Home Masthead From Cavafy and Mahler to Mingus, Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden

From Cavafy and Mahler to Mingus, Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden

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Skies-above-us-1-JDG For days, looking at the darkening sky of the Canadian winter, I was preoccupied with the image of this deep-blue canopy as a mirror — a mirror not only to the individual, but also to the collective soul. For days I have wanted to say what I saw, but no words come to mind yet and the ideas were invisible. Then, today they come in waves of quantum packets. Their high energy was blinding. And like an electric current that had become more audible day by day, they urged me to make note of the impulses. But I could do no more than stare at the page. I saw ideas collide and words swirl like various partners performing a gratuitous waltz in the brain. To write about music they must not only do so, but also make harmonic sense. Sure the melody dictates itself must pry open the subject… But the harmonic approach is critical to complete the circle. And it must drive the rhythm… Time! Timing… The timing has to be right… Otherwise nothing will sound good. No one will be able to dance… The music will say nothing about life…

So, for days on end, the time was not right for writing about music.

Skies-Black-Power-JDG-1But then neither has most days been conducive to the creative process… I am constantly disturbed by death… News about death and thoughts about death… The news gets more troubling every day. Although one can never justify it wars seem inevitable. But what is even more disturbing is the machinery of death. More powerful weapons to kill with… that do so more brutally than ever before… weapons that force one to go down in a so-called blaze of glory. Most disturbing of all is the fact that young men – students – have taken it upon themselves to dispense justice – however twisted – by killing their own: mass murder in schools, colleges and universities… It appears that there is too much hate roaming like loose smoke all over the earth. I am distraught today. It did not help that I finished re-reading a deeply troubling essay by Gene Lees – Jazz Black and White (from Cats of Any Color, De Capo 2000) – a dissertation on racism in music as, sadly, reflected in one of the premier music institutions of New York. It bears mention here, that (at the time of writing, some seven years, or so, ago) Lees was referring to racism in the context of an attempt to keep ‘the white man out’ by denying his contribution to the jazz idiom.

Skies-Cavafy-JDGI have always found racism, no matter who practiced this ugly form of discrimination, to be truly disturbing. For me, there can be no justification… no excuse and certainly no room for hate in our lives… much less in our music. Ask any self-respecting musician. It destroys the art. That was never the intention of the blues… A poem comes to mind. The poem is from quite another realm, quite another era, but to me it speaks to the decay of our society, so driven by ignorance and hate. The poem is entitled “Waiting for the Barbarians,” by C.P. Cavafy. The great Alexandrian poet, who wrote at the turn of the 19th and in the early 20th centuries, had an epiphany about the imminent fall of a highly developed civilization – not unlike Rome – which was beginning to devour itself with its own fangs of sophistication and a certain emptiness born of its inability to recognize the fabric that held it together… a lot like ours, you might say. In the poem – that presents the dilemma with a heightened sense of drama – all life comes to grinding halt.

“What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

The barbarians are due here today.
Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?

Because the barbarians are coming today
What laws can the senators the senators make now?
Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating…”

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