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Improvising Where No Man Has Gone Before: Encountering William Shatner, Star Trek, And “The Wrath Of Khan”

Improvising Where No Man Has Gone Before: Encountering William Shatner, Star Trek, And “The Wrath Of Khan”
Victor L. Schermer By

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I am a Trekkie. No apologies for that. There are millions of us floating around in the universe. So when I saw that Captain James Tiberius Kirk, aka William Shatner, was going to appear in person and give a talk after a showing of the classic film, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, I decided to go. I played a weird hunch that All About Jazz publisher Michael Ricci is also a Trekkie, and he confirmed my worst suspicion. He responded with the Vulcan Salute and "Live Long and Prosper." That was it. I wangled a couple of tickets for the event, held at the Philadelphia Academy of Music on May 17, 2018. Mike came in from the 'burbs, we dined at a local Asian restaurant called Sampan, and then went over to the Academy eager to take in the Trekkie vibes and hear what Shatner had to say.

Somehow, I felt compelled to write about this excursion away from my typical jazz interests, thinking rightly or wrongly that many All About Jazz readers are Trekkies, but I needed an angle. Surprisingly, the angle came readily to mind: improvisation. Jazz is improvised music. Star Trek was improvised from its very beginning, with its pilot TV episodes in 1964-65, when none of the cast quite knew what they were doing and had to make it up along the way, which has continued to be its modus operandi over the decades. In addition, Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, aka "Spock," both could be said to have improvised their own lives, often re-inventing themselves out of both necessity and choice. And in the fictional world of the crew of Starship Enterprise, improvising their way out of hair-raising situations was the repeated demand of the scenes that the producers, writers, and actors invented over and over again, often on the soundstage as the episodes and films were being made. The spontaneity, imagination, and improvising in the production of Star Trek, which comes through in the way the scenes are set up and acted, is part of what continues to draw people and makes them identify with the characters. It is also part of what makes jazz tick.

Star Trek was the product of the hippie era when all of us were improvising our lives, trying drugs, clothing, living situations, love relationships, you name it, as the spirit moved. It's no accident that during the height of the hippie period and political protests, the Star Trek movement took off (and it really is a social movement, what with collecting memorabilia, conventions, powerful identifications with the characters, groups of people talking endlessly with one another about the episodes). It's also not a coincidence that during the same era, jazz experimented with many new forms: hard bop, free jazz, fusion, world music, as if a door had opened up, allowing musicians to try new things. The opening words of each Star Trek episode said it all: "Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no man has gone before!" Sun Ra, John Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman would have heartily agreed with such an imperative. Their mission, too, was to encompass the whole universe in their music.

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