Life-changing teachers #3: Ray Santisi

RayI was living in Boston in the 60s and 70s (except for two years in Brazil in the late 60s). I don’t remember exactly when or how I first met jazz pianist Ray Santisi, although it was probably at what was then known as Berklee School of Music, where he was teaching. I didn’t have the financial wherewithal to enroll, so I would go over there and hang around, hoping to get to know some musicians or find a jam session.

In any case the upshot of it was that I met Ray, and after I got to know him, for some reason unknown to me, he took me on as a piano student and never charged me a cent. He also encouraged me to write a few of little arrangements, and then had his students play them back for me. Not only that, but he saw to it that I could get into the Boston jazz clubs without paying a cover charge.

Ray had a reputation for being a bit intimidating, and even though I was easily intimidated back in those days, my hunger for jazz and to get what this remarkable man had to offer won out. I’m glad it did. When I first started studying with Ray, my piano playing was pretty basic—tunes from fake books, simple improvisations, playing in the “easy” keys. He helped me take a step forward, with different kinds of songs, and music theory that attuned my ears and fingers to more possibilities in improvising.

Most of all, though, I was absolutely stunned by Ray’s generosity. I was just a young housewife and mom, and felt that I was a mediocre pianist, but apparently Ray saw something there that he thought was worthwhile. I ended up learning a lot with him, and we also had fun together. He had a subtle, wry sense of humor that used to crack me up.

Many years later, long after I had moved from Boston and finally ended up here in Rio de Janeiro, I looked him up and sent him a copy of the CD I had recorded here in 2002. He was very pleased to hear from me, and congratulated me on the CD. He was one of the key figures who made it possible for me to finally put a band together and record, and I’m forever grateful.

About Ray:

Ray Santisi (February 1, 1933 – October 28, 2014) was an American jazz pianist, composer, arranger, recording artist and educator. He played with Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, Mel Torme, Carol Sloane, and many others. Santisi was professor of piano and harmony at Berklee College of Music in Boston where he taught from 1957 until his death in 2014. His students included names such as Diana Krall, Makoto Ozone, Joe Zawinul, Keith Jarrett, Gary Burton, John Hicks, and Danilo Perez. Fourteen of his students received Grammy awards.

 

 

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Life-changing teacher #2: Sam Rivers

SamSam Rivers wasn’t my teacher in any “official” sense of the word. The great saxophonist/multi-instrumentalist simply glided into my young life with a proposal.

I was 20 years old and a jazz pianist. At the time, I was living with my husband and baby daughter in a loft on Columbus Avenue in Boston’s South End. Word had gotten out about the jam sessions I was holding at the loft, and musicians like saxophonist Bayard Lancaster and pianist Keith Jarrett (who was just a teenager at the time), started coming by to play. I had a wonderful Chickering baby grand piano, which was definitely a draw. We mostly played far out weird free bag stuff, and that’s when Sam Rivers came into the picture. Sam, who died at the age of 88 in 2012 while still performing actively with his Rivbea Orchestra in Florida, was the grandpappy of avant-garde jazz, and took all of us local jazz musicians under his wing.

He had a proposal: to get a “little thing” going at a club in Roxbury. So we’d all traipse over there once a week to do an impromptu jam session. Sam never cared who showed up, or how many, he’d always make something out of it. Sometimes there were two bass players, or two drummers, or no drummer, or no horns and three piano players, but he’d always get something musical happening. He’d make up a little phrase and maybe add a chord or two and then he’d have us all play it together. Then he’d just let us develop on that bare bones structure. Sometimes we’d take solos, and other times we’d all play together, developing and expanding on the motif Sam had given us. Usually it would start out like a mess, but with Sam guiding us it would occasionally develop into something really exciting.

Sam was teaching us how to listen. He said you have to listen to the other players, not just yourself, especially when the music is free. In other words, the structure had to extend to the musicians themselves—it wasn’t just about the notes. We had to learn how to be our own structure, responding to each other, playing off each other, building on each others’ ideas. There had to be a sense of brotherhood.

That simple wisdom I learned from Sam has remained with me to this day. And even though I never became a free jazz player, I later discovered that the concept tended to pop up in my compositions and lent them contrast and excitement, even humor. It also ended up affecting every area of my life.

Years later, after an extended period of not playing at all, I ran into Sam in New York. I told him I wasn’t playing, and he gave me a look that was filled with both intensity and kindness and said, “You HAVE to play.” I took that to heart and never forgot it.

About Sam:

Samuel Rivers (September 25, 1923 – December 26, 2011) was an American jazz musician and composer. He played tenor and soprano and saxophones, bass clarinet, flute, harmonica, and piano. Active in jazz since the early 1950s, he gained wider attention during the mid-1960s free jazz loft scene. Sam had a thorough command of music theory, orchestration and composition, and made numerous recordings both as side man and leader. Over the years, Sam played with many jazz greats, such as Cecil Taylor, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Archie Shepp, Bill Evans, Chick Corea, and Sarah Vaughan.

 

 

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Life-changing teacher #1: Emily Brady

EmilyIn my previous post, I said that I would write about six teachers who had changed my life. I’m going to do this in chronological  order, and this is the first one (the only one still living):

I was barely 18 years old when I entered Boston University as a liberal arts major. At that time I rather pretentiously thought of myself as smarter than most people, and quite the little intellectual. I had read widely, and English was my favorite subject.

Imagine my chagrin when I arrived in Boston (from Connecticut, where I grew up) to discover that I had been placed in the “dummy” English class! I was furious, so with more feistiness than trepidation, I stomped over to the office of the head of the English Department, Professor Link, and stated my case. I told him I wouldn’t, couldn’t stay in that class! He looked slightly amused, checked my records, and said, “But you did poorly on your entrance exams.” I’ve never been particularly good under pressure, so I told him, “Yes, but did anyone even bother to look at my straight A record in English in high school?” Professor Link could see that I wasn’t going to back down easily, so he said, “All right, I’ll have you switched to Emily Brady’s advanced English class.”

I left his office with a feeling of triumph and exhilaration. I couldn’t wait to start Mrs. Brady’s class.

Nothing, however, had prepared me for the tall, willowy goddess who swept into the classroom sporting a long black cape and dark brown eyes as big as saucers. She was gorgeous—black hair in a bob with bangs, and a smile that lit up the room to the last student in the back row. All the boys developed instant crushes on her, and I guess I did, too. She was quite the dramatic figure, and I loved that she drove around in a dumpy woodie station wagon.

Emily immediately put us to work reading important novels by authors I had never heard of, and having us write essays about them. This was right up my alley. I became and avid student, and did everything I could to please Emily and make her see how smart I was. She noticed, and gave me the attention I had longed for during high school, but never got. She encouraged me, said I had talent as a writer, and even urged me to send some of my pieces to a few literary journals. I did, and was thrilled when I finally got a personal, rather than an automatic rejection letter that was kind and encouraging.

Never particularly self-confident (although I did a pretty good job at faking it), with Emily’s care, attention, friendship, and engaging sense of humor, I could feel a true sense of worth growing in me. I truly came to feel that I was a writer because of her. I only studied with her for that one year, but we ended up becoming friends. I’m a jazz pianist, and she used to come to my gigs. Even after I got married and had my first child, our friendship continued. I have never forgotten her, and a few years ago was able to find her online. She was (and is) still teaching at B.U. I wasn’t sure if she’d remember me, but she did, and was surprised and pleased that I had contacted her. During the time I knew her she had remarried, had a child, and then her husband suddenly died of a heart attack. After that we lost touch, and at some point she married again and became Emily Dalgarno, the name she still uses today. When I contacted her, she told me she was now single again and had never been happier.

About Emily:

Emily Izsak Dalgarno (formerly Brady) graduated Phi Beta Kappa, summa cum laude in English, and has an international reputation as a teacher and scholar. After graduating from William Smith she attended Brown University, and in 1962 completed her Ph.D. in English literature. 

Since 1959 she has taught thousands of students in a variety of courses in literature at Boston University and has published in numerous literary magazines. She has written two books on Virginia Woolf: Virginia Woolf and the Visible World and Virginia Woolf and the Migrations of Language.

Next: Sam Rivers

 

 

 

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Teachers who are life-changers

 

Learning-FeaturedMost of us have had at least one teacher in our lives who has left a lasting impression. I’m going to devote my next six blog posts to the teachers I feel really changed my life in a significant way.

Sometimes we encounter a teacher we love while we’re still in grammar school, but we can also meet up with a life-changer in our adult lives. I met most of my favorite teachers when I was already grown up, married, and a mother.

World Teachers’ Day isn’t until October 5, but I like to strike while the iron is hot…I started thinking about my beloved teachers yesterday, and so let the commemoration begin!

I have six favorite teachers in my life. I’m not sure how fast I’ll be able to get them posted, but stay tuned…

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Do You Dare?

The whole universe is filled with Love…no…

More than that.

The absolute entirety of infinite immensity is Love itself.

Do you doubt this?

Do your eyes and ears tell you something else?

Eyes and ears know nothing of this endless wonder…

How could they? Can finity comprehend infinity?

The senses are bombarded by shock and horror every day,

So it seems…

But what are the senses?

Should we believe them?

Do you dare challenge them?

Go ahead, challenge them!

You’ve nothing to lose, to be sure,

And everything to gain.

The vastness, glory, unspeakable joy that is,

And that you are.

Yes, this magnificent immensity of Love

Is what you are, ever have been,

And ever will be.

Do you dare?

Universe-HD-2

 

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Do I have to jog when I’m 80?

pa-170301055sFor quite some time I’ve been seeing posts and videos on Facebook celebrating old age—advanced old age, from 80 and up to 100 and beyond—and most of them seem to follow the same pattern:

The elderly person in question (usually a woman) is either a body-builder, runs races, does yoga, or engages in some other supposedly health-giving physical activities that would be daunting even to many of the young. Then Facebookers react with a “wow” or “love” emoticon.

As someone in her seventh decade, I’m pretty sure that at least some of us “old folks” are thinking: “Gee, that’s amazing! I wish I could do that. I could never do that. How does she do that?!”

I for one, however, don’t have that knee-jerk reaction.

117864220I’ve never been athletic, despised gym class when I was in school, and would much rather read a book in a comfy arm chair than jog around the block. I do enjoy swimming, though, and tai chi, but never think of either as a sport (hey, I’m not training for the Olympics).

There seems to be an all-pervasive belief, especially in the US, that the human body should be kept in constant movement. A couple of guys I know even said this to me recently (of course they’re both athletes). Now I ask you: How could any human being stay in constant motion? It’s impossible.

The other biggie is that we live sedentary lives and that it’s unnatural. I especially love that one. Somehow the people who constantly bang that particular drum seem to forget (or maybe don’t know) that even in prehistoric times, people had “sedentary jobs”—food preparation, making tools, scraping animals hides, etc. Cro-Magnon man even invented the needle to sew skins together to make clothing.

I often think of my mother-in-law, who led a completely sedentary life, in addition to chain-smoking and eating lots of fried foods and chocolates—and who lived to be 100 years old. Friends have said, “Well, your mother-in-law must have had good genes.” Personally, I think this is nonsense, especially given what we now know about epigenetics, and how the mind controls the body. I like to think that it was the goodness of her heart, her unselfishness and interest in everyone and everything around her, that gave my mother-in-law her longevity.

In any case, I’d like to see some videos or read some articles about people who lived long, healthy, happy lives for reasons other than the fact that they spent every day at the gym lifting weights or preparing for the marathon. It’s not just about standing on your head at age 98 or running around the neighborhood into your 80s. Kudos to those (mostly) ladies for their efforts, but some of us just weren’t cut out for that!

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Thanks to Rhonda Key Youngblood for this photo!

 

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Life matters

The-Starry-Sky-Backgrounds-PowerpointI think I began to realize while still a child that there was more to life than meets the eye when my mother would say things like, “When you hang shirts on the clothesline, don’t hang them by the shoulders…hang them by the hem.” Or when she decided that we wouldn’t be planting flowers from seeds anymore…from now on we’d buy them already blooming. Or when she would iron our bed sheets (!). Or when she would tell me and my sister Bertie not to walk around in our bare feet during a thunderstorm (even inside the house). None of it made any sense to me. It just didn’t seem to matter somehow.

I would, on warm summer evenings, lie in the cool grass in our yard and watch the millions and millions and millions of stars twinkling in the sky and think: How do they stay there, up in the sky, without falling? Where does the sky end, anyway? I would think myself into a tizzy over these metaphysical conundrums. Life itself fascinated me and I wanted to know all the whats, whys, ifs, and becauses. In comparison, the laundry, the flower seeds and the bare feet seemed awfully trivial.

Little did I imagine back then, so many, many years ago, that my whole life, in one way or another, would be an ongoing search for answers to the many questions I had about life. I read book after book on metaphysical, spiritual, and esoteric subjects. I joined various groups and organizations over the years, all the while not really making a whole lot of effort to put much of what I was learning into practice. And even when I did, I would desist after a few attempts. What I enjoyed was learning about “truth,” talking about it, thinking about it.

To make a long story short, it took me many decades before I finally realized that life itself was the truth—every piece of laundry, every flower seed, every bare foot was fraught with meaning. It all matters. Everything I’d been looking for was right under my nose—I just hadn’t been paying attention!

It’s really quite true that when the mind is occupied with thinking about things—even spiritual things—we’re not really present, so we’re missing the boat. At this late date, I’m more eager to savor what is, than to think about what it all means.

 

 

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