I live in a county (Montgomery County, Maryland) with a very large and diverse immigrant population. There are streets in Silver Spring where you can hear 20 languages spoken during a one-block sidewalk stroll. So when I was awarded a grant to compose a piece for spoken word on the subject of the immigrant experience here, I thought it would be easy to find personal stories. And it might have been, a couple of years ago. But the level of fear I encountered while interviewing people who had immigrated to this country was striking. Even among people with legal residency or citizenship, many told me they worried that bringing attention to their experiences might endanger them. I can’t say I blame them: We’ve seen plenty of headlines lately about federal authorities imprisoning and even deporting legal residents and naturalized citizens. In the end, I decided to focus my piece on the story of one man who made the terrifying journey from Guatemala and through the Sonoran desert as a child. The “score” for this piece is written for piano, guitar and cajón (rhumba box) along with various other hand percussion. I hope I can musically do justice to his story, and his courage.
Last week, I was in France for a wedding, and a side trip took me to the Loire Valley. While walking along the river in the charming town of Blois, I caught sight of two swans gliding upstream. The Loire has a swift and strong current, so I knew the swans had to be paddling furiously under the water’s surface, but up above it, they maintained a completely calm, beatific look. I thought of one of my favorite words, sprezzatura: the ability to make a difficult task look easy. And that put me in mind of one of my favorite trombone players, Joe Jackson, who is conveniently in my jazz band. Two months ago, Chaise Lounge played a concert with the Pan American Symphony Orchestra, and one of the pieces on the program was Astor Piazzolla’s “Oblivion,” with Joe playing the solo usually performed on violin. This beautiful, impossibly high lyrical piece would leave most trombone players in tears, but for Joe, it seemed effortless. Of course, I knew his “effortlessness” came from 30+ years of devoted attention to his craft. But the best players, like swans swimming gracefully upstream, can make you forget everything but that beautiful performance.
My friend Susan recently hired me to play at the opening of an art exhibit she’d curated. It turned out to be a beautiful gig, in no small part because my jazz trio was surrounded by so many vibrant prints and silkscreens from around the world. I fell in love with one of the pieces: a print of a woman in a turban by a Cuban artist named Choco. I couldn’t stop thinking about the piece and, after I got home, I called Susan up and bought it.
It is curious how we need art. In the order of food, shelter, clothing, it is understood to be pretty far down the list of primal needs. But maybe it’s not. Cavemen made cave paintings, after all, and Lord knows they had more pressing things to do, like fighting off saber-toothed tigers. Perhaps the need for art runs on a parallel track to our survival instincts. We can be hungry and still long to see beauty.
The print I love is now hanging on my dining room wall, and it makes every other piece of art in the room look brand new. And every time I look at it I am fed. As we go through our days making work to feed our families (and possibly our egos), it’s good to remember that we might be feeding the human spirit as well.
My latest play just opened in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Him & Jim is a comedy about what happens when a divine stranger wanders into an unremarkable auto parts shop. My partner-in-crime in this project is director Ara Barlieb. I wrote the play alone, but Ara gave it life, and from what I am hearing he is taking it in directions that I never even imagined. And yet I trust Ara enough to know that whatever he and his talented cast invents, it will make sense with the play. More than make sense: It will make the play a better one.