LAST WEEKEND I VOLUNTEERED at the Park City Jazz Festival in Deer Valley, Utah. It has become a tradition with me: excellent music, the joy of helping out, the beautiful mountain scenery, not to mention the respite from the August heat of the Salt Lake valley.
In that milieu, I remembered again of the power of music and yet how easy it is to let it slip silently out of our lives. The music that moves me most is jazz, because of its heady improvisation, soaring instrumentality, and ability to envelop the listener in a moment of time that elicits meaning not through lyrics but from the unspoken and often inarticulated feelings inside the listener's heart -- an emotional journey sketched by the musician but colored in by the listener's personal reaction to the song. And when I find myself in that moment, forgotten memories recovered and given voice, I shake my head in wonder that I allow myself to exist outside that moment for so much of my day.
When I was eight years old, I was riding my bike home. They had been clearing a lemon grove for a new park, and had dug many shallow trenches for sprinkler lines. My buddies and I had been playing Army Man all day in those trenches, wearing plastic replicas of GI helmets and hurling hard green lemon hand grenades at each other like the dog faces in "Combat," our favorite TV show.
On that particular evening, tired and dirty from a day of saving the world, I was pedaling home on my red Schwinn. I had my little transistor radio rubber-banded to the gooseneck handlebars and was turning a corner when I heard my first Beatles' song: "Camp By Me Love." The tune and words were so catchy that by the second time the chorus rolled around, I knew it by heart. (Of course I found out later that it wasn't a song about a guy asking his girlfriend to go camping, but something about love being beyond price. But at that time I knew nothing about love but a lot about camping, so that's how I heard it.)
When I got home I picked out the melody on our spinet piano. I knew nothing about chords, so I just tried to find the bass note that went with each change of the melody. But within an hour I had basically figured out the song. I was ecstatic and from then on, I was a musician. I heard something on the radio and reiterated it on piano. It wasn't long before I was rearranging chords to make new songs, often using the same lyrics I'd heard on the radio, often to such tin-eared results as "Camp By Me Love." Nevertheless, by the time I finished high school, I was a fair interpreter of popular music. I formed a band with some friends and 1975 was a glorious year when Zarahemla played church dances, parties, and youth gatherings all over southern California. We even entertained unrealistic fever-dreams of a recording contract.
My best friends have always been musicians, and all of them are more talented than I. I was a sponge, soaking up information that I'd not gotten in my formal training, which ended for the most part when I entered high school and had no time for piano after classes, sports, the beach, and my job. My fellow musicians introduced me to the finer elements of music theory, culminating in the clever "mu" chord popularized by Steely Dan. When I realized that this jazz chord made their music seem at once complex and accessible, I shook my head in wonder. How can adding a second tone to a triad do that? Further, how can a melody evoke emotion?
Music brings me back in time better than any other memory aid. I remember putting Billy Joel's astonishing 52nd Street album on the turntable and dully realizing that this guy was better than Elton; after all, he wrote the lyrics and the music! I could name dozens of songs and albums that literally stand like bright signposts in the landscape of my life, often associated with people, sometimes with places, and always with powerful emotions, sometimes as a result of the song itself, sometimes as a remarkable synchronicity when a song comes on the radio that exactly mirrors what I was feeling at that exact moment. Hall & Oates' "I Can't Go For That" featured a rudimentary computerized drum sound that literally made me exclaim, "It's changing! Right now! Music is changing!" And indeed, from that moment in 1983, drum machines came on board, some would say to sad results. And I would love to argue the point, not to convince you, but to talk with you about music, which is one of the few things in life worth arguing about, because it always results in sharing, in increased appreciation for a song or band or style you didn't previously like, and a full heart. Not many conflicts result so often in large smiles, knowing nods of the head, and hearty handshakes when the argument is over.
So there I stood at the side of the stage, wearing my yellow SECURITY tee shirt, facing the audience on a Sunday evening in Deer Valley, listening to Al Jarreau sing one of his most famous tunes, his face radiant and his happy demeanor contagious. Al et al. helped me find the groove and I was right in the center, swaying slowly from side to side, eyes half open, hands behind my back, chin lifted, rhapsodic. "Mornin' mister radio/mornin' mister Cheerio/mornin' sister oriole/need I tell you everything is fine?"
The sun was setting over the pine-clad canyon wall and the grassy hillside before me was full of people, all in that same groove, heads nodding, smiles on every face. And when he sang the rising melody, "I know I can/like every man/reach out my hand/and touch the face of God!" a chill ran up my spine and tears started in my eyes. I was in it, that evanescent moment when music fulfills its greatest promise: it was drawing me closer to the Infinite.
Did I mention it was also raining at the time?