Bright Moments*

Question: What’s it all about?

Answer: I don’t know.

But I do know a few things.

I know some of the things that make me tick.

Even though I write (for fun, for real and forever), I would still say that music has always been the central element of my existence. Or the elemental center. Writing is a compulsion, a hobby, a skill, a craft, an obsession, a mystery and at times a burden. Music simply is. For just about anyone, all you need is an ear (or two); that is all that’s required for it to work its magic. But, as many people come to realize, if you approach it with your mind, and your heart and, eventually (inevitably) your soul, it is capable of making you aware of other worlds, it can help you achieve the satisfaction material possessions are intended to inspire, it will help you feel the feelings drugs are designed to approximate. Et cetera.

You hear plenty about the suffering artist syndrome, the suicides, the drinking and the desolation, because these are the things that people who write about artists tend to write about. Certainly, the artists themselves express this angst in their art, but you seldom see the solipsism on the screen or the stage or in the grooves of the vinyl. But then again, these artists don’t need anyone to celebrate their achievements, because the art they created does so with exceeding adequacy and eloquence. You can’t believe everything you read, but you can always have faith in what you hear; the ears never lie. Not when it comes to music. Not when it comes to jazz music.

How to talk about jazz music? Well, perhaps it’s better to determine how not to talk about jazz music. Hearing is believing. That’s it. And if you hear something that speaks to you, keep listening. Whatever effort you put in will be immeasurably rewarded.

Listen: most of us are blissful or oblivious inside our little boxes, incapable of hearing, much less expressing, the joyful noises that reside in those most inaccessible spaces: within each of us. (For instance, what John Coltrane achieves on the final section of “A Love Supreme” could cause even the most cynical hater of humanity to feel humbled by the uniquely moving and profoundly positive force of musical expression. It’s not possible to remain neutral while listening to Charles Mingus, who, after amyotrophic lateral sclerosis confined the colossus to a wheelchair, was obliged to literally sing his songs, composing them with his mouth when he no longer could lift a pen.)

The great Rahsaan Roland Kirk (who was born blind and eventually taught himself to play three saxophones—simultaneously) often talked about bright moments: occasions where you feel deeply connected to the music, the message, and the soul of the messenger. To be sure, he made it rather easy: all one need do is listen with the heart as much as the ears and the music takes care of everything else—you’re just along for the ride. And yet, you’re not. You really do go somewhere: begin here and end up there: when you listen to the best jazz music, the experience is never static; you are always on your way someplace.

This is what jazz music signifies for me. As a dedicated non-musician, I use jazz as a viable source of empowerment; while it remains first and foremost a very real and easily identifiable source of extreme pleasure; it is also a vehicle, something used to get you someplace else. A stimulus that demands a response, inexorably capable of conjuring up words and concepts (and constructions) such as spirit, soul, God, karma—things that are (rightfully) almost unbearably oblique, or pretentious, or all-too-easily invoked, usually as readymade escutcheons for folks who ardently need a way to articulate the feeling they either can’t quite explain or desperately wish to get in touch with.

(When all else fails (and all else always fails) there is music. When the emotions and awareness start to squeeze their way behind your mind, giving way to those awful times when you wonder how you can possibly find peace or make sense of anything ever again, music is there when you need it most. August 27, 2002 was the first day of the rest of my life. Anyone who has lost a loved one will recall (or half-recall) the blur of events that come after, all of which are a blessing in the disguise of distraction. I did a lot of driving: driving from father’s house to my place, from funeral home to father’s place, to the airport to pick up relatives. The emotions and sensations would become overwhelming at times, and there are those interminable hours when you are not even certain what is real or who you are. During one of these episodes I was coming or going somewhere and I had not been paying attention to my car stereo, and then I came to my senses, recognizing a song I’d heard hundreds of times: in this crucial moment it broke through that haze like the sun and saved my life. I can’t count how many times something similar has happened, though it’s possible I never needed music as much as I did on this desperate occasion.)

Here’s the bottom line: when I contemplate whatever life has in store for me, or even if I allow myself to entertain the worst case scenarios regarding what I could have been or might become, as long as my ears work, all will never be lost. In this regard I echo the letter of Paul to the Corinthians, which is obligatory reading at every wedding: and though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. I feel that, and I don’t know many people who would attempt to contradict such a beautiful, irrefutable sentiment. But I reckon, if everything else was removed from my life, including love, I could find meaning and solace if I still had music. If I’m ever reduced to a bed-bound wreck, so long as I have ears to listen with, I’ll never be beyond redemption; I’ll always be willing to draw one more breath. Take away my ability to write, speak, see the world, smell the air, drink, eat or emote, this life will still be worth living if I can hear those sounds.

Which is why I make a request to my friends, family and the medical establishment: even if I’m someday in that coma and every professional would wager a year’s salary that there is no possible way I’m able to hear anything, as long as my heart is still beating please, no matter what else you do, keep the music playing in my presence until I’m cold. Because no matter what you think or whatever you’re praying for, as long as I can hear that music I’m already in a better place than wherever you imagine or hope I’m heading toward.

*From a non-fiction work-in-progress entitled Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone.



  1. Jay Steichmann says:

    Murph, once again–and mixing my metaphors–you’ve kicked this one right out of the ballpark. Keep the music playing, second-line style til well after I am in the ground. You never met my brother-in-law, but he considered you to be a best friend, a friend in the collegium of jazz aficionados, one of those of us who know the choice they would make between the deaf man and the blind (“I know just where my feet should go, and that’s enough for me.”-S. Winwood).

    Another of his friends is the underappreciated saxophonist Tom Gullion. Gullion grew up in Indiana, and his first big break was with J.J. Johnson, in whose quintet he joined with Cedar Walton, Rufus Reid, and Victor Lewis. Not bad for a first job. After some time leading bands in Spain & then Chicago, Gullion wound up settling down in the same southwest Wisconsin farmland community as Jeff. Jeff’s enthusiasm for music-and the Artform of Dimensions Tomorrow known as Jazz-made an acquaintance into a good friendship. At Jeff’s memorial, Tom played a solo arrangement of Equinox, one of Jeff’s favorite pieces. Yes, I cried, but I laughed, too, remembering nights at the jazz Showcase in Chicago, Jeff & I breaking our meager banks at age 20 to go all four nights to see Rahsaan debuting his soon-to-come double LP “Bright Moments.” Sitting four feet away from Charles Mingus as he worked out lines at the piano an hour before his sextet’s performance, kibbutzing with the great man about life, about love, about music. Staying after Elvin Jones’ sets til 3 and 4 in the morning, Jimmy Garrison & Elvin relaxing & just talking with us until Joe Segal shagged us all out the door.

    The music, and the people who make it, are not the ego-bound creations of some public relations machine. They make music because they have to, because it would be against all that they are to ignore that urge. Like you, I am not a musician. My basic percussive skills would maybe allow me to play triangle in a middle school marching band. But I am a voracious listener, as was Jeff.

    We go up to the farm every July or August, to the Driftless Region of Wisconsin, where there remains a strong cadre of musicians, creators, composers, and listeners. Last year, our visit coincided with the What Cheer? Brigade blowing through town. Playing in the banquet hall of the Viking Inn, capacity 120. A 19 piece brass band, “(their) sound is an aggressive mix of Bollywood, The Balkans, New Orleans, Samba and Hip-Hop, played with the intensity of metal.”

    I got off point there, Sean. Music is the healing power of the universe. No, it can’t prevent disease, but it heals & comforts the spirit.

  2. I’m with you Sean. So, where should I go in the Reston area to devour the best music?

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