Friday, July 24, 2009

Forgiveness for Miles

Back in New York, I taught a writing class for undergraduate music majors at my university. Most of them were jazz players who had come to New York, as artists in all disciplines do, from far and wide. They were full of ambition, and dreamt of making lives as musicians in the city that calls to jazz players like Mecca calls to Muslims; New York is, after all, the storied Jazz City whose legendary players, clubs, and myths are no less mystical than those of the cosmology of that other city. (It is even harder, unfortunately, to make a living in jazz than it is in classical music; all my students worked "bread gigs" in addition to playing in clubs and attending college full-time.)

I tried to tailor my teaching I gave to the needs and interests of this special set of students. For instance, when teaching about footnotes and citations, I told my class that, during the time he was married to actress Cicely Tyson, Miles Davis was reputed to have abused her physically. I offered this rumor as an example of something for which a writer would need to cite solid sources, lest he commit a gross breach of ethics, or even an act of slander; for rumor, as tempting as it is to believe, is not fact.

In actual fact, I had first heard this unfortunate rumor from an old boyfriend, a jazz musician who knew someone who knew Miles (always the way, of course). I have no idea if it's true, though everyone knows that Miles Davis was not a nice man. And so I was moved and delighted today to read the following poem, by Philip Bryant, on The Writer's Almanac; it's called "Miles: Prince of Darkness."

I remember my father's stories
about him being cold, fitful,
reproachful, surly, rude, cruel,
unbearable, spiteful, arrogant, hateful.
But then he'd play
Some Day My Prince Will Come
in a swirl of bright spring colors
that come after a heavy rain
making the world anew again
and like the sometimes-tyrannical king
who is truly repentant of his transgressions
steps out onto the balcony
to greet his subjects
and they find it in their hearts
to forgive him for his sins
yet once again.

I loved that poem. And I loved that class and those students.

The last assignment I gave each semester was a record review; they could write about any CD in their collections. Every semester someone would write about Kind of Blue, and I recall with particular fondness how one of them -- a Hasidic jazz drummer whose goal was to fuse nigunim, the devotional songs of the Lubavitcher, with jazz -- explained with marvelous skill why it was such a great album by playing snippets of the solos from "So What," the album's first track. The reason Kind of Blue was great (and that Miles was great, and that Coltrane was great, etc.) was the remarkable succinctness and simplicity of their playing.

I think there's a lot of truth to that. And I pray that we'll all be truly repentant and truly forgiven like Miles in the poem, and that, in spite of our own personal darkness, we'll all give something beautiful to the world, like Miles in real life.

(Above: John Coltrane and Miles Davis during the recording of Kind of Blue, 1959.)

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