Even Hep Cats Get The Blues

Roland Kirk bright moments

My parents met at a dance for foreign students in Boston. (He was Scottish; she was Dutch.) My mother, who listened almost exclusively to classical music and played the cello, would later confess that, after watching my father perform his rousing Fats Waller impression she wondered if he might be mad. (Only later would she realize the complete accuracy of this hypothesis.)

My father’s love for jazz can be traced back to his childhood in Glasgow where he saved ha’pennies in order to afford 78rpm recordings by Count Basie, Duke Ellington and other American greats. The music seemed wildly exotic and wonderful to him; moving to the States post-war increased his devotion.

As a child I was immersed in the exquisite creations of Satchmo, Billie Holiday, Sidney Bechet, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and others long before The British Invasion. (Every so often my father would regale us with his impression of Coleman Hawkins playing “Body & Soul”. This hilarious homage was delivered using only his lips and included elaborate mugging.)

High school and college were devoted to rock; Hendrix had propelled it to the stars. But by the time I got to graduate school Hendrix was dead and rock was very much in decline. I returned to jazz and found that, while rock does one thing very well, jazz is a complete art form that encompasses all elements of the human spirit. Jazz is not so much a musical style as it is a world.

One of my absolute favorite players was a human three-ring circus named Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Kirk was blind and famous for playing as many as three saxophones simultaneously. But this only scratches the surface. He would play the flute and talk at the same time, launch into “raps” that ranged from bawdy to political. Kirk was not an easy man, but the very definition of a creative genius who could hold his own with John Coltrane, Charlie Parker – anyone!

I saw Kirk perform three times, once at Carnegie Hall, once in a horrid meeting room in Chicago, and once in a tiny Dayton jazz club called Gilly’s. I went there alone and got a seat all the way up front. To my amazement, Kirk came into the room from the back and started working the crowd. He was dressed in an orange jumpsuit covered with hooks and zippers and looked like a human Christmas tree except that instead of ornaments there were saxophones, flutes, whistles, miscellaneous percussion instruments, etc.

He moved with confidence a sighted person wouldn’t have had, Kirk knew every stick of furniture in that room, and he sensed every person. At last he arrived at the front of the room, by the stage, next to my table.

“How you doin’ man?” He faced me and seemed to know I was alone.
“Great,” I answered too eagerly, “I’m really happy about being here.”
“I ain’t.”
“What do you mean?” This confession did not conform to my expectation of the evening. I had been counting the days; some idiot part of me believed that Kirk had also been looking forward to it.
“I ain’t feeling it, man. It’s Sunday night, I’d rather be at home watching Mary Tyler Moore.”
“Why would you be doing that when you could be here turning these folks on to your fabulous music?”
“Because, man, just because. I’d rather be at home watching Mary Tyler Moore.”

It wasn’t the idea of a blind man watching TV. It wasn’t the idea of the baddest, hippest jazz musician on the scene watching the squarest, whitest, most apple pie show on TV. It was the idea that even the most incendiary genius could be vulnerable and flat like the rest of us.

He did two sets; being a professional, they were absolutely amazing. But even when he dug so deeply into “If I Loved You” that I felt sure the notes had been stored in the basement next to the cases of beer, it was impossible not to picture Mary in Lou’s office, crying – and Rahsaan saying, “Love is all around, no need to fake it.”

The Siren Call Of All That Is Not Me

Turkish Farmer Abuses Hashish

Many people in AA speak of alcoholism as a disease, as if to say, our bodies are “allergic” to alcohol, our reactions are different from those of “normal” people.

I think this is a facile, inaccurate rationalization that makes it easier for people to admit they have a problem with booze and need help.

In fact, we are like other people except that our “alcoholic personalities” – driven by a hunger for escape – catapult us into excesses of all kinds.

I recently ran across this passage from my bipolar memoir, INVISIBLE DRIVING, which sums it up succinctly.

“One of the highlights of my career as a jazz listener was a concert in Carnegie Hall. It featured McCoy Tyner and his big band, the outrageous Pharaoh Sanders, and the immortal one himself, Rahsaan Roland Kirk. The hall was hushed as McCoy Tyner, pianist for John Coltrane during the legendary quartet years, took the stage with his large and heavily armed band. Nothing sounds prettier than a room holding hundreds of people with their mouths shut. It reminded me of the Quaker meetings I used to go to every week at school. So many people, alone with their thoughts, together in a room, silent. Great moment.

“The wooden floors of the old hall creaked like a ship at sea as people settled in their seats. This silence was not the silence of a bus station at 3:00 AM in the morning. This was warm and rich, the audience filled with respect, even awe, and anticipation. You could have heard a lemon drop drop.

“And then, we heard a bomb drop. Tyner’s band burst into an all-stops-out barrage of sound intensity that blew off every hairpiece in the room. From silence to a hurricane of sound, cracking and crashing like madness, so loud that it couldn’t be denied, it didn’t come in through your ears, it came in through your bones. I felt like I was having an orgasm. I was so relieved, so joyful, so happy, I wanted to jump to my feet, thrust my fists into the air and scream ‘Yes! Thank you!’

“Later, when I was replaying the concert in my mind, I wondered about that moment. Why was it that I craved that level of intensity so much? The longer I thought about it, the harder it became to avoid my best theory. The music was so strong, it obliterated my personality. It was so complete, so overwhelming, that it freed me from myself. I was immersed in only the intoxication of the music. I forgot about me.”

Occupy Art: Behold Armchair Activism

Attention All Armchair Activists And Recliner Radicals

The occupy movement has come and gone, leaving only a trail of Starbucks coffee cups and disillusioned armchair activists. We must not be shocked or even disappointed to learn that this symphony of orchestrated whining accomplished absolutely nothing since it had no agenda, stated objectives, or suggestions.

However, lurking deep within the sanctimonious orgy of middle-aged, middle-class malcontents yet unready to embrace the adulthood they’d fled for decades; was a point.

These cheery nitwits drew fuel from more than mere ennui and narcissism; righteous indignation burned in their stomachs like bad Mexican food, inviting the question – Is there any such thing as good Mexican food?

How can it be, they inquired, in that charmingly innocent way of theirs, that 99% of the nation’s wealth is in the hands of only 1% of its population?

It is a fair question, but a stupid one, since the American public stood by for generations and idly watched the looting, too complacent even to vote, much less defend itself.

Far more interesting is the cultural divide, and where one stands on it.

“Never confuse fame with artistic quality, or wealth with value. Society gets what it wants, not what it needs.” Taz Mopula 

After merciless soul-searching I have come to the conclusion that in all my artistic endeavors – (novels – poetry – cartoons – tazmopulisms – essays) – I am aligned squarely with the 1% and have no interest in appealing to the 99%. Let’s do the math.

Entire U.S. population is approximately 300,000,000

Cretins 10%
Neanderthals 10%
Troglodytes 10%
Liars 10%
Racists 10%
Religious Zealots 10%
Xenophobes 10%
Illiterate 10%
Impoverished 10%
Unapologetically anti-intellectual 9%

Alistair McHarg prospects 1%  equaling approximately       3,000,000

Let it be proclaimed for all to hear that I serve the 1%; proudly!

“There is only one truly authentic way to enjoy success; that is by remaining indifferent to it.” Taz Mopula

Great Art Is Made By Great People

The Art Itself Is Not An End, Only A Beginning, Portal Leading

As a young person I was impressed by virtuoso artists, individuals with Faustian technique. I imagined how it felt to take the stage, whether literal or metaphorical, and simply blow the audience away – dazzle them with something they had never seen, heard, experienced before. I felt then that it was the duty of art to smash through barriers, and open up new worlds. Only technical mastery, I believed, made this possible.

Much, much later I discovered that this mythology was just so much elephant dung, a young man’s obsession with ego, self-aggrandizement, and hostility – because that desire to blow the audience away was closely related to “killing” and “destroying” as stand-up comedians use these terms…it was all about demonstrating superiority, establishing dominance. More war than art.

I came to understand that technique is merely a starting point – of course one must master the technical aspects of one’s trade – but more technique won’t compensate for deficits in other key areas. Indeed, many mediocre artists hide behind technique, lots of glitz and razzle-dazzle, but very little content. In short, the missing ingredient is them. They do magic tricks for the audience, they don’t share what’s real.

Over-emphasis on technique is what magicians call “léger de main” – the artist distracts you from the lack of substance by drawing your eye to something “bright and sparkly” – and you leave the theatre thinking you’ve had an experience. But this is to art as cotton candy is to food. The true role of technique, and the reason why it must be practiced until it is second nature, is to reveal, not call attention to itself. The best writing is transparent, one sees through it to the meaning that dwells inside.

Many artists achieve technical mastery, but few are brave enough to use it as a tool for self-revelation, openly sharing their personal truth in a way that allows audiences to feel it and benefit from it. For these special, wonderful people, the audience is more important than the performer and the technique is simply a tool for doing important work. I do not for a moment want to deny the sheer beauty of a fugue executed exquisitely, a painting that captures light the way a child captures fireflies in a jar, or a poem crafted with such love that the words chime like bells – these achievements have value in their own right.

But technique itself is never the point. The works of art that last, the ones that lift us off our feet, are the ones where craft was used to create a portal through which we gazed another world, and having done so were inexorably enriched.

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