All That Democracy (Jazz)

Miles Davis

Miles Davis

There’s an organization called Jazz At Lincoln Center. It’s a great resource for Jazz music. This is from their mission statement.

We believe Jazz is a metaphor for Democracy. Because jazz is improvisational, it celebrates personal freedom and encourages individual expression. Because jazz is swinging, it dedicates that freedom to finding and maintaining common ground with others. Because jazz is rooted in the blues, it inspires us to face adversity with persistent optimism.

As I heard someone say the other day, “Let’s break down that prose.”

from Pops journal

from Pops journal

So there you have it. Maybe you already love Jazz, maybe you do and don’t know it. Or, maybe you haven’t really tried it yet. If you do, give it time. It’s an acquired taste. The Jazz At Lincoln Center is a great resource. Visit

Here’s what I really wanted to tell you about—a project called “Recollect”. I love storytelling, remembering and recollecting. So this project fascinated me from the start.

Recollect is a project of short videos where a famous jazz musician goes into a record store to dig through the crates of jazz albums. While they do this they tell stories. (I'm adding to my bucket list to be present for the filming of one of these episodes). These are jazz stories and so they are also democratic stories. They are important because they can give us a context to understand more about ourselves.

Of course jazz is not the only musical genre that’s important in this way. Country music is also rooted in personal story. And, without a doubt, there is no more heart-felt music than the poetry of the early hymn writers. I can prove it. Read the lyrics to “It Is Well With My Soul”, or “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”, of “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross”. Here’s a sample:

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Talk about remembering and recollecting; I’ve heard those words all my life and they move me like I’ve just heard them for the very first time.

Well, back to the Recollect project. What first caught my attention was a video episode of the project featuring a jazz pianist named Helen Sung. Helen was introduced to me by my dear friend Mako Fujimura. I heard her play with her band at the Jazz Standard in New York City. She is one of those who can tell a story with a piano.

That prompted me to watch other episodes of the project. My favorite to date is one that features Jimmy Cobb.

Jimmy Cobb was one of the drummers I tried to emulate back in the day. He played with Miles Davis on a album called Kind Of Blue, the album that first drew me to jazz. The band on that album is a who’s who of jazz: in addition to Miles Davis and Jimmy Cobb, there’s John Coltrane, Paul Chambers, Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly.

If you haven’t yet, give Jazz a try. This album is a great place to start. At least watch the Recollect videos on Jimmy Cobb and Helen Sung. Listen to their stories. Really, really listen.

In review: Jazz & Democracy. Improvisational=sometimes we have to make it up as we go. Freedom and expression. Swinging=there is a groove. Sometimes we march to the same beat, sometimes we don’t. Rooted in the Blues (stories)=It is important. It’s the thread of our common fabric.

Pianist Bill Evans

Pianist Bill Evans

Rum Pa Pum Pum

I thought I wanted to be an athlete. Baseball would have been my first choice. I loved listening to the St. Louis Cardinals on the radio and going to watch their farm team, the Tulsa Oilers. Alas, it was not to be. I was tall enough but lacked any kind of mass, muscle or other. Maybe basketball could be my game!? Sorry, no. Turns out the Jenks elementary team only had ten uniforms and there were at least eleven guys with more talent or parents who could pressure the coach.

Oh but fifth grade brings hope for everyone. That’s the year you can join the band. I have no doubt that right now there are excited, aspiring, budding musicians in schools all across the land choosing their instrument. For some, choosing the right instrument is a dilemma. Not for me. I knew that I would be a drummer. If you can have a calling at ten years old, I had one.

By junior high, there’s a separation of sorts. Tough guys play football, the rest are in the band. But drummers get a bit of a pass (or at least that’s the way I worked it out in my own mind). I learned from my grade school band director that “drummers are a necessary evil”. He would have had a band full of clarinet and trumpet players if he could have figured out how to march in a parade without a drum cadence.

The great thing about this healthy tension was that it gave us drummers a bit of a bad boy vibe (or at least that’s the way I worked it out in my own mind). Early in my drumming life, The Beatles brought their brand of rock and roll to America and my fate was sealed. I would soon be the next Ringo Starr. Now all I needed was a set of Ludwig drums (like Ringo’s) and a couple of guitar players and a bass player.

I’ll never forget the day, my dad picked me up from school and took me home to find that first set of drums. I’m sure there were many times my parents thought, “What have we done?” I practiced and practiced and practiced some more. Finally, I found those band mates and before long we were playing at school dances and “Teen Towns”, and life was good.

Here is a picture of the stage band at Jenks High School in 1968 or so. That’s me at my drum set I so dearly loved.

Jenks High School Stage Band. 1968.

Jenks High School Stage Band. 1968.

In retrospect, I am glad I didn’t have the wherewithal to play sports. No doubt it would have been fun. To be able to say that I played football for the mighty Jenks Trojans, undoubtedly the most dominating high school football tradition in the state, as I sat around recovering from knee replacement surgery.

But, I wouldn’t trade a state football championship for the experiences that being a percussionist have afforded—the opportunities, friendships and world travel all possible because of music. I wish I could look up some of those old band mates, directors, and teachers to reminisce a bit.

Fast forward to the present. Both of our sons are drummers, and so for many years we have had a drum set in our house, even though I sold my drums years ago. Just recently our youngest son married a musician and moved out and took his drums with him. I have missed him and his drums.

I had a thought: maybe I’ll put a little kit together, find some drums on eBay or Craigslist, keep my eye out for some used cymbals. So in a casual search of the double-u, double-u, double-u, I learned that Ludwig, just this year, came out with a brand new drum set that is a “vintage” replica of my first drum set, right down to an exact color match and lug design.

Then as luck would have it, I found a demo set of these amazing drums at a drum shop in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Now these beauties are set up in our home and I am having a great time living in the past from time to time.

If there are any old guitar players out there who know how to play Wipe Out and House Of The Rising Sun and Louie, Louie, give me a call. Maybe we’ll be ready to play a few proms next spring.

Birth and New Life: my favorite kind of story

An advantage of age (as if we were keeping score) is that you have the potential to know life more deeply. You haven’t just seen pictures of the Grand Canyon, you’ve stood on the edge of it. You haven’t just heard a digital recording of jazz singer/pianist Diana Krall, you’ve been in the room with her when she performed. You haven’t just thrown back a glass of wine, you’ve picked the grapes, put them in the press, poured the juice into the vats and lived while it aged.

People who don’t “get” art, have only taken a quick look and walked on. Consider this picture for example. It’s a picture of a girl, right? It looks like it could be hanging in a museum, right?

the little shepherdess

the little shepherdess

It is hanging in a museum. In Tulsa, Oklahoma. It’s called The Little Shepherdess by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. It is oil on canvas and was painted in 1889, a few years before I was born. You will know nothing about the picture by only looking at this digital image. You have to stand before it and look this little sherheredess in the eyes and let her look into yours. Let her judge you for a minute or two. Let her question what you are wearing just as you are contemplating what she is wearing and what she is doing. The painting is large and the colors are rich. And, if you visit her in her home in the Philbrook Museum in Tulsa, I guarantee, you will have experienced art. You will “get” it. Kind of like us old people “get” life, because we’ve taken a deeper drink of it.

This longer perspective adds to the value of life. Every life and every experience is richer, packed with more meaning.

I think this is why every time we have received word that we will be grandparents again, I am moved beyond words. I know I was excited and scared and overwhelmed each time we learned that we would be parents, but we were young, we knew only a part of what a human life really meant. For the births of each of the Grand-Girls it has been somehow uniquely remarkable. I am always awestruck, and speechless because there are no words in my vocabulary for the reverence of that reality.

Well it’s happened again! Brooke and Kyle have told us of their news. They did it in a wonderful way and I was again speechless. And even if I could have found the words, they wouldn’t have been able to get past the lump in my throat.

So, come this next May, another little one will grab a piece of our hearts and not let go. With the benefit of age, I understand just how special this is. With the benefit of knowing Kyle and Brooke, I know how deeply this little one will be cherished and cared for.

I thank God for the privilege of getting to be a part of another human story that begins, “once upon a time” and transcends our human stories with, “and lived happily ever after.”

Congratulations Brooke and Kyle. How wonderful that this little baby will be born and will live in and through love.

Wise Words in Ink

I have a friend named Molly who is contemplating a project that involves letterpressing good quotes on cards, so we were talking about people that are quotable, but maybe not in a ubiquitous way; like, say, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr. Mark Twain or Will Rogers. Not that they aren’t extremely quotable, but maybe there are others who are less known but also have good things to say.

The letterpress inked up, locked in and ready

The letterpress inked up, locked in and ready

Here are some that fit that bill for me:

Anne Lamott.

“Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.”

“You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

Wendell Berry.

“This, I thought, is what is meant by 'thy will be done' in the Lord's Prayer, which I had prayed time and again without thinking about it. It means that your will and God's will may not be the same. It means there's a good possibility that you won't get what you pray for. It means that in spite of your prayers you are going to suffer.”

“Telling a story is like reaching into a granary full of wheat and drawing out a handful. There is always more to tell than can be told.”

Homer Simpson.

“A roadside barbecue stand? Everything tastes better when it's near a road!”

G.K. Chesterton.

“A puritan is a person who pours righteous indignation into the wrong things.”

“The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.”

Hank Hill.

“You can't just pick and choose which laws to follow. Sure I'd like to tape a baseball game without the express written consent of major league baseball, but that's just not the way it works.”

Woody Allen.

“Life doesn't imitate art, it imitates bad television.” (Case in point: the current presidential campaign.)

Erma Bombeck.

“When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, 'I used everything you gave me’.”

Molly the Notecard Maker (photo used without her permission)

Molly the Notecard Maker (photo used without her permission)

Back to Molly and her project: If I were going to commission her to letterpress a quote on a set of notecards for me, which quote would I choose? That’s tough because I love a good quote. I’m sort of a quote collector, and a hoarder of aphorisms.

Who doesn’t love: “Not all those who wander are lost” from a poem by J.R.R. Tolkien?

How could you go wrong with John Muir? “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”

Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten C.S. Lewis. “I have found a desire within myself that no experience in this world can satisfy; the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

Maybe all those are too obvious. After all, if I’m going to have custom cards made, I don’t want them to look like they came from Mardel or a Hallmark store.

Like so many who came of age in the 60s, song lyrics were my poetry. I could definitely find ongoing inspiration from some song lyrics pressed into just the right paper.

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
—IMAGINE. By John Lennon

Hello darkness, my old friend
I've come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains within the sound of silence
—The Sound of Silence. By Simon & Garfunkel

That one may be too long, but I like the idea of having the ampersand character pressed on the card as in the name Simon & Garfunkel.

Just the right verse from scripture could be apropos, not so that I would seem holy, but because of the human honesty there. Definitely, my choice would be Mark 9:24. It is the story of my faith journey in six words:

“I do believe, help my unbelief.”

I had a fleeting thought, and I realize it sounds as arrogant as Donald Trump to even verbalize it, but why let humility stand in the way? What if—I used a quote of my own. What if—I had ever said, or could possibly say, something quotable? What if—one of these days, at my funeral, someone could read a eulogy: “He loved his family and music, and as he would always say: ‘blah, blah, blah, blah and blan’,” And people would knowingly nod and turn to one another and murmur in whispers things like: “That sounds like him,” or “If I’ve heard him say that once, I’ve heard it a hundred times”.

The lines I say often somehow don’t seem notecard-worthy, carefully letterpressed one card at a time by Molly or anyone else.

  • “I prefer thin crust.”
  • “Did you notice how all the pictures on their walls were crooked?”
  • “I will never vote for Donald Trump.” (But I’m haunted by the old aphorism, “Never say never!” because I once said out loud I would never vote for Hillary Clinton. That was before I could fathom the day that a cartoon character would be the candidate of the “Party of Lincoln”.)
  • “Dang allergies!”
  • “Yes, my Grand-Girls are beautiful and amazing!”

How about you? If Molly were going to letterpress your favorite quote on a lovely notecard, what would it say?