This is just a memory for mother's day. I haven't written much of late, so I hope this comes off the page. I'm very slow these days...
To all of you who are mothers, and to everyone else who celebrates their mothers---with us, or passed---I wish a blessed and moving mother's day for all.
The image is an old photoshop piece, which I chose to capture the 'jazzy' side of my city...which relates to my tale (as you'll see).
Be well, and I hope this spring and summer brings a lot more light and warmth to everyone's lives. Thanks for your wonderful visits! Peace, health and inspiration always, Mark
* * *
A Memory for the Day
It was the 1960s...3 a.m...my mother's at the piano---alone, hunched over, a single light over her head like one of those lonely bulbs in an interrogation room in a 1940s detective film: film noir-like, dark and yearnful. It was a big lamp, but in the night---with no other lights on---it felt abandoned and suddenly desolate. When my mother played at these hours, I---who was only 14---pictured her slumped over the keys, a fedora on her head, a cigarette dangling off her lips, playing blues to some out-of-luck, down-and-out wanderers who came in from the cold to hear some lowdown blues in a seedy club when there was no one left to complain to. All this sauntered through my head while the trees moaned in the wind outside my window---something I fell asleep to every night. But I didn't wanna sleep in these nights---not when my mother was playing with such deep soul. And through all that (get this), I was listening to more
jazz, clutching a hand-sized transistor radio to my ears, pressing it so hard that it left bruises all over my ear. I wanted to leap into the radio and sink into the all-night jazz that wafted from the air-waves in Chicago; and---blessedly---those fantasies were punctuated by the sounds of my mother all alone under a harsh lamp, playing a slow lumbering blues, and humming quietly as if to protect the rest of the world from hearing her: She was painfully shy about her art; thus she never played or sung better than when she was utterly alone at night...
How to explain this to my friends---a mother who got up at 3 a.m. and sat at the piano playing blues? We were supposed to sleep
at night; and it was kinda hard when your mother was downstairs playing Bessie Smith numbers at the piano. But she played for hours
, her beautiful and mournful musical lines wafting out slowly: She played a walking blues, a slow saunter-of-a-blues which she accompanied with a sultry voice and an occasional turn of phrase that was almost pure Gospel: with the weeps and wails you often heard in church rather than in someone's living room. And the thing was, my mother was white and Jewish, and from Eastern European stock; yet she sang like she came straight out of a Black Baptist choir, an observation that she took as the highest compliment (and it was), and which humbled her into singing very
softly, lest she insult that lofty tradition with her (her words) feeble, inadequate voice. It was neither, but that's how she saw it. Fact was, at 3 in the morning, she didn't want to wake her family.
Now she smoked, and by now the living room was awash in smoke: You could see it wafting across the room like silk sashes when you were there. I hated
cigarettes because my whole family smoked, including my aunts and uncles, grandparents and cousins...so I breathed it in 24/7, and it just made me dizzy. But it was my mother's time, and all hers, and she always had that lone cigarette dangling from her lips---long after it'd gone out!---while she wore an old beat up robe and old beat up slippers; her hair down and scraggly (she'd just come from bed); and she'd stroke the keys as if she were assuring
them---swish, swish, swish---and I never knew how she managed that. (My teachers would've killed me if I played like that!) But she did; and I imagined her whispering: "Good job, Bb. Good job, C#: Good
keys"---affirming them just as she affirmed us everyday of her life. How could Horowitz---or Fats Waller---argue with that?
And then she'd play runs that took my breath away: Normally her self-taught technique was slow and lowdown; the kind of bluesy jazz that made you want to moan, "my baby left me, and she ain't comin' back..." So when she really sped up, it was a revelation: She lost her inhibitions and let her soul soar. And I wondered: When she returned to the slow and doleful stuff, was she lamenting that she never became the blues or jazz musician she wanted to be, because she gave up everything for us
---which she did with profound commitment and love; yet there isn't a day in my life when I'm not infinitely grateful for all she gave up so she could support us, and help me grow up to be the musician that she
wanted to be. She felt such joy at watching me grow; and I always said, whenever I played, "this is because of you, mother". So, on the rare occasion that I still play jazz, I whisper to myself: "thank you," because she gave up a career of her own to help me become a musician and artist. But then (another strike against her): Women were rare in jazz in those days: She'd have had a tall climb even if she'd pursued it. (I think she would have made it though: She was a force of nature.)
Invariably, my father would call out: "Dear---you coming to bed?"
" she'd say.
And she was lying...'cause there was no 'soon'---not at this hour: This hour belonged to her
. When you played jazz like that, you were transported to the sidewalks of New York's 53d Street---where all the jazz greats assembled in the '50s and 60s---and the night suddenly opened into a galactic open ended ocean. So when she said "soon," she was simply being a dutiful mother: assuaging her bewildered family. But no restless relation was gonna take this moment from her: Dad---who knew the protocols (and was a musician himself: he'd studied opera and had been a cantor for a while)---went back to sleep, knowing there was no turning mom's head. I'm grateful that I
didn't go to sleep, because I got to hear my mother join the ranks of those jazz greats I was hearing on my radio (great company, mom!): And that was a prodigious gift. And that radio? That piece of junk pressed against my ear so hard I thought my ear would crack and fall off...I was hearing wonderful music from all sides.
One night, she played that famous, famous classic, "'Round Midnight": an ultra moody, baserock-level deep-night song, by the legendary Thelonious Monk, written in 1947...a song oozing with what I can only call "noir-ness" and pure melancholy. I knew it well but never heard her
play it before (can I explain this? my mother was playing 'Round Midnight
! my mother! I was bursting with joy...) Starting slow, she coaxed out the melody like a deep lament: She had it! I leapt up---for this kind of music, you didn't stay in bed: She played it whisperingly, sadly, and exquisitely, while hitting chords of a complexity she'd never played before. This is "getting your music from above," which usually happens after you've played for many hours and your defenses wear down, and your insides flow like a heavenly river...She played until the song sunk into the underbelly of the night and struck pure magma; and when she came to the end, she'd unearthed a deeply melancholic silence which was only found in the best performances. I didn't move. I hoped someone 'up there' heard this: We used to call this "music bigger than the stars"...
After a long silence: Click!
Off went the lamp. Then that familiar swish, swish, swish
of her slippers brushing across the carpet as she made her way upstairs. Then finally, cuh-lick
: She closed the door to their bedroom. It was over...
I could write a tome about all that my mother did for me, along with her many wonderful talents. Her love was as deep as the ocean, and her dedication, the same. I wish it'd been a different age for her, and she could've fulfilled her musical dreams. We would've been fine: She gave so much regardless. Yet she always said, "my family is my dream," and she meant it. But there isn't a moment in my life where I'm not aware of how much my artistry owes to her, and above all how much I
owe to her...and I want to say thank you once again for her and for all the other mothers on Mothers' Day, who have cared and loved so much: May they be blessed. And not just one day a year, but all of them...
(If you want to hear that song, it's here.
You don't have to, don't worry---but even 30 seconds will give you a taste of its wonderful mood...)
Happy Mother's Day everyone!