“I am not a racist”

blackwhitehands“I am not a racist.”

It’s so easy for a white person like me to say that and think I actually know what I’m saying. But is it true? I was raised in a white community in Connecticut in the 1950s, and there were racists there. Even my mother was a racist, although she would never admit it. There was only one black family in our town at that time.

But when I was 13 years old, I fell in love with jazz and decided I wanted to play jazz piano. Suddenly, almost all my heroes were black people. I worshiped them, collected photos of them, and of course bought their records and listened to them. This opened up a whole new world for me.

During the following decades, after I began to play professionally, I worked with many black players, and also had many black friends over the years. I had two marriages to black men, the first one back in the 1960s, when mixed marriages weren’t common at all. I continued to consider black musicians my heroes and mentors.

Then, in the 1990s, I moved to Brazil, to Rio de Janeiro, where there is a large black population. I felt right at home. I believed there couldn’t be anyone less racist than me. But recently I’ve been reading a book called Growing up Black, by Jay David, and it’s a serious wake-up call. The book is a collection of black childhood experiences, including some well-known names, throughout American history.

Reading the stories of what it was like for these people to grow up in America rattled me to the core. I realized that no matter how many black friends, colleagues, and even husbands I had, I would never, ever understand and certainly never feel what it was like to be a black person in America or anywhere else.

I used to take pride in the fact that I was “color blind.” Now I see it differently. It isn’t for me to “unsee” the blackness of my black friends, consciously or otherwise. To do so, I believe, would dishonor them. The best I can do in my ignorance is to love them with all my heart and soul.

 

 

 

 

 

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How to know what kind of a person anyone is

 

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Brazilian actress Fernanda Montenegro…look at those eyes!

This is a follow-up to yesterday’s post, which was focused on Donald Trump. Let’s leave poitics for a minute and think about a broader application—how to know what kind of a person anyone is. The method is the same: look into their eyes and you’ll see their soul.

You know how sometimes you meet a person and immediately you feel uncomfortable? You might say to yourself, “Oh, I’m just being silly.” But stop and take a good look right into their orbs and you’ll realize you can trust what you see. A person with a good, gentle soul will have a kind look, or a sparkle in their eyes, or even something that you can’t name, but you feel it. You feel it with someone who has a dark soul as well.

Unfortunately, many people never give this a thought. Nevertheless, sometimes they’ll say, “Ooooh, what beautiful eyes she/he has!” They might not necessarily make the connection between what they’re seeing in this person’s eyes and their character, but there definitely is a connection.

picture-of-a-beautiful-african-american-baby-girl-with-smiling-eyes

No thing but innocence in those eyes!

The same goes for that uncomfortable feeling when somebody seems to have a “nasty look.” Don’t brush it off. Sometimes it can save you from a lot of grief, if you were thinking of getting involved with that person in some way, whether business or personal. People who have that look in their eyes are out of touch with who they were meant to be and are blind to who they really are.

Trust your intuition! It’s the greatest thing you own, and you can cultivate it. Words, reasoning, conjectures, opinions are not nearly as powerful or accurate.

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How to know what kind of a person Donald Trump is

 

oneI’ve never been particularly interested in politics, but this year, because of what’s going on here in Brazil, and especially because of what’s going on in my birth country, the USA, I can’t help getting involved along with everyone else.

Facebook is inundated every day with posts about Trump, Obama, Hillary Clinton, and many other political figures. Some of the posts are positive, some negative. Some are true, some false.

But what interests me are the comments people make on these posts. twoThey talk about why they hate/love Trump, Hillary, Obama, and so on, and come across as certain that their views are correct. But these are just words, and to me everyone is missing a very obvious point.

It’s easy to argue back and forth about who’s good or bad, but to me, the only way to know what a person is really like, who they really are, is to look into their eyes. You may think that sounds nuts, but you’d be surprised what you can discover by doing it. You can sense a person’s character, their motives, their flaws, their virtues…their soul.

rs_634x1024-150616073901-634-donald-trump-jl-061615I am not a fan of Donald Trump. I won’t go into why, because enough has already been said about why he is NOT a good person and is NOT qualified to be president of the United States of America. Just take any photograph of this man and look into his eyes. They’re dead, flat, mean. Do the same thing with photos of Obama or Hillary and you will see something quite different. Use your intuitive senses instead of simply spouting opinions or even facts. If you do this, you’ll see right into the essence of the person. For just a minute, let that be your guide instead of what you think you believe, what you’ve been told, what you’ve heard or seen in the news, or what you’ve seen on Facebook or read on Twitter. You might be quite amazed.

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Being an introvert has become a “thing”

 

1797When I was a kid growing up in the 40s and 50s, it was not considered a good thing to be “shy.” The word “introvert” didn’t exist, as far as I know. In any case, I was a shy kid, a loner, and my mother worried about it.

“Why don’t you go outside and play?” She would say, as I sat at the piano practicing for hours during summer vacation. Not that going outside would put me in touch with other kids—there weren’t any, except my sister Bertie. We lived in the country, and there were very few neighbors, none of them close by. I usually liked playing with Bertie, but my favorite thing was to spend the day in the woods by myself, with some stale bread and a bottle of water, pretending I was a lost explorer.

As I grew older, even though I wasn’t fully aware of it, I still preferred being alone. I had a few friends at school, but I certainly wasn’t considered popular, and the friends I did have were thought of as somewhat “weird.”

As the years went by, I didn’t spend much time thinking about whether I might be an introvert, because the people I knew didn’t talk about things like that. It seemed to me that I was normally sociable, but looking back I can see that wasn’t quite true. I still used to sneak away early from parties, and I didn’t like hanging out in large groups of people. I preferred sitting with a close friend and talking about “life.”

Fast forward: For the past couple of decades I’ve felt an increasing need to be alone—not all the time, of course, but quite a bit of it. I think it’s partly because I’m a writer and composer, but also because it’s just my nature. It doesn’t feel odd to me. I’m comfortable being a loner.

Lately I’ve been noticing—mostly from articles and memes on Facebook—that introverts are “in.” The memes say things like, “Whew, that was close, I almost had to socialize,” “That feeling of dread that washes over you when the phone rings,” “Come, they said, it’ll be fun, they said,” “The Introvert Revolution,” and so on. It seems as though introverts have found their niche, but…

Somehow I don’t feel like waving an introvert flag. Why should I label myself? Why should anyone? We’re all different after all, sometimes in subtle ways, but we’re certainly not as classifiable as these memes and some articles I’ve read on the subject would have us believe.

I say, enjoy who you are. Explore who you are. Most of us are too busy to spend time with ourselves, but we need to make time. We’re here for a reason, and the more time we spend finding out about what it is that we’re here to do and why we are the way we are (and this is NOT selfish, I might add), the better off we’ll be. Then others can benefit from our gifts, too.

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Life-changing teachers #6: C.K.Chu

 

ChuThe first time I saw someone practicing tai chi, I had no idea what they were doing. It was sometime in the 70s on the Boston Common, and I thought, “What on earth is that?” In later years I took a keen interest in Asian culture, and learned about martial arts, although I had no interest in studying them at the time.

Sometime in the early 90s when I was living in New York, I was visiting my step-father George in Connecticut and he was doing some exercises that looked like tai chi. I said, “George, is that tai chi?” And he said, “No, not really, I just made it up.” Well, I thought that was pretty resourceful of him, and I mused, “That looks like fun. Maybe I’ll take some classes.”

So I did. I found Korean teacher and joined a beginner class in Yang form tai chi. It was interesting and fun, but I found that I couldn’t remember the moves. This teacher used to demonstrate them in front of the entire class and we would imitate him—that was it. After awhile, I felt I was making no progress, so I started asking around about other teachers. One of the students in my class asked me if I’d ever heard of Master Chu. I said I hadn’t, and she gave him such a glowing recommendation that I decided to go see him. She had observed one of his classes and had also decided to study with him.

I was surprised the first time I entered Chu’s spotless studio in Times Square to watch a class. The students weren’t all lined up doing the same moves. Instead, they were working individually on different moves, and Master Chu and his assistants would move among them, making corrections. I liked that approach, so I signed up right away.

In the beginner class, Master Chu taught a modified version of the Yang Short form. I joined the class, and it didn’t take long for me to discover that I was remembering the postures easily. Master Chu, a diminutive man dressed in a navy blue silk uniform, would watch the students, then help them with their moves. He was very demanding, but never intimidating. He’d constantly say in his halting English, “Tuck! Tuck”—meaning to pull in our behinds, since most of us had a tendency to stick them out!

I loved Master Chu. He had a wonderful sense of humor, and was always so relaxed…he seemed very comfortable in his own skin. He treated me kindly and always gave me a generous discount on classes, which meant a lot to me. He was genuinely interested in all his students and their progress. I’ve missed those classes since I move to Rio de Janeiro, but I’m glad I have his DVD, because I have never been able to find a tai chi class or teacher here that really suited me. It might be because Master Chu had such a profound influence on me and I can’t seem to enjoy other styles as much as his.

About Master Chu

Grandmaster C.K. Chu (1937-2013) was one of the great tai chi masters of the twentieth century. Born in Hong Kong, Chu was educated in martial arts and calligraphy as a child. He came to New York in the 1960s for college and graduate studies. He earned a masters degree in physics from Queens College and completed graduate work for a Ph.D. (ABD). Chu always said he began teaching Tai Chi to further his own training. His books were among the first books published about tai chi in English. During his 40 years of teaching Taoist arts in Times Square, Master Chu touched thousands of lives for the better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Life-changing teachers #5: Frank Foster

FosI met saxophonist Frank Foster (known as “Fos”) in the 80s at the Jazz Cultural Theater, a performance space founded by pianist Barry Harris. Harris gave classes there, and there were also classes taught by other musicians, including Frank Foster. I used to spend quite a bit of time hanging out there. I liked the vibe—it was funky and casual, and there were usually a couple of strung out musicians stretched out on the raggedy sofas in the entryway.

One day I saw a flyer for a class Frank was giving. It said “If you must scat, be relevant.” Well, that cracked me up and I thought, I have to meet this guy. Of course I knew who he was, and that he had played in and written and arranged for the Basie band, so I cornered him one night and asked him if he was going to give any arranging classes at the JCT. At the time, I had just formed my ten-piece band, Brass Tacks, and was taking a stab at writing some arrangements of my original tunes. But since I had never studied arranging, I really didn’t know how to put anything down on paper, and I needed some practical help.

JCTFrank said yes, as a matter of fact, he was starting an arranging course the following week, so I joined up right away. Everything was fine at first, but then new people kept showing up every week and he’d go back to the beginning and start over. Also, he wasn’t teaching how to get the stuff down on paper, so I grabbed him after class and told him that the class wasn’t working for me and what I needed. He said, “Why don’t you come out to my house and I’ll give you a couple of private lessons.” Well, I was thrilled at the thought of that, because then I could have him all to myself and ask him all of my specific questions.

So that’s what I did. I took the train out to the burbs to Frank’s house and he explained all the tricks of writing a band chart. It only took two lessons. That was the extent of the “course,” but it was all I needed. I actually didn’t want someone to teach me how to arrange—I wanted to learn it by trial and error and follow my nose. After all, I was arranging my own material, not someone else’s, so a lot of the rules wouldn’t apply.

I’m forever grateful to Frank for giving me exactly what I wanted. I felt it was very generous and humble of him. I went on to write a bunch of material for my band, and we played some gigs around New York, including The Blue Note (back when they would let “unknowns” play on Monday nights), and The Knitting Factory.

I kept in touch with Frank, so he knew what I was up to. When I recorded a demo tape of the band I gave him a copy. I was deliriously happy when he told me how much he liked it.

I was working as a journalist when Frank won one of his Grammy awards, and was sitting in the press room when he came out on stage to make his little speech. He saw me sitting with the other journalists, held up his award, pointed at me, and mouthed: “You’re next!” Well, that never happened, but I was thrilled by his vote of confidence.

Years later, after I had moved to Rio de Janeiro and we had been out of touch for a long time, Frank and I met up on Facebook. We had some great chats, and he had me in stitches a lot of the time. Not long after, he passed away. What a great guy. I sure do miss you, Fos.

About Frank:

Frank Foster (September 23, 1928 – July 26, 2011) was an American tenor and soprano saxophonist, flautist, arranger, and composer. he joined Count Basie’s band in 1953, and contributed both arrangements and original compositions to the band, including the standard “Shiny Stockings”, and other popular songs such as “Down for the Count,” and “Blues Backstage.” Later on, Foster formed and led several groups, most notably Living Color and The Loud Minority. In June 1986 Foster succeeded Thad Jones as leader of the Count Basie Orchestra. While leading the Basie Orchestra, Foster received two Grammy Awards.

 

 

 

 

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Life-changing teachers #4: Charlie Banacos

Charlie

Charlie with my friend Joan Hill

I am struggling to find words to describe the remarkable teacher and individual that Charlie Banacos was. Let me try.

I can’t remember how I first heard of Charlie, but it must have been from some musician I knew who had studied with him. I soon discovered that his students spoke of him in almost reverential tones, and that he had a two-year waiting list to study with him.

At that time, in the middle 70s, Charlie was teaching in a studio in Brookline, MA, not far from where I lived. He arrived at his studio early in the morning and taught all day long, every day. When I met him, he was no longer performing, and even though he was an accomplished pianist, he had no interest in putting his work “out there.” Teaching was his mission.

I got on Charlie’s waiting list, and eventually rose to the top of it. I called him and set up a class. I took the trolley to Brookline and knocked on the door to his studio. The door opened, and there was Charlie—younger than I had expected, wiry, with dark hair and eyes that sparkled with amusement and an intense energy that I could feel before he said a word. I felt at home right away. Little did I suspect what he would put me through!

Charlie treated all his students as individuals, so after listening to me play, he gave me what he thought would help me the most. We started out with exercises on “Autumn Leaves” that took me through 12 keys and every possible chordal and scale combination. And that was just the beginning—before long he had me transcribing complex solos by jazz greats like McCoy Tyner and Bill Evans. I worked as hard as I could so I could hear him say, “That stuff is cookin’!”

Even though Charlie was always affable, very funny, and almost childlike, he meant business. I had to practice five hours a day to be able to go to class and not make a total fool out of myself. I couldn’t help laughing, though, when I’d sit down at his old upright piano to show him how I’d done that week. He’d stand over me with a hammer in one hand and a screw driver in the other, with a fiendish grin on his face!

All of Charlie’s lessons were handwritten, and he’d punctuate his almost illegible writing with humorous cartoons. I was always dumbfounded by how he could be so funny, open, and relaxed with everyone and still command so much respect. I guess it gets down to the fact that he was simply a genius, and I don’t use that word lightly.

Charlie died way too young, and left countless students who genuinely loved him, including me, in mourning. What a great spirit he was!

Here’s a video clip of Charlie speaking, from his student Dave Askren. Thanks, Dave!

About Charlie:

Charlie Banacos (August 11, 1946 – December 8, 2009) was a pianist, composer, author and educator, who focused on jazz. He was the original author of a number of original music theory and ear training methods. His students and musical associates included Mike Stern, Danilo Perez, Jeff Berlin, Garry Dial, Michael Brecker, Jerry Bergonzi, Marilyn Crispell, among others. He performed with Roy Haynes, Charlie Mariano, Jerry Bergonzi and others in both jazz and classical idioms. He served on the faculty of New England Conservatory of Music and Berklee College of Music in Boston.

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