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Chuan Heng Shakya

Lin Ji and the Jazzman

by Chuan Heng Shakya, OHY

There is a style of music that is more about truth than beauty. It has steady, intricate rhythms, complicated scales, and chord patterns that appeal to people who can handle truth with or without the presence of beauty. Jazz isn't the most popular style of music, yet every now and then the fashion current shifts and sweeps into its stream even the shallowest souls. It becomes the trendy thing to do...to listen to Jazz. Those of us who love it, whose lives are enriched by it, wonder, the way old money must wonder, if newcomers value it for what it's really worth, or whether they're somehow only pretending to enjoy and understand it.

Back in the days I'm going to talk about, I didn't know anything about Jazz. I had sung on the Christian spiritual circuit, but then switched to Country and Western when I converted to Buddhism. Eventually, I got a day job.

Life became just routine for me until the day a visitor came to our house. People said he was a true Jazzman, "a player's player, of a really fine tenor sax." He was in town to play a gig and because he sent all of his money home to his family, he asked if he could stay at our house. I thought, "Well, isn't that decent and responsible of him,", and felt privileged to help, like a patron of the arts, a 'Lady Bountiful'. But, I quickly began to dislike him and declined to go hear him play.

His crudeness irritated me. His clothes and language were tinged with that itinerant musician's "on-the-road" grime. He was a big man, sprawling and bulging, and I soon began to resent his constant lack of money and the girth we were supporting. I didn't enjoy the hours he spent practicing weird chord scales, up and down, up and down, that blasted through the house every morning like gunfire. He was a classically-trained musician, as was I, but I had a singer's dislike of long intense practice sessions. Vocal chords aren't reeds; they can't be changed. On the up side, my alarm clock no longer had to threaten me to get up to go to work. I was happy to get out of the house and away from the noise.

I didn't complain about his practicing, though. Instead, I zeroed in on his risque familiarities and vulgarisms. I disliked his double entendres, crude jokes, and other assorted obscenities, but since everyone else enjoyed them (and even replied in kind), I was alone in my disapproval. I also detested that he called everyone 'Honey' - men, women, children, even the pets. He addressed me the same way as our dog! His friends assured me that there was nothing personal in it. They said names were hard for him to remember, so he used the same name for everyone. At the time, I didn't know how many strangers approached him every night to introduce themselves, so I attributed his difficulty with names to laziness or stupidity.

Once, while I was peeling potatoes in the kitchen, I overheard him refer to Bonnie Raitt as a 'real bitch'. I became indignant, imperiously righteous and shouted at him, "Swearing is such a terrible waste of God's breath!" Someone explained to me that in Jazz circles being a 'bitch' was a compliment. I would later hear him refer to Ella Fitzgerald as a 'bitch', Sarah and Billie were 'some kinda bitches', even Lincoln Continentals were 'bitchin'.

I once asked him if he had heard of Zen. He grinned mockingly, it seemed to me, and said, "Why, honey, ain't that some kind of oriental religion?" I regarded the remark as a putdown and tried to ignore it. But then, one evening, I heard him talk about Jazz and decided he was no longer welcome in my house.

A group of us were sitting round the kitchen table when someone asked him to tell us his secret of playing music so well. His answer was immediate: "Ain't nothin' to it. You gotta play like you're sucking cock!" I was shocked by the obscenity. But I was the only one who was. Everyone else laughed. Yet, as he made the comment he was looking straight at me, as if to direct the nasty comment in my direction. I stood up and left the room. He followed me. "I didn't mean anything bad by that", he said, as if begging me to understand what he meant. "Playin' music is an act of love. Lovers have to submit - there can't be any ego involved. All I meant was you gotta be humble when you play. It's the only way people will get satisfaction from your playin'. Don't you understand?" He pleaded. "You gotta do whatever it takes to get what you want from the music." There was a plaintive tone in his voice that he clearly thought would resonate with me. I told him it would be best if he found other accommodations. Within the hour he invented an excuse, packed up, and left.

The house was uncomfortably quiet after he departed. At dinner one night, somebody mentioned that he had been given a cot in a dingy converted garage on the other side of town. Everyone gave me a cold look. They resented me for resenting him, but since it was my name on the lease and my steady paycheck that bought the food, no one dared to challenge me on it. The silence, I knew, was as much an homage to him as a rebuff to me. "You ought to go hear him play," someone finally insisted. "He's great. And I'll bet he'll even ask you to sit in." I laughed, "Why would he do that?" "Because he's heard a couple of your old tapes and said you're a 'bitch'." It startled me so much that I agreed to go see him on his last Saturday night in town.

The club was one of those seedy, out of the way, smoke-filled places like you see in movies. It was already crowded when we arrived, so we had to sit in the back of the room. I listened dutifully as his band played a couple of old Jazz standards that were unfamiliar to me. Then, in a sensual whisper, he announced, "Let's drink in a little of Donizetti's Love Potion. Maybe it'll bring a tear or two..." Everyone applauded. I smirked, "Una Furtiva Lagrima? Spare me," and braced myself for the ordeal. Then he began...

Softly, gently, his sax began playing in pianissimo, each note superbly clear. The timing and intonation were perfect: a consummate classical rendition. Nemorino, the Opera's humble man, had seen in a tear what he hoped was evidence of his beloved's love. No tenor ever sang the plaintive aria more convincingly than the Jazzman played it that night. The effect was miraculous. No one drank or lit a cigarette. The room, the people, everything, disappeared into a reverent hush, erased by the whisper of love. There was only the music. Gradually, through several measures, came a crescendo, a resounding forte and then the emotional ritard. It was exquisite. I was covered in goosebumps by the time he began his Jazz improvisation and the excitement of the audience returned. The feeling was palpable. Arms flailed, hands clapped, feet stomped and shoulders rose and fell with full-body movements. I was caught up in it, too - in the joy of discovering a familiar phrase, a note or two, that married the rhythms and the runs to the original melody. When it was finished, the audience stood and cheered. He left the stage, but I was stunned, speechless. Then I began shouting with the crowd! "Fantastic!" "Sensational!" "More!"

Someone must have told him I was in the audience, because when he returned to the stage, he strained to find me through the spotlights. He saw me and pointed me out, calling me by name, asking me to stand, while he made flattering remarks about my musical talent. I was astonished. I thought he would despise me, yet with nothing to gain, he praised me and asked me to take a bow.

Truth is born on waves of labor pains. All night I flopped around in bed and couldn't sleep. It was upsetting that he had called attention to me and had led the audience in applauding someone they had never heard of. Was he patronizing me? Or was he mocking me, trying to make me feel small for what I had done to him?

Sunday morning, I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, that harshest of critics, and with a creeping kind of sickening horror, I realized that what was really bothering me was that I knew if he had been mocking me, I deserved it; if he wanted to make me feel small, I couldn't be small enough; and if he was acting superior to me, it was precisely because he was. And, there was more, a bigger difference between us that I didn't want to recognize...one that wasn't measurable by popularity, style or character. He played because he loved music. I sang because I loved applause.

Nobody I ever sang to took away from me what his audience had taken home with them. What he gave was unconditional love. I, on the other hand, strived to take something from my audience: admiration, even envy.

To the Jazzman, notes were like words. And it was words that Lin Ji shook his fist at. Notes, like words, are only the carriers of deeper meaning. I had valued the notes, like most people value words. But words are not the things they represent, just like notes are not the music. Words point to life like notes on a page point to music, but the notation isn't the music, just like the finger that points to the moon isn't the moon.

Since that day, over and over, I have repeated to myself Lin Ji's challenge: "Men of Dao! The Way of Buddhism is never phony or pretentious. It consists in doing ordinary things in a simple, natural way: shitting, pissing, dressing, eating, sleeping when you're tired. Fools laugh at me for saying this. The wise understand." It was no coincidence that I asked to be ordained in Lin Ji's line.

Was there a difference between Lin Ji and the Jazzman? No. Both were gruff, but loving men. Both were experts at what they did. I'd later learn the kind of dedication it would take to get up in the morning and perform my spiritual regimen - the incense smoke in sleepy eyes; the chants from a hoarse and tired voice; the drudgery of duty followed by the strange satisfaction that comes from doing it. This was what the Jazzman felt when he got up every morning to practice his scales. This was his spiritual regimen, his homage, a morning prayer service.

Sometimes, with a twinge of shame, I still see myself peeling potatoes, only now I'm in the great Zen Master's kitchen a thousand years ago, laughing contemptuously at him for his crude choice of words, self-righteously criticizing him, demonstrating, with a bow, just how phony and pretentious I really could be.

The truth I realized that Sunday morning was that I knew no more about music than I knew about Spirituality. Not until then did I realize they were one and the same thing. I decided to study Jazz as I would study the words of prayer. I wouldn't gain anything from it: no money, no applause. It would be my silent prayer of thanksgiving, a tribute to my teacher.

I understand things so differently now. The Jazzman didn't practice music, he played it. It was in the notes - all of them! He gave himself to it like a lover to his beloved, playing only for the fulfillment of it. The beauty was intrinsic to the task, and because he didn't contaminate his practice with egotism, with a need for admiration, the beauty was uncompromised. When the ego is gone, the shallowness and boredom vanish. The task is endlessly refreshing, eternally new and vibrant.

Isn't this Zen? Not working for the reward of the effort, but making the effort the reward? Offering our body, mind and soul to whatever task God gives us to do...and being grateful that we are alive to enjoy doing it. 

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Last modified: November 22, 2004
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