Three times my youngest son asked me what happened last month in New Orleans. Each time I answered simply, I don’t know.
I went there for ten days to sing for several events like I’ve been doing most weekends for the last twenty years and to be honest I didn’t expect anything out of the ordinary. Isn’t it funny how, when we least expect it, life is full of out of the ordinary? We fall in love out of the blue, we lose our job and we discover our true passion, we are filled in a new way and realize we have been empty for some time.
I have fallen in love with a number of cities in years past. Here are a few: Dallas, TX (we have friends who still call and say, when are you coming home!), Santa Fe, NM (I called Ron and said half joking, send my clothes), Denver, CO (After two weeks at a big national meeting one year, I realized looking at grand mountains on a regular basis somehow healed the small places in my life. Each time I’m in those mountains, things in my life line up like the are suppose to), NW Florida beaches (pretty much feet in sand anywhere is my dentist-chair-happy-place. The birds, the sand, the sun, the surf, fishing, floating, watching, I find all of it sacred.), New York City, NY (The first time I spent a night there I could hear the sounds rising up from the street and I knew I loved it. The theater alone is enough for me. Each time I go I fall in love with something new. Just walking in the park or FAO Schwartz toy store is enough to fill my cup), London, England (Ron and I got to go to Wimbledon right around the time that the movie Notting Hill was released. We ran around the city in the morning and watched tennis in the afternoon; all of it felt like home. We danced on a red carpet during a Pavarotti Earl’s Court. We kept being drawn to the Notting Hill area, the book stores, the market, the pubs, the blue door.) Ok I could keep going, with Athens, Rome, Beijing, San Antonio, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, Minneapolis, Asheville, Billings, Los Angeles, the list goes on. Most of what I loved about those places is the people I was with.
But New Orleans this time was different, I spent time with New Orleans like I was spending time with an intimate friend. We sat together, in silence and in laughter. We tarried, meandered, breathed, and we even got bored, together. I treasured each moment. I met New Orleans’ homeless, ate with them, cried with them, traded stories with them, fed them, hugged them, kissed them, prayed with them and agreed with them to be kind to one another as I would try to do the same with those around me.
I listened to stories–stories of loss, of Katrina, and of the day to day struggles that still cost many of them their lives. My heart broke in so many ways during those ten days. Years ago… while working on a house during a mission week called “Weekend of the Cross” in Shreveport, LA I spoke with a man whose home we were repairing. I asked him what brought him to the area. He didn’t miss a beat as he answered, “ hard times.” I know what he was talking about when I looked into those eyes this time. It was almost unbearable for me to hear about the misery and sorrow, the desperation. But I also was filled with something else almost unbearable–the amazing sound of love that flowed from jazz. It heals and I was the recipient of that music. It flowed through me. As real as New Orleans’ sorrow, was New Orleans’ melody of life’s songs. As painful as the stories were, there were also stories of hope, of healing, of resilience, of accomplishment. Like jazz, some tunes were standards that everyone in the room knew. Others were new songs I had never heard.
Last spring I accompanied an adult group from Rejoice Lutheran in Lincoln, NE on their mission trip to New Orleans. Cheryl Greiss was gracious enough to let me join them in their work repairing houses, and supporting Marie Riviere Elementary School. I had the good fortune to help with the school talent show. I also sang for the students and talked with them about writing, about expressing yourself, about telling your story through writing and I shared my love for songwriting with them. On that spring trip, one evening I was to meet a friend at the park on Frenchman in the neighborhood. When she had to cancel, I wandered onto Frenchman Street and into the Spotted Cat jazz club. For the next 5 hours, I sat by the piano while Brett Richardson and Aurora Nealand and the Royal Roses poured their music and their lives into every soul in that room.
Last month, I returned to the Spotted Cat and to my delight my spot was waiting and so was the music. I’m not sure they know. I’m not sure they are aware or even care what the music is doing to those who listen. When you watch them play, it’s as if they couldn’t care less how many people are in the room. They are not thinking about how the music is received. They are playing their jazz and we just get to listen. I’ve always thought the same about the music I make, It is my personal gift to God. Whoever is listening just happens to be in the same room at the time. If I could put my finger on it and tell you what that music did for me and to me, the naming would take away some of it’s magic. I only know that at one moment while listening to a song at the Spotted Cat, when the sax player finished his solo, the entire place shouted at the top of their lungs. I found myself screaming in joy over what each of us had witnessed, at a gift given without thought of commerce–being paid, cd’s sold, music downloaded or even his name mentioned. He simply nodded his head smiled and listened as one of his fellow musicians played. That seemed to be enough for him. And it was and is enough for me. The magic might have been in part George the door man who hugged me when I came through the door the seventh night in a row, or James the Trumpet player who stood and said I remember you from last night, glad you’re back or the poet sitting in front of Spotted Cat with an old typewriter, composing poems on his typewriter for tips. Yes, I have his original Ode to Celia proudly displayed on my fridge or Curtis behind the bar who eventually said, Ok Celia, next time you are in town.. call me and we’ll let you play. Maybe it was all of it. The trumpeter at Cafe Du Monde’, the men in front of the catheral sitting in Jackson Square. I had some extra food left over from the condo where I stayed and I took it and made sandwiches. I passed out cups of orange juice and fruit and I sat with them one more second the last day I was in the city. Around the corner you could hear a single trumpeter playing When the Saints Go Marching In. A Mardi Gras parade was about to come down the middle of the Quarter and as the crowd gathered, I made my way to my car and with windows rolled down, drove away with that tune still playing in my heart.
My friend Sybil and I were talking about faith and life. Like jazz, she said, faith continues throughout our lives, changing, moving, growing with moments of unpredictability and familiar melodies. Some things take years to develop, while others happening instantly. And then every once in a while, you have a week, a day, a moment. I have always thought my whole life, that the way I lived, the way I loved, the way I sang, the way I wrote songs, all of it matters. I can no more hold back in any area of my life or love. I have to be in the moment. I have to give everything. I have to be swept up in where I am and in what I’m doing. It should matter every part of it and it should be my passion.
One night while at the Spotted Cat, I read some graffiti written on the wall in the girls bathroom, “If you are not completely in love with or heart broken by life at this moment. You better start paying more attention.” That’s really it. I want to pay more attention. I want to give my full attention to something I love, to the someones I love, to the everyones I am called to love. I want to be heartbroken for what breaks others hearts, to care enough to listen. A few of my favorite quotes are listed below, but one I really liked about jazz said this, “New Orleans is the only place where a jazz musician can have a paid gig, play it, leave it to go somewhere to play some more, for free!” It’s sometimes just about showing up, showing up to play, showing up to offer what you have to offer. Isn’t that what we are called to do in our lives? To show up and to offer what we have and to do it even after we thought we are done doing it. So many of Jesus’ miracles happened after Jesus had just done what you thought the miracle was. Funny, how like jazz, it doesn’t have a distinct ending or beginning. It just continues and it’s about paying attention. Something I’ve been know to lack in my life, but not always.
That’s what happened to me in New Orleans, I listened. I paid attention, and it changed me again, forever.
Music is what we need when language fails us, but we cannot remain silent. ~ Dr. Cornel West
If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn. ~ Charlie Parker
New Orleans is the only place I know of where you ask a little kid what he wants to be and instead of saying, I want to be a policeman or I want to be a fireman, He says, I want to be a musician. ~ Alan Jaffe
One thing I like about jazz is that I don’t know what is going to happen next, do you? ~ Bix Beidenbecke
Jazz washes away the dust of everyday life. ~ Art Blakey
It is becoming increasingly difficult to decide where jazz starts or where it stops, where Tin Pan Alley begins and jazz ends, or even where the borderline lies between between classical music and jazz. I feel there is no boundary line. ~ Duke Ellington
Life is a lot like jazz… it’s best when you improvise… ~ George Gershwin
The reward for playing jazz is playing jazz. ~ John Lewis
What we play is life. ~ Louis Armstrong
I can tell whether a person can play just by the way he stands. ~ Miles Davis
Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself. ~ Miles Davis
That’s the thing about jazz: it’s free flowing, it comes from your soul. ~ Billy Crystal