Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Tuning Slide: Meditating on Musicians and Music

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music
Without heroes, we're all plain people 
and don't know how far we can go.
-Bernard Malamud

I am going to take a side journey away from the trumpet alone on the Tuning Slide this week. A number of times over these weeks I have talked about who we listen to and who we surround ourselves with as important parts of our lives as musicians. As a result we often develop strong emotional connections with famous musicians we have never met.

I have spent a great deal of time in the past two weeks reflecting on the role of music and top musicians in my world. It was kicked off by the sudden death of the pop superstar, Prince. But it is something that has been raised countless times over the years whenever one of our great musicians dies. We have had our share already this year of the loss of these greats, Prince being the latest and, sadly, not the last.

We often call these people like Prince "icons." A definition of icon can be:
A person or thing regarded as a representative symbol of something
Someone who is venerated or idolized.
For better or worse, many of these musicians we uphold as heroes and icons are people we "idolize." Many of the "greats" do also inspire us and can lead us to greater things. As musicians we have the heroes of our own instruments that we love to emulate. I still get joy as I continue to work on Al Hirt's "Java" or play Herb Alpert's "Spanish Flea" in the big band. These spur me to play my best along with transcribing or just plain listening to some of the great solos of trumpet history.

Another piece of the musicians we hold as "icons" can be our part in the greater culture around us. These are the musicians who were the soundtrack for our lives at particular times and places. The most deeply ingrained are those whose music connects with strong and emotional memories. We "grew up" to that music. It is "our music." No one can ever take that away- it is imprinted in our memory. The way memory works, it is also directly linked to people, places, feelings. The opening vamp on the Four Tops "Reach Out I'll Be There" instantly transports me back to the radio station my freshman year at college. I can see it, smell it, react to is as if I were sitting there.

Which is why the death of a Prince, Merle Haggard, or David Bowie hits so close to home. The many ways people remember Prince are as much about ourselves as they are about Prince's musicianship, though naturally he wouldn't have had the cultural impact if he wasn't so talented.

This struck me when I stopped by Paisley Park in Chanhassen last week. One of the items left as a memorial was a baseball hat from an Iraq War veteran. Perhaps Prince's music carried him through his time in Iraq. Maybe it was the only way he remained connected with home and hope at difficult times. I don't know, but just seeing it there was a powerful spiritual moment, connecting this time and place with others. I was humbled by that.

Which brings me around to you and me- musicians ourselves. Someone reading this may one day be of the stature of an important musician impacting the greater culture. Most of us will not. We will play our music to keep our lives connected to this force we call music. It will be how we maintain our balance and discover new ways to express ourselves.

But- and this is important- we may never be "icons" but we will continue to have an impact on those for whom we play. Music, overall, is a spiritual language that connects us to our audiences. It is a conduit for getting in touch with something far greater than ourselves that is at the heart of human experience. No, I don't believe I am overstating this. We have all had it happen to us when listening to music- and when playing or performing music.

One of the big bands I play with regularly plays at senior living facilities in the area. The joy on people's faces is priceless. Seeing a person who barely moves, tap a foot ever so subtly to the beat is why it is important. Our band, at that moment, is as important to that person's life as Prince was to many other lives.

That is why we do what we do as musicians. We are, in countless and unknown ways, opening the window for the possibility of the spiritual entering our presence.

When speaking of religious icons a definition I remember from a TV series many years ago was
something or someone that opens a vision of God or the spiritual.
We can be that icon for others through our music. Music, of course, is not the only way this happens, but it is one of the ways we as musicians can participate in the expansion of the spiritual in the world. It is at that point that we move beyond ourselves into the flowing of that which is greater than us and sharing it around us.

I am honored and humbled to be able to do that.

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