their search for love and acceptance because of some early trauma or psychological maltreatment in their formative years. We animals/humans tend to reflect and imitate the behavior we grew up with or live the rest of our lives reacting to it. Many people have been hurt or burned in love so badly at some point that they no longer find it easy to trust and give of themselves freely to another. Unfortunately there is a fine line between giving and needing, love and lust. It can be very obscure to know where another is really coming from along those lines.

I have lived long and wide enough to see many contradictions to most any established guidelines to love and relationships. In the early 70s as I was coming into adulthood, the youth movement was quite revolutionary and non-traditional. We questioned everything including the moral guidelines of our forefathers. "Free love" and living in communes was a common reaction to the immoral war and loss of Victorian traditions in our youth culture. Experimentation with sex and drugs was widespread and quietly accepted. There was accommodation for counter cultural-ism and a return to fundamental questioning of "life's meaning". All institutions were up for analysis and in many cases rejection. Part of the downturn of traditional values was caused by the fundamental breakdown of traditional roles in marriage and the home. Everyone was working for materialistic gain (sometimes known as the American dream), and the post world war baby-boomer generation was coming on strong with overwhelming numbers hitting the marketplace and job markets. The divorce rates skyrocketed in America between 1967-1977...and the compensator was to get more gadgets and TVs to fill the time and void that love apparently wasn't. Ozzie and Harriet were replaced by the "Brady Bunch", "My Three Sons" and "Andy Griffith"...all modeled after non traditional family situations. American kids were increasingly rebellious and independent. There was less supervision and more freedom than previous generations. With the lack of controls, boundaries and values, many found themselves floundering in the pursuit of contentment and security.

As in all things human, the cycle came back around somewhat quickly in some regards. Teenagers in the 80s and 90s were a bit more "traditional" in my observations though much more focused on the technology boom. Video games and other fantasies were readily available in the computer age, and with the advent of the internet, all things sacred or non were at one's disposal. With so much stimuli and ongoing change, who had time to concentrate on "relationships"? Plus youngsters had many more confusing decisions to make based on the liberalization of teen media on themes of homosexuality and the new pop culture. Most of these kids came from double income families or single parent ones.

These cycles in my past observations have a lot to do with my views on love and risk. Along with rampant individualism comes varying degrees of selfishness...or maybe I should use the word "self-centered" behavior? We are still brought up to feel guilty about "selfishness" and it is still standard to attempt finding ourselves in the mirror of a significant other or lifelong partner. Those who have difficulty finding that mirror are somehow not seen as normal or mainstream. They are "funny uncles", "spinster aunts" or "solitary Sallys".

Along with this pursuit of individualism has developed a watering down of roles between the sexes. Women want to wrestle, box, play football and go into armed combat these days...while wanting the men to do more of the baby-sitting, cooking and dish washing. The push is for equality in all things...though it is still apparent to me that many women still want to be protected and coddled to by men. The risk in love right now is a somewhat mutual confusion between the sexes of who does what and what is one looking for in the opposite sex. I have heard many women in my life say they just want a man who will be responsible and uncomplicated...while many of my buddies have been wondering what happened to the feminine, soft, desirable females they used to know. The world is made up now of huge chasms of culture between the sexes. The minority of people who live in Western culture and determine much of the tradition and imagery we see in the media are all about showing the attraction of free, unencumbered members of either sex in high level careers and maintaining the image of material success that is hugely important to public perception. Yet the reality is that most people/couples live in religious families living quietly within their traditional values. In some cases they are at peace with this and in other cases they have just never risked getting outside of the "box" they grew up in. Risk taking is not the norm in most peoples lives. Our tendency is to play it safe and "practical".

I have been fortunate to live into my middle 50s having experienced a variety of relationships. Until the last fulfilling 8+ years of blissful couple-hood...I had lived more years single and independent than I had "married" or "in a relationship". While there were times that I think some of my family or close friends thought me incapable of commitment or romantic bliss...I actually feel my private life history has been quite full of intimacy and meaningful experiences that helped make me who I am today. I have taken by far my share of risks with no real regrets. Sure, I have a few scars and memories of failed relationships...but most of those represent some colorful stories and memories of which a meaningful life experience is made of. My marriage now works because of those previous lessons learned. I learned what type of partner I am looking for...and what "type" I am good for in return. And of course, with age comes the reality that love is more about the friendship and trust two people can develop at significant levels than the intensity or propensity for sexual experience/conquest. Sex and sensuality is always a part of us...but it doesn't have to completely over-run our awareness and appreciation for pure companionship and the internal traits that our partners bring to our lives.

Love is still a risk...and life without love can be...well, lets just say it can be a bit bland at times. The scariest part about love is we can only control our own actions and attitudes about those we love. We can't control or demand that they love us back. But what I have found is, if we find an equally loving and understanding person to share life with, we have a lot less risk of failure. At the end of the day, each of us has to take responsibility for our relationships. It is what we make it by our decisions and actions...plus we have to choose correctly in the first place to have that love reciprocated. It really doesn't have to be that complicated...though we sometimes have to be a bit lucky to run into that right person.

I have been a very lucky man...

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Say Goodbye to Free and Fair Elections in the USA












A split decision announced today by the Supreme Court that removes limits on corporate and labor donations to political campaigns has in my opinion just erased any chance for a true democracy and free or fair elections in the USA. You will now see more of the "haves" steamrolling campaigns over the "have-nots"...and the elected leaders will be the best money can buy. I am just totally disgusted with my country's system right now. Call it the "best option" we have as a government model, but to me this just insures the continued downfall of our democracy and constitutional government. You had better find LOTS of money fast to have any voice in your American government.

The core problem is that the masses follow the media and believe everything they see or hear on TV or the radio. Since most of that media is controlled by wealthy, connected individuals and corporations who call the shots on programming...well, you have to be blind to miss the connection.

We don't have to go very far back to see the results of big money winning or controlling elections. Just look at the recent mayoral office won and paid for by New York's Mayor Bloomberg. Per the Daily News figures on his campaign, Bloomberg spent over $64,756,118.47...more than 16 times the $3,826,466 his rival, city Controller William Thompson, spent just to be a MAYOR! Imagine now what the next Presidential win will cost a contender. The days of an Abraham Lincoln becoming president of the USA have just flown out the window. This is a sad day for political justice in the USA...and will affect future world history if I read my tea leafs correctly. I guess in America's version of democracy...only Bloombergs, Rockerfellers, Kennedys and Bushes are allowed at the helm of leadership. This ruling has reaffirmed this.

Sure, I know some can make an argument as Justice Kennedy did (wait...is he related to...?) that freedom and free speech granted in the constitution should not inhibit people and corporations in doing what they want with their money and media. Yet we have limits on free speech if it incites rioting or is defaming of another person or entity. Any reasonable person in my opinion should be able to grasp the immorality of money controlling politics and elections. Our system is now basically one of "voting with dollars". What has happened to that "beacon on the hill" of USA freedom and democracy? I am afraid it is quickly going to ruin and this quiet action by the supreme court of the land has just pushed that ahead at a more rapid pace. One may soon have nobody real to vote for in elections there.

With this interpretation of the Supreme Court, I think you can throw all these campaign contribution limits out the window as well. CLICK HERE. How can they limit individual contributions if corporations and labor unions have no limits? Just look for more of your national GNP going towards controlling elections that keep the inept people in power who control all aspects of America's economic lifespan. Amazing how there's no money for those who can't afford health-care or insurance...but no limit of funds to get cronies elected. Goodbye America.

Campaign Finance Reform is now officially dead. I still think there are many good ideas for reforming electoral laws described at Wikipedia on the subject...but obviously politicians will see little value in "free and fair elections". They like their inside track system even though it takes up to 25% of their time in office just to raise funds for the next election. Ugly truths are never fun to talk about.

Do any of you still back there keeping the lights on in the USA see the danger in this as well?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Death of Jazz...Hope of Jazz



Having just completed my 5th jazz festival week in Panama...I am filled with a number of mixed emotions about music and specifically the genre they call "jazz". Jazz can mean many different things to various people. While jazz is somewhat THE original American music of this century, having supposedly started in New Orleans in the 1910s-20s...today it can mean a wide variety of sounds and styles. The dictionary defines it as: "intricate, propulsive rhythms, polyphonic ensemble playing, improvisatory, virtuosic solos, melodic freedom, and a harmonic idiom ranging from simple diatonicism through chromaticism to atonality." As an art form, it also raises many conflicts in the music/arts world about what it should sound like or who or what style is the "truest" form of "jazz".

This is the first festival week in which I participated in the jazz offering on a local basis. While not an official part of the "Jazz Festival" as promoted by the Danilo Perez Foundation in Panama, a local club/restaurant owned by friends decided to support my newly formed local band with an additional investment of bringing two Chicago jazz/blues musician friends to bring our concept of the jazz genre to the "street level"...literally. I have long felt a country or region's true musical culture is what you see in more informal presentations on the streets or "regular" bars or venues on a smaller scale. My criticism of music in Panama has been that it is usually found in the casinos...in my mind a terrible environment to try and experience "art"...or in expensive large venue concerts that only the rich or middle class can enjoy/afford. And when it is in an affordable location, the promotion/publicity is so bad that no one knows it happened until after the fact. Sad really.

I have enjoyed the past years of these local festivals and also have been to many other jazz festivals over the years from Chicago to Detroit to San Diego to New Orleans. The joy in most cases to me is the variety of sounds and styles you heard at many of these festivals. I think the biggest is in Montreal each year, and one day (maybe this year?) I will have to experience that one. Yet, as a musician for most of my life, I have never felt comfortable devoting myself to only being a "jazz" artist. Part of that has to do with my varied background of musical training (from classical to gospel to pop)...and the other has been seeing the relative few people who know, understand or even LIKE jazz music. Unless you are at the very top of the field, it is very difficult to make a living as a jazz musician. If I were to make a comparison to the art world, it would be like being an "impressionist" painter. While at the time and even now "impressionism" has made a huge impact...it is still a very particular taste in art and a small minority in that world who truly appreciate it. It happens to be about my favorite style of visual art, but I know I am in the minority...probably like my music tastes as well.

Anyways, with all that said, I have to wonder about the future evolution of jazz as a musical idiom. Will there continue to be a market for it? Where is the sound going and who will determine its direction? Artists or "business" concerns?

When in my 20s and trying to make it in the music "biz", I quickly developed a sour taste for the business of music. No one wants to pay the value for the "arts"...and in most cases what people see or hear in the "arts" is nowhere near the best material artists have tried to submit. In most cases, industry venue owners have no musical background or real talent. Sometimes you can understand the mentality where jealous people who have dead-end jobs and reasonable levels of self-loathing think that you should just do this stuff for free because it provides such passion and joy to yourself. If passion and joy were a paycheck, I would have always been a rich man.

Then there's the other aspect of societies "attitudes" towards musicians and artists. It is normally deemed as "insecure", difficult to place monetary value on it...and therefore not that respected as a profession. A majority can only make a living "teaching" others to try and do what they do...but few are paid fairly for their own performances. 98% of the worlds best artists live paupers lives financially. We pay much more for our fetish of beautiful flesh and people who make us laugh than we do true artists.

I have always liked and probably related to the "type" of people who are jazz aficionados and artists. They tend to be strong individuals and different to the point of eccentric. Definitely not your mainstream members of society normally. Fortunately, some of these eccentrics are very wealthy and intelligent...and to that end they help support the art form from their other walks in life. But lets get real. If you want to make a living in owning and promoting live music venues or recording music...jazz is going to be way down your list of priorities financially. But for me, like many areas in life, the most valuable, precious things are not those appreciated by the masses. If I want to measure my existence that way, I will just listen to "popular" radio stations, view only "blockbuster" box office hits at the movies and eat most of my meals at chain-food restaurants.

Like so many art forms, jazz is not a stationary music idiom. It has changed a lot in these almost 100 years of the artform...from dixieland to delta blues, bluegrass to Memphis R&B, to Chicago and New York's Bebop and avant garde traditions...jazz is a many splendored thing. And like the visual arts, it has its variety of tastes between older traditional ones to the younger, less disciplined versions. It all cross breeds over time to offer us different tastes and presentations that hopefully continue to hold our interest.

The danger I find these days is a combination of a lack of respect for the traditional jazz forms...and an almost mindless adoration for extreme contemporary styles that have little organization in either melody or rhythm. Many in the idiom explore difference for difference sake...and originality to them means never playing the same song twice the same way. Creatively I can appreciate the challenge of composing a different version of the same song every night...but as part of our human condition, I'm sorry. Some nights are just going to "suck". There are times when it is valuable and joyous to play the traditional licks of some of jazz's greats like Duke Ellington, Stan Kenton, Fats Waller and a plethora of other greats I could name. I can also appreciate originality in a version of tunes generally associated to these greats...as long as I can still recognize the melody. Unfortunately that becomes difficult in some contemporary jazz groups today. Why call a song "Nights in Tunisia" if it bears no resemblance to Dizzy Gillespies original intent? It would be like taking Beethoven's "Solemn Mass", putting it in a major instead of minor key, changing the time signature to maybe a 4/4 disco beat...and still calling it "Solemn Mass". Doesn't work for me.

Since we were playing this week ourselves, we didn't get to attend the regular jazz fest concerts in person. But...we did catch some of the performances on cable TV here...which is a nice touch. Unfortunately...a couple members of my band commented "we are observing the death of jazz as an art form". As we discussed it, I think the core of that feeling was that many of these young players have fantastic "chops" (fundamental technique and knowledge of their instruments), yet many have no discipline or soul regarding how many notes they play or how they play them. It seems to be a tendency to play as many notes as we can get into 4 or 8 bar solos...and play them at one level...LOUD. While you have to love the energy of youth in many ways...in music it often takes a very mature soul to really "make music" at many levels. And the magic of music isn't the technique or amount of notes played. It is about the intent and emotion behind those notes as often expressed in meaningful spaces of no sounds/notes at all. For me the originality is in the silence between notes...and I once again instruct myself to remember that.

On the bright side, I was very encouraged by the reactions I saw this week to my band's music. For me the "hope" in jazz is that the younger generations are exposed to...and appreciate...the artform. Music to me is THE Universal language...and to the extent that it can reach young and old alike...and I mean THE SAME SONG...is what gives me hope that we humans can continue to relate and pass on the best in values and art forms forever. It is one of the few human experiences that unites us instead of dividing us...one of the few hopes we have to overcome wars and human conflicts. Words obviously aren't working.

To my younger friends and readers I will state that I try to listen and understand all musical art forms. I don't like them all. I admit to having difficulty appreciating rap, reggeaton, and twangy country music. Yet I will respect your right to enjoy those idioms if you will at least listen to a variety of other musical forms every once in a while. I get encouraged when I see teenagers today who discover and appreciate 70s rock. I get BIG TIME goose pimples when I hear great teenage classical talents from all around the world perform together at the famous Interlochen National Music Camp and Arts Institute. But some of my highest moments are when I see young people bobbing their heads or swaying in their seats to some of the original swing and bebop jazz tunes of the 40s through the 60s. That is the moment when I sense the power of that universal language and spiritual side of music that will hopefully last forever.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Marian McPartland: A life of Jazz



I came across this video today when looking at the limited youtube videos that are available for Marian McPartland. Hearing the Marian McPartland trio live at the Chicago Jazz Showcase back in about 1974 was one of the final influences that led me to pursue more seriously the jazz side of my musical tastes. This was a lady who played like a man...and while many people look at me cross eyed when I say this...I can usually tell by just listening to a pianist if they are male or female. There is a physicality to performing on grand piano that shows through in the sound and technique. Of course there are exceptions, and Marian is one of them.

I won't go into Marian's whole history as you can read a good synopsis of it HERE on wikipedia. Yet, the main things I take away from her life story is her consistency to her own style and tastes while still taking jazz to more mainstream people than probably any other jazz performer in history. Her public radio program "Piano Jazz" on National Public Radio is the longest running cultural program (since 1978) and she continues to do it in her 90s! Her analytic and interpersonal discourse with most of the significant jazz pianists of this era is unmatched in revealing the devotion, passion and understanding required to be a great jazz pianist.

I will never reach Marian's musical level in this lifetime...but I can die trying.