Thoughts I’m playing around with; hoping to go somewhere with them…
What makes you, you?
A thought experiment: Imagine that we each have something beautiful and unique in us that doesn’t fade or disappear with time. Take this idea and apply it to yourself. Sit with the idea that you have something beautiful that is part of you, that sits at the core of who you are and can’t be taken away.
Imagine this beautiful thing as an actual object. Think of it as small enough to hold in one hand. Maybe it’s a candle: a source of light. Maybe it’s more like a seed: potential waiting to be tapped. Maybe it’s like a crystal: bright and gleaming.
When you’ve decided what object feels true for you, picture it in detail. If it’s a candle, what does the flame look like? If it’s a seed, what can you imagine it flowering into? If it’s a crystal, think about color and shape and facets, and what it might do with light. If it’s something else entirely, draw it fully in your mind.
Now imagine that every person you meet, or see, or hear about, has an object like yours. A small, unique, and beautiful thing that can’t be taken away. And imagine that you can see their objects, and they can see yours.
What would happen if we could recognize all these things in one another? Given that view of each other, how strong might we be, and what kind of world could we create?
In last week’s post, I shared a tune by jazz composer Charles Mingus, and the short story I wrote in response to it. As I’m thinking about what to do with the blog (again), I’m continuing to play around with combinations of music and words.
One of the things I love about my dual career as a writer and pianist is how those two sides often complement and inspire each other. While these days I’m more focused on writing, and writing-related stuff, I always go back to music to “fill the well” and help dig into my creativity.
Today I thought I’d just share some music, in hopes that maybe it’ll inspire some words, or other creativity, for you. This is one of my favorite pieces, an etude-tableau by Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943(. I first learned this piece when I was about fifteen. A few months ago, I found myself thinking about it again, and decided to see if I could still play it. It’s a work in progress, but I think this recording will give you a feel for it.
I love this piece because it’s shadowy and evocative, sad but lovely. Like “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” last week, it strikes me as an appropriate feeling for these times.
After the chaos of yesterday, it feels like a good time to restart the blog. I’m not sure what to do with it in the longer run, but today, it makes sense to share some art.
The music in the link below is a tune called “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” by American jazz bassist, pianist, and composer Charles Mingus. Mingus wrote it after the death of saxophonist Lester Young, a force of the jazz scene, who struggled with mental health and substance use challenges after his service in World War II.
The first time I heard this piece, something about it caught me. It called up images for me: a dark street, a thin misty rain, a single lonely streetlight.
It was so powerful that I wanted to capture my response to it in words. A sketch quickly turned into the short story I’ve included below the link.
The mood of this music felt appropriate today. Maybe it’ll inspire something for you too.
GOODBYE PORK PIE HAT (first published in The Monarch Review)
When the man died, he took it all with him. He took the throaty coffee-and-cream sound of his tenor horn and the blackstrap molasses flow of his clarinet. Those were from the great years. He took the breathy rasp of that same horn and the fragile squeak of that same clarinet. Those were from the last years. He took the breath he couldn’t catch anymore and the legs that wouldn’t hold him up and the last sour whiff of the liquor he drank. And he took the muscles in his hands and the slow steady beat of his heart, and he took every last one of the tunes that slipped through his head and wrapped together like the strands of hair in a girl’s braids.
You never knew the man. Not to talk to. You never unpacked your gear with him, wedged in with the rest of the band like sardines in the green room at some club. You didn’t bum smokes or lights or hits or swigs off him. You didn’t listen with him to the roar outside like a train in the distance, or smell the blend of a hundred or so different cigarettes and two hundred glasses of alcohol. You didn’t walk behind him up the stage steps and get smacked in the eyes by the glare of lights and rolled over by the train roar, two hundred pairs of hands clapping and two hundred voices yelling his name. You didn’t step into the light next to him and move your music stand over a fraction of an inch on the scuffed parquet floor and hook your horn onto the strap around your neck at the same time he hooked his. And when the music started and everything else disappeared, and the coffee-cream sound or the blackstrap molasses sound poured out and wound around, so clean and strong you could taste it in the back of your throat, you didn’t shut your eyes there on the stage and forget where you were while you rode those notes down like beads on the most perfect string.
You were too young to meet the man. He never saw you or knew your name. You unpack your gear in the backstage closet in some club and listen to the thin sound of a dozen voices in the dark. You smell the smoke from a handful of cigarettes and the fumes from a dozen or so glasses of alcohol. When you walk onstage, no train rolls over you.
The man took it all with him. This is what you have: a hole-in-the-wall club with a scuffed-up drinks counter and a few falling-apart chairs and a blue glow-worm light that barely makes a dot on the throat of your horn. You have a bare-walled apartment with a sagging mattress and a record player, and three LPs with the grooves wearing out from all the times you played them. You have the black-and-white photos from those LP covers. They are good photos. You can look at them and not see how, at the end, the man’s cheeks went slack and his eyes sank into his head.
In the blue glow-worm light, you set up your music and tune your horn. You don’t see the drinks counter or the falling-apart chairs. Instead you see what is only in your head: a long, sleek black car pulling up to a sidewalk in thin drizzly rain. On the car’s back door, the yellow bulb of a street lamp makes a splash like the moon on water. In your head, you stand on the sidewalk in the rain and watch that door open.
The man’s trench coat could have come straight off the rack. Drops of rain fall on his black porkpie hat. In the yellow light they glitter like diamonds. Strong square fingers grip the handle of his horn case. Behind him, the club door stands open. White light gushes out onto the sidewalk, along with the blend of smoke from a hundred or so different cigarettes.
His cheeks are smooth and his eyes are young. He looks at you and smiles.
You stand in the blue glow-worm light and the thin hum of a dozen voices. In the back of your throat, this is what you have: the smoothness of coffee and cream, the rich tang of blackstrap molasses.
Tunes wind together for you like the strands of hair in a girl’s braids. Your horn sounds like strong, sweet, black coffee. You close your eyes and ride those notes down like beads on the most perfect string.