Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Car Disasters of 2019 or Bad Fortune Cookies


            I was driving sixty miles an hour on Southbound 101 when the car abruptly died.  It was my nightmare fantasy come true.  My  trusty '98 Jeep just  stopped.  The radio went off, all the gauges slid to zero and I was coasting to a halt in a busy freeway lane.  I tried to restart the car.  I had no lights, no nothing. Not even the emergency blinkers. 
            I was terrified.  Vehicles were hurtling towards me at seventy miles per hour and they had no clue that I was dead in the right lane.  Should I get out and run for it?  Should I wait here?  I didn't know.  It seemed more honorable to stay with the car, to go down with the ship.
            A Highway Patrol car materialized behind me, its lights flashing.  For the first time in my life I was pleased to see Law Enforcement flashing its lights at me. The officer walked briskly to my front window.  He gestured to me to roll down the window. 
            Problem is, I can't roll down the window.  Nothing works. 
            "Put it in Neutral, sir.  I'm going to push you to the shoulder."
            Thank god thank god the gear shift works.  The CHP officer squares off behind me and bumps my fender with his big front pusher bar.  The car moves!  Oh! 
            There's another CHP car about two hundred yards upstream from us, slowing traffic by weaving across the freeway.  I get to the shoulder and the officer appears again.  He shouts at the closed widow.  He thinks I'm a moron. "Have you got Triple A, sir?"
            "I do.  I do. I do." I feel like I'm getting married.  "I do I do", I stutter, my nerves shattered, my forehead bathed in sweat. 
            "Call 'em right now.  What's wrong with your vehicle, sir?"
            "I don't know, it's been running fine and then, suddenly, whammo! Dead.  D-
           " Do NOT exit the vehicle unless supervised by your tow driver.  Stay in your vehicle!  .  If this was tomorrow I'd write you up but I'm feeling generous today" .  I'm praying the policeman doesn't notice the passenger side front mirror, because it's taped on with duct tape and is not glass but a piece of reflective plastic whose images are distorted  beyond recognition.
            I call Triple A and wait for the tow truck.  I get texts every few minutes relaying the progress of my rescuer.   When the tow truck arrives it conveys me to Bowens Automotive Repair, a garage that I picked at random off the internet.  The mechanic does his tests and I absorb the diagnosis: My alternator is shot.  The car needs a new alternator.  Price tag: Five Hundred Dollars.
            I have no choice.  I call my partner to pick me up and drive me home in the other car.
            The Other Car.  The '96 White Chevy Blazer.  It was once a luxury car.  Leather seats.  Key fob operated remote lock/unlock.  We haven't driven it in four years because it doesn't start.  I would presume its got a dead battery but I swapped another battery into the car and it still didn't start.  So, maybe a blown starter motor?  Bad solenoid, frayed ground wire?
            The Jeep has always been our go-to car.  I haven't had the money to repair the Blazer. But now I must buy a new battery.  If there's something else wrong with the Blazer  I'm wasting my money but I follow this handy rule:  If the car doesn't start, and the battery doesn't charge, replace the battery.  Maybe the swapped battery was dead, too. 
            The moment of battery replacement is fraught with tension.  Will it, won't it...start?  I connect the new battery, turn the key in the ignition and....hallelujah!  It starts right away.  Oh, what a relief.
            I drive the Blazer to work the next day.  We've been using the Blazer as a storage bin.  Its rear is filled with linens, dishes, books, tools, all kinds of stuff  loaded up to the line of sight in the rear view mirror.  If we put any more stuff in there, I won't be able to see what's behind me.
            I drive to work.  I work.  I prepare to drive home.
            The driver's side tire is flat.
            Shit!  Where's the spare?  Is it underneath all that storage?
            No.  It's under the chassis, riding beneath the rear wheels.  The problem is that the tools for jacking and removing lug nuts is underneath the dishes, the linens, the books.
            And there's a trick to getting the spare to come free, a trick that I don't know. I've been using a sledge hammer to whack at the wing nut that constrains the spare.  I whack it and the nut turns but it's not coming free.
            I begin to unload the stored goods in the cargo compartment.  Maybe there's a special tool, something to help me understand the spare tire conundrum.
            A motorist rolls up beside me in the parking lot.  He's driving a Blazer.
            "Are you stumped by the spare tire riddle?" he asks.
            "Totally stumped." I admit, raising my shoulders.  The back of my t-shirt and pants are black with asphalt and tar.  I don't know this, yet.  I can't see it.
            The Good Samaritan emerges, opens his rear hatch and pulls a variety of jack stuff from a compartment.
            "If you take this to a pro tire shop they won't know what to do either.  It's the great Blazer Spare Tire Riddle."  It turns out there's a hidden slot next to the license plate.  When my new friend inserts a blade-style tool into the magic slot it turns a cog and the spare tire DESCENDS on a cable until it hits the ground and I slip it off the wing nut.  There is no thread.  There is just this clever but now-obscure arrangement.
            Flat tire off; spare tire on.  Drive to the tire place.  Spend $120 to replace the spare.  Okay, the car runs.  As I drive, I see the one thing THAT I MOST DO NOT WANT TO SEE.   The dreaded SERVICE ENGINE SOON light comes on.
            I hate those lights!  Hate em!  They utterly destroy my peace of mind.  They are the manifestation of worry on the Material Plane.  As we all know, The Material Plane is dominated by concerns for automotive hygiene.  If you don't got transpo,  you don't got shit.
            I try driving the Jeep.  I'm too scared by the friggin' SERVICE ENGINE SOON light on the Blazer.
            The Jeep takes me to work the following day.  I detour through Novato and prepare to drive to Petaluma.  I'm going "the back way" because north-bound 101 is a parking lot.  It's always a parking lot from 3 to 7 P.M. five days a week.  What is this insane life we live?  Why do we spend four hours a day sitting in automobiles?
I'm heading for South Novato Boulevard when a giant cloud of steam erupts from under the hood.  GIANT CLOUD OF STEAM!  NOT GOOD.  NOT GOOD.

            I pull into the parking lot of the last shopping center before I embark on twenty miles of rural winding roads.  I buy a jug of coolant and I fill the Jeep's reservoir with the gooey green stuff.  I wait twenty minutes and I attempt the drive home.  The Jeep runs, somewhat jerkily, and I spend the next forty minutes of back-road driving in a state of profound alarm. 
            I make it.  I'm home. 
            I know a little bit about cars.  That kind of volcanic eruption of steam can indicate a water pump has gone bad, or the thermostat has failed, or the radiator is toast.  Or all of the above.
            My neighbor, Mike, knows about cars.  "I'll change your thermostat," he says cheerfully.  Mike is attending AA meetings and has just got his thirty day chip.  That's not an issue for me.  It just adds to the air of tension: Mike struggling to stay away from drink.  His wife has quit smoking and is on Day 27.  My neighbors are deeper in poverty than we are.  No wonder Mike eagerly volunteers to change my thermostat.  Mike is all over the place helping people. 
            I purchase a thermostat.  Mike replaces the old one in about ninety minutes.  He doesn't want to charge me.  I give him fifty dollars.  The new thermostat works, the Jeep stays cool.
            I didn't want to mention this before but it just happens that the Blazer's registration is due in a week and I know, for a fact, that SERVICE ENGINE SOON means that it will not pass the smog check.
            Nonetheless, I feel safer driving the Blazer and I take it to work the next day.
As I'm coming home on North Petaluma Boulevard I hear a sound like a very large motorcycle cruising up on my driver's side.  Wow!  That's loud!  I look to my left and I see no motorcycle.  There's no traffic at all.  But the Blazer is crunching and flubbling.  It sounds like a propellor blade being demolished by a potato masher.  The Blazer is behaving as if it has the hiccups.  No question: another tire is flat.
            I get over on the shoulder to inspect the damage.  Holy Shit!  The tire is literally shredded, it's nothing but four inch strips of rubber hanging from a punctured black matrix of nameless stuff.
            Call Triple A.  Second time in three days.  An hour later the big yellow truck pulls up.   A toothless rail-thin old guy gets out, grinning happily, and tells me that my tires are sun-damaged.  They've been sitting for too long and the heat has soaked the oils out of the rubber. They're all about to blow at any second. I need to instruct the tow truck man how to get the tricky spare out from under the Blazer.  Once the tire is changed I drive straight to the tire place and get four more new tires.  That's "OW!" four times.
            There are days when nothing goes right.  When to touch a machine is to wreck it.  Or when one makes an error due to a lapse of attention that causes a ten foot fall off someone's deck into a bed of blackberry bushes.  I'm having one of those days.  I put on the coffee.  It's a stove-top espresso maker.  I wait for the boil, wait and wait.  I smell something burning.  Uh oh!  I take a pot holder and lift the coffee maker.  Oh man!  Oh man oh man! I forgot to put water in the bottom part of the  stove top coffee maker.  Now the rubber gasket has melted and scorched the threads and the coffee maker is a casualty of Morning Mind Mush.  In spite of the damage, my partner is greatly reassured.  My error is comforting to her.  She thinks she's "losing it".  Now she knows she's not the only one who's "losing it".
            I must locate a smog shop, a Star Certified Service Center, one of those in cahoots with the smog-fighting money-sucking bureaucracy of the DMV.  I pay for the smog test.  The Blazer fails.  How much, I ask, will it cost to fix it so that it passes the rigorous standards of our state's air-quality guardians?
            The Blazer needs a tune-up, a forward oxygen sensor, a rearward oxygen sensor and a catalytic converter."That would be about nine hundred and fifty dollars," answers the mechanic, whose name, Kelvin, is stitched onto his dark blue jump suit.  Kelvin's wife/receptionist is named Tran.  They're Vietnamese.  
            How many times have I said "shit" or "fuck" in the last three days?
            "Kelvin," I ask, "is there some kind of discount for the poor and the elderly?"  I have been poor my whole life.  The 'elderly' part occurred while I wasn't watching, about three years ago, when my left hip began to feel as if a strong man was applying pressure to it with a vice grip.
            There is, in fact, a program for the poor and the elderly to pay $500 towards smog repair.  I get the papers downloaded and send in the application.  A week later the grant arrives.  Five hundred of that nine hundred fifty dollars will be paid for.  Hell yeah!
            The smog repair takes two days.  I wait eagerly for Kelvin's call.  At last the phone rings.  "You passed your smog test," says Kelvin.  I'm so happy!  I'm thrilled.
I had needed a victory, any victory, a small victory, whatever, I'll take it.
            "But there is a problem, I'm afraid," says Kelvin, and my heart takes up residence at the ends of my toes.  I can feel my pulse down there, bumpity bump, pulsing up through my toenails.
            "A...uh...problem?"  Fuck!  Shit!
            "I think your water pump is about gone."
            "You think, you THINK.  Is it gone or isn't it?"
            "I don't know.  There was a pool of coolant under your car when I came in this morning."
            How much does he want to repair the water pump?  Well, you see, one should also replace the thermostat when one replaces the water pump.
            HOW MUCH?
            Four hundred seventy eight dollars.
            Stop everything!  HOLD THE PRESSES!
            I'm not stupid.  I check online and a water pump plus a thermostat costs about sixty bucks.  My neighbor, my pal my buddy Mike will do any automotive task for fifty dollars, gladly.  The work boosts his self esteem and it keeps him out of his RV and away from his jonesing wife.
            The Material World is a challenging place.  Our current model, this 21st century science fiction hip-hop deodorant-peddling appearance-worshiping stage set is peculiarly complex, is like a cross-word puzzle without a solution.  No one wins in the Material World.  All endings are bad endings.  If I'm lucky I will die quickly and without indignity.  If I'm lucky.  Meanwhile, as I wait for the denouement of my life, I must endure and meet the challenges thrust into my face by the invisible spirits of Destiny.
            Is the cup half full, partially full, partially empty, or totally empty?  The Highway Patrol Cop did not write me up.  The guy in the Blazer showed up as if dropped from Heaven.  I got a five hundred dollar grant from the DMV. The battery in the Blazer started the car.  The Jeep still runs.
            The cup is the cup.  Whatever's in it is what I've got.  I may as well accept that fact.  It's all those things, partially full, partially empty.  Life is blessed and sublime and life can be unspeakably vile.
            While I'm at it, I should check my credit rating.  I might want to purchase a recent model used car.

Monday, August 8, 2022

Casinos and Native Americans: The Trickster Strikes Again

In spite of a genocide of unthinkable proportions, the Native Americans are still here.  They continue to guard and revive their languages, their cultures and traditions.  A hundred and fifty years ago, they were snatched from their way of life, their children were sent to government schools and ceased being Native Americans as we knew them.  Their lands were stolen, their food destroyed, their self respect slashed, their independence lost, their values derided. 
          During the sixties, the hippie movement created an icon of the Native American, made a romance of the tribal and nomadic life.  A resurrected spirit began to seep into our so-called civilization.  We had killed them off, but they returned.  Their ghosts had hovered above the land, waiting for a time when they would be called.
          Now, we are calling them. There's a pathetic romanticism in this revived nostalgia for an aboriginal lifestyle.  It's pathetic because underneath the sentimental reverence for everything Native American lies a desperate plea for help from a culture that has lost its moorings.
          Some people, mixed and full blood Native Americans, remain aware of their culture.  They are working in subtle ways to bring some redemption out of the horror of their genocide. 
          Indian ways are viewed with increasing respect and admiration, as the values of our own culture decline, disintegrate and leave us grasping for something that will help us re-design our lives so they make sense.
          It is a painfully barbed irony that many tribes now make their income soaking white people in gambling casinos.  This method of making a living may be a two edged sword.  It is an industry built on a foundation of vice and the creation of addictions.  But consider a quick capsule history: squeezed into reservations by expanding white settlers, Native Americans were put on starvation-level welfare.  What lands they possessed were confiscated whenever minerals, natural gas, or anything of value was discovered.  In 1934, The Indian Reorganization Act allowed tribes to ‘buy back’ lands that had been confiscated.  The capital to purchase these lands they once freely used came in the form of royalties on production of said natural assets.  In essence, it’s like a situation where someone steals your car, and then sells it back to you. After all, you needed a car, right?  And this car was YOUR car, you liked it, you bought it once, you might as well buy it again instead of buying another car. We’ll just let you pay for it by forking over a fifteen percent gasoline tax, or a ‘transportation tax’, or something that will keep your debt alive and delivering interest to the government.

          It could be that gambling casinos are the last but only viable choice of a way to get a return on Indian lands.  They are tax exempt.  All you need is a parking lot, a building, some slot machines, electronic poker and blackjack computers, a bar, a restaurant, and you are in tax free heaven.
          Lately I've gotten suspicious of Native Americans.  I think they're fucking with white people's heads.  It would be typical of their humor to go all Trickster on us.  Let's say, hypothetically, that a white person approaches a well known shaman.  White person is seeking knowledge, initiation.  Shaman sternly instructs white person: go into the desert and kill a badger with a dinner knife.  Eat its liver and bring the pelt back to shaman and await further instructions.  White person accomplishes mission.  Shaman takes pelt, puts it with inventory of other pelts and brews up peyote tea mixed with Belladonna.  Whoo whoooo!  White Seeker hallucinates legions of coal-black skeletons dressed in scarlet Nazi uniforms. The shaman puts White Seeker through a year of increasingly bizarre hi-jinks.  He bestows dignified Native name on White Seeker: White Seeker.  The literal translation in the native tongue is Buffalo Farts.
          You get the idea.  I saw this in Carlos Castaneda's work.  Don Juan and Don Gennaro were cackling behind their hands.  Let's make Carlos believe that his car has vanished into thin air!  Then let's make him believe something else.  Let's make him believe that an owl is capable of stealing  his soul and trading it to Mescalito for power.  How long can we keep this Anglo dangling? Dangling Anglo?  Hahahha!  Danglo!  Let's pretend that's his Yaqui name.  He'll go around telling his white friends at college that his name is Danglo.  Hahahaha.  Pass me some of that mescal, amigo.
          I know that Native Americans have been hurt by their casino bonanza.  It’s a crappy form of reparation.  It generates a lot of cash and a lot of corruption.  I am not qualified to understand the situation.  It’s like being paid a cash amount for your soul.  Thank you, Mephistopheles, thank you very much.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Ten Cogent Factors About Aging (Part One)

1. I can never remember the name of Justin Bieber.  Wait a minute: Julian Bieber?  Justin Bieberman?
2. I forgot number two.  Can we go on to Number Three?
3.By carefully calibrating my array of bad habits, I can time my death so that I don't grow too old.
4.Sex isn't as important any more.  I don't spend my days behaving like a demented bloodhood who's caught the scent of an escaped convict.
5.  Everyone else is growing old at exactly the same speed as I am.
6.  I hear news of acquaintances' deaths more frequently.  Most of them were assholes.
7. I no longer live in fear of toothaches.  I have a modular portable set of teeth.
8. Things change so fast that I quit keeping up five years ago.  So as far as I'm concerned nothing has changed at all.
9. They say that age confers wisdom.  If that's true, there are an incredible number of dumb people out there.

10. What was this list about?

Monday, June 14, 2021

Jazz Piano: A Love Affair With Pianists



If you had only wrought miracles of sound

I would be amazed. But in addition

you feed my soul by giving it music

to nourish and inform

the music in me.


            Everyone grows up with a unique soundtrack.  In our adolescence there were songs that saw us through our sufferings and frazzled romances.  This is the music that walked at our sides as we met and married our spouses.  And, perhaps, the music that dirged when the marriage ended.

            None of us forgets the sound track of our youth, with its slow-dance makeout songs and funky booty-bouncers.  It remains the sound track of our lives. New music always arrives but the basic rhythm carries our days and soothes our nights. 

Our world is a motley of generations, and each generation has its youthful soundtrack.  My father was imprinted with Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey.  They evoked his time in history.  Armies were storming the beaches of Normandy, hopes and heartaches were thrown into the fires of war.  Spirits were kept buoyant in the face of dread.  The music was lively, sentimental and sophisticated.  Only real pros could play it, seasoned musicians.  It was vital and inventive and it isn’t going anywhere.  New generations simply rediscover it.

            We know our sound track,whatever it is: Metallica, Paul Anka, Tupac, The Carpenters, Michael Jackson, The Eagles, Little Richard….it’s ours and ours alone.

            It is permanently tattooed into our nervous systems.

            The soundtrack of my youth was unusual.  In 1961 there weren’t many kids of fourteen listening to John Coltrane .  How many of my peers had a closet full of albums by Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderly, Roland Kirk?  How many owned a copy of Charles Mingus’masterwork, “The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady”?

            I loved jazz so passionately that there’s no adult counterpart that I can identify.  My love for my wife is tempered with the woes of life.  It’s deep and real but it isn’t the insatiable breathless devotion I knew as a teenager.  I was a kid who had musical crushes.  My first Art Blakey album tipped me over!

            Jazz was everything for me, at fifteen, sixteen.  It was the Path of Paths. 

I wanted to be a jazz musician, and my ear tuned to this musical elevation.  When Ornette Coleman came along in 1965, I was graduating high school, and I didn’t hesitate, I jumped.  I left home, ran off to New York with a dream of joining The Ornette Coleman Quartet.  I met the man.  He was wonderfully generous but I was too young and not good enough to be a member of his band.  I didn’t get it, socially, didn’t understand the drugs, racism, the harshness of the jazz life.  It was all a romance for me.  If I failed, I could go home and attend college.  There was no such safety net for Ornette Coleman.  He had to grab the world and make it listen!

            The sound track of my youth: Coltrane, Miles, Mingus, Jackie Mclean, Tony Williams, Ornette Coleman.  I didn’t have many friends. People thought I was crazy.

            Along the way I developed a passion for piano music. I seized upon Bill Evans with a grip like epoxy and listened for hours and hours.  The way McCoy Tyner soloed with Coltrane gave me goose bumps.  I’d stop the record, go back to the start of the piano solo and play it again and again.

            I liked the peaceful manner of Bill Evans.  He played like a very gentle man, and so it was, I understand.  I was gravitating towards a more reflective kind of music.

            I love pianists.  I love the great classical pianists.  Glenn Gould, Vladmir Ashkenazy.  Chopin transported me.  I hated the the narcisissm of the so-called “greats”.  How could different pianists play the same music, the same Chopin, with such disparate results?  Some sounded musical and tender, towering and strong, while others merely sounded brittle.


            About ten years ago, a friend gave me an album by pianist Jessica Williams. She was the house pianist for Keystone Korner, the jazz club in San Francisco. She played with everyone! I loved the music.  The CD was “Live at Maybeck”, an outdoor concert in which Jessica played solo.  I wanted more. I played the Maybeck CD again, and yet again. 

What happens when an artist’s work enters a person’s life?  What intimate process evolves when a relationship is established between musician and listenere?  There are a few artists whose visions have become like an alternate home for my soul.  I’ve listened to John Coltrane for fifty years.  I bought my first Coltrane album, “Blue Train” in 1960. 

It began an awesome collection of Coltrane recordings.  I wore out copies, I gave away copies.  I often entreated some shrinking acquaintance who was dodging the copy of “Meditations” I was thrusting into his reluctant hands. “Here, listen to this, you HAVE to listen to this!  It will change your life!  Just take it!”    He wanted to go back to his apartment, smoke dope and listen to Moody Blues and Led Zeppelin.  By my logic, if I loved Coltrane, everyone should love Coltrane.  If I was at a party, I’d load a recording like “Ascension” onto the turntable and people would run from the room as if a disease had arrived.  Now and then someone would hit me, take the album from the turntable and sail it out the window.

I carried Trane’s records with me across the country.  I took them everywhere an aspiring musician could go.  They lived with me in Cleveland, Detroit, New York, St. Louis and San Francisco.  I listened to them stoned, straight, on acid.  I absorbed them, I ate them whole, chewing so much vinyl that my lips turned purple.. 

            Later, the same thing happened as I began to acquire Jessica Williams’ CDs.  Jessica has a CD called “Tribute to John Coltrane”. I ordered it from Jessica’s direct-sales website. She even signed it! She was accessible.  We became acquaintances. That CD, with my favorite Coltrane song, “Lonnie’s Lament”, became my everyday soundtrack.

            As I began listening to Jessica Williams I began to perceive the details of her genius.  Her technique is so abundant, I can only laugh.  Such speed, such “touch”, such command of the entire keyboard’s sonority. There aren’t many pianists to compete with the absurd affluence of her chops.  Some performers with technical gifts get stuck there, with the technique. They remain performers.  They never take the next step towards artistry.

            Jessica Williams’ technique is so huge that she’s surpassed that mysterious threshold where a musician becomes able to tell jokes.  Wit requires a special ability in music.  How can a player tell the joke without the timing?  How can there be humor without first acquiring a universe of knowledge with which to assemble the fable, the short quip, the pun, the turning upside down backwards and forwards of a well known piece of music so that it sweetly mocks itself?  It takes years of practice to afford the risk of timing, the risk of flirting with a line or a pun in an odd place, framed in an odd way.  It requires confidence and audacity to take a chance, to make a wide leap of musical faith.  Only the masters have that much audacity.  Only the masters are geniuses of timing.  Jessica’s aptitude for surprise keeps us listening intently.  Some of her witticisms pass in a second.  Whoops, quote from “Grand Canyon Suite” in the midst of a tender ballad.  Gone!  Two bars.  She might play a gorgeous arpeggio from a great old standard.  At the end, as the ringing tones of the florid scales vanish into the air, she throws off a little two tone discord, dink! and it fits perfectly, makes a comment on the preceding music as if to say, “so there you are!  Ha!”

            It’s impossible to write about Jessica Williams without a discussion of Thelonious Monk.  Jessica has made no secret of Monk’s influence on her work.  It’s an odd juxtaposition.  Jessica said during an interview with Terry Gross that the first time she heard Monk, she thought he was wearing boxing gloves.            

Monk plays a hammer-handed style that owes little to classical training.  It’s a fusion of conventional and purely invented techniques, devised by Thelonious Monk to serve his peculiar childlike madness. 

            My guess is that a major link between Monk and Jessica Williams is humor.  Jessica, with her fleet fingers full of finesse, has so much technique that the piano becomes a complex toy, an object with which to play, as a child plays, building worlds in the imagination.

            Monk’s music often sounds like something played by a brilliant and very strong six year old.  The melodies are deceptively simple, yet full of tricks and quirks.  Some Monk tunes evoke the sensation of almost stumbling over a crack in the sidewalk, then recovering without falling on your face.  Monk is devious.  He writes to test other musicians, to see if they can cut it, to separate the gold from the lead.  The compositions are not so much difficult as subtle.  It’s easy to hum a Monk tune, easy to let one of his lines slip into the rhythm of driving or shopping.  His songs are like nursery rhymes made up by a man who is both autistic savant and cosmic seer.  Monk seemed to live in several worlds simultaneously. The only location where all the worlds converged was in the piano .  Monk’s music was so unconventional as to require use of elbows, forearms, crazed crushes of fingers.  His right leg flopped like a hooked sturgeon when he played.  He was famous for getting up and dancing a little jig while his sidemen solved the labyrinth of his chords.  Were it not for the staggering originality of Monk’s ideas, he would never have been recognized, never acquired fans.  He was barely functional and spent time in mental wards. Without his wife Nellie’s patient devotion, no one would know the name Thelonious Monk.  It would be “What-lonius who?”  

Monk could be hilarious with a single chord.  Just one!  Using ten fingers.  There might be fourteen or fifteen notes played by those ten fingers but all of them belonged in the comic smash of tones that was Monk’s sly quip.  How could a musician as funny as Jessica Williams not fall in love with Monk?  Both are clowns of the piano.  They approach the piano from opposite ends, but Monk has given Jessica an entire vocabulary from which she can absorb crazy funny quirky and exotic musical remarks.  No one can imitate Monk.  An astute pianist can be liberated by Monk.  He invented a uniquely sonorous dissonance.  Monk used his imagination to turn wrong notes into right notes.  There were no wrong notes.  There were just Monk-Notes and Not-Monk-Notes.  Musicians who played too many Not-Monk-Notes soon found themselves playing elsewhere.

Jessica’s palette is larger than the conventional palette of modern jazz.  Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Billy Taylor, are modern jazz pianists.  I know Jessica will be called a “postmodern” pianist but I refuse to plop a decal on her.  Trained in classical music at the Peabody Institute, she encompasses the whole of piano literature and borrows from sources in every corner, from John Cage to the pulse of flamenco and the staccato plonks of the Balkan santur.

The length of Jessica’s lines is unusual.  They can be so long they seem endless yet always resolve perfectly, after wandering and stretching through a DNA-like weave of notes where each fragment of the entire line is a single chromosome and miraculously the chromosomes fit together by the time Jessica has reached the conclusion of her idea and is moving to the next.  Then, another line of equally operatic length may follow.  Jessica pulls this length off without ever getting boring.

Her lines are like action films where we wait with our hearts beating quickly until the good guy wins or the odds are overcome.  The conclusions are celebrations.  The effect is visceral: UH!  Rock me in my seat, let my arms and legs twitch with happiness when the mystery is solved!

This isn’t music I listen to.  This is music I ingest.  This is music that mingles with my bloodstream.


 “When I'm playing, I think of NOTHING.  The Buddha is EMPTY. I seek TRUTH through emptiness, through honesty without a veil or blinders.”. Jessica Williams



I have twelve CDs by Jessica Williams. That’s not a large number.  I’d love to have all of them.  I listen to them constantly.  I listen to them as I write and work at home.  I listen to them in the car.  I hardly listen to anything else.  Jessica’s music is so rich it’s like a rain forest of exquisite musical plants.  It brings me joy, stimulation, awe, relaxation, information and escape to a world ruled by The Queen Of Beauty.  What is she doing, I wonder, as she reaches to the very upper keys on the piano and spends sixty four bars tinkling almost beyond the range of human hearing.? The sounds are like bells coming from the clouds of a supernatural realm.  Meanwhile, her other hand is playing some ironic or unlikely counterpoint that is so dexterous as to be stunning, impossible, yet there it is, pure musical fact.  I can imagine a Hindu deity-poster of Jessica possessing eight arms.  In each hand is a piano.  A keyboard elephant’s trunk of ivory and ebony tapers gracefully from where her nose should be.

            Jessica is both lofty and funky.  She is elegant and rooty, the rasp and twist of blues is never far from the surface. 

            When John Coltrane said, with such stunning simplicity, “I want to be a force for good,” he was expressing the deepest will of anyone attuned to spiritual purpose.  I seldom use the word “God”.  It’s too vague.  “God” becomes an excuse, a crutch, a fantasy, a fleeing from pain, a selfishness.

            “Being a force for good” is a more accurate expression of putting my life in the service of a greater power than myself.  If I want to be a force for good, if I hold that desire at the center of my heart, I have made a commitment to walking a path of ethics, generosity and compassion.  Integrity demands that I make an effort to repair the damage of the lies that I have told, or believed.

            There are people who make themselves into living treasures by embracing this desire.  Jessica Williams is one of those people.  It is our good fortune that she is an individual who devoted countless hours to the practice and study of music.  This has enabled her to be the treasure, play the treasure, inspire the treasure in all of us.

            Jessica is a force for good. 

            I have let her become one of the cornerstones of the sound track of my life.


 Update:  A new generation of jazz pianists has come along and they have new methods and new venues.  The Venue of Venues is Youtube.  Searching this treasury of everything, I discovered jazz musicians who are the same age as my children.  They are fantastic musicians and mentors. I've gotten hooked on a bunch of pianists.  Ironically, one of them lives but a few blocks  from the  place where I grew up.  I speak  of Adam Maness.   I also speak of Peter Martin, Oliver Prehn, Geoffrey Keezer, Ron Drotos....holy shirt!  If anyone questions the vitality of jazz, fahgettaboutit!  Jazz is very alive and very well in this year of 2021. Special thanks to Oliver Prehn for reading and motivating me!



Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Let Go: A Poem About Letting Go

 Letting Go | Hoffman Institute


 As I explore the poetry I wrote in the past, I discovered this and at the moment it pleases me.  That's how poetry is: one moment I love something and the next I think it's tendentious and silly.  Let's see how this one works, okay? I leave the date on it, so that it can testify to my past self and his writing. (?)

November, 2001   

Let go, let go, let go.

Let go of fear.

Fear of dying;

fear of injury, of being maimed.

Fear of being alone, of being poor,

of being without a home.

Let go, let go:

of the fear of poison,

the fear of violence,

the fear of war,

the fear of robbery

and random terror.

It has all come and gone,

before, you have come and

gone, before,

and will not lose any chance

to be more than you are.

Let go of fear.  It serves nothing.

Surviving is nothing.

Dying is nothing.

Let go, let go,

of fear.  There is nothing

to miss, there is no score,

other than nothing to nothing,

forever.  Hold on to what you love,

that only, let go

of all else.

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