As I stand in the grocery line at 1:50 AM, I glance down at the bag of vegetable chips and the power-fu sandwich in my hand.
Perhaps I could half-consciously ask myself whether I could afford this, or tell myself it is simply too late to eat anything. I could glance at an over-lit isle shelf, or wander lazily around the store.
I could find myself unable to make a simple choice due to a sneaky-crept up feeling of general overwhelm with life’s various insanities, only perceived as such because of a desperate trust-less feeling of a need to control everything.
Thankfully, though, standing in that grocery line, I felt grounded. I felt gratitude. I had just come from a Tuesday night master class session, six hours of hardcore musical training near the Lincoln Center with Barry Harris.
At 81 years young, Barry wasn’t taking any punches. Expectations were presented as perfection. There was no room given for soft feelings and fear-drizzled pats-of-backs, those co-dependent illusionary partnerships almost automatically endorsed in politicized society.
At the class, there was a song distributed to everyone to sing together, and then those who felt ready, could sing at the mic in front of the whole group. It was a larger-ish auditorium with about 60 people. The song was a relatively difficult jazz tune. Eventually, I decided to give it a shot.
The solo turn to sing, as I had planned whilst waiting in line, was to be focused on musical accuracy. I posited the music as my job in life, I told myself that I was surely capable of executing these notes. It would be too easy to add frills and whistles around the melodies, and then deem it self-achievement without honestly attempting the song as it was written, even if I was to crash and burn.
By the time I walked up and uttered a sound, I realized it was a far different experience than sitting down whilst following the melody, humming and mouthing the words softly. Even though I had heard the tune a ridiculous amount of times during the evening and had been singing more often in general, more than a few things surprised me.
I was unable to hit many pitches in such quick succession. The key change didn’t sound like I imagined and seemed somehow foreign. My voice felt much different that I thought it would when I began to project it.
Besides the fact that there is simply more to practice and familiarize with, I realized that the musical worker-bee mood was as effective in keeping the experience dry as a bone as it was in providing a focus. Perhaps the dosing of character and spice brought in by some of other singers wasn’t simply a means to hide from taking performance risks, but rather to help muster up some extra determination and inspiration to hit each note with a carefree joy…
But another message from the experience didn’t reach me until I was standing in the grocery line later that evening:
As I had been singing along with the tune, Barry Harris was helping me by singing with me at times when I may have forgotten the melody or was scraping around reaching for the next note waiting ahead. At 81, there he is, week after week, year after year, singing along with people like me to help us grow into better people.
My eyes began watering with gratitude, at the resilient beauty of human selflessness. Whether I realized it or not at the time, Barry was helping me become a better musician, and didn’t change his attitude to accomodate the benefits which he understood as being transmitted.
As I paid for the chips and sandwich, I confidently told the man at the counter that I wouldn’t need a bag. There wasn’t anything to hold on to anyway…