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What Do You Hear? September 18, 2010

Posted by The Typist in Toulouse Street.

Mr. M- stood in front of a dozen young musicians, teenagers culled from the list of local jazz education programs. They had just finished an exercise in playing over a song, rotating solos over some unidentified blues number. “What do you hear in the song?” Mr. M- asked. Most fumbled for words as if with the keys on their horns the first time going over an unfamiliar scale.

I don’t know if it was because they knew who Mr. M- was, the family he represented, perhaps their parents drilling it into them on the way to the session what a privilege it was to be asked to participate. Perhaps they were just teenagers, awkward in front of an unfamiliar teacher on the first day of school. You could hear it around the corner where I sat listening, in the voice he used as he went down the line repeating the question, that he wasn’t getting the answers he was looking for. Not yet.

I sat in the entry alcove on the floor, making some note or other, distracted, thinking about the question, about what Mr. M- wanted from his young charges. He wanted, I think, for them to hear something that clicked in their heads something that told them where to go when it was there turn to solo. I sat and listened to them go through the exercise again, the same basic blues song, each instrument trying to take their few bars and find something to play. I don’t know if they understood what he was asking for but thought I did.

In the song I hear a young man coming up the subway steps to a wet Manhattan avenue, lemon hacks hissing on the neon painted street, the music of a half dozen clubs spilling into the street, a confusion of notes colliding with the flashing cocktails lights but the young man hears a familiar rhythm of men swinging hoes in the sun transformed into the swing of hips in a gin-sweet road shack, sorrow crying out birthing joy in the endless swing of time. He opens his case and lays it on the street, chums for tips with a crumpled dollar and a scattering of change. He cradles his pawn-bought C melody and gently fixes the neck from memory, eyes closed, head nodding in 4/4 time. He fixes his lips to the reed and plays his hungry homesick blues away, drowns the jukebox confusion and traffic clamor in whatever it was he found in all that sound roaring around the corner, something that made it his corner, his moment, his solo with all the colors in the street sheen singing through it.

If the kids in the room keep trying, someday the will find it. It will come to them like the paragraph above, something that–listening to the band behind–knows just when to come in and where to go, the notes following their own inexorable logic.


1. Pam - September 18, 2010

Mr. M. reminds me of my ballet teacher, the Russian Tatiania Semyenova. Demanding more and more, pushing middle class American children to reach for more and more and more: and she sometimes got more. I learned important life lessons from her, ballet was the vehicle.


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