“Doing what you ARE!”: Artie Shaw, Mark Twain, and … Sami

Lately, our family has been re-watching the Ken Burns *Jazz* series. There is a wonderful interview segment with Artie Shaw. (He was an American jazz clarinetist, composer, and bandleader, widely considered to be one of the greatest jazz musicians of his time.) Speaking of something which hugely influenced him when he was in his late teens, Shaw said, “I went to Chicago, I made a pilgrimage [to see Louis Armstrong play], I took a week off and went up to Chicago, I had a little car, and I found my way to a place called the Savoy. And I sat on a rug-covered bandstand and waited, and he came on, and the first thing he played was ‘West End Blues.’ And I heard this cascade of notes coming out of a trumpet, no one had ever done that before. I was obsessed with the idea that this was what you had to do, something that was your own, that had nothing to do with anybody else, but I was influenced by him, not in terms of notes, but in terms of doing what you are, who you are.”

Now… Great musicians, whether they play jazz or classical music, always bring to bear their own personalities, who they are, when they play. It doesn’t matter whether they’re improvising or playing something which has been arranged or composed earlier. When a performer is just copying someone else’s way of playing something, they’re just playing notes, and there’s no life in the music.

Which brings me to Sami, a spectacular new young friend of mine. (Well, hey, she’s five months and three days younger than I am.) There is something truly and powerfully unique about her. She’s a musician, but it’s not her main thing. She’s spent a lot of time traveling … there was a long trip to Eastern Europe, which allowed her to, among other fine things, explore her Polish roots. (Johnny and I have Polish roots, also.) And she just dropped me a note to let me know she’ll be traveling, this summer, to “washington, on a cruise to the carrieban and to ohio and canada.” (I’m guessing that, during her trip, the proper spelling of the word “Caribbean” will probably come to her attention. <grin>)

Sami is studying psychology, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if she were eventually to become a professional in that field. One of the biggest issues which psychology addresses is the question, “Who ARE you?!” If a person doesn’t know who they are, or to use Mark Twain’s lovely phrase, “the law of their make,” well, life is very likely to be filled with conflict and unhappiness. Imagine how awful it would be to play music, and never feel like that music was coming from somewhere deep inside you! It would be like being a bulletin board or something!

Sometimes, rarely, I think, people just know who they are right out of the gate. But most people need to spend a little time exploring life’s options, seeing what’s possible while we’re here on the planet, and finding the possibilities that resonate with our own individual souls. Which means travel. Maybe not to other cities or countries, but, one way or another, it means going out of our way to discover possibilities we haven’t encountered before.

Imagine what it would be like if there was a huge store we could go to, probably set on the side of a tall mountain swathed in clouds, and the aisles of the store held all of life’s possibilities. Most of us would probably be like “kids in the candy store,” running up and down the aisles, grabbing one possibility after another, and trying each out for a few minutes before dashing on to the next. (It seems as though that’s exactly what most people I know have been doing, especially concerning jobs and relationships, but the process tends to be less efficient than running around in a single store…)

The thing is… Once in a while, a person comes along, like Artie Shaw, or Mark Twain, or my new young friend Sami, who has, deep in their soul, a willingness, even an eagerness, to explore life’s options, even if it means going way out of their way to do so. And they proceed with such fervor and passion that they end up encouraging others to explore what’s possible and discover who they are. And when a person discovers that … well, the next thing you know, they are “doing what they ARE!” … and the result of that is always that “beautiful music” flows from their lives like a river, and is a Blessing to everyone around them … whether or not they do things like play an instrument!

I’m cheering you on, Sami … I think that, like Artie Shaw, your travels, in addition to being wonderful Blessings for you, will end up making a huge difference in a lot of lives. Thank you for the inspiration! There’s no doubt in my mind that the “beautiful music” you “bring to the table” will work its way into Johnny’s and my music. Hopefully, over the coming years, we will be partners with you, Sami, in encouraging each other, and others, too, to “do what you ARE” in all aspects of life!

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  1. Comment by JJ Wilson:

    Hi folks,

    We also really love listening and learning from Ken Burn’s Jazz series produced for PBS. We have the full set of DVDs and have watched and loaned them out several times. Thank you for the reminder of this exceptional collection. We are encouraged to hear about Sami, another musician exploring and discovering.

    This comment comes right after hearing Johnny’s performance of Rhapsody in Blue with the orchestra playing at Ikeda Theater in Mesa … so that is pretty much on our mind. We spoke with friends again today about it, and all continue to be in amazement at the thrilling pianism communicated by such a young and extremely talented man. Thank you for bringing this gift to our family, friends, and musical circle on the Mother’s Day concert.

    –The Wilsons

    Posted on May 12, 2008 @ 12:37 am

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