Sunday, August 02, 2020

I'd not thought much about the term "old soul" until recent years, as the term has been thrown around concerning young musicians mysteriously connected to musical traditions of generations previous. Now I'm realizing this applies to me also, and perhaps not just because I find connection to music before my time. I think I'm just flat out old fashioned. 

And if not that, something. Driven with purpose, perhaps. If you've been reading this blog over the past few months, you know the perspective I've embraced from the beginning of this pandemic; that I'd been given the gift of a "sabbatical", giving me time and opportunity to deepen my relationship with the piano, and the space. In recent weeks, I've had to begin the adjustments that I knew would be coming, as opportunities to work (which I would define as making artistic contributions for which I receive compensation) expand. It will be a long road back to "full (self) employment", even as it's been a bit of a journey to get to where I am now, somewhere in the middle. It's been a combination of making adjustments to the emerging new normal, and deepening my understanding of, and connection to who I am. One circumstance, early on in all this, was particularly illuminating. I was encouraged by a friend to apply for a small (unrestricted) grant, provided by a local organization for professional artists whose work had been sidelined. Given the small scale of this, I would imagine the process took a lot less time to complete than a typical(ly more involved) grant application (Just assuming, as I have no experience with these things). It took about an hour. Soon after hitting the send button I felt uncomfortable, and knew why. I had just spent an hour in a process of asking for someone to give me money, when I could have used that hour to make a contribution (given the opportunity). I don't intend to apply for a grant like that again, and if I would, I'd ask instead for it to be a commission. I would much rather spend my time making a contribution than (simply/only) asking for one. The lesson that this taught me (or more accurately reminded me, as it was something I already knew) is that I don't want to ask to be given money. I want to be able to earn (make a contribution in order to receive) it. In order for this to work, I need to put everything (internally and externally) in the proper place, as much as I can. I believe in what I do, and that I am called to do (be) it. I believe I am given a path to follow, one not for me to construct, but one that opens to me as I place myself (my self) to the side and allow it to be found. I believe I do what I do for the benefit of others, and that I will be taken care of in the process. 
And nothing in the last 5 months has suggested to me otherwise.   

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

One of the most important formative experiences for me in the music business began when I was 18 (or perhaps 17, not entirely certain), and Joe and Paul Midiri decided that our little trio (modeled after the original Benny Goodman Trio) would enter ourselves in the Monday Amateur Night contest at a local club; the Crazy Horse Saloon, in Barrington NJ. Not far over the river from Phildelphia, this, by the time we decided to go, had become one of the big weeknight events in the greater Philadelphia market, with a full house, most every week. As for Joe, Paul and myself, I'm sure it helped that the celebrity host (Ken Garland, from WIP radio in Philly, which was big at the time) was an old trumpet player with a bit of big band background. So he got where we were coming from, beyond the novelty of young kids doing the "before their time" thing. I knew nothing about this amateur night going in, and I doubt that Joe or Paul knew much more. The Crazy Horse wasn't the place or vibe where we would have been inclined to hang. So perhaps we had a bit of a fish out of water thing going on. Though, for me, the Crazy Horse would soon become the training pool in which I'd be swimming laps and getting into shape.

The brothers and I didn't know that the night we decided to enter was the next to last week of their recurring 13 week cycle. This meant that whoever won that night would be back the following week with the 11 previous winners for their quarterly "finals". As most of the acts were singers, there was a Fender Rhodes piano (this was the 1970s) already set up, belonging to the house accompanist (no drums though, so Paul had to schlep some in) so I could just sit down and play. Needless to say, we were the novelty act of the evening. For that, or whatever reason, we left the Crazy Horse that night with plans to come back for the finals the following week. I don't know that we endeared ourselves to any of the 11 other finalists; showing up to win the last week of the cycle, coming back the next week to win the finals (with the grand prize including tickets to an upcoming Benny Goodman concert, it seemed that Ken Garland may have had his mind made up going in), but that's how it went down. 

But something else happened that night. At the end of the evening, the house accompanist pulled me aside to tell me that he had put in his notice with the agency he was working for, though they hadn't yet secured a replacement. He offered me the gig. A week (and a few phone calls) later, I was lugging my own Fender Rhodes piano into the Crazy Horse Saloon to begin an 18 month adventure and an invaluable experience. I'll often say that the stage is the best school for musicians, and that was certainly true for me here. I would arrive to be set up well in advance so that the contestants who needed piano accompaniment (which was most of them) could have a brief time of rehearsal with me. I already had some experience with accompanying vocalists by this point, but not like this. I had a crash course in sight transposition from night one. The recurring theme quickly appeared, which I would learn to anticipate, sort of. In the rehearsal period, we would determine the singer's comfortable key for their song (sometimes they knew, but most often they didn't). An aside here to mention that deferring to the comfortable range/key of a vocalist, when possible, is job one for an accompanist, from my viewpoint. Not everyone agrees with me on this, but to me, the task of accompaniment is to support the person you are accompanying, and not to make it about yourself. Looking back, I'm glad I understood this early on. Back to the rehearsal time - for the inexperienced singers (which were most of them), whatever key we agreed to would often go out the window when it was time to perform and the nerves kicked in. I would start in one place, and they would start somewhere else (and always higher). And here's another place where not all will agree. Some will say that if a key is agreed to, you hold your ground and insist the singer find you. Okay, for professional vocalists, sure (and that should never be an issue anyway). But for nervous amateurs, if they can't find it to begin with, it would seem unlikely that they would be able to find their way back to it. So I would try to find them. And since I would have a lot of opportunity to practice, I became better at making it happen rather quickly. In the article pictured above (click on it to enlarge), I'm quoted as saying "Sometimes, if a singer goes off key, I have to figure out where they are, modulate up to them, and hope they're still there when I get there."     ;)  
Of course, to whatever extent people in the audience may have been clued in to what was going on, much more was happening out of view (even if there was no curtain to hide behind). One of my favorite memories (which, if you know a bit about music theory, is pretty funny) is when one of the contestants said to me during the rehearsal time: "My voice teacher said to take it down a third, but you can just take it down a quarter if that's easier". My least favorite memories mainly revolved around the host. It was not a well kept secret that Ken Garland could be (to put it mildly) difficult to work with. I got to experience that multiple times, from multiple angles. Fortunately, I think (in his own way) he kind of liked me (or at least appreciated that I knew what I was doing), which allowed the pendulum to swing back and forth, at least, rather than being stuck (on stupid) in one place all the time. After 18 months though, I'd had enough. Back then, I would privately joke that I deserved a medal for hanging in so long. (Much) older (and maybe a bit wiser) now, I can see difficult "working" relationships like this as the norm for many who are employees with unreasonable bosses and working conditions and stuff. There is always a bright side, out of view to whatever appears dark at the time. 

So, after a year and a half, I "graduated" amateur night school. No formal degree, just the prerequisite training for the experiences/school to come. 

Saturday, June 27, 2020

In late 2005, I rejoined the Midiri brothers quintet/sextet and, from 2006-2008, played the traditional jazz festival circuit (which, at the time, was still alive and somewhat vital). Many of the festivals were on the west coast, but there were others, scattered about. During that time I was able to give each of my children the experience of travelling to one of the festivals with me. Each of these trips was it's own unique adventure, and one that I'm grateful I could give my kids, even if I was able to take each one only once. 

The first year I played the festivals (2006) I took Joe, Jr to Pismo Beach, over the weekend of his 18th birthday. As it was the first year I was on the festivals, it was both my, and my sons first trip to Pismo. He was the one, of the three, that was most engaged (and still is) with music, on a personal level. I didn't push any of the kids into playing piano, rather, encouraged them to have a connection with music, and the arts in general, in whatever way resonated with them. For Joe, it's the drums (he has kept a connection to it, still playing now, in the worship band at his church). So he was engaged with the festival more like one of the musicians, checking out the sets of the other bands, finding who he really liked, and even hanging with some of them. He also went shopping on his birthday, because he could. That was another thing altogether. It was a good weekend.  

The next year (2007) I took Robert, who was 10 at the time, to the Juave Jazz Festival in Decatur IL on a snowy weekend in February, where we were late in arriving because of flight delays due to snow. And even later in returning home for the snowstorm that crippled the local airport that weekend. It created an adventure for us beyond the more limited festival environment (everything contained within one hotel), which gave us lots of together time, and was fun.

The final year, Charie' (then 15) came with us to Mammoth Lakes, CA, which was my favorite festival destination, in the High Sierras. Since I'm not a skier (and had never been to a ski resort before first going to Mammoth in 2006), the idea that summer could be an off-season caught me off guard off at first. Having lived all my life on the east coast, my image of an off season was a beach resort in winter. But just like the Golden Inn in Avalon NJ created special theme package weekends in the winter (see blog post from a few weeks ago), a ski resort town would host a jazz festival (among other summer activities) to keep the travelers and tourists coming. Charie' loved the trip. She did interact with the festival, a little, but was much more interested in the shopping opportunities. And our trip to the top of Mammoth Mountain (photo above). It remains a nice memory. All 3 trips do. it's nice to feel that all the boxes have been checked. 

Thursday, June 04, 2020

I keep coming back to what I love; the music that moves my heart and can make me cry at the drop of a hat (don't reference the above picture, yet). Sure, at a given moment, most any stripe of music can move my eyes to water. But, for whatever reason, a hard swinging, deep grooving rhythm section (such as Oscar Peterson or Count Basie) can shut me down. It reaches into my heart, deeply. And if I am to follow my heart, I need to pay attention to just these things. And although it is only in the last decade or so that I've had even a remote understanding of head space vs. heart space (or knew of that heart space, much at all), it has always been there. I have always been who I am. When I was about 11 or 12, I stumbled onto a AM radio station, on a Sunday evening, with a signal that barely came in. But it grabbed me immediately. And every Sunday night thereafter, lying in bed, I would tune in, struggling to find the sweet spot on the dial (which would always, at some point, become a moving target). Sometimes the signal would improve, and I was delighted. Sometimes I would lose the signal altogether, and I would cry with sadness. It was my own private personal space. Thing was, I didn't know what the music was actually called. Eventually I was able to describe it as "old time jazz". But that still didn't really help me put a finger on it in a record store. Then, on one good signal night, I heard the word "Dixieland". It was all I needed. The next day, I walked (maybe I ran) to the neighborhood 7/11, which, believe it or not, had a record display. And I saw the word. Dukes of Dixieland. I bought my first record (now reference the above photo. I still have the record). I got a bit lucky, as this was a more swinging Dixieland approach, with a upright bass playing mostly in 4. So the itch was scratched. which, of course, only causes more itching. The chain reaction that connects that "now" to the current (and every other) now, weaving and creating the tapestry that it does, was underway. This discovery, at 11 (or so) years old, was one of my most important. Not because I bought a Dixieland record. But because a clear path was cut right in front of me to (unknowingly) begin the practice (or maybe better, discipline) of following my heart. And now I know. And now understand (I use that word cautiously these days) that in order to be myself, and to truly speak with my own voice, I am to bring all things into and through my heart. 
The young (around 30 y/o, I think) jazz saxophone phenom Chad LB, in an interview I read recently, expresses, in relatively simple language, what I can now recognize as mature wisdom. "Really focus on what you love about music... Let that naturally help you approach music. The most genuine musicians play the music they like."  For all that I might want to expand on the verbiage and nuance of expressing this, he actually nails it. So I'll shut up now.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

After months (at least) of thinking about it, I stepped over the starting line and opened a Patreon. If you are unfamiliar, simply put, this is a site/service that manages "patrons" for artists. And this might be something I should have done a long time ago. But that's also like saying that I should have dropped out of college after my music theory professor said to me "What are you doing here? You should go to New York and start networking there". In both cases I know why I didn't, and in both cases it was the right decision, for different reasons in each. For the first one at least, it wasn't time. Well, perhaps it could have been (a) time, had I decided so. But organically, with all the puzzle pieces considered, no.
I live in an area which, dispite the immediate rural surroundings, is very supportive of the arts and artists (of all stripes) who live here. And over the time I've been here, I've built (or better, there has organically grown) a "community"; getting well into gear during the "piano bar" years at JR's, and gearing up even more once "Mainstay Mondays" began, 4 years ago. As I have watched this happen, I'm struck with the thread that has run through this since the beginning (when I started gigging as a teenager in the 1970's). It is a double edged sword, of sorts, that has both hurt and helped me. And ultimately is why I've eventually been led to one thing, but never to the other. Because I've always been one to, in general terms, prioritize my relationships with followers and fans over those in the typical musician's network. Part of this is circumstantial, in that I can because of what I do, as opposed to other instrumentalists, like drummers or orchestral players, who must depend on calls from and connections to other musicians and organizations. But, to go deeper here, it probably also has something to do with why I play what I play, and play the way I do. Because it's more in my nature to be self contained, or a bit of a lone ranger, than move primarily within a broader social or organizational construct. I've always been self employed and self motivated. I've always prioritized my own space (in a recent email to a friend, I referred to the stay at home order at the time as an introvert's dream). And, though I enjoy, and need to make music with others, I'm most deeply in my element with playing piano by myself (or accompanying, while playing piano by myself). It's not that I avoid relationships with others. In fact, playing the piano creates a relationship with those around me, which are often (for better or worse) the relationships I am most comfortable having (though not exclusively, of course). This predisposition didn't serve me well for the few years I traveled on the festival circuit with the Midiri Brothers band, where I was more eager, honestly, to expend my social energy finding and connecting with those I was playing for, rather than the other musicians who were there more for the hang. I feel for these musicians today, along with all musicians, and all others, whose connection lifelines have been cut off. Though my gigs all evaporated at the same time as everyone else's, my relationships with those who follow and support me didn't. And thanks to the Mainstay immediately offering me a couple of livestream opportunities, I was hit over the head with what I needed to do for myself. My network; my community, is already in place. And now is the time to put my primary energy into developing that more with an on line presence. Sure, I could have done this (to this extent) before (in fact, I'm pretty far behind the curve compared to some). But I've always had live performance opportunities, and have seen them (regardless of what or where they were) as the center of gravity of my connection to others. It worked. I was satisfied with it. But when this pandemic hit, I took it as a blessing; a "sabbatical" of sorts, and an opportunity to spend much more time at the piano strengthening my connection, rather than panicking or worrying. And this is an important part of the reason why. I didn't feel my calling or purpose changing, just the trappings. I'm blessed to know who I am, and blessed to know the sense of a calling. I wish that for everyone.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

I truly enjoyed my time, and the many unique experiences, at the Showboat in Atlantic City, back in the early 90s, when I just about lived there (or it felt like it). And if it weren't so long ago, before the age of phone cameras and social media, there would be many fun pictures and wacky hijinks (and other stories) to share. Hopefully, as I go through old boxes and photo albums, I'll find things and post them, here and on Facebook. My initiation to the alternate universe of the Showboat (and other Atlantic Casinos) was as one of the 3 full time pianists who played daily shifts in the hotel lobby. Other than the restaurants and showrooms, this was one of the areas where you were a bit more removed from the huge casino floor, or at least not right on top of it, depending on where you were positioned. And I was far enough away from the casino entrance as to be a place to hang, away from all the gambling hubbub. Or at least the gambling (I was positioned in between the hotel reservation desk and the escalator up to the bowling alley - another alternative universe within the universe). It would have been a nice place to listen to music, watch the crowds go by, etc, had there been any seating, which of course there wasn't. But that didn't stop folks from congregating around for awhile (some with portable folding chairs) to listen, sing along, or hold conversation (with me). There was one gentleman I would see from time to time, spending long periods standing by the piano listening, sometimes conversing to help pass the time while his wife was gambling inside the casino. It eventually dawned on me that, with this gentleman, I was serving a similar function as a park bench in a shopping mall; as a place for displaced men to hang out while their wives or girlfriends were in the stores (spending, or losing money, in any case). But this guy was clever about it. He managed the money (and to some extent, his time) by giving his wife a $20 bill and waiting for her outside the casino. She wan't limited to $20, but she would have to come up (or out) for air for another round. So while he and I talked, one of his eyes (and one of mine, too, since this was often the subject of conversation) would be focused on the casino entrance at the other end of the lobby, waiting for his wife to emerge. And once there was a sighting, the conversation immediately turn to speculation with each of us trying to interpret the symbols: What was her facial expression? Was we carrying her coat or was she wearing it? Was she going to stick her hand out? And that was the big one, as he and I would watch her hand while talking like two play by play announcers. Keep your eye on the ... "Here comes the hand, better get out your wallet. Maybe next time". One thing I've always been conscious of throughout my time in the music business is knowing what my role is, on any given gig.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

The other night I found a newspaper article about the house pianist/amateur night accompanist gig I had when I was 18 (which will be it's own blog entry. This is going somewhere else). This helps to bring something into focus as I ponder it. This would probably also be the case if I were contemplating the church organist/music director position I assumed when I was 19. So what was I doing, at least a lot of, early on in my music career? Not seeking recognition as a soloist or featured performer so much as I was engaging others in a supporting role. In other words, I was being who I am (which is easier to understand now, 4+ decades later). I am, at heart, an accompanist. I am not a natural soloist, at least not as much. Even if I do a lot of solo playing, with some of it in a "front and center" position. It's not that I can't command things all by myself (in my own way), but it's not where all my strengths best come together in one place. But they do in accompanying. And I'm returning to something I've pondered on in the past; that for me (and has been hanging out there for me to come back to, apparently); solo performing is also accompanying. Accompanying the listener. This is one of those concepts that I've believed is the case more than I've figured out how to explain it (at least until now). But it just fits, so well. When I perform, I don't have any personal statement to make, or goods to deliver, other than to be expressive. And that's one of those things that grows (or sneaks up) on a listener, as opposed to the flashy, attention getting maneuvers that can typify solo, or featured performance. I can win an audience over. I do it every time I perform on an American Cruise Lines ship (where usually the only people in the room who have seen me perform before are the crew members). It's just a process, drawing them in over the succession of the first few tunes. Not something I hit them over the head with, or wave in front of them like a bright banner.
So what is my relationship to the listener, or an audience? It's not to dazzle or impress them. It's to engage. To connect. To welcome them into a shared space, where we experience together. Now I could read those last 3 sentences in the context of accompanying, and it would make perfect sense. Performance, for me, is not exhibiting, demonstrating or proclaiming something. It is an engagement; communication through expression, where what is felt can become a shared experience. And there it is. I think I just learned something. And will ponder some more.

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

The last few weeks have sent many of us into uncharted territory. Our lives have been abruptly suspended, or upended. And those of us who are not physically suffering with the COVID-19 virus can sense the trauma lurking outside the boundaries of our shelter in place spaces, if these spaces are even totally safe. I live alone, in a small house that I have renamed Social Distancing Central. I am safe, and any circumstance or decision that would have me otherwise is totally within my control (like, am I willing to live without bananas, which will run out in a day or two). This blog post is not concerned with what I've already written about in recent blog entries; How I view my work. How I'm not worried about the near complete loss of income for a time. How this social isolation becomes a "sabbatical" where I can practice, explore and grow using this gift of time and opportunity (Yes, a gift, and one that I have already unwrapped and intend to put to good use). This is about something that hit me today, provoking me to ponder and to acknowledge (again) the bigger picture; that we often don't see, or that we lose track of, obscured by the urgency or the weight felt over our current circumstances. And perhaps this has something to do with why it is not that difficult (at least not yet) to be rather Zen about it all right now, within my own space. I turn 60 in a few weeks, which provokes reflection anyway, so my thoughts today turned to how many places I've lived. or more specifically, how many times in my life I have moved. 21, if I'm remembering everything. Not that I actually remember moving from the Marine Corps base at Camp LeJeune when 3 months old. But the rest I do. By the time I was 7, we had moved 5 times, landing in Southern NJ when my Dad was transferred to the Marine Corps Supply activity in Phila. after returning home from Okinawa. While he was overseas my Mom rented a little house in Ashland, KY, up the street from my Aunt. Mrs. Wilson was my first grade teacher, at the school a few blocks away on Holt Street (which made me happy). On Halloween, I was excited to trick or treat at Mrs. Wilson's house in my impenetrable disguise, only to be disappointed when she opened the door and greeted me with "Hello Joey", recognizing my shoes. Ashland, KY, off the Ohio River bordering Ohio and West Virginia (our TV stations were in Huntington, WV, as was my favorite amusement park), was my normal for a year and a half. Soon after we moved to Bellmawr, NJ, I was upstairs watching the Philadelphia TV newscast when the weatherman announced "The weather forecast for the tri-state area is ..." I lept with excitement, running downstairs to proclaim to my mom that we hadn't moved so far way after all, since we still lived in the tri-state area. We search for whatever stability we can find, I suppose. 

Bellmawr, NJ would become my new and unexpectedly permanent normal for the rest of my growing up. (Though there would be times of looking over our shoulder waiting to learn when and to where the next transfer would be. Once I remember starting to pack, though I don't remember where the next destination was to be. Utah, perhaps?). My dad was compelled to retire on disability in 1973, by which time he was Supply Chief, reaching the rank of E9. (He'd still be active duty today if he had his way. Once a Marine ...). It is highly unusual in the military to remain in place for 7 years, but I'm grateful for that. I had a "normal" growing up. Fast forwarding, I'm also grateful to have been able, for the most part, to give that (a normal growing up) to our kids. We were renters for many years, working our way from Southern NJ to Newark DE, to Elkton, then Galena, MD (by then our friends were joking with us, as we kept moving south, that by the time we retired we'd already be in Florida), with several additional stops before landing in Chestertown MD.  This is where the opportunity presented itself to buy the house we were renting at the time, and to give our kids the gift that I had been given: a place to say "I grew up here". Prior to that, it was a bit of a roller coaster ride. Some self imposed, like making a decision because we felt led to, or because we could. And some just imposed, like the several challenging landlord relationships we faced. One instance involved our next door neighbor landlords divorcing and the husband offering to pay me to carry on at all hours of the night to disturb his ex . Did I mention searching for stability? Much of the time stability (or perhaps, sanity) felt out of reach. 

In more recent years, as the page turned on a season of my life, I found myself in flux again. But it was different this time. Being upended didn't necessarily feel less uncomfortable. But it felt more purposeful; tied to a bigger picture, tethered by a trust that I was on a path, and feeling connected to all of it. At points along this journey, I came to some particular realizations, both about myself and the journey. One was to realize that the person I am is one who only has a wide angle lens from which to see beyond myself (as well as within). Embracing this has helped me to make the adjustments to see more clearly. Another realization took the form of a commitment made to myself; to avoid forming conclusions. Insisting on understanding something (anything) that is tied to a bigger picture (as ultimately, everything is) places a barrier on my perception, allows preconceived ideas to cloud my vision, and chains me to myopic self interest, of one form or another. Life was teaching me, and more now than before, I was listening. And learning to trust. Not in my ideas, thoughts or even beliefs, but in that which connects me to that bigger picture. Call it intuition, call it trust, call it faith. Whatever my word is, your word is your own. Every seemingly jagged edge on the path has, in retrospect, simply been a turn. All paths turn. Every upended circumstance is for a purpose. Although, I'll admit that I don't like phrases such as "everything happens for a reason". I know some find comfort in that. But for me, this can become just another place to chain ourselves to seeking contentment in our own understanding, even if we are willing to defer knowledge and say "someday we'll know the reason". Maybe so, maybe not. Who cares. 

So now I, and all of us, are faced with uncertainty. And I could say that, for me, all of my life has been in training for this moment. When I had the thought earlier today to count the number of times I've moved (some of them not of my own choosing. and who knows how many more there might be), my wide angle lens rested on a place of comfort. Not comfortable circumstances, necessarily, but comfort in, first of all, that there IS a big picture. As we move through (what we perceive as) time, having the experiences that we do, we don't leave those experiences behind us as we move on to the next thing. These experiences are our story. And you can read a story like turning pages in a book, but you can also pick up the book and hold the entire story in your hand. And this is what I see, even as my book is still being written (as I can perceive it). And yes, I do believe that my book is held for me, even as I will tell you that I don't have the need to understand that in my own thoughts. It is beyond the limits of my mind to figure it all out. But not beyond the limits of my heart to embrace it. With social distancing as the norm, we are forced to refrain from embracing (as uncomfortable as that is for someone who lives on hugs). There is a time to refrain from embracing (with our arms). There is a time to embrace (with our hearts). For everything, there is a season.            

Saturday, March 28, 2020

20 years ago, big bands were still working. And one of our favorite recurring family adventures were the several off season weekends a year when we stayed at the Golden Inn, in Avalon NJ, while I (dad) played with the Midiri Brother's groups for the hotel's Big Band getaway weekend packages. There were also several years where we had longer (3 or 4 night, can't remember) New Year's packages. The Golden Inn was the only hotel in town that stayed open all year (with a variety of package weekends, among other events, covering the entire off season. This allowed them to be the only hotel to keep its employees year round, which set it apart from all the other places in town). On occasion, there were also clumps of weekday packages (those were the commuter trips, driving there and back from Maryland every night). But of course, the family weekends were the best, giving us an opportunity to do something we wouldn't get to otherwise (or at least, not nearly as often). When my kids were young, they didn't really have the sense that growing up with a gigging musician for a dad was not the norm (though they would figure it out soon enough). Didn't every kid occasionally sit on his dad's lap on the bandstand, during outdoor concerts in the summer? Or hit the dance floor at 4 years old, with the grown up jitterbuggers? Or hear bedtime stories about trombone players (one of Joe Jr's stuffed animals was actually named after one)? Or hear the piano played at home at all hours of the day (and night)? Or spend (much) more time at the beach in the off season than in the Summer, when everyone else would be there (and everything was open)? But it was our normal. You can still collect shells at the beach, or bring along your metal detector, or even plop down on a beach chair (while wearing a coat) in the winter. And hang out in the lobby (or sometimes alongside the bandstand, or even on the dance floor) while the music plays at night. There are still pizzas, fries, fudge and buckets of caramel popcorn to be found (if you know where to look).When the family can do it all together, it's all good. There is always a provision, as long as you are willing to see it that way.  

Saturday, March 14, 2020

A reality of being a free lance musician is that few of us have the guarantees afforded to many employees: sick pay, vacation pay, unemployment or health insurance. No one is mandated to "have our backs", or really, to look out for us in any way. We are on our own. And for many if not most of us, this is by choice. Self employment is (with few exception) the only road I've traveled; the only landscape I know. Do many others have it easier than I, in some regards circumstantial? Yes. Am I sacrificing to be who and where I am? No. The person I am, the relationships I have, the treasures (not necessarily material) I possess are directly tied to what I do, and the freedom that I have to do it. I would be sacrificing these most important things to be anywhere else. 
When I look around me, to the culture at large, I see a different landscape, one seemingly of entitlement. This can quickly become a topic grounded in political quicksand, which I have no intention of stepping in. So I'll limit this observation to saying that many seem to view a job as an entitlement, without any sense of commitment or responsibility to it. This touches one of the fundamental principles that I taught my children (to prepare them for responsible adulthood); that the reason we are paid for something is because someone else (or a group of someone elses) benefits from it. Our work has value because it adds value to the space around us. We may increase the pay/compensation by finding ways to increase the benefit. For those of us in the arts and entertainment fields, a primary way to do this is to grow our audience. This principle explains why actors and star athletes can command huge sums of money, as their performances can provide benefit, in some way, to scores of people (who fill stadiums, stream movies and athletic events, buy merchandise and so on). Yes, these stars make money for executives and businesses, so this is anything but a simple or straightforward equation that emphasizes only everything that is good in the world. The music industry, in particular, is its own ball of dark wax, but that's for another time, as it is not my focus here, it is simply on the job I do. Some years ago, I threw out my existing "business plan" (yes, I've always had one) in favor of a simple goal, that cuts to the heart of everything; to grow my space. My first priority, every day, is to open up the space at the piano (which is a process, and that doesn't happen on its own), so that when it is time to perform, the deeper connections are already there for me to find and make. Or, put another way, to show up at the gig with the space already open, ready to touch and welcome others to it. Or put another way, to provide benefit. For me, a job is something to earn, even from one day to the next, by providing a skill or service that has value to others. The opportunity to work another day is something I can earn by how I do my job today. Of course, sometimes there are disruptions to the established order. And this is one of those times, as I clear my schedule of just about everything on it over the next few weeks, at least. I've been given the gift of a sabbatical of sorts, to devote additional time to practicing and growth (among other things). I am not worried that my income slows down to a trickle (if not stopping altogether) for awhile. I'm thankful for the enhanced opportunity to deepen the contributions I can make (benefit I can provide) moving forward. The life of the freelance musician is the only life I've known for myself. I know and want no other. So I will endure the disruption for the moment. And enjoy the opportunity to step up my practice time and catch up on office work. And be grateful in all things.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

I suppose an indication that one is arriving at a particular phase of life is that the AARP magazines become interesting. A recent issue featured an interview with Smokey Robinson. He puts words to something that I've tried to communicate to others, often without much success, so I'll let them (his words) help me now: 
"I think I feel songs. Whitney Houston was a great singer. Celine Dion is a great singer. Aretha Franklin was a great singer. I'm not in that category. I won't fool myself. But I feel what I sing, and I think people can feel what I feel when I do." 
For me, this simple statement resonates, and even is grounded in the profound. This level of communication; that we can influence and become a part of how others will feel through our creative expression is, in many ways, where I find my center of gravity. After being brought, years ago, to understand that my purpose when playing is to focus outside of myself, on others, and the connections that are made, I was finally able to put my finger on what is shared through this connection, which is, what we feel. As I continue to grow in the ability to segregate "thoughts" from "feelings" (head from heart), I find the connection with my audience strengthening. This connection has always been there, but it has been something, in the past, that I had struggled to manage. And especially so before I more fully grasped what the connection is about. When we feel what we are doing, we put ourselves in a different place than when we are simply (or primarily) thinking about it. And these feelings (which I would separate, at least on some level, from emotions), as Smokey says, will connect us with others.
To most deeply connect with others, we need to get ourselves out of the way. Much of this blog, started in 2005, is a documentation of the journey of learning to get myself out of the way. What I feel will always be there, even if I am overthinking. But the more I can open, or clear the pathway, the deeper my connection to it can be. When I am fully out of my own way, I can be fully open to who I am. And as I embrace who I am, I continue to find more in that person (myself) than I was previously able to understand. The road into one's self is a lifelong journey.

Saturday, March 07, 2020

The 15 year run of the Women Helping Women fundraising show is now over. It has been a most special annual event, reflecting the very best of Kent County MD (and beyond) culture and community. This show has been one of our area's most important, and most loved endeavors. In addition to the causes it has supported, It also serves as a performers showcase, playing a bit of an Americas's Got Talent role for our area. Performers each sing or present one selection, and they bring their A game. Anyone who knocks it out of the park will have the town talking about it for weeks. And I accompany almost all 20+ of them. But I'm still speaking in the present tense here, which now needs to be reset. There is a time and season for everything. It has been a privilege to have been inside this process for most of the run, providing support to so many wonderfully talented performing artists. It also created for me the most stressful 2 weeks (leading up to the event) of every year. Am I relieved it's over? A little. Am I grateful to have had this opportunity to apply (and better understand) my skill set, lift up others and make a difference? A lot.

Sunday, March 01, 2020

Here we go again. No matter what I will ever do in music, on whatever scale, nothing will have more importance, or be of more meaning to me than those special experiences in senior care centers (often that no one else sees). I have felt this on many occasions over the last couple of decades, often when wearing my Music Therapy hat. This time I was playing a memorial service at Heron Point in Chestertown. I have been playing at Heron Point since beginning in the care center in 1994. And most of that time Miss Anne (not her real name) would be seated in the group in front of me, waiting for me to play Stardust. I can't remember when she wasn't, actually. I would like to say that it was "our" thing, but I knew that Anne would extract Stardust from any situation that she could. But still, it was our thing. She knew what was coming when I walked into the room, and soon learned that she didn't have to ask. Which didn't stop her from reminding me, or me from reminding her that it was coming. Sometimes I'd play it right away, sometimes I'd build the suspense and make her wait. But I always played it. And for years, the music sessions in the health care center pretty much revolved around Miss Anne and Stardust. And without fail, she was always ridiculously happy hearing and singing along to it, often recognizing the tune after the first two or (at most) three notes. She would often recall her mother saying that she loved Stardust so much that at her funeral she would jump out of her coffin and ask for it to be played. Anne never lost that love, though as she approached (and passed) 100 years, her difficulty in hearing would amplify her increased detachment in group settings, and her response to (any) music would be hit and miss. But she never let go of that special song. A year or two ago we were having a hymn sing in the health care center, and as a hymnal was handed to Miss Anne she asked, "Is Stardust in there?" Miss Anne left this life a couple of weeks ago. I had the privilege of playing her memorial service, and the opportunity of playing Stardust for her one last time. And, by not having to ask, she proved her mother right.   

Thursday, February 27, 2020

I haven't had much to say here about Mainstay Mondays for some time. But that doesn't mean Mainstay Mondays haven't had much to say to me. On the contrary. Over the last 4 years, this project has evolved from a somewhat fuzzy untried concept, to a complex weaving of providential threads. And every time I've tried something new, the boundaries of possibility expanded; benefiting the individual guest artists, our audience, the Mainstay as an organization, and myself. One benefit to me has been the ability to create paths to objectives or ideas or personal goals that would be difficult to accomplish otherwise. In other words, I can force myself to work on something by scheduling myself to have to perform it. The most serious challenge I've self imposed so far was learning the second piano (orchestra) part to Rhapsody in Blue to accompany Woobin Park (who is the real deal classical pianist. I'm not. Pulling music off the page and keeping it straight is the long and winding road for me) last year. I whittled away at that for the better part of a year to finally get it passable. Usually I'm less ridiculous. The last 4 Mondays I've covered Kurt Weill (essentially classical), Floyd Kramer (essentially country), Oscar Peterson (with significantly fewer notes, but still intimidating) and a stride piano laden trad jazz show. Okay, maybe I take that back. One doesn't stay in the business as a gigging musician for over 40 years without being ridiculous, or at least having a high tolerance for it. And let's see, next month I'm accompanying a poet for one show and a comedian for another. There's no hope for me. Grateful for that.    

Thursday, February 13, 2020

A number of years ago, I had the opportunity to attend a Chick Corea solo piano concert, when his tour brought him to the area. At one point in the show he invited pianists from the audience to join him on stage to play a short duet (on one piano). My son was with me, and of course, he wondered if I would volunteer. I knew there were others in the theater who would have also expected to see me go up. But I understood immediately that it would be a misstep for me. Chick would accompany each pianist underneath while they improvised with their right hand. Nothing unusual here, as jazz improvisation is generally conceived as melodic "lines" with harmonic underpinning. For me, however, improvisation is a two-handed exercise. When I have to cattle-shoot the musical expression into a single line, it tends to short circuit my non-linear brain (or mind, or approach to everything). Back when I actively played trumpet (as my "double" instrument), I could never even come close to the improvisational freedom I would feel from the piano. I suspect it's not unrelated to my often feeling stuck, or stymied when using words. Sure, I can get unstuck, and sometimes feel freedom in expressing things that make sense. But it's never a given. Verbal communication often feels to me like a cattle-shoot as well. And sometimes I have no more success lining up my cattle than I do getting my ducks in a row   ;)
This blog is a good illustration of what I'm talking about. Though you'd never know it, unless I told you. In order to find an inspiration that matches the given moment, I keep at least half a dozen (and often many more) ongoing blog entries in my drafts and flit between them, looking for the matchbox that isn't soggy in that moment, to get the fire going. Playing piano with 2 hands (10 fingers) and a polyphonic temperament creates the opportunity for the cattle to stand along side each other, or the ducks to swim in circles, while forward motion can continue. Another thing that (often) happens here is that, as thoughts develop, other thoughts will drop off, leaving phrases and sentences behind as I pick a lane (which just brought to mind the image of the all too familiar empty Wal Mart building, abandoned for the newer, bigger one up the road). Which is exactly what happened in this entry. So I'll cut and paste the "leftovers" into another entry and see what develops over time.
Welcome to my world. Now, what was I talking about?   ;)   

Friday, January 10, 2020

My entry into the discipline of music therapy was not deliberate, rather it appeared on my path as I was minding my own business (or tending to it). It is a story within a story, as (now that I actually think about it) I'd imagine that all stories are. And tucked even deeper in that story is a chapter that was mine alone to experience, and that, at the time, no one else could know. Having come to the realization (after working at the Showboat Casino in Atlantic City for a considerable period in the early 1990's) that what I did resonated with senior citizens, I figured it made sense to reach out to senior communities and see what would happen. The first response to a targeted mass mailing came from the continuing care community of Cokesbury Village, in Hockessin, DE. I was invited to present a music program on one of the units. This was all new to me, so having no idea what to expect, I accessed the situation as best I could when I arrived. I found a group of well dressed seniors milling around in a lounge, some socializing, with some walkers and a few wheelchairs the only visible indications of any issues. Somewhat relieved (but keeping my radar up), I began my little concert. Playing a spinet piano with my back to the residents, I completed the first (very familiar) tune, then turned around to ask them to name the song. Crickets. Wasting no time, I instinctively reached my hand behind my back while continuing to face the residents, playing the melody of the song again and asking the question at the same time. This time nearly everyone responded at once. Aha! I wasn't told beforehand that I was on the Alzheimer's unit, but I figured it out, at least in general terms, pretty quickly. The rest of the hour continued to be a thinking on my feet navigational exercise that apparently got the job done (well enough at least). Once finished, the activities manager on duty invited me to her office and explained that they has just lost their once/week contracted music therapist. She offered me the gig. Huh? Confused, I explained to her that, other than doing a research paper on music therapy in college, I had no knowledge or experience in this, and certainly, no credential (little did I know that I was about to take my first conscious step toward earning one). Her response was that I instinctively knew what to do (she was observing the session) and I would be able to learn as I went along. As I stared at her for a few seconds (or a few minutes. I have no idea), I reasoned that this would be a good potential learning opportunity. So despite the misgivings of feeling that I didn't know what I was doing, I agreed to sign on. That's when it got (even more) interesting. She looked at me seriously and said; "Now that you are signed on to work here, I have to tell you something that I couldn't tell you before, and that you can't tell anyone else". She went on to explain to me that Cab Calloway was a resident of their health care center, after suffering a stroke. The family was determined that there would be no pictures of him in this condition, and was deliberately misleading the media (who were searching) as to his whereabouts. No one knew he was at Cokesbury. But now I did. The idea of playing music for Cab Calloway was not at all intimidating (I had come up mentored by the older musicians of that era, and was accustomed to winning their acceptance, after their initial skepticism of my being too young to really get "their" music). But as a music therapist? I believe I said aloud "I already don't know what I'm doing. Now I have to not know what I'm doing in front of Cab Calloway!" Good grief (yes, I suppose I did sound a bit like Charlie Brown)! As you might imagine, this gave me something to obsess on for the next week, as I  put together a program for my first crack at a "music therapy" group. After I arrived that first morning, I looked around the gathering group. Can I say it? This was a VERY white facility (with the exception of some of the staff). Even if I wouldn't have recognized Cab Calloway, I knew I would anyway, as he was likely the only non-white health care resident. My 45 minute (I think. It was a long time ago) program came and went. No sign of him. I was relieved, until a voice said "Let's go upstairs now". I had to do this again? I didn't realize I was assigned to work on 2 separate units. And lo and behold, as I began the second program, Cab Calloway was wheeled in. As I played, I watched him, as he watched me. Perhaps more accurate to say that he studied me, deliberately; listening, watching. Then it happened. Perhaps the biggest smile I had ever seen (and may ever see). I knew what it meant. I had passed the skepticism test. I was in. I didn't take it as anything other than the experiences of finding acceptance with the older musicians, back in the day. But it meant more this time. It was my first "hands-on" music therapy lesson, reminding me that step one is winning acceptance, from which point, a relationship/rapport can grow. I generalized this immediately to understand this process occurring in every music therapy group, in every therapeutic relationship. Unfortunately I didn't have the opportunity to build a rapport with Cab Calloway beyond that initial connection. After I finished the session and looked around, he had already been wheeled out. And later that week, he passed. But the lesson his gesture taught me was just what I needed to learn, as I took my first step on the path of exploring music therapy. And it continued, years later, as his wife entered the health care unit, and I became her in-room music therapist. Stories live on, giving birth to new stories, weaving the tapestry of providence.

Monday, December 30, 2019

With the coming of the New Year, I've been reflecting on what my decision, back in my 20's, to accept performing music as a calling has meant, and continues to mean. I was already playing music full time, starting in my teenage years. But it was more by default than on (or with a sense of) purpose. When I came to this place, I was back in college, finishing my degree part time (having dropped out for a couple of years after my freshman year. I was playing usually 6 nights/week, along with carrying a sizable load of private students. The path out of and back to college is a blog post for another time). I essentially realized that to be a musician was to be who I am, so rather than do it because I could, I decided to do it because I felt I should. Purposefully. At points along the way, there has been some turbulence about staying the course. Whenever that would come, I would find myself falling back into the sense that a life of making music was the life I was meant to lead (if for no other reason, by virtue of who I am), and would keep going. What I'm coming to realize now is that what I was actually falling back on (each time I did) was the commitment itself. I will often speak lightheartedly to say that "The artistic temperament, depending on your view of the universe, is either a calling or a disease. Either way you're stuck with it." I'll say that not to be flippant, but to set up that I do accept it as a calling. And to accept a calling is, indeed, to make a commitment.

The picture above was taken last night, on board the American Constitution, after finishing a show. JoAnne Funk and Steve Marking, from St. Paul, MN, were the resident entertainers on board, and career full time performers, like myself. It was nice to meet them and share thoughts and stories. There are many paths that a commitment to this life/calling can take. Seldom does the path of an artistic calling lead to fame or fortune, and that (certainly) isn't why we make it. We make it because we believe that we have something to contribute, that this contribution has value, and that there will always be a path to making it work (even with the sacrifices that often accompany accepting a calling). This can be said to be idealistic, but perhaps, as it is now dawning on me, it is really something much deeper. What if accepting a calling is really an acknowledgement that this calling has (first) accepted us? And the commitment to this path is met with a commitment to us that a path will be there? It can be very hard at times, and easy to come to the decision that a "normal" life would be better. During those times, I may not have understood that I had made a commitment to my calling (at least in those terms), but nonetheless I couldn't bring myself to step away from it (even during the periods of significant pressure). And I wasn't always sticking with it because I felt it made sense. I just never could bring myself to walk away, no matter what the circumstance. I could never stop believing. Reflecting on it now, I suppose I did understand (albeit tacitly) all along that this calling had made a commitment to me. and that I would always be provided for (though not necessarily in the manner I would choose) as I remained on the path. Actually, of course I did. From the place I am now, over 40 years from beginning the journey, this is abundantly clear. And really only scratches the surface, because, as I've come to learn more and more over the years, and is reflected throughout this journal/blog, this is bigger than just being about me. Of course it is. And Amen.  

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Here's a trip back to the 1980's and my gig as "Picnic Pianist" in the Cherry Hill Mall (NJ) Food Court. The article above (click to enlarge) was a feature in the Courier Post (the South Jersey newspaper. A feature in the Phila. Inquirer came later) from 1986. For several years I played the piano by the fountain 5-6 days a week, later intermittently, for a total of 11 years. When it was steady, the Rouse company marketing manager told me that I held the record for the longest continuous musical engagement in retail. True or not, I pretty much lived in the mall. I got the gig initially because I worked in the (mall) store that sold the mall the piano as they were building the new (1000 seat, at the time the largest in the country) Food Court. And, coincidentally, this was the same mall where my parents shopped on many a Saturday night when I was young (my routine was the candy store and the arcade). Needless to say, the Cherry Hill Mall was a familiar place. And whatever time I would spend in the mall otherwise was augmented by the 2 hour shift each day (often over lunch), where I would play songs chosen from a "music menu" placed on the tables. When the Christmas season came (marked by the arrival of Santa Claus), I had to switch to wall to wall holiday music, keeping in sync with the rest of the mall. On the occasion I had to put in a sub during the holiday season, it would often provoke a bit of complaining (or at least groaning) from the sub pianist, but as for me, I didn't mind a bit. I would challenge myself not to repeat anything each shift, then try to change it up as best I could the next day. But I'm often reminded that I'm not in the mainstream of musicians regarding this. Every Christmas season, in fact. Whether traditional carols and hymns (I was an active church organist and music director during this time, and this music has a special place within me), or the fun "cultural Christmas" stuff, I'm happy to play it all day, while many of the musicians around me reach the "Are we done yet?" place after 2 or 3 holiday tunes. Speaking of Christmas carols, a friend who plays in a contemporary church band told me that a couple of their younger singers didn't know "The First Noel" when presented with it in rehearsal for a Christmas service. It's a different world now, but that's another subject. Speaking for myself, it's ho, ho, ho and off we go!    

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Some years ago, my heart would go on a journey, as my feet walked the mile from my house to the Chester River Bridge, then over into town, usually before sunrise each morning. The journey was not to the river, or town, or any other physical destination, ultimately. The journey was to places where my heart traveled, and found, and eventually began to recognize. As my heart learned to look out, my eyes followed. I took advantage of my first smartphone with an 8 mp camera, about 6 years ago, to begin taking pictures of what I saw, and eventually, (learned to recognize and capture) what I felt. As I can understand it now, I was entering a new season of life; one that has brought me to be positioned and better equipped to connect with those around me, particularly with music, and make perhaps, a deeper contribution. Or to approach it from another angle, to realize more of my potential. Or yet another angle, to become more deeply who I am. It's been a few years since I lived near the bridge. These days I'm more inclined to be found walking near my current house, especially at night, taking advantage of a secluded location, an open sky, and little light pollution. I'm especially happy when the moon is in a visible phase. My heart jumps, as it did recently, when I see the bright moon rising in the sky as I pull in my driveway, or walk out my front door. One night, as I walked out and encountered the moon, I blurted out "Hi buddy!" Another reason to be glad that I don't have neighbors.
Back when I would walk over the bridge, I was on display, but it didn't bother me (usually. I wasn't keen on the occasional pickup truck of rednecks who would yell out to startle me, probably to see if they could make me drop my phone). Both sunrises and sunsets could be stunning from the bridge, and I was absorbed. These days, however, I am happier to be in my secluded, private space and leave being "on display" for when I'm at the piano, or on the stage. And thanks to my heart exercises, my "display window" from the piano/stage is quite a bit less foggy than before this season of life began. A time for everything, and a season for everything, as one season follows another.

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Music is a portal, through which we release expression and find connection. This operates on so many levels and from so many angles. There is no one way, or one approach, universally, to making music, save the 2 "ingredients": expression and connection. Staring in my 20's, my awareness became more keen concerning music as connection, as I began to realize that music making was not just about me (expression), but also about others (connection). And for someone like myself, who found his "calling" to be performing music,  connection became the point, though which expression was the means. At this point in the journey, and perhaps with a wider angle lens, I am finding connection as more of a means, to a deepened expression that reaches beyond myself, within myself, and through myself to the collective self of the shared space. When I first began to understand music as connection, I focused on where that connection would land; on the listener. I gradually came to learn that my real connection is not to a defined destination, but to the "space", taking me beyond my "self", and giving expression to and from the deeper places. So what I am positioned to allow to come through me takes me beyond what would simply come from me. To quote Keith Jarrett: "When I'm out there and there's just a piano, it's like my body knows exactly what to do, it's just like my left hand knows how to play. And if I tell it what to play, I'm stopping it. Not only am I stopping it, but I'm stopping it from playing something better than I can think of." This is the product, or the benefit, or the reward of working, essentially on yourself, to open the space; the portal, through which we release expression and find connection. It is it's own ongoing journey.  

Thursday, October 17, 2019

I've been pondering a review, years ago now, from Cam Miller:

"The ever tasteful Joe Holt is a soloist extraordinaire. An intense musician with terrific chops, who shows you he means business."

An intense musician. And that intensity he sensed, as others have and do, is that part of me that is expressed through the music. Or maybe it is just who I am. And what in my life I need to navigate is the channeling, or direction, or harnessing of that intensity. I could imagine, though I have no experience in this, that it could be something like taming a wild horse. I say taming as opposed to breaking, as at any point or moment I, the rider or tamer of myself could lose the control. But really it is neither taming nor breaking. It is more like channeling energy. The horse remains wild even as it moves, dodges and weaves on command and synchronizes in rhythm with others in the herd. But there is another rhythm, albeit irregular; the rhythm of an opening and closing of the curtain, that has it's own importance. The rhythm of the curtain allows this energy to ebb and flow, release, then reset itself. In other words you don't allow everyone to see everything. So what may become a primary motivator in organizing the artist's life is controlling when we are in the display window. It can be a complicated and sometimes tricky subject. One that can further be complicated by the integrity that is required of the true artist. The integrity of being true. Thinking of this brings another review to mind, from a Tri-State Jazz Society concert in 2012:

"Jazzman Bunk Johnson once said, “Jazz is playin'
from the heart; you don't lie.” Or maybe it was
Louis Armstrong. At any rate, one interpretation of 
the above statement would be to say that a jazz musician's
improvised performances are a reflection and/or
extension of his or her unique personality.
Which brings us to the appearance of Chestertown,
Maryland jazz pianist Joe Holt ... He is
the genuine article, an artiste, whose work is a
reflection and an extension of who he is. He plays
from the heart, mind and soul; he does not lie."

The true artist puts their true self on the stage, then draws the curtain. For those who are not accustomed to the stage, their first struggle is often in drawing the curtain. For those who have overcome that struggle to put their true selves on display, their struggle may be in closing the curtain. On stage and backstage. Managing this can be one of the biggest challenges that artists face. And backstage is not a single, or simple place. There are areas, rooms and compartments. Directly behind the curtain is a more communal space for those that know the process and share in it. A green room or dressing room is a more private space but one in which we can invite or share with others who are closest to us in this journey. And there is the necessary solitude. Behind the curtain, behind the door, behind the additional privacy walls. It is a complicated and multi-dimensional navigation. And we don't always get it right. At least I don't. But I know my experience in this is not unique. When the intensity is great within an artist, these vibrations will sometimes find their way to a less-than-ideal location. Some artists are famous (or infamous) for this. 
But back to Cam Miller calling me an "intense musician". No one has ever questioned that. Especially me. I know the intensity well. And this is the paradoxical place. Where the simple meets the complicated. The profound holds hands with the ridiculous. The intensity finds stillness. And the magic happens. As we are true.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

My night vision has always been poor. There are some nights when I walk outside, and though the sky is clear, I won't see a single star. After a while few will come into view. Slowly but surely it all unfolds. I can look up through the trees and see the stars begin to peek through, while overhead there remain large patches of empty sky. So I walk and wait some more. The stars continue to slowly fill in. After about 20 or 30 minutes I begin to see the sky as I would expect to. The stars were there all along, and kind of an analogy to me of waiting, and trusting, for the "space" to open.  
The other day was one where I was off the mark; the kind of day that I purpose to avoid through the lifestyle that I lead, starting by opening the space in my heart at the piano.
But if I am not patient, or attentive, or still, I can become overcome with procedure and expectations. And my focus shifts away from being and more to doing. It was one of those days. So when I sat down at a piano on my gig later that day, I felt an old familiar, uncomfortable place. Not one that I have been any time lately, but one I have lived in much the time in my past. In that place, there are obstacles in the way and what is inside cannot come out. Or perhaps better said, what is outside cannot shine in. The connection is missing, and I am as in the dark. I used to spend a lot of my time playing the piano in that condition. I wouldn't know what to do about it except to keep trying. And every so often the window would lift up a crack and for a little while the connection would happen. I would know it. Everyone around me would know it. But soon it would end, not to be found again. Especially so because I was looking for it, having just held it in my hand. The connection/space would leave, replaced by the frustration of failing to find it again. But now I know it is always there if I clear the deck first, and wait, and trust. So actually that day is a reminder of how far I've come, even if that distance is just a small step. Because it was the exception, and playing in the space has become the rule. And what a difference that is. As I look up at all the stars.

I often will say that the stage is our (the musician's) "school", more so than any other. And it struck me, during the show on Monday night, that sometimes this will mean more than simply that we learn by doing/experience. Some of our experiences in (music and) life are more themed and focused, and in a way, more of a "formal" education, even if the "degree" we earned is something only understood and acknowledged within ourselves. Or maybe put more simply, some of our experiences are their own school, in and of themselves. My nearly 2 year gig as the Amateur Night accompanist at the Crazy Horse Saloon, in Barrington, NJ, starting when I was 18 years old, was certainly one of those circumstances (that's a story all to itself, and for another time). Or my 11 year (off and on) tenure as "Picnic Pianist" for the Cherry Hall (NJ) Mall food court (another story for another time). I thought of those "schools" last Monday night as I realized that my Mainstay Monday run has been, in fact, a "degree program" of it's own. So much has been learned and absorbed that could only be accessed through travelling this unique, organically unfolding path. Just as I could say when "graduating" from amateur night in 1980(?), or the mall gig in 1997, or my return to church ministry in 2006, or any number of other experiences, I'll be a different (and better) musician going out than coming in (Mainstay Monday will end on Labor Day, 2020). What also hit me the other night was realizing that I am in year 4 of my "4 year program". A little "senioritis", perhaps? Or just an acknowledgement that this chapter will have run it's course, even if the next chapter is yet to be defined. Though in this book, chapters are written, and lived concurrently. Each experience is it's own thing, even as it is (also) a piece of the larger puzzle. Another set of chapters, distinct from any particular gig or experience, are the seasons of life we pass through. And those "degree program" experiences are often the means of guiding us through. As I ponder the change of seasons. 

Saturday, September 21, 2019

I like the idea of things like this. Different approaches interacting in a common space. Years ago, I was in the schedule rotation in a restaurant chain that featured jazz every night. On the evening I worked we had 2 shifts; I played solo piano from 5-8pm, followed by a trio (with a different piano player, plus bass and sax) from 8-midnight. One day, the manager got the idea to have Ed Yellen (the sax player) move his shift up an hour, and play 7-11. So for one hour a week, for several months, one of our sets would overlap. It's probably safe to say that I was the most traditionally minded of the musicians who played there (on any night), and Ed was the most "modern". Kind of like Oscar and  Coltrane here, but perhaps even further apart. The one thing we had in common is that we knew some of the same tunes. And we played them, even as I was hearing things come out of his sax that I didn't know what to do with, and he was, in all likelihood, playing with a stride (more or less) piano player for the first time. And we enjoyed the heck out of it, both of us looking forward each week to that one hour of unique experience. Whenever two musicians play together, an unique space is created. It would be fun if there were any recordings of those sets to listen to now, on one hand. But on the other, the memory of how if felt is a nice place to visit, when something like this video reminds me.