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The Skies Above Us... The Decay Down Below: From Cavafy and Mahler to Mingus, Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden

Raul d'Gama Rose By

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[Artists] have never given up the struggle to hold up a mirror to society by giving us art in the name of Humanity and Decency.
For days, looking at the darkening sky of the Canadian winter, I was preoccupied with the image of this deep-blue canopy as a mirror—a mirror not only to the individual, but also to the collective soul. For days I have wanted to say what I saw, but no words come to mind yet and the ideas were invisible. Then, today they come in waves of quantum packets. Their high energy was blinding. And like an electric current that had become more audible day by day, they urged me to make note of the impulses. But I could do no more than stare at the page. I saw ideas collide and words swirl like various partners performing a gratuitous waltz in the brain. To write about music they must not only do so, but also make harmonic sense. Sure the melody dictates itself must pry open the subject... But the harmonic approach is critical to complete the circle. And it must drive the rhythm... Time! Timing... The timing has to be right... Otherwise nothing will sound good. No one will be able to dance... The music will say nothing about life...

So, for days on end, the time was not right for writing about music.

But then neither has most days been conducive to the creative process... I am constantly disturbed by death... News about death and thoughts about death... The news gets more troubling everyday. Although one can never justify it wars seem inevitable. But what is even more disturbing is the machinery of death. More powerful weapons to kill with... and do so more brutally than ever before... to go down in a so-called blaze of glory. Most disturbing of all is the fact that young men "students" have taken it upon themselves to dispense justice, however twisted, by killing their own: mass murder in schools, colleges and universities... It appears that there is too much hate roaming like loose smoke all over the earth. I am distraught today. It did not help that I finished re-reading a deeply troubling essay by Gene Lees—Jazz Black and White (from Cats of Any Color, Da Capo, 2000)—a dissertation on racism in music as, sadly, reflected in one of the premier music institutions of New York. It bears mention here, that (at the time of writing, some seven years, or so, ago) Lees was referring to racism in the context of an attempt to keep "the white man out" by denying his contribution to the jazz idiom. I have always found racism, no matter who practiced this ugly form of discrimination, to be truly disturbing. For me, there can be no justification—no excuse and certainly no room for hate in our lives—much less in our music. Ask any self-respecting musician. It destroys the art. That was never the intention of the blues...

A poem comes to mind. The poem is from quite another realm, quite another era, but to me it speaks to the decay of our society, so driven by ignorance and hate. The poem is entitled "Waiting for the Barbarians," by C.P. Cavafy. The great Alexandrian poet, who wrote at the turn of the 19th and in the early 20th centuries, had an epiphany about the imminent fall of a highly developed civilization—not unlike Rome—which was beginning to devour itself with its own fangs of sophistication and a certain emptiness born of its inability to recognize the fabric that held it together... a lot like ours, you might say.

In the poem—that presents the dilemma faced by a society in decay with a heightened sense of drama—all life comes to grinding halt.

"What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn't anything happening in the senate?

Why do the senators sit there without legislating?

Because the barbarians are coming today

What laws can the senators the senators make now?

Once the barbarians are here, they'll do the legislating.

As the poem unfolds with rhythmic intensity so does the stultifying scene of decadence at the centre this highly developed civilization. We meet the emperor, sitting at the city gates in all his finery, waiting to receive the barbarians... so do the consuls and the praetors, dressed in scarlet togas... wearing "bracelets with so many amethysts...rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds..." waiting to receive the barbarians... The orators are silent... no speeches are to be made as the barbarians are bored of rhetoric...

Then, as night falls people become restless and confused. The streets and the squares empty rapidly. And everyone goes home lost in thought... because the barbarians have not come. Some, who returned from the border, announced that there are no barbarians any longer... the poet asks:

"And now, what's going to happen to us without the barbarians?

They were, those people, a kind of solution"

So what, you may ask, is the point of recalling this poem? Why now... why in an editorial about music?


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