There are months (and this is one of them) when I feel I am at best a poor servant of Jazz. I’m like one of those monastic scribes who have talked their way into the monastery, professing a deep fervor and devotion to matters otherworldly when they are just on the lam from some peccadillo or other. A filched crust of black bread? An all-too-human indiscretion with some farmer’s daughter? Stone walls and silence offer asylum (in lieu of an actual asylum). Fine. Here then are your quills and inks, Brother Alias. Get thee to work!
I know that I would be one of those monks doodling in the margins of holy texts, being of insufficient reverence to keep my mind on my task. That was certainly how I felt when sitting in class, scrawling amusing pictures in my notebooks. School was supposed to be a momentary haven from strife, also. It wasn’t—not for me, at any rate. If I had persevered in my scribbling, I might have been a cartoonist. I couldn’t even draw a clever enough rabbit skewering a knight with a pickle fork to make it as a wry monk-illustrator. Pictures fail me, and so I am stuck with words.
Words don’t fail me, but sometimes I can’t hear the music behind them. I lose the thread and the passion is eclipsed for the time being. Some writers stop writing and seek to replenish it. My philosophy is that if my muse hasn’t shown up by a certain time, I must start without her. I don’t have writer’s block because I can’t afford it. If I can’t channel poetry from the aether, I can print wallpaper.
As a fugitive from the Unemployment Office, I flee idleness as I would the hounds and I dodge and recoil when asked the password: “So, what do you do?” This is what I do. I keep going because if I were to stop I would never start again. It’s not a matter of liking it. If I let go of the wheel I would fly off into space—and the space would be the vacancy of my own mind.
Some creative types (who now call themselves, abominably, “creatives” as if the word were a noun and not an adjective) are terrified of Artificial Intelligence. AI can do wondrous things. With some human tweaking, it can paint, write, and make music. There are times when I admit I have exactly as much inspiration as a computer program. AI can match me in enthusiasm and surpass me in skill. But what AI can not manifest and put to artistic use is the overriding sense of desperate obligation that I feel. Can a computer experience agita? I rest my case—or I would if I could rest at all.
I am absolutely analogous to the monk who copies his holy book all day and illuminates his manuscript and doesn’t feel it. Psychologically, that’s known as “anhedonia,” as if putting a name to it were any help. What is this “transport” of which you speak? Like the monk in question, I can’t even bring myself to be an atheist. That requires determination. I can’t hear those particular frequencies of divine music whether or not they sound. If you can hear them, great. Knock yourself out. It has nothing to do with me. I had an imaginary friend as a child but he stopped coming around and I was left with myself.
What troubles me more is that I sometimes can’t feel the music I can hear. I was recently asked what I listen to when I write. I had to admit that I can’t listen to anything at all. It might as well be dogs barking or the piercing whine of a leaf blower. Yet in the past I used to write novels playing the complete recorded works of Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra. The music must have affected my work in some way, since the books were not publishable. This abstention from tunes is ironic in light of the periodical I publish. But the syncopation, which I tout, wrenches me away from my concentration.
Recently, however, when circumstances made it necessary for me to cook for myself and dine alone, I caught a glimpse of that old joy. I had a sealed copy of a Naxos compilation of early Louis Armstrong (produced by the eminent David Lennick) and I unwrapped and played it, daring myself to be moved. Well, I was moved. It was as if that morose fugitive monk had caught a ray of sunlight streaming through a high window. Pops’ music made me feel for that moment connected to all that was good and true in the universe, and that love is stronger than fear, hate, and death.
I needed to pause the wallpaper machine in my brain and listen. As a frantic and insecure wanna-be intellectual, I am compelled to keep my emotions locked in a dog kennel. I am embarrassed by them just as I have been mortified throughout life to have my enthusiasms discovered. If you don’t tell people what you love they can’t crush it in front of you. That leads to a certain aridity that passes in a dim light for safety but is merely desolation.
There is a love in the universe that isn’t personal but is pervasive. Louis Armstrong was a conduit for that love. There is genuine grace in his notes, and it’s amazing. The sun shines whether you believe in it or not, but it’s there for you. Be it Soul or Solstice, ’tis the Season to Celebrate. “The trees all sway to rhythm,” and I’m swaying, too.