How do you find a rhythm? How do you remember that life is, if not short, then finite. Reading about Greek & Roman civilization really helps. Came up with this poem today in response to the longer view that reading a book like “The Swerve” encourages…
When I first moved to New York, I was rootless. I made sure of that, having broken up with the woman who is now my wife (necessitating a prodigious effort to win her back years later).
It was September 1986. I had my Datsun B210, a (surprisingly short in retrospect) list of contacts, the promise of a room in a Manhattan apartment, my keyboards and four-track recorder, $3000.00 in savings, a Master’s degree, and a dream of being a jazz musician. I was nervous, but not reticent. Maybe it was the foolhardy confidence of youth. Maybe it was the pride of following in the path of so many generations of musicians before me. Maybe it was the fact that 1986 felt like one of the better times in history to be young gifted and black. As I head toward New York now, some 28 years later, the butterflies are familiar. I wonder about my reception, about whether I will measure up. But I also feel something different. It’s only nine days, but I feel tugged, dislocated. I feel uprooted.
New York City is not the hard-edged place it was in the mid-1980’s. Morningside Heights, the East Village and Bedford-Stuyvesant don’t’ strike the note of fear they did at that time. Broadway and Disney have taken over Times Square and the subways are clean. It is still true that New York is easiest for the rich. Even though the spread of gentrification has made previously off-limits parts of New York safe for Starbucks, Hanna Andersen & Banana Republic.
New York is also still the place for the young and ambitious. A young Portlander who recently moved to the city to begin his career as lawyer wrote me: “New York is a good place for a young man to cut his teeth in any profession.“
Although I didn’t own a home, I felt at home in different places in New York. I had my neighborhood– or more accurately, multiple neighborhoods–that felt like my stomping grounds at different times during my decade there. The Upper West Side, Park Slope & Fort Greene, Brooklyn; even North Yonkers and Hastings-on-Hudson all felt like my place at times, as did the Midtown rehearsal studios & music stores, and Greenwich Village clubs. By the time I left in 1996, I had a drycleaner, a bank, a dentist, even some hobbies-having discovered sailing just a short train-ride up the Hudson.
But two things that I have now that I didn’t then are a connection to place. Much as I loved the view of the Cloisters from the Westside Hwy, and sunny days in Central Park, I didn’t have ’t a sense of grounded-ness in New York, and gazing at the harbor in Brooklyn Heights, wasn’t like surveying the Gorge from Crown Point. There wasn’t the visceral connection between the land and its history. Maybe you need living things to feel that. You need 100-year-old trees, or million-year old rocks.
The other thing missing for me in New York was a connection to community—a feeling of belonging that went deeper than friends, or local sports teams. I was looking for a sense of contribution, that I was a piece, even in a small way, of the ongoing story of a place. To be part of a scene.
The Willamette Valley, more specifically Portland as its cultural locus, is known for scenes and sub-cultures: the indie music scene; the DIY Maker scene; the foodie culture; the artisanal coffee scene; food carts, craft-brewing, pinball;, locally-grown food, pedestrian and bike and outdoor culture. There is a sense of abundance in this plethora of scenes. There is a feeling of the possible in this part of the world that I think seeps out of the verdant landscape into the politics the urban planning, the ways of living on the land.
I’ve been thinking and writing lately using the metaphor of the jazz scene as an ecology. In my analogy, the young jazz musician is like a wild spore or twig that tumbles across the landscape, carrying musical DNA and seeking fertile ground in which to grow- a place to bear fruit.
It was clear on my first visit to Portland, that its territory allowed for different realities- different ways of living and thriving. How else to explain that musicians I had never heard of (insular East-coaster that I was in 1995) owned homes, when I, touring half the year could barely keep up with rent. How was it possible for them to so visible thrive as “local” musicians?
I seems to me now that if Portland were a soil it would be a warm loam, full of the stuff that breeds quality of life, and nurtures the beginnings of things. New York, by contrast, is a dense clay –hard to penetrate, requiring a hardiness and resourcefulness to obtain even a bit of purchase below the surface. The things that denote stability in New York, the rent-controlled apartment, the array of adjunct teaching positions, the regular weekend slot or good sideman gig–are hard-won and take time and a measure of luck.
I remember loving the challenge of this environment in my 20’s. I embraced the uncertainty, the mobility, and the fact that the next phonecall could take me to parts unknown. I felt like I was ready to be blown by the wind, ready to hustle for purchase in the New York landscape, to use initiative and the energy of youth to carve out new opportunities, and find my niche.
Close on three decades later, my memory – digital and human – is satisfyingly filled with reminders that I have deep roots in the Northwest now—photos of my wife and son, vacation trips, birthday parties, the living room full of Christmas presents, concerts played and presented, satisfying artistic collaborations, projects completed, classes taught, relationships built, differences made in a community.
The thing is, I have a hard time disconnecting those memories from the landscape in which they occurred. From the fertile green, the open spaces, the mountain, the two rivers, the creative culture, the trees, the land-use policy, the ideas, and the people who live them out. It is hard to imagine me, separate from the community and the territory in which these things happened. The things I’m exploring now weren’t possible for the younger, rootless me.
I used to be pretty good at traveling. But I’ve lost the routines and the rituals that frequent travelers acquire over time- what to do in airports, how to score the exit row seat, how to eat healthy in an unfamiliar environment, how to disconnect and wander, how to turn a hotel room into a piece of home. In Pete Townshend’s autobiography “Who I Am,” he talks about his reticence toward touring as an adult, after marriage and fatherhood, About how he has to brace for not just for the work of performing, but for the feeling of being uprooted.Makes sense. The roots we lay down have to draw nourishment from something, after all I’m reticent now I know it is only nine days. But I long for familiar faces and places. I’ll sip some hot Stumptown coffee, and think about who I have become in the Territory where I have roots.
I launched my first Kickstarter Project last week.
I’ve raised money before- to put on concerts, to fund a cultural exchange, to start a business. But this is different. It’s more personal. I knew that Kickstarter was a powerful tool to engage with one’s community. I even expected to learn some things–about marketing, and the art of persuasion. What I didn’t expect was that this would turn out to be one of those life experiences in which the benefit winds up being as much or more in the process as in the result. Don’t get me wrong. I want my project to fund. I’m going to work to that end. But I can also see that this experience has the potential to change me-maybe even profoundly. I know it has just been a little over a week, but here are some of the lessons I’ve learned from Kickstarter.
1. Kickstarter says it is ok to ask for help. The first thing one has to do to launch a Kickstarter project is to find a way to say clearly, graciously and articulately: “Help Me!” Kickstarter requires that I practice humility, that I set aside the facade of self-sufficiency – my customary “I can handle it on my own” posture – and announce for the entire world to see that I need other people.
Yes, I imagine some would say that you could use hype. That you sell your project on how exciting your rewards are, and how cool people will feel to be associated with you. But I have looked at several projects on Kickstarter, and that is not what I see. I see people saying honestly, humbly. “Hey. I really want to do this thing and I need your help. If promoting that model were the only good that came out of Kickstarter, it would still be a very powerful thing.
2. Kickstarter asks that I consider that I am enough. No raffles, no contests, no cash prizes, no free airline tickets, just things you make or provide yourself. As artists, we are not accustomed to thinking that we are enough. That our creativity, our imaginations, our quirkiness, our ideas, our real selves is what people really want-not the bells and whistles. Kickstarter suggests that I re-examine what it is I actually have to offer. The most common “reward” on Kickstarter is…gratitude. And it isn’t expensive. Even one dollar will get you a heartfelt thank you. And then there is the art given away in every variety one can imagine: samples of the art, previews of the art, details about the art, an inside look at the art, outtakes of the art, rehearsals for the art, and the most valuable premiums: a personal connection with… the artist. That’s it. And time after time, this is what seems to get projects funded. Could it be that this is what people really want? My gratitude? My Art? A connection? Kickstarter requires that I explore that possibility.
3. It doesn’t take much. Six hours after I launched my Kickstarter, I had my first dollar- from someone I didn’t know. Maybe I’ll feel differently on future projects, but I have to say that first dollar gave me jolt like an electric charge.
Somebody backed me!
Maybe this thing might actually work.
I wanted to know who this person was and why he or she donated to my project? Turns out she is an entrepreneur and business coach in Florida. She has funded 845 Kickstarter projects! How cool is that? And I’m betting that this is what she has figured out: that the first dollar makes a huge impact. It’s an acknowledgement that you are not crazy, that the famous quote is actually true. “Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it!”
That dollar gave me a lesson in effective philanthropy and a strategy for empowering people that I’ll never forget. Every dollar does count. It doesn’t take much- to give hope, to get someone started, to say, “Carry on,” and to start the ball rolling.
4. Kickstarter is all about faith.
Faith in myself- that what I am after is worth doing, worth others caring about, and worth supporting,
Faith in the generosity of other people. Kickstarter’s genius was to create a conduit for people’s generosity. Every tick of that backer meter is an indication of the willingness of the people around me to give. People I know and people I’ve never met. I don’t believe one can experience that generosity and not be changed a little bit. Can not have just a bit have more faith in the incremental.
I don’t know how this project will play out. Maybe I’ll get the big gift, the superhero save that will lift me to my goal in one fell swoop. I certainly daydream about that. Maybe someone will be moved to give a major gift of $500 or $1K. But while I’m waiting for that, the days tick by, and the house is getting built brick by $5, $25, $50 or $100 brick And that is the lesson I really need to learn- to have faith -not in superman or Santa Claus but in the possibility of many human-sized hands getting the job done.
“Crowd-funding” is really just fancy way to say that many people working together doing small things can make something happen. I don’t know about you, but I forget this all the time. I think: I’m not Bill Gates or Phil Knight or Warren Buffett –somebody who can make a real “dent in the world” as Steve Jobs used to say.
But Kickstarter begs to differ. If I’m willing to be patient. If I’m willing to ask for help. If I’m willing to believe that people care. If I can understand that I don’t have to solve the whole problem, just lend a helping hand, then dents will occur. Many little dents, adding up to something.
It only took a week for Kickstarter to teach me all these things- which I realize that so many people already know. Whether my project funds or not (I’m choosing to believe it will), I have a chance to be a better person for taking this leap, more hopeful, more optimistic and more willing to risk giving it away.
As YouTube’d and Wiki’d and Facebooked and blogged-drenched as we are today. And as wicked cool as it is to have the entire world in digital form at our fingertips- we still need people to do stuff –Locally.
I might have the Mona Lisa as wallpaper on my computer screen, but it is the mural on the wall of the building around the corner that brings out the pride in the place where I live. I might have an ipod full of the greatest recordings in the history of jazz, but it is the consistent swing of the drummer that plays at the club down the street that provides the heartbeat ofmy daily experience and the face to face inspiration that makes my kid want to study music.
I can listen to TedTalk’s and Fresh Air broadcasts, read Huffington Post and New Yorker articles that open the portals of the world. I can order in a bounty of exotic products from Amazon and Zappos and Ebay and never leave my couch. But I need real people to rub shoulders with, and inspire me, and remind me the possibilities of the life I might aspire to–here in my own zip code.
I need people to make the great ideas of the world live on MY block.
I need local heros.
Why Megan McGeorge is my hero…
What Megan is doing has been done before. But not here. And so to me, even though her idea is simple, it is brilliant. In retrospect it seems obvious, but that makes it no less inspiring.
Megan is my hero because she is one of those people who make a decision that a thing needs to happen, and then she get’s it to happen. She didn’t wait to get a grant. She didn’t wait for someone else to give her permission. She gathered her courage and asked. Then she rolled up her sleeves and pushed. The thing she decided was that our public spaces would be enhanced if people had the means to fill them with music. I happen to agree with this. I believe that providing the means for music to return to the commons make all our lives better.
She is also my hero because this was not an idea she pursued in order to enrich herself. She wasn’t looking to busk for cash. Although there is absolutely nothing wrong with that occupation. She was after something more elusive. She was providing the means for music to be given away. She was planting something. Some people plant trees. Megan plants pianos. And once she planted a few, she mobilized her community of musicians-professional, student, amateur to join her in showing the rest of us what could be done with this new resource.
Megan is my hero because she is finding a way to bring a voice to the commons. She reminds me of how engaging with music, not recorded, but actual, real-time music was part of the rhythm of daily life. for all people- youngest to oldest. trained artist or novice, professional or amateur. Music was usI
I did a show today called Piano-Rama in part to draw attention to the work of Megan and Piano, Push Play, to try to spread her story a bit further.
It is one month today since we performed “The Territory” at Chamber Music Northwest. A month seems like a good amount of time for a pause. Long enough to let things settle down-not so long that forgotten what all the fuss was about.
The “inevitable post-project letdown,” –which always catches me by surprise no matter how many years I’ve been doing this–was delayed this year. The day after the final performance at St Mary’s Academy I went right into solo papa mode so my wonderful wife, who had been shouldering the whole “run-our-daily-lives-while-my-partner-pursues-his-artistic-destiny” thing for far too long, could take a little restorative camping break. Not surprisingly, my son Malcolm and I went the other way. We rolled out to Seaside and threw down at some skee-ball, bumper cars and arcade games.
After that I jumped right into The Shed, our PSU Intensive Summer Jazz Camp. Four days of all jazz all the time, 9 AM to 8 PM. Did I say it was intensive? Not that I’m complaining. We had some great young players, and it is inspiring to to be in the music with a bunch of people from sunup to sundown. Needless to say I forgot all about post-project letdown for those four days.
No sooner did we turn out the lights on The Shed, than I got in the car and drove to McCall, Idaho for a family vacation on the shores of beautiful Payette Lake, which I was privileged to enjoy thanks to the generosity of my colleague Jeff Baker. His family’s “cabin” – a euphemism that borders on the silly- right near the water is like a mountain paradise. We chilled, we swam, we read books, we played foosball, we paddle-boarded, we sat in the sun, we ate ice cream, and then chilled some more. And for a week I didn’t think about much of anything.
After a quick trip to Seattle the following Monday– (The Bolt Bus feels suspiciously similar to Greyhound when it is completely full, and the wi-fi conks out, as it did on both my trips) –and my “summer” was finally ready to start. And damned if the “inevitable post-project letdown” didn’t pick that exact moment to mosey up and slap me upside the head. Surprise.
I’m happy to say it has done its dance and left the building–just in time to commemorate the one-month anniversary of “my big project.” And in the space left behind, I’m feeling ready to look back at the endeavor so far. I’m also feeling energized to think about what is next- which is turning out to include some pretty awesome opportunities. So it is time for mapping again. Time to sharpen the tools, check supplies, scout out new ground.
Meanwhile, here is a link to a recording of the 1st movement “Hymn to the Four Winds” from the performance at Kaul Auditorium. Thanks to Matt Snyder for an awesome job of live recording.