In conversation, I have been known to say, “Music saved my life.” And the other person smiles and nods, sometimes saying, “Yes, I understand,” or “Me, too.” But very few people know how serious my four words are.

Although I am by nature optimistic and hopeful, before 2004 I was seriously unhappy for long periods of time — situational rather than biochemical despair. The reasons for my sadness are not relevant here. When I was most hopeless, I thought seriously of ending my life.  I checked out the Hemlock Society website (earnest but very complicated) and lay on my bed thinking of the items I would purchase from Home Depot that would do the job.

But one thought recurred in the darkness, “Is there any guarantee you will be able to hear music — Louis Armstrong first and everyone else you love — if you kill yourself?”  It kept me from putting my plans into action.

We know that music heals, that beautiful sound itself is a form of moving energy much like prayer. The Beloved thinks that the sustaining power of the jazz we love is in its rhythm, the way it connects our beating hearts to the rhythms of the cosmos, and I think she is correct.  Myself, I hear warm tender voices coming from the instrumentalists and singers I love.  Those voices send love deeper than notes or words.  They tell us, “It can get better.  There is beauty in this world, no matter how cold and dark it seems now.”

And the voices were and are right: the proof is that I am writing these words now, able to tell this story from a safe distance, and I have never been happier.

At this point, some readers might object to what they see as a logical flaw.  To them, music never “saved” my life in the way Lassie saved Timmy.  True. But the thought of an unfathomably silent existence was more frightening, more painful than my current ordeal.

A corollary: some years after I emerged from this emotional abyss I was in one of those philosophical discussions — simultaneously silly and profound — where the question was “If you were going to be deprived of one sense, which one would you choose?”  Immediately I said I prized my hearing, would choose to be blind rather than deaf (making the people around the table both incredulous and scornful of what they saw as bad judgment.)

Writing this post about the life-saving powers of music, I wanted to offer my readers a taste of the music that made me then and makes me now glad to be alive. You know that this is my unstated purpose in my travels with a video camera, my hours spent creating JAZZ LIVES.  I am sure I could compile a long list of songs and performances that delight me now and always, but that would be “favorites” rather than “miraculous healers,” a different thing entirely.

One of the recordings that kept me from leaving this earthly existence I can share with you now, three minutes of glowing sound, a recording I have known for forty years. I first heard it in the company of Michael Burgevin, my dear MB.

It said to me then and says to me now that the universe is filled with love and protection and compassion if we only open ourselves to them.

The record is BLACK BUTTERFLY, an Ellington composition played here with ardor and sensitivity by the trumpeter Joe Thomas and friends for a Keynote Records session in 1946:

Writing this post, I thought I would invite my readers to join in on the chorus, and ask them, “What music do you reach for, would you reach for, when Gloom puts his cold hand on your heart?”

My only requests are these: ONE song only, details as specific as possible.  I am not stepping on anyone’s desert-island-discs or ten-best-list, but those lists too often seem contrived, and often are ways for us to show how wide our range is, how much we know.  So please don’t comment, “Anything by X,” if you don’t mind. And, as you can tell, this inquiry is very serious to me.  So no small comedies. Simply, “If I wanted a cure for deep misery, what one record would do the trick?”

With luck, readers can send in a performance that has a YouTube video attached to it so that others can hear the saving beauty that sustains you.

I look forward to hearing the music that makes burdens lighter for you, and collectively I must say that this business of being alive — often fraught with deep dark surprises — is all we have, and we should be very very grateful that we are allowed to roam around in the meadow we call Life for our short span. And even in the blackness of our sorrow, there is the a butterfly of healing music.

May your happiness increase!

36 responses to “THE BLACK BUTTERFLY

  1. For me, it’s Johnny Hodges playing ISFAHAN and Louis Armstrong playing STARDUST. Sheer beauty that makes one glad to possess ears. Music is yet another reason to enjoy living.

  2. “this business of being alive — often fraught with deep dark surprises — is all we have, and we should be very very grateful that we are allowed to roam around in the meadow we call Life for our short span.” Oh, Michael. Thank you for this. So glad you are here and our paths have crossed. xo

  3. My feelings exactly when it comes to you.

  4. When feeling sad, grief-stricken, overwhelmed, anxious, a piece of music that would make feel better is Mozart’s Requiem, and especially the Lacrimosa.
    Sorry its not a jazz tune…I don’t think that was one of the requirements!

    For me it has the same effect as contemplating the enormity of the universe; looking at the stars or the sea – it helps me to channel the sadness, and to feel part of the bigger scheme of things, rather than a self-absorbed ball of anxiety!

  5. Music is music! Thank you, Emma.

  6. I knew you KNEW. Sometimes when things go down they STAY THERE. JAZZ LIVES!! Thanks so much for this Michael oxo~fettzann

  7. sergio guerreiro

    Lee Morse’s 1938 “When I lost you”.
    Her voice reaches places that other voices don’t.
    She “destroys” in the good sense.

  8. ginger baker

    This is a wonderful read! And yet as someone who suffers from depression I still find it very difficult to appreciate the “healing powers” of music when my sensitivity is soooo down. There is a better chance if I experience a good live performance perhaps because of the happy presence of other human beings making music. Thanks anyway for the recommendations….I’ll keep trying.

  9. Scott Joplin’s “Solace”, as heard in The Sting (the pianist’s interpretation varies slightly from the norm and the violin sustains long notes throughout the piece supporting the melody).

  10. Trying is all we can do. Know that you are doing the best you possibly can do at the moment, and that people you might never meet in person love you and want your happiness to increase.

  11. Nancy Nelson

    Wonderful post, Michael; it gave me a lot to think about. Sometimes when I’m feeling blue, instead of wallowing, I like to go ‘Waller-ing.’ I love all Fats Waller, but this recording in particular always lifts me up. It’s so filled with joy. It really kicks into overdrive on Herman Autrey’s amazingly swinging trumpet solo, with Fats cheering him on in the background. Herman was a lovely man who, thanks to Mike Burgevin, I was fortunate to hear many times in the early 70’s.

  12. I like that one too. It doesn’t bother me at all. Now I have to find a tissue! Love, Other Other Michael

  13. Michael, I could have responded with several classic jazz sides that I find inspirational, but instead I have decided to focus on some musicians’ intense emotional response to an unimaginable tragedy that reflects their personal need to celebrate and reaffirm some of the core meaning of life itself. Most will think that my choice is unusual and perhaps even strange, but on September 12, 2001, Ruby Braff, Dick Hyman, Howard Alden, and Jake Hanna entered the midtown recording Nola Recording Studio to record an uplifting version of “Handful of Keys” for Mat Domber’s Arbors Records. This was their joyous celebration of life itself, even as smoke obscured the skies over Manhattan and prevented travel into and out of the city. The CD’s title is “Watch What Happens.”

  14. “Tight Like This”, December 12, 1928

    From comedic farce to high operatic orgasmic passion in 3 minutes and fourteen seconds. All of life and several levels beyond is contained and embodied therein.

    ‘It’s close like that’

  15. Robert Stout

    Well, well, well. Yes, yes, I couldn’t agree more, Michael. Like “desert island records”, where would I begin? Music thrills & cures me, too, especially when chased down by the darkest beasts of life. Like Duke said, “there’s only 2 kinds of music: Good and the other stuff.” Just so MUCH of good jazz music improves my life, it is hard to say. However, I must agree with Nancy Nelson and choose “Dinah” in almost any guise. What REALLY improves my outlook is Bing Crosby & The Mills Brothers’ 1932 version. What musicians! Too bad there wasn’t some of Bing’s Ampex tape available to them then. I get the feeling they could have jammed another 6 minutes or more. What joy! And just listen to Bing scat! By the way, is that the songstress Nancy Nelson? One of my favorite (& knowledgeable) singers.

  16. Nancy Nelson

    Yes, that’s me Robert. I’m still plugging away at it here in NJ, or wherever anyone else wants me. Thanks for the kind words!

  17. coleman hawkins-body & soul-can sure make my day.

  18. Don "Zoot" Conner

    I must admit that there have many occasions when I would have welcomed a visit from the grim reaper: perhaps it’s because I have spent a lifetime loving a minority music. I have spent many days justifying this love and it’s really unexplainable. Needless to say I’ve paid my “dues” a million times over. When i’m feeling blue, I listen to Billie doing “a sailboat in the moonlight.” Lesters soulful obligatos can bring me to tears This tune has only been recorded a couple of times.

  19. Barbara Bengels

    There are a few songs from my childhood, shared first by my/our parents and now shared with children and grandchildren; they include “Side by Side,” “California, Here I Come,” “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” and “Four Leaf Clover.” None of these are associated with particular performers–because they were all family sing-alongs, but Al Jolson was definitely a family favorite with songs such as “Mammy.” Needless to say, it’s so embarrassing to admit to having loved such songs…..but they all restore a “safe” moment from childhood.

  20. louisefarrell

    lovely and profound Michael. Thank you. Louise

    you should live every day like its your last day because one day you’re gonna be right.                                    ray charles


  21. Louis Armstrong. When You’re Smiling. 1956 Decca version. It’s all I need.

    Beautiful post, Michael.

  22. Funny thing. I can start my emotional-mental jukebox and hear that record without even clicking on the YouTube link. But for those readers who don’t know it, the 1956 WHEN YOU’RE SMILING is really and truly one of the high points of human achievement as we know it. Heroic and beautiful. Thanks, Dipper.

  23. Nancie Beaven

    Stealin’ Apples always picks me up!!!!

  24. resurgence:

  25. I need to get my blood pumping so I go for the early recording of Fletcher Henderson’s “Stampede”. I don’t know for sure (Rex Stewart) who is who, but those solos are so flat out intense, they really make me feel alive like the tiger is chasing me.

  26. Lester Young “Blue Lester” on Savoy.

  27. Robert Stout

    Relative to Barbara Bengels comment: I would add that Al Jolson’s recording of WHEN THE RED, RED ROBIN Comes Bob-bob-bobbin’ Along (with verse) as well as Papa Dip’s 50’s cover of it with the All Stars can both really inspire me to “get up, get up, get up..” Many of those 20’s era songs are very upbeat. My Grandpa’s were of that era, very musical and constantly played the songs you mentioned…and were very positive individuals.
    Thanks to my dear, old trumpet playing Dad, I can totally agree with Ricky Ricciardi about Mr. Armstrong’s WHEN YOU’RE SMILING along with Ruby Braff’s driving Bethlehem recording of the same. Add Clark Terry’s MUMBLES. See, it’s hard to stop choosing…music express all the emotions that words cannot!
    Kudos to Ricky for his “wonderful” Armstrong bio and a follow up shout out to Nancy Nelson: Keep it up and spread the rhythm around! Maybe we’ll see you back in Ohio again. Make sure you bring Keith Ingham back with you!

  28. Michael McQuaid

  29. In reply, I think, “I ‘ll be your friend with pleasure ” by Bix, lifts my spirits! Do you think this is a good one? Ron

    Ron Fink

  30. I can’t really say that music “saved” my life, but now in my older years I can say that music keeps me going. The song that makes me so happy that I am still alive is unfortunately not on You Tube. It is on a CD I received from a very dear friend, NH, “Annie Laurie” played by Carl Sonny Leyland, This song reminds me of a very happy time in my life. It involves loved ones (gone) that would be telling me,,listen to the music! I am blessed beyond measure by “music.” especially the song I mentioned. No one plays it quite like CSL. I wish he would put it on You Tube,,,There may be that person out there that would respond like I did. Another song that keeps me going is Blusiana, written by someone who would be thrilled to see me “living” the music….my dad.

  31. Great – and courageous – post Michael; thank you. It is honest and refreshing messages like yours which help, little by little, make our world a better place.

    There sure is a good-sized ‘jag’ of wonderful tunes in this list, including some new to me – more great music to discover!

    One of Louis’ many which often does it for me is his 1929 recording of “After You’ve Gone” (he was only 28 at the time.) Obviously a sad tune (as performed by numerous other musicians over the past 80-odd years), but he changed it to an upbeat tempo introduced by a beautiful muted opening, playful scat singing swirling all around the beat and, finally, his stunning solo bursting through the cloudcover. Oh my; takes my breath away.

    While he does not do the same with “Black and Blue” (for example), his ability to take a sad tune and lift it out of the doldrums is remarkable, only one of Pops’ gifts to the world. I need to hear only two or three bars of his playing ANY tune and my spirits are uplifted.

    Thanks Michael.

  32. I can’t imagine life without music! I have to agree with Ricky Riccardi. My favorite is Louis Armstrong’s When You’re Smiling 1956.

  33. Blues in C Sharp Minor by Teddy Wilson & His Orchestra:

  34. Pingback: About Last Night | I wonder what happened to him?

  35. There are many that I have turned to in times of trouble but I think the ones that most endure are Count Basie, Taxi War Dance, for Lester Young’s opening solo, and Gil Evans’ version of Django for Johnny Coles’ trumpet solo.

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