Jessica Williams, jazz pianist, composer

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The Sleeper Awakens

Beside my bed there stands an aging end table. It's one of those "requires assembly . . . this is a dare from far, far away" kind of pieces that are destined to end up in a land-fill . . . but for now, it serves. With one reservation: it is not nearly big enough for the task I have assigned it.

It contains or supports, among many other things, a rather large and sturdily built 20 year-old radio (a rugged and regal reminder of past stability, built for its time, reminding me of familiar, nostalgic, dependable things). After I had my back operation (that triple-segment lumbar fusion . . . please know that the curse and the blessing are sometimes one in the same thing) I spent lots of time on my back, staring at a white ceiling. For my own solace I would scroll through the radio dial seeking entertainment. Something to "rid the world of the pain I was often in", with emphasis on the word in. I tried the jazz station but it just broke my heart to hear some of it. When the DJ played Trane or Dexter or anything similar, I would float within the music, and my pain would be as on another planet, parsecs away. But usually the programming, the very music itself was - and this only to avoid long-winded immersions in unpleasant memories and private territories of my own heart - disappointing. I use this word with the delicacy befitting a butterfly as it is not my intention to offend.

Not amused, I would then scroll to the classical station.

Classical Music is serious music. And one must be deadly serious to play it. Darn, one must be dead-serious to listen to it! But I do love the Romantic period, The Big Five, that period filled with so many great Russian composers. A rich and ready vein of gold in a land starved and savaged by tectonic shifts of powerful despotism and spartan shortages. From such cold hard soil grows the most exotic flowers! There were times when I was wafted in the arms of Tchaikovskynew window, my all-time favorite Russian composer. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. His music - particularly his Fourth Symphony - and if there are angels, they live in harmony with that music - was as deep as one can safely go down into the Seas of the Spirit before one loses one's place and one's mind. The ideation, capture, perfection, and eventual execution of this vast cultural heritage we share in his music is beyond my capacity to adequately explain. And here is a man whose music will stand for thousands of years into the mists of the future. The Path he followed was a true one. A Path that spoke of his soul, a soul filled with joy and pain and love and hardship and sadness and all of the things that we share in each of our seemingly separate human adventures. A soul that will speak to us across untold centuries.

 

There was a then, the dead past, frozen in amber, our museum of shared memories. There is a now, with all of its joy and courage and foppery and lunacy. Now is like a small gnat that you'll never be swift enough to swat. It's there and then it's gone like the whirlwind. And then, there is the unknowable future, barely perceptible but highly malleable by our actions and our passions in the now, and wisely remaining always just out of reach. We lack prescience, and that is a mortal protection and a savory gift. So there it stands in front of us as it imitates and filters our actions and desires and dreams and weaknesses and strengths, responding to our inner selves in only vaguely predictable ways. All we can know for certain is that we may never give up our dream, and that "playing the victim" is the surest road to failure and stasis. Our future depends so much on our present deeds and the words we say, the ideas we sow, the care we take in the friends we make and the things (and the people) we must surely leave behind. Our future demands discipline of us, because it often mirrors who we are and even may become that which we fear the most, if we allow fear to live within us. By seeking the love we each have to offer - and we seek this not primarily in ourselves alone but also in others, who suddenly are much more important to us than our singular, lonely selves had ever imagined - we make futures full of promise and hope and joy. Even so, conflict will come. Illness or death may intervene. But there opens a great and wide highway of opportunity and wonder and love and achievement. We move forward. Roads will close, but others will open.

It seems that fear cannot exist where love takes root. They are perhaps mutually exclusive emotions.

And these thoughts are somewhat typical and quite predictable of me when I listen to this Master of Music, Tchaikovsky. But there is no "Tchaikovsky Channel" that I know of, so I wander farther along the radio dial. That it has a dial is infinitely reassuring to me, a "should be" in my world just then. An iPod would be a blasphemy, pure idolatry, the word itself the poor harried ravings of a lost Heretic.

At this point I've just about used up the radio fare. I don't want to hear "the news". It is not a healing force for me to indulge in. I usually feel guilty and misled when I listen to what passes for 'news' in our culture. I need good news and there is very little of that to be found on the airwaves. Our 'news' is mostly opinion now, with much yelling and arguing, much finger-pointing and blind ignorance. The individuals of whom I speak parade their prejudices with pride and hubris. Their words are transparent and disturbing to my very core of being. It saddens me to listen to such madness. It also saddens me to say that some souls may stay lost, that they may never see this Golden Light that is everywhere in our lives if we simply cease to ruminate inward and focus our attention outward to the beauty of those around us, to the mysterious world of the hummingbird, to the whispered intelligence of the trees, to the sure and steady eternal beating of the waves against the shore. There we find Truth, there we stumble upon The Path.

Scroll, scroll. And suddenly I'm immersed in some of the most raucous, earthy, outright dusty ole' music we call "Country and Western" - but we in the know just call it "Country" with an implied small 'c'. It is a confident music, a vital and changing music. And they'll tell you right out that age or sex or color doesn't mean didley. Question is: who are you? That's all that matters.

You can be an older cowgirl like me, married for 25 years, and rest assured, 'country knows' . . . our bodies might get old, but love burns brighter, and when I close my eyes I'm 15 again and being kissed for the very first time! Who am I? I am love. Love just gets better and better, and age is a myth to us when we embrace.

The most-often encountered theme of that old, marvelous music is - you guessed it - love. Find love, fall in love, get your poor heart broken again and again, then fall in love again. There are other themes, but what attracted me to the music itself was the strong emphasis on love. And the telling of a story. And a melody with a "hook". And having a good time just listening to it.

I grew up on the Mason-Dixon Line in Maryland. So I'm a mongrel puppy. I think that where and how we grow up in our state and our city and our little tribe of folks that eventually spread out across our nation and often lose track of each other - that might be more important than any "national pride" . . . it's incredibly important to know where you grew and took root and made decisions that changed your world, other's worlds, everyone's world up to this point. Those who grew up in our Southern States know how to party and know when to stop. They know when to fight and when to run. And do not think for a minute that, just because a man or a woman has a draw as long as the sunset, that their intelligence is slowed or somehow "different". Cowboys and Cowgirls are also CEO's, PhD's, teachers, workers, anything and everything they decide to be. Often, their WILL is powerful and determinate. Bill Clinton may be accused of many things, but being 'slow' was never one of them.

So, there I was, face to face with Kenny Chesney, Kacey Musgraves, and Brad Paisley. The radio blares "I DRIVE YOUR TRUCK!!!" and I'm strangely hooked. I turn it up. This was the music of the hills and hollers, and it rang in me like home. So I did what it told me to do. I kicked my (metaphorical) shoes off. I let my hair (which was not 'up') down. I closed my eyes, climbed up into the Ford cab with the lift-kit, and I'm sittin' shotgun, and suddenly I'm blonde as I was when I was a very young girl, built to last, with my Cowgirl hat and my little dream-catcher earrings on and the love of my life at the wheel, and in my head I'm thinkin' "I live to love and I love to live." Soon I learned the words to the songs. And then . . . then I did something that I have not done since early childhood: I started to sing. "Sing along with Kacey" and I felt just fine. I felt like I was in a country-western band with the mic in my hand, with my white Cowgirl boots on, and I sang and I sang. Through every hoot and every holler, I got my country on.

The point is, life is just too wonderful, too lovely in its riches and varied appeals, too colorful in its rainbows of brilliance, too beautiful in all of its dazzling shine and subtle substance, too magnificent an experience to consign limits to it. Life is SURPRISE or it is not really life.

Now, don't expect me to become a country musician at 65. This is not going to happen. But there are things that must be done. Melody. Song. Sharing. Love. These are strong elements in my own music that have flourished for this last decade, but it no longer serves me to "burn up" the keys, play faster and faster, and show off like a trained seal. Ego runs so strong in the jazz of today that I hardly know where to fit myself into it. I am not egoless, but it is less rewarding for me to show off my technique than it is for me to express my emotions through my piano. It's so vastly important for me to share.

I will still play jazz, because I do it well, without moving my lips. And there are other kinds of music I must make also.

"There is no such thing as a rule-governed creativity." - Frank Herbert, via Leto II, The Dune Chronicles, Volume IV

 

There is a place for me in the jazz world. A small niche. If I wanted to use a synthesizer, or call in a Shakuhachi player, or hire a Sitar Master, there is little allowance for my "disruptive tendency". If I wanted to hire a member of the LGBT community, my promoter may rule against the move, wishing to avoid clashes with the mercantile whims of Corporate Sponsors. And then there's the money. My last quarter's earnings from iTunes, Rhapsody, Pandora, and 238 different DRM sites combined was 275 USD for April, 2013. (It goes down as I write this.)

I could continue but these are old words and they are obsolete to me now. It is a dark tableau I leave, a charred field of indifference that I survey. A field where great talents die of neglect, in poverty and enforced scarcity. I have exposed that life enough in this log of life I keep. This is no longer me, and hasn't been for at least a decade. I do not thrive on a battlefield with death all around me. And there has been so much death.

I admit to a certain fragility of spirit, a statement leveled at those who are pacified by such stark admissions. Personally, it is a placebo. It has no effect. I would also warn novices and acolytes to 'have a care' . . . I would rather see you fully alive and filled with peace.

But jazz is still alive in me. And many of the restraints I experienced were placed on myself were placed there by myself.

 

My True Path takes me many places. My Path takes me to ALL people and ALL ages and ALL religions and ALL systems of governance. And I don't yet know where I'm going, but I have plenty of time to get there!

You see, I really believe that most humans are kind, decent, and good. That is a naiveté that I cherish, nourish, protect, and keep close in my heart. It expects the best from my neighbors on this Earth. It moves towards abundance and not scarcity. It holds that it is blessed to give. It holds no grudges and has no time for hate or fear or judgement. It is the highest nature in our species that I seek. And the results of my cultivated naiveté? It comes rushing towards me: in vast support, unbelievable love, unexpected gifts, and more absolutely amazing events than I ever imagined possible. That is my one and only True Path. It works the way I have described it. Fear and love cannot exist simultaneously. And I am not afraid.

It is not a belief system. It is My Path, not anyone else's. It may or may not work. And therein lies its power. It is a vision. I have seen this and it is my way forward into the unknowable future. At least I will have scenery, and surprises!

One of the first songs I played when I received my new piano was "Fire and Rain" by James Taylor. Then I listened to some Bob Dylan. I listened to the Beatles, and they took me back to my teens, where I met a nascent self in agony and ecstasy. Even then, I was never static, always fluid. Like water, filling every space, every crack in the stones of Time. I listened to the great John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" and I cried, just as I always do, during the "Psalm". Many things change. Some things - things made out of love and sharing and the best within us - remain virtually untouched.

It was my initial intention to describe every object on that bedside table. And I realize that such a task would eat my days. Suffice to say that it is packed with oddities and entities. But the radio, ahhh the radio. It was a balm to my soul during some terribly painful weeks and months, and so it remains when I get tired and need moments of introspection. It's not always quiet time, and when I sing along to country songs it's best to close the door so as not to hurt anyone's ears.

 

As is often the case, I try to write with purpose, the end justifying the mistakes I may make in sentence structure or the clarity of my literary intentions. Writing is never easy for me, and I'm rarely satisfied with the results. But it is helpful to share these thoughts.

When one is changed by events, changed profoundly so that old habits that seemed as shadows are thrown into brilliant relief as the lights go on, it's no longer preferable or even possible to maintain pretense. Lies (one's own and other's) become unappetizing morsels that will not "go down". The FLOW of life is never served by the screening - or walling off - of the self. My music changes, and I know why. It's because the flow of energy in my body is changed. I love more deeply. I feel more deeply. I care more, and I wish to share more. Certainly, the music which flows from my heart will be different than music that flows only from my head. I'd like to believe that most of everything I have done has been from the heart. But my heart is changed now and I cannot speak for the future of my music, except to say that it will be as honest, as pure, and as untouched by other's preferences as possible. I never wish to alienate, as that would be at cross-purpose to how I move in this world now. But I set a path for my only self. It is My True Path, and even though I really can't see it clearly yet, I hear echoes of it in my dreams, and I even 'make real' some of it when I play my piano in solitude. It is not just elements, like beats or harmonics or new ways of improvising, although those are keys to My True Path as it unfolds before me. It is more than that, and it is a wordless process that springs from my thalamus, my right brain, my limbic system, and my spinal cord. The entirety of my body is involved in following and immersing myself in My True Path.

I write these words knowing less than I should but more than I did. To lament over wasted years is the 'luxury' of the victim. Not being such, I see years stretching out before me on this super-highway of "future that will become the past". When we think, we make ideas, and we may cause to create that thing. When we make a thing, it moves molecules. It changes reality. Only in doing is the value seen. Only in sharing is the purpose of our labors felt.

But this remains true: a thought is the beginning of a dream, and a dream will become a reality if it is followed strongly enough.

Believing this with all my heart, that Love will guide me on My True Path, I fling myself into the Abyss, knowing fully that there are obstacles and conflicts and perhaps even battles ahead . . . but the illumination of the human soul must always depend on its own courage, always walking close to the edge. Believing in my own self and the ones who truly love me, I go to the Abyss and know that I'll prevail. Because I dare to.

With deep love and studious care, I take the first steps on My True Path. New music awaits.

- Jessica J Williams, May 12, 2013

 

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