My daughter likes a book called Fancy Nancy’s Favorite Fancy Words: From Accessories to Zany, wherein each letter of the alphabet is represented by a “fancy” word, which Nancy defines for the reader. For the letter “I,” the word is “improvise”—definition: “to use whatever is handy in order to make something.”
In a workshop a few years ago, poet Dorianne Laux had each of her poet-students—five or six of us—tell the group how s/he had come to writing. I was pretty much the only student who hadn’t read under a blanket every night as a child, gripping a flashlight. When my turn came, I said I came to literature late; and when Dorianne asked what I did instead, I told her I played music. “Oh!” she said, throwing her hands in the air, as though I’d taken us on a long digression. “Same thing.”
The most memorable poetry reading I ever attended wasn’t, strictly speaking, a poetry reading at all, but rather a commemoration of the life and work of poet Stacy Doris, who had recently passed, at San Francisco State University. At one point—very touchingly—-a number of her students stood at the four corners of the room, reading alternately to one another, call-and-response-style, and at the same time, like anarchic improvisers.
Like my students, I grow frustrated when the words— the ones worth keeping, anyway—drop onto the page with the weariness of a leaky faucet. I have to remind myself, as I have to remind them, that writing (no matter the speed) is not real-time composition. Not everybody’s a precocious Menuhin, performing Bériot with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra at age seven. Not every would-be artist goes to the crossroads and sells his or her soul to the devil.
In 1959, after hearing Ornette Coleman for the first time, Sonny Rollins decided he had to change his style, his very sound—he had to reestablish himself in contrast to Coleman—so he stopped gigging and practiced every day, all day, under the Williamsburg Bridge. After three years of seclusion, Rollins returned an entirely different player: quieter, more reserved, more patient. His so-called “comeback album” was called The Bridge (1962).
In the beginning of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), Harry Caul, a surveillance man played by Gene Hackman, listening to a conversation he’s been hired to record, says: “I don’t care what they’re talking about. All I want is a nice fat recording.” Caul plays tenor sax in the film, but of course he plays only to jazz recordings: he would never play live; he would never let himself be surprised. He remains on the outside, a mere listener, a staunch nonparticipant. A real jazz musician—whatever that means exactly—would care very little about the recording, so long as what they’re talking about could be heard (which is why, incidentally, most musicians are not audiophiles).
For all the meta-moments in the film—and there are many—I like best the final scene (spoiler alert) in which Caul, amidst his destroyed apartment wherein a “bug” has been planted, is playing his slightly out-of-tune tenor to the score of the film itself. Here, the emotional arc of Caul’s character is completed not in language but in sound, in music: he finally acknowledges himself as—relinquishes himself to being—a character who can be heard, who can be listened to, and so breaks the proverbial fourth wall in the language of music.
Musicians and writers and teachers are all well aware that their “work” is being spied upon. Indeed, the “success” of, say, a jazz performance or an essay or a lecture/discussion often depends on how well listeners or readers or students/administrators can spy upon it.
Several weeks ago, one of my students, writing an essay on Dora Malech’s “Love Poem,” a poem in which the familiar words and emblems of love poetry (pet names, “forever,” the moon, etc) are playfully canted—“Tell me you’ll dismember this night forever, / you my punch-drunking bag, tar to my feather”—came to my office for guidance. At the end of our conversation, I added (very much as an afterthought): “You might want to reckon with your title, too.” A couple days later, he showed me a new draft. Significant attention had now been paid to Malech’s own title, how it triggered particular expectations that the poem employs and subverts—
More than the sum of our private parts, we are some
peekaboo, some peak and valley, some
bright equation (if and then but, if er then uh).
My fruit bat, my gewgaw. You had me at no duh.
—so that the title is, finally, ironic, impersonal, comic (among other things). The student, having quite literally and cleverly taken my advice, had retitled his essay, “Reckon with the Title.”
To believe one can teach anybody how to write in a single semester, a mere sixteen weeks—what hubris! I can only prod my students into the daily practice, the circadian motion, of writing; I can only encourage them to find a place—their own Williamsburg Bridge—in which to “play” without disturbance (or else with fruitful disturbance, as when a scrap of dialogue, overhead on a subway, squirms its way into a novel); and I can only put their writing in communication with the writing of their classmates or with the standards of excellence that line our bookshelves, a practice known among Zen Buddhists as “locking eyebrows.”
In Benny Goodman’s The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert, pianist Jess Stacy takes a remarkable, now- famous solo. The story goes that, prior to the concert, Stacy had been listening to Debussy, and the great Impressionist pianist and composer still suffused his (sub)consciousness.
Writers, like jazz musicians, learn largely through osmosis.
Wynton Marsalis once asked Stanley Crouch which jazz musicians could play the fastest. Crouch said: “Monk. Louis Armstrong. Ben Webster. Johnny Hodges.” Wynton said: “But they don’t play fast.” “Yeah. But the thing is,” Crouch replied, “you have a musical experience the moment you hear their sound. You can’t play faster than that.”
Marvin Bell, a former teacher of mine, believes writing is kinesthetic and metabolic. He writes late at night, sometimes all through the night, listening to French jazz radio, tapping his feet, verily bouncing (I imagine) in his desk chair. Occasionally, at some ungodly hour—musicians’ hours, he might say—I’ll receive from him an email with a link to a live online radio stream (Jazz Limoges France) accompanied by a single sentence like: “They’re cooking tonight!” My students, many of them athletes and hikers and dancers and musicians, respond to such physicality. For them, half the difficulty of writing is the stationary-ness it requires: they equate writing with stillness of mind and body—and not “stillness” as mindfulness, either, but rather stillness as stasis—which, for most of us, most of the time, couldn’t be further from the truth.
A jazz record is a mass-produced artifact that can or will never be reproduced live. In general, the fan of pop music attends a pop concert in order to hear particular songs played in particular ways—that is to say, the way they are played on the radio—while the fan of jazz attends a jazz concert in order to hear particular musicians play what can never be played/ heard again.
And even then the concert is sometimes not real or authentic enough. People who listened to Albert Ayler, the great free-jazz saxophonist, thought he was “out there,” and he was. But according to drummer Milford Graves, who played on Ayler’s Love Cry (1968), the albums and the concerts both were pretty tame: Ayler tamed himself so more people would listen, and because he wanted to make money. (Ayler “sold out” without selling out—a useful lesson for students no doubt—though for most writers and jazz musicians, the commerce of their art is frankly too laughable even to be called “commerce.”) To really hear Ayler, Graves says, you had to hear him in private—at a private rehearsal, say, or while a club was closing down. “If you think you know who Ayler is,” Graves says, “you are mistaken” (Wong).
In a 2015 interview on KCRW’s Bookworm with Michael Silverblatt, Mary Karr confessed to having thrown out twelve- hundred pages in her writing of Lit (2009). That’s a lot of pages, but it doesn’t shock, trouble or pain me. I played in a jazz quintet for over fifteen years, and I have— without any remorse or sorrow—no tangible evidence of having done so. Just experiences, just memories.
When I began teaching, I was blown away by the receptivity of my students. I was so used to being ignored, I expected to be ignored.
Each jazz concert is a unique performance, an artwork composed in real time. A writer reading his or her work is, on the whole, merely reciting—even most poetry readings are mere recitations—and therefore twice removed from real time: a live version of a pre-produced artwork that is itself pretending to be live. Yeats: “‘A line may take us hours maybe; / Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, / Our stitching and unstiching has been naught.’” I don’t enjoy reading my work to an audience; I would much prefer to replace myself with a boom box, or better yet an old Edison cylinder phonograph (my grandmother, an antique dealer, had one), and just play a recording of my reading. I could even sit in the audience, head tilted, hands folded in my lap—that’s how one’s supposed to sit at a reading, isn’t it?—completely and happily anonymous.
When Charlie Parker’s name could not, for contractual reasons, appear on the cover of Jazz at Massey Hall (1953), he used the pseudonym “Charlie Chan”—not merely a reference to the fictional detective, but a gesture of love: his wife’s nickname, the name by which everybody knew her, was Chan.
In the seventh grade, I was in a punk band called Hooligans Bound for Glory. Our first show was at a birthday party—a sunny Saturday afternoon. We set up in the birthday girl’s backyard, on a large square of concrete, across from a folding table of juice and fruits and cookies and so forth, where a bunch of other seventh-graders had gathered. As our singer struggled to work a borrowed PA, and the guitarist and I tuned our instruments with coolly squinted eyes, a few boys shouted: Come on! Play already! Show us what you got!—and then, after another beat of silence, began to throw fruit at us. Well, the instant an orange slice struck his crash cymbal, our drummer said, “Fuck this, man,” and immediately set to breaking down his kit. The rest of us—with almost comic rapidity—followed suit: we couldn’t wait to get out of there. We were a horrible band, and not in a punk rock kind of way, either. When we “broke up” soon afterward, having never performed live even once, I felt only relief. Even our band name had been a shameful burden, a declaration to which I knew I could never live up.
Victor Villanueva: “Memoria was [once] the mother of the muses, the most important of the rhetorical offices”.
Because personal writing can be difficult, I sometimes suggest my students give themselves pennames and write—however obliquely—to a specific addressee.
I understand the difficulty of writers, especially student writers, sharing their work. It’s vulnerable, it’s embarrassing, it’s scary. To quote my friend d.: “people are mean and stupid and bad things happen.” What’s more, the writer is alone: the possibility of bonding through mutual, collective embarrassment is nonexistent. The only consolation is that the “performance” of the text occurs without the presence of the writer. For these reasons, I want the writing classroom to be a safe space, a place of encouragement and celebration and togetherness: everybody, even the teacher, is succeeding and failing and experimenting, and again failing and succeeding and failing and then experimenting again.
I have no patience at all for fruit-throwing.
Historically, the livelihood of our great jazz musicians depended on playing live, which meant they might play three or fours hours a night. Despite market pressures, the necessity of playing live created an astonishing stew of creativity and innovation, and the status quo became very high indeed—a sociocultural situation that is, today (with the scarcity of jazz venues), largely nonexistent. In any event, such a situation could never occur among writers. Even in a world in which their livelihood depended on their reading before audiences, writers would simply be getting paid for reading, not for writing. In jazz, the work and the art are one and the same; in writing, the art is the product of the work. While writers would no doubt feel the significant pressure to write (in order to read) consistently new material, this pressure would not be nearly as generative or as innovational as the pressure of jazz musicians to play, to improvise— definition, in pianist Billy Taylor’s words: “spontaneous composition . . . based on the sense of form, content, and language of the song”—before audiences. Unless you’re David Antin, whose “talk poems” are, with uncommon skill and zest, composed extempore, writers composing on stage before a live audience would likely be boring performance art: a writer standing at a lectern, for instance, as Nabokov used to, scribbling on index cards.
Keith Jarrett has for many years chastised his audiences for making even the slightest noise. Photographers and coughers are his sworn enemies. At most jazz concerts, the audience is somewhat active: jazz, a physical art, elicits a physical response. Feet are tapping, heads are bobbing, eyes are darting from musician to musician (or are closed in bliss or concentration), and it’s quite common to whoop or clap, which of course becomes part of the performance. Charles Mingus’s albums in particular are filled with elated communal whooping and clapping. Just listen to Mingus Ah Um (1959)—possibly his greatest record—whose opening cut, “Better Git It in Your Soul,” seems to have been recorded during a party.
Perhaps because writing is viewed as a “serious,” solitary art, writing classrooms are all too often possessed with a stiff, reverential silence. As a teacher, I try to radiate zest and enthusiasm, and I love when students react audibly—a gasp or a laugh or an exclamatory “Wow!”—to the reading of a poem, say, or a short passage of an essay. My (pipe) dream is to make an entire class whoop and clap.
Writers possess immense patience, a meditator’s ability to focus on and seek out the fissures and potentialities of language, which may on the surface seem, however much the work attempts to engage the world, extraordinarily dull and hermetic, seeing as nothing but the quiet scratching of a pen, or the tapping of keys, can be observed. As Jack Gilbert writes in “Less Being More”:
It started when he was a young man
and went to Italy. He climbed mountains,
wanting to be a poet. But was troubled
by what Dorothy Wordsworth wrote in
her journal about William having worn
himself out searching all day to find
a simile for nightingale. It seemed
a long way from the tug of passion.
Thelonious Monk was infamous for, at times, not playing. In this live footage from 1966 (see link below), Monk stops playing around 8:20, and when the camera pans out around 9:30, he walks behind bassist Larry Gales, who’s soloing, as though playing hide-and-seek with the camera. Then Monk whispers something in Gales’ ear, chuckles to himself, and begins to meander back to his piano, dazedly open-mouthed. Still later—around 11: 25—we see him tottering in circles, like a windup toy. Though he didn’t dance at this particular concert, it was quite common for Monk to get up, right out of the blue, and start dancing, too.
Well-known Dizzy quote: “It’s taken me all my life to learn what not to play.”
Specialized music and writing are like cultures that require some acclimatization.
At the 2002 Concert for George, Ravi Shankar (whose improvisatory ragas might be an Indian, centuries-old equivalent to jazz) sat down on stage and began to tune his sitar. When he was finished tuning, he received a hearty applause. Only slowly did he realize that this American audience all believed he had just performed a song.
If my students want to climb mountains in search of similes, I will not object. But because most of my students—or, frankly, most people—are quite uninterested in simile-questing, I try to convince them that writers are armchair voyagers and that some experiences can in fact only be had on the page, with or in or through language—a lot of passion-tugging indeed—and that these, too, are real experiences, real events to remember or forget, and arguably more peculiar or individual than experiences in so-called “real life” as well, since nobody else can experience them.