Returning to jazz a moment of normalcy in a year of pandemic
"If music be the food of love, play on: give me excess of it ... O, it came upon my ear like the sweet south that breathes upon a bank of violets."
When William Shakespeare penned the words above, jazz never entered his mind. That's only because he'd never heard it. Had he, he'd have surely exclaimed, "Now that's what I'm talking about!"
In November, I stood for the first time in eight months in the narthex of our church. Two masks clung to my face as I leaned against the glass partition revealing our sanctuary. Because everyone in our family, including my 94 year-old mother-in-law living with us now, harbors a pre-existing condition, I could not risk exposing myself to the air on the other side, now vibrant with sweet jazz.
My body felt heavy, exhausted from months of isolation and political campaigns. Yet, the obstructed distance muffling this sound could not prevent my feet from tapping.
The handsome, be-spectacled Black man seated on a stool there poured his heart out through a tuba, bass and baritone trombones as well as his mouth alone — a man who only months earlier, when infected with COVID-19, felt the words — even if he'd not spoken them — of George Floyd: "I can't breathe." While Ron Wilkins rehearsed and I listened, my memory whispered the plea form the play "Twelfth Night": "play on."
Jazz at St. James' celebrated its 26th year in November. After 25 years of fall festivals packed with live music, we sadly could not gather to listen as one. While we remained socially distant, however, this Episcopal Church determined that it would not keep silent. St. James' made plans to present its first virtual series of evening concerts, culminating with a Sunday AM Jazz Mass.
Those of us who felt ready to let the mighty breath of God, what Ancient Hebrews called ruah, blow the fatigue of a pandemic, voter suppression, racial hatred and partisan bickering right off us like pollen on the petals of our weary souls, prepared to tune in to these Facebook/YouTube events. After an exhausting election season, some needed to celebrate; some needed consoling. All gathered in around their computers or TV screens. We knew we would not see each other and yet expected to feel our unity. We needed to breathe as one and know our exile from each other would soon end. We prayed for assurance that bodies harboring the coronavirus would cease dying at a rate of a thousand a day. We hoped to synch ourselves with this jazz and improvise our weariness into believing.
Texas State Professor Wilkins with his trio of young but seasoned artists showed us the way. In a phone call following our festival, he shared with me how he believed, as a wind instrumentalist and vocalist, his routine emphasis on breath control helped push him through the virus. As he spoke, I could not help but think of the man whose obstructed breath during this season of COVID-19 had pushed many in our nation to finally embrace Black Lives Matter. The definition shared by our St. James rector, the Rev. Eileen O'Brien, during her Jazz Mass homily also chimed in: "Jazz falls somewhere between the [slave] auction block and the dance."
On the Wednesday before our festival, I tuned into the SL Radio show of Austin journalist and jazz drummer Scott Lanningham. That night he hosted our Jazz at St. James headliner.
At one point Lanningham encouraged Wilkins to talk about his 37 days on a ventilator and 72 days of hospitalization in San Antonio. Both musicians then reflected on the solace of returning to their profession. Lanningham, who'd recently played his first performance since the pandemic hit, confessed doubts that he "could even still play.". Wilkins then exclaimed how "grateful he felt" in that St. James' sanctuary, site of his first post-virus gig — grateful he could again express himself with his now more easily bellowing lungs. His new album "Ron Wilkins: Trombo-calist," showcasing the artist's vocal as well as instrumental skill comes out in January.
Their radio conversation, thick with jazz lingo and bebop and hard bop performer references, had pressed on effortlessly. Yet at that moment, a tiny breath-long silence inserted itself — one mutely saying: "if music be the food of love ... give me excess of it."
The Rev. Dr. Terry Dawson is the co-chair of Jazz at St. James Episcopal Church.