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So often when we speak or write about music – when we practice, when we listen or perform – the focus of our attention is on the notes being played. These notes, their pitches and rhythmic accuracy, the articulation and tone with which they are produced, how fast or slow they come one after another, how they blend with those being played by others if we are playing in an ensemble: these notes and the attention we pay to them form the basis of so much of our work as musicians.
Yet there is another element to music making that is just as essential as the notes: silence. Silence is there before the music begins and continues after it ends. Silence punctuates the spaces between the notes and exists even as the notes are sounding, buoying the notes up like foam on the crests of waves on the surface of the ocean. Silence isn’t just the absence of sound. It is what gives music perspective and depth, and the power to penetrate deep into the psyche of the listener.
Without silence, there is no music.
Last night I had the great fortune to be a part of a fine ensemble of musicians performing our very first Jazz OnStage: part of the OnStage series of free chamber music concerts at the Nashville Symphony.
The OnStage series has been a part of the Nashville Symphony’s community engagement programming for many years now, and I’ve written about these programs in a number of previous posts here on Off The Podium. The concept of the program is simple: on selected weeknights throughout the season, Nashville Symphony musicians present an early evening chamber music concert in which the audience is seated on the stage with the musicians, and the program includes the opportunity for dialogue between the musicians and the audience.
One night when I was a child – this would have been sometime in the 1970s – I was in bed but had not yet fallen asleep when my mother came to my room and got me to come see something important that was about to be shown on television.
This was back when all television was broadcast: before streaming, before cable, before Blu-Ray, DVD, VHS, or Beta. There were 3 commercial networks and PBS had only been broadcasting for a few years – so if something came on TV and it was important or interesting, you had to set aside time to watch it then or you would miss it, with no chance to see it again. In those days, many people organized their lives and made plans around the scheduled broadcasts of programs or events they wanted to see.
So I shuffled down the hall to my parents’ bedroom and sat on the edge of the bed in my pajamas, peering up at the small black-and white TV set that sat on a shelf high on the wall. (What seemed to my young eyes and ears like) a dowdily dressed old black woman in coke-bottle glasses stood in front of a piano trio and proceeded to astound me with the most outlandish and virtuosic singing I had ever heard. At first she sang what seemed to my limited experience to be a pretty conventional rendition (of a song I did not know – in my memory she sang How High the Moon and A-Tisket, A-Tasket in this broadcast but I don’t know if that’s accurate as I’ve been unable to locate a video on the internet that syncs with my memory of this moment) but then she closed her eyes and started to make strange movements with the hand not holding the microphone as she sang what become obvious to me was not the song but just something wild she was making up, singing nonsense. My mother told me this was called scat singing. I thought that scat was another word for poop but I didn’t say anything, I just sat there mesmerized, listening intently until it was over. I’d never heard anything like it.
It was Ella Fitzgerald of course. My father said something about Ella being the greatest jazz singer in the world, and it was clear to me (they got me out of bed to see this, after all) that to my parents – who seemed to regard this television event with the same weighty regard they had given to astronauts landing on the moon or President Nixon resigning from office – this crazy old lady was something special – anyway, she was on TV, and that was important in it’s own right. I went to bed when it was over, but sitting in my parents room that night watching Ella sing on TV made a strong impression on me, and I never forgot it.
It is my first “jazz” memory.