Tag Archives: resistance

Confessions of a Closeted Jazz Cat

In rehearsal for a show in Plymouth, a good friend and fellow singer-songwriter noticed my jumpy syncopations on the keyboard and felt compelled to say something about it. In her other life, she is a therapist, so she has a finely honed practice of noticing things in other people that they normally wouldn’t see themselves.

“You are a jazz musician.”

I froze. An embarrassed grin spread across my face, like I was caught denying something. “We need to have an intervention,” she said.

“I’ve NEVER thought of myself as a jazz musician. Never ever,” I said. She just kept looking at me like there was no escaping it anymore.

And it wasn’t the first time this was said to me. A highly respected producer and recording artist in Detroit listened to my debut album and observed that I could market it as jazz, at least partially. And I abruptly denied it: “What? Are you kidding? Maybe in the Norah Jones sense, but…naaah!”

It’s not that I wouldn’t want to be a jazz artist; I get a good share of vibes and inspiration from jazz. I’ll listen to everything from Frank Sinatra to Ornette Coleman. It’s just that I admire jazz people so highly for their skill that I could never imagine counting myself among them.

Perspective: My first real exposure to live jazz was a blow-the-roof-off solo performance by Herbie Hancock twenty years ago. He and I both went to the same alma mater – Grinnell College. So for the college’s sesquicentennial, he played a private performance in Darby Gym, sharing exalted versions of old favorites like Watermelon Man and Dolphin Dance. I was in the fourth row, where I could see his hands in action, and I had never seen anything like that before (or since).

The very next day, I and the rest of the music majors got to have lunch with the man, a real treat. Not just a great musician but a great guy all around; it was an interaction I’ll never forget.

So that experience set the bar miles above my head for jazz performance, as it was the closest encounter with a jazz juggernaut I’ll probably ever have. There’s no way in eternity that anyone would include me with HIS ilk! Being around and hearing someone like that makes you feel like you’re hardly good enough to play Hot Cross Buns.

Hence my dismissal of jazz as part of my own performance.

But as soon as I started sharing my friend’s recent comments with other folks around me, more and more confirmations came back – I’m a closeted jazz cat. Musicians, listeners, friends, and even my parents wondered why I haven’t figured it out sooner.

But could I ever go down to a jazz bar in Detroit – like the Dirty Dog or Baker’s Keyboard Lounge – and be taken seriously?

Then came the cherry on the cupcake: Of all the free Reverbnation opportunities I signed up for in the last three months, the ONLY ONE to accept my submission for airplay was…a jazz station.

Ok, I give up!

The first thing I gotta learn is that jazz, as a genre, is much broader than I think. Herbie, for all his mastery and genius, only occupies a small portion of the realm, which includes hard bop, lounge jazz, big band, and show tunes, among other things. I’m also reminded of Louis Armstrong’s answer to the perennial question of what is jazz: “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.”

Now, I’m not claiming to be a jazz scholar of any kind, but that’s precisely the point – jazz was not born out of scholarly investigation but out of radical self expression. And who can’t claim that as a musician? That’s where all the best music lives, regardless of genre. Ergo, if I’m resisting calling myself a jazz artist, it could be that I’m resisting my own self expression.

And that’s the crux of the matter. Any person who resists the beauty that others see in her needs a little wake-up to reality, and it seems I just had mine.

So now I’m going to start dropping my resistance to jazz as a performer, and to see what’s possible with it. I think it’s just a matter of embracing the process, and not worrying about the product. Whether jazz listeners take me seriously is not the point; it’s about me taking my own self expression seriously. I once told a jazzy friend of mine that jazz was a method, and he nodded in agreement with me. If that’s all it is, why not make use of it?

Wish me luck.

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Embrace life.

I wrote this surprising thing to myself in my freewriting journal:

“Amy, what will it take for you to see that you have never missed your chance? Your chance is sitting there right in front of you, every day, in plain sight. Forget about past and future. Just forget about it. This is your weakness: this idea that your chance is gone in the past or hidden in the future. It’s not there. It’s here, now.”

Two days prior, I was hanging around the Rust Belt Market with my husband, buying up a stash of beautiful handmade greeting cards from The WorkPlace, a nonprofit organization which employs people with disabilities in Michigan. I had already bought the four requisite birthday cards I was going to need for the coming month, but there was a special: five for $15. What was I going to get in addition to four birthday cards? I already had a ton of thank-you cards at home, no impending need for a sympathy or wedding card that I could see…

Then I saw it. A card that said, “Embrace life.” Inside, it said:

“Happiness is something that comes into our lives through a door we don’t remember leaving open.”


I had no occasion or person to give that to, but I didn’t need one, because the injunction to embrace life, on top of the beautiful hand-made 3D design, was enough to make me want to get it. I’ll find someone to give it to, I thought to myself.


Two days later, I write the words above, and from there, what poured out of me, without a single thought of the card I bought over the weekend, was:

“Embracing – that’s a thing I’m missing from my life right now. I’m not embracing, getting fully engaged with life around me…I’ve been giving everything a cursory glance…The cursory glance is a way to ensure that I check off everything in my to-do list without actually doing anything…”

It was at once a damning indictment and a liberating release.

It became the key to a new relationship with my schedule, and with my life overall.

See, I’ve always thought of myself as a good time manager. I’ve carried around my brick of a Franklin-Covey planner everywhere for years, and I pride myself on spending every Sunday planning the week ahead with every appointment, every to-do, all of it. And when I do the things I’ve planned, I relish every moment I get to check things off the list.

But when I don’t do the things I plan, I beat myself up. Hard. And that’s a problem, because my usual remedy for the shame is to allow myself to check things off that I only do halfway, or things that only get a cursory glance and not the deep commitment they deserve.

And the result? Longer to-do lists down the road. Which I don’t finish. And then beat myself up for. Again. Until I stop making lists altogether, and my soul flushes down the toilet.

“Embrace life” has me see another way out. And I share this with you because as musicians, some of us give our work only cursory glances when the going gets tough (or too easy) and schedules get crazy. “Oh, I’ll fix it in performance…I’ll just warm up in the car on the way to the bank…” and so on. Are we getting things done just so we can check off the to-do list faster, or are we doing it for the fulfillment of our dreams?

Here’s what I had to get with “Embrace life”: Dive in deeply. Accept life fully. Do things to completion. The thing that there is to do right now, do that and nothing else. Be intimate with your life tasks. Embrace every moment passionately and don’t worry about missing something. You won’t miss anything. Everything life offers is an opportunity to open up and accept what’s there to do and be. Fall into it. Don’t resist. You won’t have to worry about time; you could embrace time and not try to escape from it at every single moment. Life is not a thing to escape. The cursory glance is our attempt to escape from time. If you fall into time instead, and into the task you’re given, time will become your friend and you will end up having more of it, not less.

You don’t need more time. If you say you need more time, what you really need is more depth, more commitment and attention to the thing you’re doing. (And less complaining and distraction.) What you need is a firmer embrace on life. What if, instead of to-do lists, we made depth charts? Like, how much depth of action and attention does a thing need, rather than how much time? Never tried it, but I’m curious about it now. What do you think that would look like?

Whatever it looks like, it feels like we would be taking the injunction to “embrace life” pretty darn seriously.

It also feels like I ought to mail that greeting card to myself in the next week, to keep me going…

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