By Bob Dorn
Separated from each other by temperament — and some 30 or 40 minutes — Mr. F and Bret find their ways to a place in the park I don’t normally choose for my practice sessions. The car was out of gas, and the benches out front of our condo were empty, so… The thing is, it’s Earth Day, and how long will I be left to myself?
Mr. F (not his name, by the way) is shy and awkward (despite the hearty urban male fist bump he’ll be offering once he’s comfortable) and it takes him three or four minutes to get within some 10 feet of me – clearly inside the inter-personal radius — and he can’t make eye contact as he circles.
He was wearing a showy stadium jacket, altogether appropriate for the chilly Earth Day morning, with Jaguar racing emblem and crew designation and other racing signs. I asked him if he raced Jaguars; he looked away and murmured something. The competition between his behavior and his strange camouflage is causing noticeable dissonance. He has approached and retreated. His opening remarks come fitfully.
I pick up my horn to continue but he says, “It’s April. Can you do that Miles (Davis) version of I’ll Remember April, a request which he immediately apologizes for having made. “No, no, I mean, you do what you want…”
Anyone who can name an obscure Miles Davis recording can get my attention. It’s a minor tune he’s asking for, even a double minor, if such a thing exists, written in what’s known in western music as the Phrygian mode, dark, full of hurt. I find the flatted third at its opening but five or six notes later as I dip down into the lower register I’m thrown out of the tune. Still he hears where I’ve gone. “Right, right…” and he looks away embarrassed by his own enthusiasm.
What now? What do I say to this guy, who looks like he’s never been to a club or a jam; as if he’d more likely be found in a department store following his wife, patiently.
Then he asks if I’ve ever listened to… “um, Raison… er, a saxophonist…” Rahsaan Roland Kirk !!! I tell him no one’s brought up the thrilling and wildly talented Rahsaan to me.
“He was from Ohio, like me,” Mr. F said, now obviously more comfortable.
A totally liberated player, Rahsaan Roland Kirk was one of those who occupied an orbit of his own, funky outerspace, where his emotions took him, a jazz Jimi Hendrix. I don’t know where I read it, but his parents one day realized blind little 3-year-old Roland was missing. They heard a strange noise coming from outside their house and found little Roland, not yet Rahsaan, on his butt on the lawn blowing into the disconnected garden hose.
The trumpet is louder than a garden hose. For years now, I’ve had to practice it outdoors because it is the bugle is the alarm bell is… a horn. It gave its name to that thing we set off by pressing the button in the center of our steering wheel. Originally meant to summon the troops or send them fleeing, now it’s mostly used to say “Get out of the way, the Escalade is here.”
The point is, I can’t get away with practicing in our condo. It would be like telling the other residents/owners that their neighbor is a jerk without common sense and no regard for others.
Outside is another thing altogether. The horn’s sound is carried away to no one in particular as it diffuses into the ether, right, left, up, down and forward. That dissipation of the sound begs the student to develop more precision and power, but mastering it carries its effects further to everybody in general.
I try not to make eye contact. I’m usually in remote parts at the fringe of the park, pointing the bell toward a freeway or canyon, at the squirrels. For sure I’m not showing off because I only practice the stuff that gives me trouble, and therefore sound bad doing.
When Mr. F left I thought how good it is most people understand practice sessions and grant space to the practitioner. Others seem to know music offers a chance to cross the bridge to another world outside the daily how-do-you-do.
Not ten minutes further into the session some developmentally disabled teenagers suddenly appear, six or seven of them. I first hear their clipped and irregular English. One of them keens and squeals as I play, throwing me off my work. Then I see that three in the group are older, dressed, display no tics, no garbled language. They’re the minders.
It is possible to overcome competing noise and might even be good now and then to have to. Think of how musicians who make money have to blow through the frenzy at popular bars… the Seven Grand in North Park, comes to mind. Intense focus is necessary to the calisthenics of music. I have some focus, but not enough to survive the banging on the aluminum garbage can. One of the disabled, the most severely so, is playing his bottle of juice. He’s smiling. I smile back. He squeals.
Once the small crowd has packed up and left a homeless guy — I’ll call him Bret because it’s not the name he gave me – heads straight for a nearby table. He’s got a giant bag groaning with tin and so much road equipment hanging from the bike he’s pushing I doubt he rides it. In another life he might have had a pickup truck.
“How you doon’,” he calls out. “Good, and happy Earth Day,” I offer.
Bret’s an extrovert. He calls out to another homeless gleaner walking 40 feet from the benches we separately occupy. I keep practicing, occasionally moving my music 45 degrees to keep Greg within my peripheral sight. I hate it when people come up behind me.
He’s setting something up on the bench; it’s a portable gas-driven burner. “How ‘bout some scrambled eggs?”, he offers, with a winning smile.
I politely refused but he needed to talk so much he stopped me from playing. In rapid succession I’m told he’s 55, has lost much of his interest in sex (once a week, improbably regular, it seems to me), has insomnia.
Stress, he says. I agree.
Then he sees the pages of exercises I’ve been working from and says, with a look of real sorrow. “I played drums, but I just couldn’t do that,” he says, pointing to the practice sheets in front of me.
I tried to get him off the subject with a common estimate that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master an instrument and make a musician, figuring that could soothe him a bit, but he wasn’t helped by it.
There was more dissonance coming off this second interloper; Bret would say he can’t sleep, then smile and watch my reaction. There were no up moments and he was smiling.
I tell him the source of the 10,000 hour estimate, “This Is Your Brain on Music,” a marvel of a book by Daniel Levitin, a former musician turned neuroscientist who argues that music’s universal appeal proceeds from its early origins and it’s capacity to develop neurons and pathways. But Brett can’t stop: he doesn’t eat like he used to because he’s gotten older, and he bloats and gets headaches
I joke about the website ads I’ve seen that list the same symptoms and invite a click for more info on how to…
“Everything’s different now,” he interjects. Is it his compulsiveness that blocks his ability to hear? “It’s that thing that happened with the asteroids that crashed through the earth’s gravity; remember that?
“Gravity’s powerful, you know. Look at the sun, how it has effects on us…” I don’t know, I say, music seems to keep me happy…
He’s come closer. Short, but powerful, he obviously takes care of himself. He’s got a reddish beard trimmed to start precisely at the line of his jaw, and an inch or two below his ears; none of it is allowed to reach his sun-ruddied cheeks.
He’s onto Planet X now, and says it has come around finally on its special elliptical orbit… and it’s the end time…
“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” I say, “how can you know that?”
“I’ve read it; it’s in the bible.”
As I leave I tell him I’ve had this idea – secular, pseudo-scientific but inspired by Levitin — that music has the ability to integrate us by bringing us back to some ancient understanding. “It’s something like the brain and the soul trying to talk to each other.” For the first time he stops talking, and I walk back to my place, indirectly.