In the numbing haze in which I found myself on that fateful day in June 1996 when Mom died, I managed to focus while packing for the trip to L.A. to join my family on that which was most important: Music. In those pre-MP3, pre-iPod days, I carted about a dozen or so CDs with me. I can’t remember all the titles, but it was a fairly representative mix of stuff I grooved to at the time, including Al Green and Beethoven — we played part of the first movement to Beethoven’s Sixth at the service. Up to that point in my life, the master composers of Europe were my main sherpas. We were on a first name basis. Ludwig. Wolfie. Felix. Dear Antonin. Johannes. Camille. Classical music became a mainstay in my life during and after college. It provided comfort during the emotional turmoil of my coming out. Mozart’s Requiem was a particular favorite during that time.
But coming out was a cakewalk compared to losing Mom. I’ve since compared her passing to a 9.0 on the Richter scale and like seismic events of that magnitude, it had its share of equally strong aftershocks, each arriving as unannounced as the main event, each causing its own set of turmoil to an already unsettled existence. After the 1994 Northridge quake, Mom said it felt like the house just kept shaking, slightly, with strong jolts occurring every now and then. But there were always vibrations, movement. Things did not settle down for a long time.
So it was when she passed. And one of the major manifestations that I noticed by the end of 1996 was that the music which had become my mainstay, a molding, shaping force in my life, part of my daily existence, since I played it in the office all day, everyday, the classical music I shared with my mother no longer brought me joy or peace. In fact, it had become part of the disquieting vibration that disrupted my world, for I linked it so very closely to Mom. It was her music before it became mine. She and my father shared a love for the Russian composers, as well as the usual suspects noted above. She delighted when my classical vocabulary grew. She even credited me with helping her to appreciate chamber music more, because I loved it so.
The price, though, of having this music so closely linked with Mom was that after she died, I found I could not listen to it without reliving her passing. Vaughn Williams, Debussy, Hovhaness, and particularly Brahms were all highly problematic. I stopped listening to the Bay Area’s classical radio stations and bought no more CDs from my friends. We had to part for a bit. But music is such a healing force and such an integral part of my being that I had to have something to listen to.
It wasn’t that we didn’t have jazz in the house while growing up. Quite the contrary. My parents, the young hep cats that they were in the 50s and 60s, had quite a collection of the latest and greatest by the time I was born in 1965. We had all sorts of music in the house, including Indian classical (which of course I would eventually study and even attempt to play on sitar and tabla). I remember the jazz, though. The cover to Wes Montgomery’s A Day in the Life album stuck out in my mind. For some reason, I was quite fascinated with the close-up of an ashtray when I was three or four. Listening to this music after Mom died actually became a form of escapism. Miles and Trane, Brubeck and Monk propelled my mind to a moment in time when both of my parents were alive, young, healthy, and happy together. I listened to recapture a world I needed to cling to a bit longer.
In the process, of course, I was learning a new vocabulary. At first, I did not know the artists or their music that well, just bits and pieces, snippets from early childhood memories. I turned to KCSM, Jazz 91, pumping that into the office all day, every day. By January 1997, I was so impressed with the station and grateful for the music that I became a subscriber during the winter pledge drive that month. I asked for and received a “thank you” gift, a Duke Ellington compilation.
Ah, Duke Ellington.
Had I been paying attention many years earlier, I would have known I was a closet swing queen. My favorite scene from 1980’s Blues Brothers was Cab Calloway’s show stopping performance of his theme “Minnie the Moocher.” I loved everything about it, including the all-white suites and mock 1930’s bandstand the musicians found themselves behind during the scene. But no, it wasn’t time yet. The world of swing and big band jazz had to wait in the wings before taking center stage. Now I can see that this was all for the best. I had secret reserve, a new musical direction to explore after Mom’s passing, one that I would not too closely associate with her.
I played that thank you gift a thousand times and eventually made it my life’s mission to find ever single album each track came from and purchase it. The first was Ellington’s 70th Birthday Concert album. Johnny Hodges entered the house, and the love affair grew into an obsession. I learned about Billy Strayhorn, my gay sistah. Ah! I hit a motherlode and mined it like a Horta. Up to that point, Mozart took up the most shelf space in my CD collection. Duke quickly surpassed Wolfie, with Johnny Hodges close behind. All the while, listening to Jazz 91 opened up more new doors and discoveries and a new set of friends. Billie Holiday. Horace Silver. Lee Morgan. Gerry Mulligan. Ella Fitzgerald. Ahmad Jamal. Marian McPartland. Dave Holland. So many more. After a few years, I found myself returning to the land of the living. The music, new to my ears and ripe for exploration, pulled me back from the brink.
This January I celebrate 15 years of membership to Jazz 91, jazz education and illumination, and the rebirth it brought. The happy ending, besides all the “new” music, is that my old friends have reentered my life. They all hang out peacefully together, the old and new friends, in my speakers and my soul.
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