I believe that all art is Love made manifest, but since the jazz piano has been one of my best friends throughout my life, I will use this genre to reflect on the lessons that the fine arts offer to the art of living.
Let me start with a couple of stories:
Many years ago, I was playing the 5-7 slot at a good hotel in Burlington, Vermont. After a couple of months, the management hired another piano player to play the later hours, and since I did not know him, I stayed behind to hear what he could do. His technique was amazing! A friend leaned over to me and said “Cat’s got chops!” I nearly ran out of the building in a panic, thinking my career was over. But I heard a glimmer of something off. For all his talent and hard work over the years, it was clear that HE was the point of his playing. He knew he was good, and he not only wanted, but needed, everyone to know it. This need of his ego, however, leached the soul from his music. I decided I could continue playing.
A second story: I had the privilege of working for many years with a magnificent sax player named Larry McCrorey. We had played nightclubs, hotels, and weddings for over twenty years, and we were very close. For all this time, however, we had never played a concert–until one fateful night in the Spring of 1983. We strolled onto the stage with our sidemen with hardly a thought and proceeded to play tunes with which we were very familiar. We quickly knew, however, that something was very wrong. We never missed a beat nor did either of us play a wrong note. We played every song correctly–but none of it was very Good. Larry and I were both lost and sick at heart, wondering what had happened, and the more we tried to fix it the worse it got. The audience seemed to enjoy the performance, but we both knew it had been flat, heartless, without soul. And we had no idea why.
After much thought, I realized that the new venue had set us on edge. We were used to clubs where people were on the make and drinking copious amounts of alcohol. Here, they were just listening–and we fell into the trap of the piano player in the first story: WE became the point of the music.
Love and Fear
I think there might be two modes, or attitudes, I can bring to my playing. The first is fearful and self-centered. When I want people to think I am good,I become the point of my playing. Someone once said that “I” don’t show up until fear shows up. I believe that is what happened at our concert. Larry and I got scared, and our egos ballooned in order to protect us. We tried to control the music, and music was lost to us.
My ego might also push me to play the piano simply because I am being paid. I play well enough so that the owner will continue to hire me, but I am really just going through the motions. This lifeless music is easy for anyone to hear. I was lucky in my career that this rarely happened, but I think this could well be the mode that many people bring to their work.
The second mode–the mode of Love– is the more difficult to express. My experience, however, is that at a certain point, I cease to experience myself as the source of the music, and the music takes over and comes through me. I become, not the source, but the conduit of the muse, and the feeling is indescribable. Perhaps a little Zen can shed some light.
Form and Emptiness
The chanting of the Heart Sutra is a daily occurrence in Zen monasteries throughout the world. It says, in part, “form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form; form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form.” This might sound like gibberish until we reflect that form might be taken as the known structure of things, while emptiness is the unknown, the pregnant possibilities within the given. I believe that the interplay of form and emptiness is central to the creative process. At the risk of oversimplification, one might say that emptiness lies at the heart of both the creator and the creation. It is the field of caring, the field of love.
In this world of “ten thousand things,” however, neither form nor emptiness stands alone in the creation of any art, be it music, poetry, carpentry–or the art of living. Emptiness, alone, might be “groovy” but it must be given flesh and bones in order to incarnate with harmony and grace. Although I revere John Lennon, it seems to me that “All you need is Love,” is more wish than reality. As we will see, it certainly doesn’t work in music. On the other hand, structure alone without love is dry and barren. For true art to emerge, form and emptiness must blend into a transcendent synergy.
Thus, Seng-Ts’an, the Third Chinese Zen Patriarch (d. 606CE) says “ Live neither in the entanglement of outer things, nor in ideas or feelings of emptiness.. Be serene and at one with things…” And again: “Deny the reality of things and you miss their reality. Assert the emptiness of things and you miss their reality.” I am, of course, honing in on the, to me, incredibly difficult notion of non-duality. On one level of consciousness, form is form and emptiness is emptiness. On a second level of consciousness, form is emptiness and emptiness is form. That is, form and emptiness coalesce into a reality that lies beyond them both. They are no longer two, nor are they one. They are non-dual.
Structure as the Prism of Love
As I indicated above, emptiness can’t play music. Even if the white light of love is present, it needs the conscious prism of this individual person in order to shine its beauty into the world.
A person must have mastered the form of music. This would mean that she would have spent years studying the general theory of music, developing manual dexterity, and assimilating these elements into her very body. She would also have spent considerable time on the text of this particular song, working with its harmonic progressions and with the emotional colorings of its rhythm and melody. The structure of the music would vibrate in her cells.
Now it is time for her to get out of the way. This, of course, is easier said than done. For me, it was a gradual evolution of two elements over many years. The first was an increasing confidence in my theoretical ground and my ability to play correctly. The second was an incremental deepening of love and gratitude both for the music itself, and for my listeners. Not long ago, I was asked at a lecture/demonstration what was my favorite song. I answered in all sincerity: “Whatever I happen to be playing at the moment.”
Thus, the loving musician knows that he is not the point. All the elements of structure are present—except for the musician. The sense of Self has dropped away along with the fearful strivings and concerns of the ego. To paraphrase Lao Tzu, the true pianist plays without playing. This is a reference to the Taoist notion of Wu Wei: to act without a sense of control or of one’s self as the source of the action. Subjectively, however, there is a paradoxical feeling of being completely absent and absolutely present. Now the musician is able to reach into the form -the song as written- to find the not-given, the latent and infinite possibilities that dwell in the depths of music itself. Within the vastness of that emptiness within form, she is able to create a rendition–perhaps of an often played piece of music– that has never been heard before. She finds what Gerard Manley Hopkins called “the dearest freshness deep down things” (1967, p. 66), a fresh vitality that envelops the hearts of performer and listener alike in the field of beauty.