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Kazzrie Jaxen: The Impulse of Creation

Kazzrie Jaxen: The Impulse of Creation

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Improvising is the joyful core of everything I do, but there are no stylistic restrictions--everything is embraced. It's the impulse of creation, which is love. If you block off any parts of that love, there's a loss.
—Kazzrie Jaxen
You can walk around in life and still discover something new each day. Maybe it's something that has just appeared, like a flower that has suddenly bloomed, or maybe it's something that has been there all along, like a stone at the side of the road. It's the same thing with music, it can be discovered and rediscovered all the time. The present and past exist side by side and sometimes a forgotten past can be brought into the present.

Now seems like the perfect time to discover and rediscover the music of pianist and composer, Kazzrie Jaxen. Jaxen, who started her musical life as Liz Gorrill, and later changed her name into Kazzrie Jaxen, has been a vital part of the improvising music scene for a long time and is an important part of the story of New Artists Records, the label started by her friend and mentor, pianist Connie Crothers, with drummer Max Roach. She has played numerous concerts, including performances at famous venues such as Carnegie Recital Hall, Town Hall, The Blue Note, Sweet Basil, Birdland, and The Stone, and has toured with her one-woman show combining original music, artwork poetry and prose.

Jaxen has also crossed genres as a composer of the soundtrack to the movie The Beautiful Hills of Brooklyn, directed by Ragnar Friedank and starring Joanna Merlin, and she has challenged the traditional understanding of the concert situation by performing outdoors at the historic Roebling Bridge with the work, Roebling Resonance, a multi-tracked piano and vocal piece.

There is a strong spiritual undercurrent in her music and in a world of quick answers and soundbites, she takes time to reflect deeply about her own artistic practice and paths in life.

A Journey in Music

All About Jazz: In your biography for New Artists Records, I read that you started improvising original songs into your father's tape recorder at the age of four. What do you recall about hearing your own songs and creating and documenting something at such an early age and do you still feel a connection to that four-year-old child when you record your music?

Kazzrie Jaxen: For me, this was pure joy. I was spontaneously making up songs, hearing them back, then making up some more, all with my father's loving attention! I had forgotten about this until I was in my early 20's, just beginning to study improvisation with Lennie Tristano. I mentioned it to him one day, and he got very excited and suggested I find out if the tapes still existed. I went home and brought them back to my apartment, along with the small Sony reel-to-reel recorder my father had used. When I listened to the tapes, it was a revelation to hear my 4-year-old self. Her spirit was so fearless, bold, and uncensored! She had a natural vibrato and deep sense of swing. I began singing along with these tapes, to reunite myself with the little girl I'd been before the "domesticating" influences of school and life. It confirmed what I'd always had a sense of—that I loved music and loved to improvise—and that this love would be unstoppable. I had a vague memory of doing these recordings, and specifically remembered a swinging version of "I've Been Workin' on the Railroad"—but had really forgotten all the rest, even the improvising. There was no awareness on my part of anything being documented—it was just fun. I'm so grateful that my Dad did this, and saved the tapes. I would never have known my 4-year old voice and spirit. And now that you've asked the question, I will make sure I bring her with me whenever I record!

AAJ: You started studying and performing classical piano very early. How did you end up playing the instrument and how did you feel about playing the classical repertoire? Do you still play and listen to classical music occasionally or is it something you have abandoned completely?

KJ: My mother brought me a pink toy piano for my second birthday. She always told me how she hunted far and wide for a piano that had actual black keys, not just painted-on ones. She said I began "playing and singing" all of the Christmas Carols from the little Golden Book. That year, my father took a picture of me playing that piano for their Christmas card.

We got a real piano when I was five years old. It was a small grand which was also a player piano. It came with lots of piano rolls, which probably had some amazing pianists playing great arrangements and improvising on standard tunes. I would sit for hours and sing along with those rolls. I remember "Tea for Two" was one of my favorites. I loved seeing the keys going up and down. I loved watching the spiraling patterns of little holes in the paper. I loved the swinging feeling of that happy jazz.

It was the sound of the piano that got me, and I really don't know why. To this day, whenever I hear a piano in the midst of an orchestral piece, a rock-n-roll song, or any kind of music—my ears start tingling. There's something about the sound of a piano that I've always loved.

My father began doing ear training with me. He'd play a note, and I'd have to stand on the other side of the room and say what the note was. Then he'd ask me to sing a certain note before he played it, and I was able to do that too. He discovered I had perfect pitch. He was a physicist, working as an engineer in a company he'd founded with two friends, but he was also a viola player. So he took an active interest in my musical education. I remember him showing me the notes on the piano, and teaching me the first song I ever played with two hands. It was a pretty melody that he'd written, with chords in the left hand. I remember the thrill of being able to play with two hands. This was so exciting! I couldn't wait to start piano lessons! My father arranged to take off from work every week and drive me to my lessons in Garden City, NY with Gladys Gehrig. She was a well- known teacher on Long Island. My father would sit in on the lessons. Then we'd go home and practice together.

My father took me to see one of Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts, and we went backstage afterward and managed to meet him. I was starstruck. I played in my first recital that year. I quickly progressed from there, and soon I began doing two-person recitals with a friend who also studied with Mrs. Gehrig. When I was ten years old I played my first solo recital. At my concert I played Bach, Brahms, Scarlatti, Prokofiev, Chopin, and Schumann, but for my encore I brought up my younger sister and two best friends for a heartfelt rendition of Pat Boone's "April Love"—the big hit song at the time. To my father's dismay, I was becoming more interested in rock-'n'-roll, dancing, socializing, and boys. I think my piano lessons were becoming mini-therapy sessions!

I really did love some of the classical repertoire. My next teachers, Willard McGregor, Juliette Arnold, and Eugenia O'Toole, introduced me to Debussy, Ravel, Hindemith, Bartok—all stunningly beautiful. But by this time I was hiding my love for classical music deep down inside my heart. I was wanting to quit lessons, my father wouldn't allow it, so everything got a bit difficult. What's interesting is that my father was the first person who showed me how to improvise on the piano. We had a great time playing weird-sounding duets. I loved this, but my father felt it was more of an amusement, not to be taken as seriously as classical music. So I rebelled. When I left home for college, I began my search for jazz.

In an interesting turn of events, my dad later became friends with George Shearing. One summer I was home from college on a break, and George was playing a concert on Long Island. My father picked him up at the airport and brought him to the house for dinner. George sat down at the piano in our living room and played for us. It was so incredibly beautiful. And so mysterious to me. How was he doing that? I hadn't yet found my path to jazz, but I was more inspired than ever.

Now, after all these years, I understand and admire classical music in a whole new way. It's coming from great musical minds, many of them great improvisors, who were able to write down the music as it streamed through them. And though I stopped playing it for many years, I began going to concerts and then even bringing it back into my own playing. In my quartet with Charley Krachy, Don Messina, and Bill Chattin we got into Bach's 2-Part Invention #4, playing it as a prelude to a swinging up tempo version of "I Found A New Baby." And for a while I was also playing Bach's Prelude #6 in D Minor. I became fascinated with David Saperton's CD of Godowsky's transcriptions of Chopin Etudes. Godowsky put the Chopin etudes in the RH while adding a whole new LH to them—impossibly complex to contemplate, much less execute. I ordered the written music, and occasionally I'd work on one measure! I also loved Charles Ives, and his ideas about music, and began listening to two different musical pieces at the same time, lying on the floor between two cassette players.

I had to play a lot of Mozart when I was a child, and never really took to it—all those endless repeats, that basic broken-triad left hand. To me it was boring, boring, boring! That feeling carried into adulthood. I even enjoyed telling people how much I didn't like Mozart. Well, I said it to someone who came back with "Have you ever heard Mitsuko Uchida play Mozart?" I hadn't. He told me to go hear her in concert, and then tell me how I felt about Mozart. So I bought a ticket to hear her play solo at Alice Tully Hall. I went by myself. She walked out in beautiful silk charmeuse pants and blouse, sat down at the piano, and all I can remember is that it felt like Heaven started falling down from the sky. I mean, I was hearing angels. Not only was I not bored, I was entranced. What was she doing? Did Mozart play it that well? Had she taken the music to a whole new level of beauty—or had it been conceived to be that beautiful? She completely transformed my impression of Mozart—and the artistry of playing classical music. I loved every minute and have never forgotten it. Interestingly, a couple of weeks ago I was surfing the radio in my car, and caught a glimpse of some heavenly piano music. I stopped and listened to it. And sure enough, it was Mitsuko playing Mozart.

AAJ: Growing up, who did you listen to and who are the musicians that inspire you today?

KJ: I grew up in the 50's and 60's, so I was way into rock-'n'-roll—The Everly Brothers, Ricky Nelson, Elvis Presley. From the time I was around eight years old I used to watch Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" and loved all the bands and the dancing. Then came the Beatles, everything and anything from Motown, and folk music. I just loved all the music of the time, and grew up with friends who loved to sing and dance, so we were into it! We all sang in the choruses at school and the choirs at church. We were in high school productions of Broadway shows together. I was playing and hearing a lot of classical music—my father had chamber music at the house every week. I was in the Modern Dance Performance Group and heard Dave Brubeck for the first time when we danced to one of the tracks on "Take Five." My father bought me two jazz records—Andre Previn and Peter Nero. He also bought the sheet music versions of Andre Previn's tunes. I listened to the record, tried playing the sheet music, and realized the written music wasn't at all like the record. So I spent a lot of time learning the bass line from the record, trying to get closer to the feel of what I was hearing. Twenty years later, I walked into a club in Manhattan to hear the great duo of Tommy Flanagan and Red Mitchell. I got hit with the bass sound I'd remembered as a teenager—I started shaking—my body recognized it before my mind did—Red Mitchell was the bassist on that record!

In college I loved all the music—Joni Mitchell, Laura Nero, Frank Zappa, Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, Roberta Flack, Jimmy Hendrix, The Band, Jefferson Airplane, The Doors, Richie Havens, Led Zeppelin. One afternoon someone played me a track from Charles Lloyd's Forest Flower (Atlantic, 1967)—and a young Keith Jarrett came barreling in with an electric right hand line and a solo that floored me. I began listening to jazz—Coltrane, Miles, Monk, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum. When I moved to Boston, I heard my first jazz concert—Ella Fitzgerald at Symphony Hall. Then I began going to the Jazz Workshop every week and heard Bill Evans, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, Miles Davis, Tony Williams, Cecil Taylor, Weather Report, etc.

In New York City I heard John McLaughlin, Warne Marsh, Lee Konitz, Sal Mosca, Ted Brown , Billy Bauer, Billy Higgins, Papa Jo Jones, Max Roach, Roy Haynes, Kenny Clarke, Roy Eldridge, Sheila Jordan, Jay Clayton, Mary Osborne, Dorothy Donegan, Keith Jarrett, Marilyn Crispell, Diana Ross, and Aretha Franklin—who, in the middle of her Radio City Music Hall concert, sat down at the piano and sang one of the most beautiful stretches of music I've ever heard. I was listening to and singing along with Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Roy Eldridge, Fats Navarro, Bud Powell, and Charlie Christianl for my lessons with Lennie. I was also hearing recordings of James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, all the early boogie-woogie players, and flipped over Nat King Cole's playing and singing with his trio. I never heard Lennie perform, but Connie and Lenny Popkin told legendary stories about hearing him and his band at the Half Note.

A note about Warne Marsh, the tenor saxophonist in Lennie's band, considered by many to be one of the greatest improvisors of all time. Every time I heard him, I was transported to an ancient old-growth forest. He was playing a metal horn in a city club, and I was hearing trees in the woods. I still wonder about that.

When I moved upstate I didn't go out to hear a lot of live music. There wasn't much happening. Now that's changing. There are a lot of great singer-songwriters in the area, including the multi-talented Elizabeth Rose, who leads an open mic every week. And pianist Hal Galper plays regularly with his trio featuring Tony Marino on bass and Billy Mintz on drums. More jazz musicians are establishing a presence here—Kenny Werner, Andy Milne, Maria Schneider, Don Castellow, Matt Hoffman, Thurman Barker, Noah Barker, Kevin Hays, Fred Hersch, Bill Mays, to name a few.

There are so many great musicians out in the world, and a lot of them are women. When I was at Berklee, I think there were about nine hundred students, and eleven of us were women. I love how that's changed! Just to name a couple—I love Esperanza Spaulding and lately have been singing along with her records. And I've been listening to soprano saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom—an incredibly original musician and composer. There's also an avant-garde scene in the city—the Vision Festival—that highlights free improvisation. And right before covid lockdowns, I'd signed up to take a workshop with frame drummer Glen Velez and his wife, rhythmic vocalist Loire Cotler. I was excited about learning from them—I love what they do—but because of covid I never made it to the workshop.

However, my deepest influences continue to be from all the musicians I've come up with—my musical family. I'll be saying more about mentors Harvey Diamond, Lennie Tristano, and Connie Crothers. And there are two pianists producing incredibly original music who continue to inspire me as friends as well as brilliant musicians—Virg Dzurinko and Carol Liebowitz. Also drummer Carol Tristano and tenor saxophonist Lenny Popkin, creating impossibly gorgeous music with their Paris-based trio; alto saxophonist Gary Levy, not yet heard on many recordings but with something very unique to express; alto saxophonist Richard Tabnik, who played in Connie's band for years; tenor saxophonist Jimmy Halperin, who recorded and performed regularly with Sal Mosca; singer Dori Levine, who always surprises with her original approach to free singing and tunes; pianist Michael Levy, taking improvising into the digital realm in a new way. Later in the interview I'll be mentioning the musicians I've recorded with—tenor saxophonist Charley Krachy, bassist Don Messina, guitarists Andy Fite and Bud Tristano; drummers Bill Chattin and Roger Mancuso; and poet Mark Weber. These are people I've known for many years. We've lived through a lot together.

AAJ: You've done so many things musically. Do you feel that you have come to a point where you no longer think of genres or do you think of yourself as having found your roots in a certain tradition, for instance the tradition of jazz, or more broadly speaking, the tradition of improvised music?

KJ: During my years of study with Lennie, I immersed myself in the study of improvisation—partly by rejecting all the other parts of myself. I wanted the deep dive into this art form, and into the great improvisors that Lennie felt represented its origins—early Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, Charlie Parker, Charlie Christian, Fats Navarro, Bud Powell, Billie Holiday, and others. He had us singing along with their solos to get out of our thinking minds and into the feel, the spirit, the swing, the essence of spontaneous moment-to-moment creation.

Later on I began welcoming back the other parts of my musical identity, realizing I wanted access to all of the musical influences of my life—and that I would not lose anything by doing this. So I would say that improvising is the joyful core of everything I do, but there are no stylistic restrictions—everything is embraced. It's the impulse of creation, which is love. If you block off any parts of that love, there's a loss. And it's a celebration to re-connect with all of the music that's been part of my life—folk, rock-n-roll, soul, rhythm and blues, classical, show tunes, country and bluegrass, world music, etc.—and to let it flow through me as I improvise, in whatever way it might manifest.

I watch kids respond to music. They thrill to it! They move and dance and laugh, they're not judging or defining or comparing—they're responding spontaneously, and it doesn't matter what kind of music it is. At some point I began to notice that us grown-up "artists" can get caught up in assessing our art forms according to what we've learned, according to our inclinations—which is understandable to a degree. But sometimes knowledge can get in the way and be used to prop up the ego by making judgements. I began to notice it was the kids who were really getting the pure joy out of music, simply receiving and responding. I also began to notice when my head got in the way of that, and now I try to practice beginner's mind whenever listening to any kind of music.

Mentors in Music

Kazzrie Jaxen has studied with pianists Harvey Diamond, Lennie Tristano and Connie Crothers and is a teacher herself. In this second part of the interview, Jaxen talks about their influence and philosophy, their mutual appreciation of music and each other and the approach to teaching.

AAJ: You studied both with Lennie Tristano and Connie Crothers. Could you say something about your history with them and your view on them as fellow artists, humans, teachers, and composers? How did their way of thinking about music contribute to your own musical journey?

KJ: Before I met Lennie I studied with Harvey Diamond, so I'd like to include him in my answer.

I began my jazz studies at Berklee School of Music in Boston in 1969. My first private instructor was Ray Santisi. He was a brilliant pianist. He could play anything on the piano. At the time, Chick Corea had burst onto the scene with his unique sound. Ray had worked out the "formula" for Chick's sound, with fourth voicings, and lots of people at Berklee were beginning to sound like Chick! It was amazing and dazzling, but it wasn't what I wanted to do.

I was also assigned to a "piano workshop"—a class with several piano players. Our instructor was Harvey Diamond. We'd focus on listening to each other, playing for each other, and listening to other pianists. Harvey was gigging in a local club with a singer, and Bill and I went to hear him one night. That's when I heard what I was looking for. He didn't sound like anyone else. He created an atmosphere with the intensity of feeling he brought to every note. His playing was mesmerizing—utterly beautiful and original. So I began studying privately with him. He had studied with Lennie Tristano and was incorporating Lennie's teaching into his own. Here's an example of what happened to me shortly after beginning this way of studying. At Berklee we were assigned to ensembles—say, a quintet with two horns, piano, bass, drums. They'd put a lead sheet up in front of everyone, and we'd have to improvise together. I was one of two piano players who took turns, and the other pianist already knew how to improvise. I was new to this and could barely keep up. Then, a few weeks after beginning to study with Harvey, I was in the ensemble one day and literally watched my hands flying over the keys, effortlessly navigating the changes. I didn't know how I'd done it, and the other pianist was shocked. "How did you do that?" "I don't know!" It felt like magic.

Harvey was a wonderful teacher, very laid back, very kind, with a deep ability to listen and focus. I loved studying with him. At one of my lessons he played me Lennie's blues track "Requiem"—recorded on the night that Charlie Parker died. I was broken open by it and couldn't get it out of my mind. I also had an instant sense of recognition and connection to Lennie. Months later, when I bought the album Lennie Tristano (Atlantic, 1956) along with his solo record, The New Tristano, (Atlantic, 1961) I spent an entire afternoon dancing around the apartment to "Requiem," "Turkish Mambo," and "C-Minor Complex." Nothing I'd heard sounded anything like this. The vastness of his musical mind was on a par with the great composers. I was galvanized by his range of expression and the beauty, originality and deep feeling in every note.

Harvey ended up leaving Boston for California for a few years. I left Berklee after three semesters and began commuting from Boston to NY every week to study with Lennie. I was married to drummer Bill Chattin, and he began studying with Lennie as well. A year later we moved to Queens NY, got part-time jobs, and immersed ourselves in Lennie's approach to improvisation—the marriage didn't last, but we remained friends. Thirty-five years later we would reunite to play in a quartet with Charley Krachy and Don Messina.

AAJ: Can you talk about Lennie Tristano a bit?

What do I want to say about Lennie? His genius was expressed in the power of his personality, the force of his intellect, his humor, his warmth, his dedication and love for music. Like his playing, his way of teaching was different from anything I'd encountered. In most schools, theory was taught separately from playing. The idea was that you learned scales and harmony as theory and then applied it to playing, somehow integrating the two. Also, improvising was taught on the basis of chord changes. You'd learn the chord scales that went with the chords, which you would then apply when you played over the changes. Lennie, on the other hand, had evolved a way to teach the art of improvising. From the first note of the first scale, you were absorbing theory through your feeling. You were listening and learning with your whole brain. Everything was done very slowly, so nothing became automatic or mechanical. This was to cultivate "present moment" awareness, deep concentration, an evolving sense of connection to your instrument from which technique unfolded naturally, fluidity of movement and expression, and a sense of ease and joy and trust—so that you could become an open vessel through which the life force could flow unimpeded.

Because there have been so many misconceptions about Lennie and his teaching, I want to give you an idea of how rich this experience was for me. He was often described as being too intellectual. His playing and teaching were not intellectual. They were based on feeling and intuitive intelligence. In fact, Lennie was quoted as saying "The function of the jazz musician is to feel," and "You can't think and improvise at the same time." Here are some of the things he had us doing:

Playing melodies
This is where it all began. Melodies were played hands separately—playing, feeling, listening, singing, absorbing. Ideally you learned a melody by singing along with a singer like Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald, instead of using sheet music, so you were learning by ear from the first note. Only after a while would you begin to improvise over the melody with each hand—still just single note lines, hands separately. This was to establish the melody as the basis for improvising, and to allow each hand to develop independently in a melodic way. When you'd begin to improvise, you'd know the melody so well, you'd be hearing it in your inner ear. So the melody was to become center of your improvisation—not the chord changes. They would come later, and add a beautiful dimension. Harmony was heard and felt and of course influenced the shape of the line—but you were not restricted by it, not bound to chord scales, etc. Lennie spoke a lot about the importance of "the line"—and at first I didn't quite know what he meant—it seemed a mysterious thing. Over time, I began to understand.

Major, Minor and Melodic, played hands separately, very slowly up and down the entire keyboard, with six different finger combinations (1-2, 4-5, 1-2-3, 3-4-5, 1-2-1-2-3, 3-4-5-4-5) and then also with the classical fingering. Then scales were played hands together in contrary motion, still very slowly (1 against 1, 1 against 2, 1 against 3, 1 against 4; then 2 against 3, 3 against 4, 3 against 5, 5 against 4; etc. Just this work was a lifetime of scales to explore. Harvey had added all the modes (increasing the amount of scales exponentially), and later Connie added two more finger combinations, 1-3 and 3-5. I loved it all. Scales, for me, were a meditation. Lennie would never have used that word, but early on I had silently declared the piano to be my spiritual path, so when I began playing scales this way, it was as if the keyboard became an infinite cosmos that I disappeared into! Lennie once said to me, "You're playing them too slowly!" He was having trouble getting students to slow down to 60 on the metronome, and I was playing them much slower than that! But this is what felt right to me, and he respected that.

L.H. Chords
We worked on chords the same way—very slowly. Lennie had created a list of 60-70 chord constructions for the left hand—Major 6ths and 7ths, Minor 6ths and 7ths (with a major 7th), Minor 7ths, Minor 7ths with a flat 5, and Dominant 7ths. These were memorized and played very slowly, in every key. Then you'd go through the whole list with bounces on each chord—1, 2, then 3 bounces (dropping into the bottom of the key.) These were meant to develop the left hand for comping, but also for a sense of left hand independence and freedom. You could also work with each chord, one at a time, and play it chromatically up and down one or two octaves. Then you could do the same thing using whole steps, minor thirds, major thirds, etc. Again, a vast amount of work to fill a lifetime.

Keyboard Harmony
Both hands were used for this practice. Very slow chords were played diatonically (on Major, Melodic and Harmonic Minor scales), each hand separately, going through root positions and inversions, closed and open positions, with triads, sevenths, ninths, elevenths, thirteenths. Again, a lifetime of work! (I need to say here that there was never any pressure to complete all of this work. It was a natural unfolding, different for each person. The presence we brought to our practice was more important than how much we did.)

Ear Training
Learning to listen to, sing, and identify intervals and chords in open and closed positions. In addition to this, and most importantly, was Lennie's practice of singing along with the solos of great jazz musicians. This was required! Lennie felt it was the most important part of the work, because this was where the transmission of improvised feeling took place. It didn't matter what instrument you played, you usually began singing along with Lester Young or Billie Holiday, and you sang whatever solo you were working on for Lennie every week. The more you could completely get into a solo—the notes, the feeling, the articulation, the dynamics, the rhythm, the swing—the less you would end up imitating the player and the more it would release your own originality. This was very different from transcribing a solo, which engaged the analytical brain. Today, with all the new research into neuroplasticity, it makes perfect sense. Getting out of your habitual brain patterns by singing along with great improvisors, you were literally opening up new neural pathways in your own brain and releasing your creativity.

One of Lennie's students, Frank Tehan, wrote a book in 2019 called Singing With Solos: Lennie Tristano's Fundamental Practice for the Art of Improvising. Here's a quote from Frank:

"The most important benefit of singing along with recorded solos comes as a result of the practice acting as a stimulus to creating our own music. It is as if singing with solos not only opens a door for music to enter into us, but for music to flow out of us. This is the 'magic' of the practice. The repeated, intent listening required to truly experience a solo somehow also begins to pierce through to the creative potential that is dormant within us, while the singing of that solo quickens the flow of our creative expression. . . When we are singing along with a solo by Charlie Parker, for example, it is important to recreate not only what he played—the notes—but also what he felt—the intensity of the music flowing through him. When we can feel and express this musical flow, we are then experiencing what is beyond Charlie Parker's personality—the living essence of his music. . . Simply stated, recreating the recorded solos of great musicians, by singing along with them, leads us on to creating our own music."

This is what I experienced in that first ensemble at Berklee, when it felt like "magic" to me. The whole process had bypassed my thinking brain, and had begun to flow out of me. Singing with records was (and still is) absolutely joyous. I'd done it growing up, with rock-'n'-roll, etc.—but this took it to a new level. I would stand in front of the speakers, arms open, and feel the music flowing through my whole body as I sang. It opened me to ecstasy. I did it for hours on end, dancing, singing, listening, absorbing the feeling of Lester Young, Billie Holiday, and Charlie Parker to start. Then Charlie Christian, Roy Eldridge, Warne Marsh, Lee Konitz, Fats Navarro, Lennie, Bud Powell, and even Max Roach and Kenny Clarke (I spent a year getting into Kenny's beautiful ride cymbal—singing and then playing along with him. Thirty years later it popped out in my playing at a concert—and I couldn't believe it— there it was!) Lennie also loved Diana Ross's early singing—and encouraged some of us to sing with her. A lot of people thought he was crazy, but he heard a jazz feeling in her, and sure enough, singing with those early records was incredible!

Lennie also stressed just sitting back and listening to records. Each side was a little under 20 minutes, which felt like a perfect amount of time. We all were doing a lot of listening, besides the deep listening required for singing with solos. And of course we were going out to hear music whenever we could.

Physical Relaxation and Concentration
Lennie focused a lot of attention on physical relaxation. The emphasis on slow playing allowed one to listen deeply to every note, and also to cultivate an awareness of any tension in the body. One time Lennie crawled under the piano and grabbed my feet. "Your toes are tight!" He was intuitively sensing things, and the idea was to loosen up so completely that nothing would impede the flow of energy coming through you to create spontaneous music. Lennie had studied Wilhelm Reich's work about body armoring and it informed his teaching. To turn it loose playing, we needed to be relaxed and breathing. He created simple exercises for this. He also felt very strongly about developing concentration, and later revealed to me that he used to "test" his students' in a surprising way: while we were playing slow scales and chords at a lesson, he would try to throw us off with his thoughts!

When we were away from the instrument, we were encouraged to visualize all of the work we were doing in our head. I did this on my long subway rides going to and from work. Studies now show that the bodymind responds to this kind of practice as if it's real. I would close my eyes and "see" and "hear" the scales, or chords, or melodies, or whatever I was working on.

Lennie felt strongly about keeping everything in review. It wasn't enough to go through these practices once. I kept notebooks of everything I was doing: i.e., the new scales I was working on, and then the review cycle of all the scales I'd done so far. It was in the reviewing that the work really blossomed.

Lennie encouraged all of his students to play sessions with each other. And here was another difference to his approach: he advised us to play tunes that we all knew by heart, so no one would have to use written music. If one person at the session only knew three tunes, you played those three tunes. That way everyone was free to improvise and turn it loose. He had a list of tunes he encouraged everyone to learn, so eventually we'd all know the same ones: All of Me, All the Things You Are, There'll Never Be Another You, What is this Thing Called Love, You'd Be So Nice to Come Home to, How Deep is the Ocean, Stella by Starlight, These Foolish Things, It's You or No One, Embraceable You, Indiana, Pennies from Heaven, etc. Lennie wasn't teaching his students to play a billion tunes—that could come later if one wished. He was teaching the art of improvising. Each tune became a portal of infinite possibility every time you played it. And as a duo, trio, quartet, etc. you learned to improvise together, entering the infinite field of the collective mind. I know many musicians who have different feelings about using written music, but for me this way of playing was a great gift—and I've never sessioned or performed with written music since. I love connecting directly with other musicians and with the audience. (I recently heard an interview with members of a classical quartet. They'd realized at some point that they all knew their music by heart, and had begun to perform concerts without written music on stage. The difference in how it felt to play was a revelation to them.)

I also want to point out that we were living in a different world then. There were no computers, cell phones, answering machines, and most of us didn't have TVs. We valued time and privacy. If we wanted to focus on our music for a few days, we'd turn off our phones. And everyone was okay with that! Most of us had part-time jobs, just enough to pay for rent, food, and bills. We could afford to have our own apartment on a part-time salary, and we looked for special places (like apartments over stores) where we could play at all hours. We spent hours of the day practicing alone, and played sessions at night. It was a deep, rich, glorious time.

Free Improvisation
Lennie had begun playing free in the late 1940's, and felt that playing tunes and playing free were equal components of the art of improvising. They informed each other. He was very clear that playing free was not instant composing, nor was it random. It was instantaneous creation. He might describe it as playing what you were hearing in your inner ear, but he was not talking about linear time—there was not even a split second delay between hearing and playing. It was simultaneous. To me, it felt like surrendering to the "life force" and trusting the intelligence of this life force to create the music through you. You released any need to shape the music or control the outcome. Just a couple of months ago, I came across a quote from Don Miguel Ruiz, a Toltec shaman:

"In our material point of view, the speed of light is 186,000 miles per second, which we think is probably the fastest speed possible, but actually there is a quality of light that is thousands of times faster than our ability to measure it. It is this quality that allows for instant communication across the universe."

When I read that, I thought to myself, "That's it! That's what playing free feels like!"

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