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I could argue that Jazz is the most important musical style out there. The most groundbreaking, the most influential, the most responsible for shaping modern musical expression. I may not be able to prove it (though I’m happy to debate it), but I can say one thing definitively: it’s the biggest musical influence on my life.
And I don’t know why. It’s a question I don’t have an answer to yet.
I don’t listen to it every day. But I don’t have to. The music that I do listen to, and that I like, when it’s not Jazz, is probably created by musicians who were raised up on Jazz, taught it, loved it, and built something new out of it. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about foundations, about influence, about where our tastes come from. Just as I’ve been going back and re-reading (and reviewing) classic works of science fiction, so too have I been going back to my musical roots. I’ve been rereading some old music texts, listening to songs, studying where lines of style intersect and veer off. Did you know that Jazz in the Philippines, for example, didn’t start with the influx of American soldiers in the 40s, but most likely began earlier, with a group of Filipinos who’d fled the Spanish-ruled islands decades before and settled in New Orleans? (Before I left Penn I was writing a paper on it for my World Music class.)
Jazz is so interesting to me partly because I don’t remember why I like it. I grew up listening to rock with my mom. She woke up almost every morning, opened the doors to the deck, and turned on her sound system loud enough to wake the neighbors. Most days, this was on purpose. From her I get AC/DC, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Iron Butterfly, Leon Russell, Jethro Tull. From a close family friend I get Bluegrass, and from a couple of years when I was about 6 or 8, I think, I got my mom’s brief country influence – Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson – and a vague memory of how to 2-step. This led to an understanding of the fundamentals of Heavy Metal when I got into high school in 1991, mixed with some hard rock: Metallica, Iron Maiden, Pantera, Guns N Roses. I spent some time with Foreigner, Def Leppard, Journey, Night Ranger, Aerosmith, and Chicago cassette tapes in my Walkman. By the end of high school I was into Nirvana and the Cure, got into Bauhaus and Psychedelic Furs in my first bout of college, did some time in the goth scene, got into chick/indie rock and 70s glam rock (hello Indigo Girls, Iggy Pop, David Bowie) …
But where does my love of Jazz come from? The thing I didn’t mention above is that at the same time I knew the words to every song on Iron Maiden’s Powerslave album, and GnR’s debut, I was hanging out with the jazz band at school. I was in band, too (yes, there was marching, and an outfit), going from flute in middle school to French horn, trumpet, and percussion in high school. I could sit and listen to the trumpet line for hours, I dated a few drummers, I befriended the jazz choir kids – I loved it all. I’ve asked my mom and she has no idea where I’d have heard Jazz outside of school. She says I just liked it because I liked it.
Maybe that’s it.
But like my spotty ability to play a musical instrument, my musical history knowledge has some gaps in it. I took a class in American Musical History in Sacramento, when I was finishing up my AA degrees, and like I said, I’ve read some books, but I don’t know as much as I’d like to. Music matters to me, and always has, and though I’ll never work in it, it’s like my art history studies – it helps me to understand the world and to understand myself. So this is me, educating myself. I am going back to the beginning and I am going to teach myself what I don’t know. It’s never too late to learn, after all.
As always, comments and suggestions are welcome.
I listen to music every day. Some of it is part of getting myself in a certain mood to do a particular kind of writing, some of it is to lift me up while I bounce around getting things done, and some of it is to wrap myself externally in the way I feel inside. I make playlists for certain stories in progress, and listen to them on repeat, and other times I pick an album I like and play it all the way through.
This is some of what I’ve been listening to this week:
The Walkmen, “I Lost You”, from 2008. Video is old tornado footage.
Esperanza Spaulding, performing Lauryn Hill’s “Tell Him” at the White House, 2009
Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars”
Counting Crows with a live version of “Anna Begins”
The last few months have been hard for me. I’ve had drama both personally and professionally, a two-month bout of unemployment, and a really nasty case of strep throat (which I am just barely recovered from *cough*). I have writing that needs to be done and editing projects I’ve been ignoring and a few opportunities I’m certain I’ve lost at this point. I have moments where I think it’s all coming together and then some other exciting* thing happens and I’m back at “now what?”
This weekend was supposed to be good. I had a couple of road trips planned – for a total of 20 hrs on the road and a little over 1000 miles driven – which I love because I get to sit in my car and listen to music and not have a lot of other responsibilities beyond arriving safely at my destination. I was supposed to meet up with some very good friends, talk writing, drink, laugh, and forget about life for a while. It didn’t happen, because of things which were beyond my control. Again. Again! Too much has been happening in my life which isn’t my fault and I can’t stop and which spirals out of control around me. Which, I realized, was precisely the problem. Not the fact that life happens, often in nasty ways, because I still prefer living over the alternative. No, my problem is that I’ve been trying desperately to hold on to the facets of my life which matter to me, and to try to make decisions without having all of the facts in. I can’t have any control over the big things in my life right now.
Me, give up control and let life happen? Oh, I’m not good at that. Waiting for other people to decide if I’m worth something to them, or trusting that someone else will keep my best interests at heart? That’s scary, and I’d rather not, thanks. But trying things my way hasn’t exactly gotten me what I wanted either. Saturday night, plans cancelled, I got in my car, and drove away.
About 45 minutes later I ended up in Asbury Park, home to the Stone Pony and the Wonderbar and the ocean and a which was a place I’ve never actually been before. It was something new. I walked around the strip, looked out at the sea, and let go of – everything, really. Stress. Worry. Control. I just breathed in and breathed out.
Afterwards I stopped off and got a donut.
Driving home I knew I had to start over. I considered my options and realized that there are some very real, very solid things in my life, which often get overlooked when everything else comes crashing down:
1) I have a child. He’s my responsibility, he’s not going anywhere, and I quite like him. Whatever else I do next, he’s coming with me. (I discovered his usefulness Saturday afternoon when, in a fit of ennui, I was lying on the livingroom floor, like you do, and he decided we were going to play “airplane” whether I liked it or not. Five minutes of him trying to push my legs into the right position to support his weight was absolutely hilarious, and I cheered right up.)
2) I like writing. I like editing. I like taking an idea and turning it into a finished product, and having that change people’s life in some way. Dagan Books started out as a way to print one book, and I’ve been unsure if I truly have what it takes to turn that into a publishing company with a consistent print schedule and a staff and, frankly, responsibilities. A lot of my lost momentum the last few months, where DB is concerned anyway, has been because of that uncertainty. I’m not unsure anymore.
And the biggest one …
3) I know what I want. I can see in my head what I want my life to look like, the kind of person/people I want to share it with, what makes me happy. I may not definitely positively for-sure have those things, but I know now what it looks like, and that makes finding it so much easier.
Some times you have to stop thinking, breathe deep, and start with what you know. Drop the things you’re unsure of, let go of holding onto the past or the possibilities of something that isn’t working for you, and find the things that you’re so certain of you don’t even think about whether you’ll have them – you know you do.
Yesterday, I started editing IN SITU again. This week will see new blog posts about writing, and my #cook365 project. I may not know where I’m going to be living in 6 months, but I know what I want right now.
Thanks for being patient while I sorted it out.
* In the worst sense of the word.
My hands shake, my knees quake – it’s everyday, the same way, ’cause then came you …
I listen to music when I write, which has never surprised me, because I listen to music when I live too. There’s always music in my life – playing through the laptop I’m writing this blog post on, on my cellphone so I can listen to it in the gym, in my head when I wake up in the morning, and playing through my memories of the most important things in my life. The people I care about all have music associated with them, though I mostly don’t share which songs, exactly, remind me of them. For me, I might be drawn to the lyrics, the song as a whole, or just pieces of the instrumental track. I’ve loved a song for its bass line, or its horn section, and nothing else, so when I tell my secret soundtracks to others, I have to try to explain something which might not fit comfortably into words.
I am currently writing, and rewriting, a 5,000 word short story for an anthology I was invited to*. I agreed because I know (slightly) the editor, I know the publisher a bit better, but the genre is just outside of my comfort zone, which makes it good practice but not so easy to actually bring to life. Of course I have a soundtrack for this project, which I’ve played on repeat and shuffle and just one song over and over, getting the feel of the words right. Finding the right music helps me to write faster as well, I think because as I’m putting the playlist together in my head I’m feeling out the emotional component of the words I want to put down. I know I do a lot of work in my head before I sit down to write, which inevitably makes writing smoother.
My current work-in-progress sountrack:
Steady As She Goes – The Raconteurs
Don’t Stand So Close to Me - The Police
Never There - Cake
Pictures Of You - Cure
Into the Ocean - Blue October
Don’t Push - The Exit
Round Here - Counting Crows
Heartbeats - Jose Gonzalez
Someone Else’s Life - Joshua Radin
The story’s about clockwork robots and lost magic, but it’s also about finding your place and wanting something you can’t have. There’s a bittersweet quality I want to make sure I keep in the edited version. In between stacks of books on the top floor of a besieged library on a dying world, I want the human element to shine through.
I may change the songs around before the story’s done, but the music will help me remember what I’m trying to say.
My favorite song off this list right now is:
Someone Else’s Life (.mp3)
It might not mean anything to you, but some other song out there does. What songs are fueling your writing this week?
* Sure I am. Just not right this minute, exactly.