What is the essence of the human being? What is that quality that we feel when we think of someone we know well. I am sure that my ‘sense’ of this loved one is not the sum total of all the words they’ve spoken in my presence, or the things I’ve seen them do. Maybe we call this their ‘personality,’ that essence we feel when we hear their name, see their face, or imagine their company. Maybe personality is that intangible and yet visceral ‘thing’ which makes them who they are to us. There is something constant about this ‘personality,’ this image or essence.
I have a dear friend. Nearly all of the hundreds of hours we’ve spent together were during musical performances in small jazz duos or quartets. He plays the saxophone and does so amazingly well. More than most other musical associates, I consider him a friend as well, though we rarely get together except to perform. Luckily, we’ve done that regularly for almost 20 years. About 17 years ago, we played four nights each week for almost three years straight. After that, we had some regular duo gigs that happened at least once a year for a dozen or so years.
I very much like this man, this friend. I like his mind, his kindness, his humor, even some of the irascible aspects of his nature. I have always enjoyed his company and we have wonderful conversations, focusing almost always on music.
Jon has been very sick lately. He has cancer and has been sick for about three months. He has cancer in many places in his body. He had two large tumors removed from his brain about ten weeks ago, and there is cancer in his lungs and liver, along his spine, and in his bones. Lately, we talk almost every day and I see him every week.
Jon has lived a fairly reclusive life, and has sustained himself through teaching music privately. He has had hundreds of students, and from all accounts, he is a superb teacher. His life as a performer has never taken off, really. This has always baffled the many more successful musicians who have had the privilege to play with him, because there are so many less talented players making good livings as performers. The president of the local musician’s union in Los Angeles, an alto saxophonist himself, once heard him play and said “I’m speechless.” A two-time Grammy Award winning pianist who performed with him once said, “I wish I could play like that.”
In an effort to spread Jon’s amazing music, I have been emailing solos of his playing to a few dozen people every day. I found these solos on cassette tapes that I amassed during a quartet run Jon and I had about 15 years ago. At that time, I owned an expensive Sony Professional recorder and, as a budding jazz pianist, I was determined to capture my best playing on tape. I was never satisfied with the things I recorded of myself, but I held on to all those hundreds of live gig tapes.
Then, when Jon got sick a couple of months ago, I pulled out the tapes and began to assemble excerpts of Jon’s solos. At present, I have a half-dozen CDs in my car, each packed with Jon’s wonderful playing. Each track, now with added EQ and reverb, fades in when Jon’s solo starts, and fades out at the end.
For two months now, I have been listening to Jon’s solos over and over. I commute to and from work, about 30 minutes each way, and spend most of the time enjoying my friend's beautiful playing.
Last night I had an epiphany. I had been listening on the way to work that morning and realized that an aspect of Jon’s solos had a quality of reaching for something intangibly beautiful. I felt a tremendous striving for artistic perfection. I could hear that striving somehow in the music. I wasn’t sure what I was hearing, but I loved it in a new way. These solos had become so familiar to me that I knew ever turn, every breath, every descent, every twist, every rare growl. Suddenly, on yesterday's morning commute I heard something incredibly human about his voice as an artist. I could only call it a 'striving,' some supremely human act of reaching for higher truth. It was simple and profound, ancient and new. It felt primordial, deeply human, without precedent, and yet something utterly ubiquitous. It was my first glimpse of something very logical and communicative in an art form that has always been purely mystical for me when I am in that state of simple emotional appreciation. Now, as I was driving to school, I was hearing something much more concrete, though I wasn't able to describe beyond calling it a 'striving for beauty' in my friend. I listened to several solos during that half-hour commute, and they all had this exact same revelation for me. Each note, each turn, each improvised melodic line was a kind of reaching for an illusive beauty.
On the way home, I called Jon and we talked for about 15 minutes. I tried to express to him what I had been hearing in his playing, but I knew I wasn’t being clear. I think 'striving' kept sounding like 'unfinished' or worse, 'imperfect.' We chatted a bit more, laughed, reminisced, and then I got off the phone at the base of the mountain road up to my house. Up the winding canyon, I listened to his solo on the song 'Tenderly.' Now, something completely different emerged out of this improvised music.
I suddenly began to hear the essence of my friend. That intangible quality that makes a loved one a loved one, that unique imprint, or 'image' we have of who this person is on an essential level -I heard what such an essence sounds like, for the first time in my life. Jazz no longer sounded like jazz, it sounded like a language that my friend was speaking clearly, articulately, and beautifully about himself and about all of us. It was clear as day but it wasn't words or even cognition. My friend's 'personality' -that indelible mark they have made on me because of who they are- this 'quality of being' of my friend had perfectly and completely spread itself across a two-minute sequence of vibrating air waves called an improvised jazz solo, and what it had to say was profoundly illuminating to me.
Maybe it was because we had just spoken and some part of him was close to the moment. I have studied this music of improvisation, I have known intuitively that it is a language, but I never heard it like I did last night. I listened to Jon’s playing, to his voice, to his ideas, to his expressiveness, and suddenly, in a genuinely epiphanous moment, I HEARD my friend Jon, everything about who he is on some very essential level. Just as I have an image of his personality as a friend, which transcends whatever he says and does, and is just the essential ‘idea’ I have about who Jon is, this man I adore, now, suddenly, I heard and saw my friend clearly in the language of his personal music, this culmination of years of study and dedication ~all delivered in a moment of time through this unique musical language.
For most of my life I have apprenticed myself to the mysterious sounds of jazz with rapt attention and a faithful devotion, trusting implicitly the intent behind this liquid art form, although I was often puzzled at how it could carry so much meaning, being mere vibrations of the air. But spoken language is also just vibrations of the air, with the deeper meanings of our words concealed in the complexities of grammer, phonemes, vocabulary, and syntax. The brain deciphers the language when it has established a working knowledge of these rules. The infant does not understand the content of language as mother speaks her musical words to the very young baby, telling this child about the diaper that is being changed, or the shirt being pulled over the head. Yet there is something captivating in the tones, the resonance of voice, the heartfelt utterings that come through loving words and a richly nuanced face. The infant makes prolonged eye contact, and it seems that part of a mother’s flood of lilting words seeks to keep those new eyes just so captivated. It’s as if the mother knows that the longer the child watches intently the facial and vocal subtleties of the speaking mother, the more fully connected the two will be and the more readily the child will be able to learn language. And this is so. Within months, the utterings of the mother prompt logical responses in the still pre-verbal child. The infant who cannot yet speak can comprehend more and more. It is the intense focus of the mother and child, their absolute trust in the process of shared communion that allow seemingly random syllables to eventually carry enough meaning so as to align the infant’s mind, to initiate the Universal Grammar that gives the baby its capacity for speech within a year or two of birth. In the beginning, an infant does not grasp the ‘content’ of the early speech directed at it, but can recognize the ‘intent’ of that speech. Newborns are fascinated with the lively chatter of the adults who speak to them with that instinctive motherese so universal among humans. They feel the emotion imbedded in that sing-song, rhythmic vocalization. They feel appreciated and loved, because such affections are the principal impetus to such a strange adult way of talking. Infants are mesmerized, entranced, and captivated by motherese, and the brain actively responds by continuously analyzing and, eventually, ordering these utterances into sensible content that can then be reproduced by the child as small phrases and words within just months of their birth. This relationship between attention, language, and learning are central to our human way of being and expressing ourselves. And vocal language is not the only form of communication.
It seemed to me that last night I had deciphered the language of music, and HEARD what it was saying about my friend, and then about all of us. Jon's essence was IN THE MUSIC. These wildly precise sets of sound waves, these vibrations of air, blown through a sugar-cane reed and a brass instrument smelted from the earthly minerals of zinc and copper, these sounded expressions from a man who has devoted countless hours to refining this very moment, makes a music which has no justification nor explanation really, and yet which was supremely beautiful in both its intent and its content. How has the universe created these organisms known famously as homo sapiens, these gifted tool makers and artists, who discover laws of musical sound, fashion elaborate instruments from the most chemically complex materials, thereby extending the capacities of the human voice, then train for a lifetime simply to vibrate the airwaves just so? Improvised music is an active art. It leaves absolutely nothing behind but impressions upon the listener. Why would we do such an inexplicable thing if not to express some deeper truth about who we are?
I felt for a brief moment yesterday that I had broken code, heard the language of Jon's music for both its generous beauty and for its deeper message. I felt certain as I listened to 'Tenderly", that I had come to understand how this music is about expressing the language of the universe. It is the language of life, and of love. It is what makes us human. We are drawn to create beauty like moths to a flame. This language finds modest expression in each of us as our ‘personality,’ that thing which other people are attracted to and love about us. As a teacher of children, I have the fortunate ability to see that essence in every child, and I adore them all for this essence, no matter how challenged they may be as people and classmates to each other. The most difficult child, I adore the essence of them, because it is unique and brilliant, and somehow quite good and refined. I am more selective with adults. There are many personalities which wear an external veneer that I don’t respond to so positively. With time, I would like them too, but alas, we have limited time and tend to spend that time getting to know those adults who are the easiest for us to like.
Jon’s music, his solo on Tenderly, it spoke to me in a language that I fully understood for the first time. It spoke to me about the essence of my friend Jon, about all his goodness, all his humanity, all his humor, even his fear and anger. And all the qualities of Jon, as they came through in the sounds of a very well-trained artist, are ALL BEAUTIFUL sounds. In this refined, creative, intuitive, artistic form of exult, I could see the most brilliant, lovely, and subtle essence of our humanity as it conveyed the unique truth of my friend Jon, pure and complete. The dark and light maneuver through glorious sound together, and can only be good and beautiful. That is all we are.
We are here on this earth, at least partly, to find the creative, intuitive means of expressing the essence of who we are, in a language of the universe that is both mysterious and yet accessible. Our personality carries it mostly without effort or training. Then as we grow and mature, we seek to find our 'calling,' our 'destiny,' that place where the intuitive and creative capacities will join forces with the disciplined mind to let us express our deepest truth, our essential light, as an art. It is our birthright to create, to perform, to express, to give of ourselves like this, outwardly to one other.
Artistic expressions –and mind you, language, speech, a generous disposition, a smile-filled being, a meaningful occupation delivered with passion, these are art forms as much as music- are what we humans do to communicate the higher language of love and truth that is at the core of our being. We are part of a life force which seeks to create beauty through us, with us, because of us, in order to be us.