Finding the Art in Everything

30 April, 2008

All that Jazz

Here we have a transcript of "Giant Steps," from his 1957 recording, which is one of the most influential Jazz pieces of all time.

As a history teacher, I am always seeking the most important primary sources to document and explain the American experience to my students. We read the The Federalist, Kennedy's Inauguration Speech, the Port Huron Statement, and Up from Slavery. There is no point to the textbook material if we don't get these. All of the "vocabulary words" and "Main Idea Questions" don't matter if we can't get these.

There's an authenticity to Jazz music that makes it a primary source. It is the intense sentimentality met by both structure and spontaneity that makes it an authority on the human experience, where pop music is reading the "vocabulary words" only. We read primary sources because their complexity and sophistication offers a more thorough and honest explanation of history.

So why isn't there greater exposure to masterpieces like "Giant Steps?" Far be it from me NOT to gravitate toward something that cultivates my elitism, but I can't help but think we are worse off with less of this in our lives. I think Jazz isn't popular because it seems inaccessible. Jazz is like poetry in that you often have to work to get the beauty of it. It is true that the theory behind the composition brings the meaning that meter does to poetry. But jazz is different because of its spontaneity. Jazz makes meaning out of its immediacy-- the improvisation creates a common experience between artist and audience that means as much as theory and meter.

In high school, when everyone was listening to Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, I was listening to Kind of Blue. When I was supposed to be listening to Dookie, I was listening to Giant Steps. I played tenor sax in the Jazz band, so I enjoyed terrific exposure to the standards from both my teacher and my bandmates, who also found this music more engaging than what we were offered on the radio.

I found the Giant Steps video when I was on the blog from The Bad Plus. They are coming to The Social on Saturday, and I really hope to make it. They are a jazz group that is both complex and clever, but very accessible. They have an outstanding degree of musicianship and technical skill that makes them fun to watch, but still offers substance. The following video is a taste of what they have to offer, and a great example of modern, accessible jazz. It's called, "And Here We Test Our Powers of Observation."

28 April, 2008

My Senior Speech

When I went to England, I went as part of a program that included 20 people from my university. Many of the people in the group were very close, but my day-to-day life didn't really include most of them. I only had a couple of friends with whom I shared my kitchen, and eventually an apartment.

When the program ended, we had a final weekend in Wales and a goodbye-type session. My friends Cassie and Matt played and sang a Bob Dylan song many of us better know to be covered by Lifehouse, "You Belong to Me." ( I wish I had a way to put it on here)

At the closing session, they played the song and I gave the following address. It may seem overly saccharine, but is my closest thing to the thing that is the MVA senior speech:

The next song is called “You belong to me.” Listen to it, and before you let it remind you of Shrek, or Bob Dylan, or a cheesy unfitting love song, let it remind you of what it means to “belong.” When we left, even the bravest, most independent of us was scared. We were scared to leave what we knew, scared to leave those who loved us: we knew we belonged at home. Moving here drowned our sense of belonging in the confusion of our “Foreign Country Syndrome” and… sometimes drowned it in the pub. But look at where we are! Look around you! Look how familiar the faces have become. It goes beyond knowing everyone’s name and major, or what class they teach or to whom they are married. It goes beyond knowing what sport people played in high school or where you are involved at UMD. Those groups to whom we belonged gave us labels and those no longer apply. We are the ones who know best what each of us has become. We have become the travelers like the one mentioned in the song. Look how what was once exotic has become familiar. We know the smell of the Rendezvous chips. We know that a pint in the Manor bar, or Manhole, costs a pound sixty. We know our way up and down Broad Street. Do we remember when calling them chips instead of fries, buying beer by the pint, and going to a black-shoes only clubs sounded so foreign?

We belong in England, and this sense of belonging freed us from fear. We are not afraid to sleep on a train-station floors. We are not afraid to attempt another language. We were not afraid to wander Barcelona, though we probably should have been. And German Beer by the Liter definitely does not intimidate us. We now belong to the exclusive group known as Travelers—not tourists—travelers. These are people who understand HOW to understand other cultures, how to cope with inconvenience, people who see how quickly companions become friends, and who see how to live life as the journey it was meant to be. Everyday here, whether we realized it then, or not, was extraordinary. Every person here, whether we hung out together or not is extraordinary for coming, extraordinary for what they did when they came, and extraordinary for what they have become. The time is coming soon when we will not longer belong in England. We don’t belong to Cassie and matt when they are singing the song, and we won’t belong in our old lives as our old selves. Coming here could have been the hardest thing we ever did, but leaving is about to be harder. Remember that each one of you belongs to us, and with us: you have flown the ocean in a silver plane, and gotten your photographs and souvenirs, but you have also found family in your fellow Travelers.

20 April, 2008

Not into Thrill Rides

I always thought that if I wrote for a living (in those rare moments short on self-consciousness) I'd write fiction. People say you are supposed to write what you like reading most--and I find the right novel ranks among one of earth's greatest pleasures.

But the person I am now probably couldn't write fiction. I can't bear to let things unfold on their own--a characteristic that makes me unbearable company for film-watching. I must know what comes next.

Woe is the man who has seen the movie when I haven't and knows what happens when I don't.

My friend Dave talks about his ultimate adventure being a roll-the-dice roadtrip. He thinks one should get up in the morning with the map and roll to see whether to go North, South, East, West, or to stay put. Another die says how long to drive and how long to stay.

When I consider this, my heart races in panic. Where do we start? Where do we stay? What do we eat? When do we stop for gas? When will we stop at all? What if we go too far? What if we get lost? How do we get home? How much will this cost?

That is not an ultimate adventure. That is an ultimate nightmare.

Right now, I feel fiction's departure from reality as a weighty responsibility--make that liability. Even if I "write from real life" (as everyone is advised), I still must launch characters from the known shore. But doing that means I don't know they'll be able to get back. Maybe good fiction doesn't care if it gets lost at sea, but I won't risk sailing off the edge of the earth.

It's not worth it to me.

The actual writing of the fiction, to me, bears the same horror as Dave's ideal vacation.

And I don't think it is supposed to.

15 April, 2008

Life Lessons

21. No matter how single you are, the bars are not an option. The only people there are desperate and diseased.
22. Sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train.
23. Just because there is collective circle swaying does not mean you have to sing Kumbaya.
24. If you look around the room and you can't figure out who the George W. Bush is, it is you.
25. There is nothing like a Kosovar high-five.
26. No matter how tempting, there is no holding hands at Dachau.
27. The day that you've been drinking and there is a crisis and you're in charge, no matter what, you're going to jail.
28. One man's evangelist can be another man's terrorist.
29. If you have to add the word "democratic" to your nation's name, you probably aren't.
30. Corollary to # 29: If you have to assure people you aren't judging, you probably are.

10 April, 2008

On Neighbors

A sage friend of mine has done a series of posts this week on Thoreau, and before commenting, I want to express my gratitude.

Not raised with a profound appreciation for the Transcendentalists (they're clever phrase-turners but wacky, self-absorbed, impractical men), I am always so delighted when someone reminds me of how good they are. I have a friend, who, for years has championed Emerson, especially his early discussions of prayer, and now I work with someone whose (invisible) daily t-shirt reads "I'd rather be at Walden." It's not only my sage friend's contemplative posts for which I am grateful, but his commitment to pursuing what is Good--and what makes him Good.

He says, " I read one of Dan Brown's books over the Christmas break--Angels and Demons. And I'll say about it what I said after reading The DaVinci Code: Dan Brown is good with suspense and plot, but he's not much of a craftsman when it comes to prose. But now, I want to add this: Did reading either of these books improve my life in any way? Did they inspire me to greatness? Did they show me any truth about my life, or about the human condition? Did they help me to understand anything about myself and my relationship to the world?

Of course, the answer to all of these questions is no.

And of course, the answer to this problem is to choose your friends wisely, and to spend time (and effort) developing the relationships in your life that matter."

I had a conversation with my little sister tonight about why we don't watch / listen to / read junk. She had tried to show me a YouTube video with a parody song for "Snakes on a Plane." It came from my brother who watches an enormous amount of TV, has only ever read 4 books, and listens to everything; sometimes it seems his only criterion is "The coarser the better." I resent his ability to mold my sister into his likeness--a poster-child for Thoreau's "underbred and low-lived and illiterate..."

With my sister, I am free to speak in terms of a common faith that I don't really share with my brother. At fifteen, she possesses a passion for truth, a desire to know God, and a human compassion that belies her age. That she might become mired in YouTube (at best) poses and urgent crisis--one that makes me examine my drive to "find the art in everything." With Megan, I could easily say, "We avoid this stuff because God tells us to," and her concern for living rightly wouldn't need much more of an explanation. But she deserves more than that--we both do--as YouTube and "Will.I.Am" threaten to devour her.

I think about giving her Thoreau, but I remember I have something a little more meaningful. While I am so pleased by the excerpt from Thoreau that reminds me how to live rightly, I forgot I already had excerpts that practically teach us to do this.

We pursue Homer, Michelangelo, Madison (Federalist Papers), and Haydn because we are directed to:

St. Paul urges the Philippians, "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things... And the God of peace will be with you."

Also, he urges the Thessalonians, "Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil."

While I put these verses in my brain in something like 5th grade, I only recently saw freedom and direction in them.I am stuck here at how relevant the specific passages of the bible are. (I probably wouldn't have been so startled by this, but I have spent the last 6 months or more wrestling with a paralyzing practical agnosticism worthy of a dozen posts.)

I was raised with a contempt for the Trancendentalists because their humanism and "Oversoul" theology is out of line with my God-centered, spiritually specific one. But I need to read Plato. I need to read Madison. I need to read Donne and Dostoyevsky. I need to read these because they are right and noble and excellent, even if we aren't in perfect agreement. Thoreau's pursuit of meaningful neighbors is meaningful to me.

Here is what startled me: I am meant to be, by tradition and habit, odds with Thoreau, while the Thoreauvians are at even greater odds with traditional Christian teachings. Yet, they match!

I am free to read everything and only keep what is good. And I am not just free, I am required to. Herein lies an even great direction for living rightly.

Shortly before Jesus is crucified, he fervently prays for his disciples in the upper room, "My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified."

Those who follow Christ are meant to be in the world, but not of it--quite the familiar Christian phrase.

It is in pursuit of this ideal--being in the world but not being a part of it-- that has us pursuing genuine touchstones of culture in order to guard against the toll taken by YouTube and Snakes on a Plane. We stay away from things that anchor us IN the world that are of it. We fill our lives with what is good because only this reflects the true nature of our God.

Those familiar with the directions of the Bible recognize that we follow them not because we fear judgment if we don't, but because they are what brings true life and peace.

Thoreau criticizes society because its complications and materialism do not bring life. This is not new to Christians, it is orthodoxy.

And this leaves the distinct possibility that the path to sanctification is through Walden's woods.

05 April, 2008

Holding Pattern

Some days I feel like I am on a long flight home. Where I've been was great, but where I'm going is better. Only instead of landing when I think I'm supposed to, Air Traffic Control put my plane in a holding pattern.

Now, half the time I am actually flying away from home. I know Air Traffic Control can see all the weather and all the planes and all the runways better than I can, and I'm glad this keeps me safe, but..

I'm aggravated. I am not supposed to be still on the plane. Now I'm flying in long circles so I don't even know how far away I am.

I'm lucky, at least, to have a charming seat partner with whom I'm having brilliant conversation. In any other circumstances, I'd be savoring every minute of it.

But I am cramped and hungry and my delight is tainted by how much I just want to land and get off the plane.