Tag Archives: healing

THE BLACK BUTTERFLY

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!

RAY SKJELBRED LIGHTS THE WAY

There’s electric power, wind-driven energy, solar power, and then there’s Ray Skjelbred.

I first heard this intelligently swinging pianist when my California friend and musical guide John L. Fell sent me cassettes of the Berkeley Rhythm band — a loosely floating jazz ensemble held together by goodwill, the desire to swing, and the gentle force of Mr. Skjelbred at the piano.

When you hear Ray improvise, you think of the great players: Stacy, Melrose, Hines, Sullivan . . . but his musical wisdom exhibits itself in the same way that Basie’s did — a gentle, understated reminder of The Way . . .

Since then, I’ve bought Ray’s CDs (solo and as a member of various ensembles, with everyone from Hal Smith and Becky Kilgore to Melissa Collard and Dawn Lambeth — most recently The First Thursday Jazz Band with Steve Wright) and always found myself uplifted.

Ray doesn’t have a collection of gestures and motifs, suitable for every time the band turns the corner from C7 to F at a medium-tempo.  Rather, he merges with the music and it pours through him: his energies becoming part of the band and vice versa.

For the past few years, people who don’t live close enough to Ray to see him in person have been able to do the next best thing through the generosity of Rae Ann Berry, who has been toting her video camera and tripod to festivals and jubilees where she knows Ray and his colleagues will be playing.

Most recently, Rae Ann drove from San Francisco to Oregon to capture Ray and his Cubs (named for his beloved Chicago Cubs) live at the 21st Annual Greater Olympia Dixieland Jazz Festival in Lacey WA.  Rae Ann is a woman of discernment and diligence, so she’s posted forty-two video performances by the Cubs, which to my way of thinking isn’t one too many.

The Cubs are Kim Cusack on reeds, Katie Cavera on guitar, Clint Baker on bass, and Jeff Hamilton on drums.  (Before you dive into the videos, you should also know that this band has made a wonderful CD, GREETINGS FROM CHICAGO, for the Jazzology label.)

Here’s some of the Good Stuff:

BREEZE (BLOW MY BABY BACK TO ME):

And for the Goldkettians in the audience (I know there are many) here’s a slow-drag IDOLIZING:

One of my favorite songs is SWEETHEARTS ON PARADE.  (I do, however have a logical problem with the lyrics as delivered by Kim Cusack.  Can you imagine an army of lovers that would push Kim aside?  for the life of me, I can’t):

I purposely chose the three videos above — not because they’re especially good — because they find Ray performing on a keyboard, not a full-size acoustic piano.  Did you notice?  He makes that electronic object sound like a baby grand.

Here he is on an instrument more suited to his talent, even though it’s a spinet — rocking through SHIM-ME-SHA-WABBLE:

The good news is that there are thirty-eight more videos of the Cubs to savor.  And the Cubs have gigs for 2011 and 2012.

The bad news?  I’ll let Ray tell you himself, concisely:

“I broke my hip July 2, had surgery later that day, must put no weight on it for six weeks. I sadly had to cancel all my work in July and August. I believe I will be able to get back to it in September, if everything heals as it should.”

It pains me to offer that news — but I hope that for Ray and for those of us who admire and love him, those six weeks pass in the space of a George Wettling four-bar interlude.

And I would like to ask JAZZ LIVES readers to do something — not for me, but for one of our musical heroes.  Send no money and no boxtops — but if you’ve drawn joy and delight from anything Ray has ever played, would you send him some healing vibrations in return?  I would like to imagine the esteemed Mr. Skjelbred surrounded by love and empathy from every corner of the musical globe.  Although he’s a modest man, someone seriously unconcerned with the weight of “Western ego,” I don’t think Ray would mind if we wrapped his troubles in healing dreams.  And if you prefer to send your affection in the form of an email, then there’s rayskjelbred@gmail.com.

Thank you, Ray, Kim, Katie, Clint, Jeff, and Rae Ann — our generous heroes!

MUSIC WAKES THE SLEEPING SELF

This story comes to JAZZ LIVES from veteran bassist and writer Bill Crow, who writes “The Band Room” column for members of the New York City musicians’ union, Local 802 — but non-members can read it, too, at http://www.local802afm.org/ :

When Ed Koch was mayor of New York City, he instituted free concerts in nursing homes in Queens. The free concerts took place under the title “Project Sunshine,” and were made up of volunteers. Bill Zinn’s “Ragtime String Quartet” played gratis in nursing homes all over Queens.

During one concert, Zinn noticed an elderly man keeping time to the music by tapping on the armrest of his wheelchair. While packing up the stands and sound system after the gig, Zinn struck up a conversation with the man, and suddenly a nearby nurse began to yell, “He’s talking!”

The man, a Long Island physician, had been in an automobile accident, was in a coma for months, awoke with a loss of memory, and had been incommunicative for about a year, just sitting in his wheelchair all day staring at a blank wall. The ragtime beat of the music played by Zinn’s group somehow jolted him back to awareness. When Zinn was offered a reward, he said, “I’ve been already compensated by the smile on the face of the doctor in the wheelchair.”

Music makes it possible for us to be reborn time after time, if only we are able to listen to its beauty deeply.