Monday, October 23, 2006

Zen Yardbird

Found while I was looking up quotes by Charlie Parker for a Humanities 223 assignment sheet, several that had a real Zen quality to them. Also some Zenlike impressions of the jazz saxophone player by others.

Among the quotes was the one I put at top of the HUM 223 syllabus:
Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom. If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn. They teach you there's a boundary line to music. But, man, there's no boundary line to art.
And one that's especially poignant in light of Parker's addiction:
Any musician who says he is playing better either on tea, the needle, or when he is juiced, is a plain straight liar ... You can miss the most important years of your life, the years of possible creation.
Plus a couple of others that remind me of Eugen Herrigel's Zen in the Art of Archery:
Don't play the saxophone. Let it play you.

You've got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.
And my favorite of all:
I realized by using the high notes of the chords as a melodic line, and by the right harmonic progression, I could play what I heard inside me. That's when I was born.
All the above quotes taken from a website called

Next I googled around and found a Jack Kerouac poem called "Charlie Parker." Kerouac compared him to the Buddha:
And his expression on his face
Was as calm, beautiful, and profound
As the image of the Buddha
Represented in the East ...
When Parker played, in Kerouac's telling of it,
You had the feeling of early-in-the-morning
Like a hermit's joy, or
Like the perfect cry of some wild gang
At a jam session,
"Wail, Wop"
Not Kerouac's best, but enough to suggest why Parker was so popular with the Beat poets.

Finally, and I think most remarkable of all, there's a reminiscence by jazz clarinet player Tony Scott ... not the filmmaker but the featured artist on a 1964 record called Music for Zen Meditation, who played in 2001 at a Buddhist temple in Japan:
I spoke, played solo, in Tokyo and in Kyoto Temples, and, going to Shikoku Temple, played with the Buddhist monk Booze-san, singer and composer about 40 years old. His father is 82 years old. The Zen Buddhist temple, gardens, buildings and school are owned by the family and it is 600 years old. Booze-san and his younger brother Yuri speak English perfectly.

I was thrilled when Booze-san turned to me and said in perfect English: "Buddha loves Charlie Parker!" That alone was worth the trip to Japan.

Booze-san talked and sang some prayers for Bird not always playing prayers for Bird's soul, and during the morning rehearsal I started to improvise on clarinet with him. During the afternoon Ceremony the villagers all together sang prayers for Bird not realizing who Bird was, I played clarinet with them. I am always playing prayers for Bird ...
Scott's Zen meditation album is considered a minor classic, also featuring koto player Shinichi Yuize and shakuhachi flute player Hozan Yamamoto. It is considered a forerunner of New Age music, which probably ought not to be held against it.

Monday, October 09, 2006

An American journey

An Oct. 5 story I found in The Observer, by the paper's New York correspondent Paul Harris on his trip to find family roots in Iowa. His background, involving a reverse emigration from America back to Europe, isn't typical. But his exercise of searching for roots is.

And so, I think, is his account of what he finds there: Hearing a train whistle in the distance over the prairie.

Harris said he is of Swedish heritage, and he looked up relatives in New London, Iowa, who stayed there when his mother married an Englishman and moved to Great Britain. In speaking with people there, he found "that many sometimes define themselves as Swedish, German, Danish or Norwegian: cracking rude jokes about the others and cooking food associated with these long ago former homelands." Rings true.

So does something else Harris said. Here's his account of visiting his grandparents' farm, which is no longer in the family, with a local museum director:
As we stood outside the farmhouse in which my fondly-remembered grandfather had grown up, we thought of a story he had often told. He was an urbane man, born to a farmer's lifestyle he hated. He used to say he had lain in bed at night as a boy, listening to the sound of a train whistle nearby, and wishing he was on it, heading to a big city, going anywhere but a prairie farmstead. As we stood on the grass outside the farmhouse we felt a disappointment that my grandfather's story now seemed untrue. The nearest train tracks were miles away and the sound surely could not have carried that far. Then, in the silence that only the prairies can bring, we suddenly heard a distant blast from a whistle echo over the fields. He had been telling the truth after all. It was a reminder that just as Americans can find some roots in Europe, Africa and Asia, so an Englishman can find them in America.
Harris had some interesting thoughts about what he calls "a quest for defining oneself by another part of the world that a long ago ancestor left behind." But it's that train whistle in the night that spoke to me. How American.