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!