The day that I first sat down to write this, thousands of migrant workers were preparing for a national protest for immigration reform, while outside Duke chapel, a five minute walk from my graduate student office, the New Black Panther party was preparing to hold a rally. Racial issues were already in the forefront of my mind when, the other night, I attended a jazz jam session at a local cafe. I was nervous for two reasons: first and foremost, I knew I was about three steps below the regular players musically, and second, I was a young white man attending what’s usually a predominantly black event. At the core of it all, I was worried about what people would think about me.
When I got there, the cat holding the session came over to me once they’d finished the tune, after noticing the trombone case under my arm. He asked if I wanted to sit it on a couple songs, and after quelling the explosion of excitement in my gut, I coolly accepted. “So what do you want to play? We can do something straight ahead or if you’ve got something special we could just learn it right now” he said. Learn my song, on the spot, at HIS show? I tried to play it smooth, something I’ve been getting progressively worse at over the years. “Um, whatever man, y’know, whatever you guys are in the mood for.” So, thankfully, rhythm changes in B-flat it was.
Soloing in front of these guys, with an onlooking crowd, with a tight rhythm section, and with a group of horn players that you can’t fool with any of your usual tricks, was one of the most naked experiences of my life. Seriously, I thought for a second that I had forgotten to wear pants. I played and it was OK, not great, but not bad. Afterwards I was approached by several horn players, whom I’d never met before. We talked as if we’d known each other for years, and maybe, somehow, them hearing me play two choruses on “Oleo” was enough to catch a glimpse that deep.
One of the amazing things about jazz is that no two solos are the identical. Even when I played what, at times, was a painfully mediocre imitation of JJ Johnson, the sound was unmistakably mine, thankfully so for JJ’s sake. In that moment of improvisation, I couldn’t fake being anyone but myself. Up there, with those musicians, I just had to trust myself and let loose and, hopefully, when I stepped aside for the next solo, I’d left something genuine behind, something that nobody else could, even if they wanted to.
I believe in diversity. I believe that the unique contributions of the individual can forever bond us and that when we step up and give ourselves honestly, embracing the differences between us, that beautiful things can happen.
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