Jessica Williams, jazz pianist

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About playing the piano

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I keep trying, without much success, to imagine John Coltrane and his quartet (Jimmy, Elvin, and McCoy) playing at one of these contemporary jazz festivals. You know. There's dead barbecued flesh and Budweiser and straw-hats and souvenirs and thirteen different venues ranging from 'main stage' to 'coffee house'.

(The coffee house is usually where the real music is.)

Anyway, in comes John. He starts with a 34-minute long rendition of 'Alabama.'

The crowd sits or stands there, stunned.

He's fixing their wagon.

Can you imagine that?

 

As a musician, and as one who takes the social responsibility of her 'life-job' very seriously, I've ruminated probably too much over where my art is taking me. About whether my efforts are having any positive effects on our world. About how I can best serve future generations while still enjoying my own little life.

It's woefully easy to let the sheer volume of problems get one down (environmental degradation, population growth, energy crises, deficiencies in governance, mind-boggling poverty, etc) but it's important to maintain a guardedly optimistic attitude about our future.

It's true: as we globalize our pain and internalize the exogenous misery, we interrupt our flow as spiritual beings and blind ourselves to ways in which we might be effective as healers.

This does not mean that we stick our heads in the sand and refuse to see the writing on the wall.

It means that we take on just what we can handle; we form communities to lighten the burden on the individual; we work for the establishment of sustainable social organizations that promote health in our children; we take spiritual vacations; we re-institute ritual into our lives because we can find our grounding in certain rituals tailored to fit our specific character structures.

The truth is, we're tribal. We aren't good at hermitage and isolation. And we're living in a particularly isolating, stigmatizing, and emotionally deadening age. Passionate art, dance, music, literature... all expressions of the human heart, and all suffering an eclipse of affect.

For any meaningful change to occur, women must be free in every sense of the word. Free to not only contribute in every field, but to actively participate in the humanizing of our planetary habits. We are suffering from a terrible imbalance of Yin and Yang.

 

As women had been largely excluded from participation in instrumental jazz for many years, their chances to become innovators and contributors remained small until very recently.

Pop music prospers in part because it speaks to a wide range of people through a wide range of voices. It's the variety of input, from a variety of different people and cultures, that keeps any art form alive and thriving.

If jazz is going to become healthy and vibrant into the 21st century, it needs to reject the elitist views that may have reflected  American Culture fifty years ago, but have no place in modern civilization. These polarities never served us, merely diminished our freedom to grow creatively and spiritually.

As true art is a mirror of our times and our social fabric, an art-form that rejects freedom of active participation for any group or individual is doomed to extinction.

All of our chosen 'geniuses' (in every serious field of achievement) have been men, as decreed by a consensus that holds the belief that women are perhaps incapable of 'genius.' (Edward Teller, the 'genius', was a guy that invented the H-bomb. What a genius, what a guy! Thanks a lot, Ed...)

I question the word 'genius' itself, as it presupposes some sort of Zarathustra-like ubermensch that is not really human.

Actually, our greatest contributors are totally human. Einstein didn't wear socks at Princeton. And Monk was more than a little eccentric.

Georgia O'Keefe, Agnes Martin, Louise Nevelson, Helen Frankenthaler, all great artists and all eccentric to some degree, certainly qualify as geniuses and great contributors to our art and our culture.

Women of achievement are sometimes stigmatized by their strivings to reach full potential.

In this music, Marian McPartland, Mary Lou Williams, Joanne Brackeen, Virginia Mayhew, Ingrid Jentzen, Jane Ira Bloom, Carla Bley, Alice Coltrane, Cindy Blackman, and many many others are proof that we are fully and richly capable of making important and lasting cultural contributions; and perhaps, if left  free to strive, to attain the dubious distinction of being called a 'genius.'

 

The dearth of ritual and myth in our culture leaves many of us with little in the way of 'job' security!

The concept of having a 'duty', a 'mission', a certain active responsibility to ourselves and our tribe is lost to us. We are, as a people, driven mainly by fear and want. Either wanting more money, or fearing having less money.

Since money is the driving principle of our lives (unless we are very fortunate and well-to-do) we have little time for singing, dancing, socializing, celebrating, loving, participating in each others' search for the magical. Instead of pursuing the myth and the magic, we pursue the money, and our world becomes this carbon-monoxide jungle of want where Darwinian imperatives become law - and the soft and sweet longings of surrender are judged as weakness and dealt with by swift disenfranchisement.

Usually, instead of physical penalties, the less competitive are economically declawed. The artist becomes the misanthrope; the musician dies young. Rendered powerless by the dot-snots and the cultural nihilists, many of us do succumb. And some of us are too hard to kill, at least in the spiritual sense.

The truth is that truth is hard to suppress; that people will only accept artifice for a time and then reject it.

The posturing of art-stars and airbrushed jazz celebrities will do for fifteen minutes of pseudo-fame.

After that, we'll be left with the real, the true, the spiritual ground of reality. The Duke and the Monk and the Trane and the Lady Day.

 

It's hard to describe exactly what it is I do.

I'm not too comfortable with the concept of being a 'conduit'; I'm way more than that, and pretty much responsible for most of the music that falls out of me. It's not that the function is in any way intellectual.

It's all right-brain and visceral. And more from the belly than the brain.

Anatomy aside, it simply is a biological activity. Organic and without self-examination or self-doubt, it flows out of me in a way that I can only describe as effortless.

If there's any thought going on, it's usually a banal observation unrelated to the attendant musical activity. And I'm no athlete, but the music is physicality unchecked; it makes my body dance and frees my musculature of all armor.

I tend to play down into the Music, with lots of quiet drama. Down where the whispering voices hold more sway than the shouts of our noisy planet. The Music jumps up and screams sometimes of its own volition, to be sure, but alot of it is the quiet 'aummmm' of the temple.

The physical, the technical, really is rarely a consideration at this point. It's not practice! It's Excalibur, it's knowing beyond knowing how. It's pure will and absolute purpose without the arrogance of any ego.

It's Bruce Lee walking on the ceiling.

With ego, you fall on your head.

It's not available for much further discussion, because it has no resonance in our or any language. The path as described by Castaneda? Perhaps. I certainly cry the million tears, just like Carlos in 'Tales of Power'. And Don Juan is right. Swerve from the path and you are in GREAT danger! But cry all you want and stay on the path.

It's hard to be strong all the time, and it's hard to do something that your society has no name or place for.

So I write about it here. I cry occasionally, which is another perfectly healthy expression of streaming life.

When I play, the act is the sacred ground of my being, and it is therefore that which I will protect with the most effort.

My duty (as defined by me) is to bring that sacred act unscarred and unsullied through to the last day of my life, in pristine condition, ready for trade-in.

My joy is to see and feel the impact on the world and on my human family.

I love the way John Coltrane played ballads. He played with a simplicity and a tenderness, a whimsy and a sense of melancholy. His ballads were usually rendered in a high register on the tenor. At melodic peaks, occasionally, his notes would bear a rasp, almost a choke. Like a stifled sob.

'What's New', 'Too Young to go Steady', 'My One and Only Love'. All examples of the quiet power of a real musician who had nothing to prove.

It's unfortunate that a lot of music today is still about 'contest'.

Seriously, you can hear 'Trane all through my playing. He transcends the appellate of sax player. His language is beyond ego or idiom.

His music is myth made real.

 

Remember when Captain Kirk loses his job to a computer built by the paranoid Dr. Daestrom?

Star Fleet sends congrats to the inventor, and regards to 'Captain Dunsel.' Poor old Kirk needs a translation, and Spock has one at the ready.

'Dunsel is a nautical term referring to a part that serves no obvious function or purpose'.

Kirk really likes this. He's just been made obsolete by a tin box full of microchips.

He needs career counseling.

It's pretty easy to start feeling like a dunsel, unless you're really good at code or at making new and exciting microchips. The whole idea of making art or playing music or writing poems seems to be getting more and more alien to increasing numbers of people.

Maybe we're all evolving past the need to read little squiggles on a flattened piece of wood-pulp, or to look at petroleum-based products arranged in thoughtful patterns on canvas, or to hear really great musicians play their instruments really well.

Could be.

 

I've just learned that the average median price for buying a 2-bedroom fixer-upper on the Central Coast of California is $700,000. I'll have to update this page frequently, as that number is sure to become obsolete within the week.

 

If Coltrane were here now he might feel just like Captain Kirk.

He might feel like so many of us are starting to feel. He might say to his drummer, 'Hey, Elvin, it might be just me, but am I a dunsel ?'

(And could he make enough money to live in a nice 2-bedroom fixer-upper in CA?)

 

I met a guy the other day who tried to convince me that jazz musicians had to suffer miserably and continuously to be really creative.

I expect to hear that from record-producers at the moment they quiveringly sign a check made out to me for my services. But this person owed me no money or royalties. He just really believed that misery was necessary for the creation of art.

If Van Gogh would've had enough money to buy paints and canvas and food and have a 2-bedroom fixer-upper, perhaps the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam would need to be twice or three times as big as it is.

If my friend Philly Joe Jones would've made more money and been treated like the person he was instead of being treated like most folks with darker pigments in their epidermises have usually been treated, in America and elsewhere, he might've lived longer than 54 years.

He might be alive TODAY.

I usually make my best music when I'm happy and healthy. You know what they say about success?

They say 'success is the best revenge.' They're right!

 

I became interested in the piano at the age of four. Visiting my grandmother's house with my parents, I encountered my very first piano, a behemoth that towered over me, that had cracked, yellowed, ivory keys and mysterious levers in front of them (it was a player-piano and these were controls relating to that function, which didn't function) and it was the most enormous and powerful piece of machinery I had ever seen.

When I finally pressed that first key, I was rewarded by the usual aural experience, and a visual one to boot.

Each note that I pressed was attended by a ball of color. Years later I would hypothesize that C was yellow and F was brown, E was orange and A was green, G was blue and D could be yellow or red or, occasionally, dark brown.

But I don't remember that much. I was four.

I knew at the ground of my being (that sacred place where we live with who we know to be our true selves) that I would be a musician, that a part of whatever I would be would include that powerful machine, the piano.

- JW 2.10.98

 

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