Paul Simon, John Coltrane, and Having Something To Say (archive)
A fellow musician asked me a short while ago how I title my tunes. I gave a rambling sort of answer that generally ended up saying that I nearly always have the title first, and the song is a representation of something important that I’ve experienced in life. He sort of blinked at me and told me “I just write the tunes, and then I’ve got a list of titles I pick from that sound cool.” I suppose I have the list of titles, but they always come first. I always want to tell a story, and one that’s meaningful to me.
One of my favorite albums of all time is ‘Graceland’ by Paul Simon. My mom used to listen to this all the time when I was a kid, and the sounds of that music have stuck with me since my age was in the single digits. Of course, at the time, I loved “You Can Call Me Al,” and the patter of Simon’s delivery, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve really appreciated ‘Graceland’ musically for its lyrics and incorporation of African music along with Simon’s sensibilities. However, I’ve also really grown to love it for what it had to say – both from Simon’s pencil as well as the greater issue of South African politics. I won’t dive into what was happening completely (Google it to find much better-written pieces), but suffice it to say ‘Graceland’ ended up quite a bit bigger than just eleven tracks of infectious music. There was a UN boycott on all things cultural from South Africa, and Simon recorded the album with (at the time) unknown-in-the-west South African musicians such as Ray Phiri and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. There was controversy (and probably a little arrogance), but Simon maintained that he wanted to bring the great music of that country to the rest of the world, not get involved in apartheid politics. After a Graceland tour with South African musicians (including Miriam Makeba), it’s safe to say that Simon got his wish. His music had a story to tell – it just happened to be the story of music from an entire country.
I’ve been listening to and reading about the music of the Coltrane quartet recently, something that I’ve always done, but now more than ever. Coltrane’s stories were deep, personal, wide-ranging. With that group, Trane was reflecting LIFE:
I’ve tried to become even more aware of this other side – the life side of music. I feel I’m just beginning again… music is a reflection of the universe, like having life in miniature. You just take a situation in your life or an emotion you know and put it into music.
He was interested in what he called “folk music,” which he said had much meaning, and that felt that “basically, the music should be dedicated to the goodness in people, the good things in life,” and that “folk tunes usually spring from these simple things.” He wanted to “listen to them and learn to combine what’s done around the world with what I feel here.”
My friend Hermon Mehari made a huge impact on my life when he told me, a long time ago, that he just wanted to play music that makes people feel good. Ever since he said that, my musical path has changed. I want to make people feel good, but in a way that shows that we all relate to the human experience, although in our own ways, but in the same way. And I want to do it through my stories, my take on that human experience. One of the many beauties of jazz is its abstract nature. Hopefully through work and practice, I can share my growth as a person through the notes I write and play, and the stories I tell.