I’ll start with an understatement: these are difficult times. Reading or watching the news have become risky business in the sense, that starting or ending your day engaged in catching up on things can lead to low mood or a sleepless night. At least that is how it has become for many. It is like a poison is introduced into the psyche. In my case, once the poison starts to take full effect, I need to find antidotes, and quickly.

For me, these include physical activity. Outdoors is preferred at the moment, but once winter comes, this will require more effort and determination (again speaking personally). Walking/running and other similar pursuits, can certainly help. Golf is a guaranteed mood raiser for me – even when I bring my B or C game, which is most of the time.

Here is a list of things I do, or am doing:

  • reading (just about anything is good, but my latest read deserves high marks as an antidote: “Squeeze Me” by Carl Hiassen (columnist with the Miami Herald). Heavy and on-target satire of America-during-pandemic that offers belly laughs on most pages.
  • listening. As a musician with eclectic appetites, I find the benefits to listening to great music (all genres) are considerable. Single tracks, full length concerts. It is amazing how much music is accessible through streaming (if only this was making the musicians a decent wage). But I have a fine turntable and LPs to enjoy as well. There are still so many that I own that have not been digitized and compressed and bring great joy to the ears.
  • Watching professional sports on tv can be exciting and nerves-wracking (Raptors, Blue Jays in my case), but you sure don’t think about a second term for the oligarchic dimwit in the White House while the seconds are winding down in a close game.
  • I play chess – and I am mediocre at best. But I love to play this great game with my grandchildren on line. Both are sharper than I am (ages 8 and 13) and a lot of fun to play. The realities of day to day anxiety producing world events just melt away.
  • movies and tv series binging – say no more.
  • Photography. No matter what camera you own. Go and take pictures of anything that strikes your fancy. Gone are the days, thankfully, of the canisters of Kodachrome 64 with a fixed number of possible images and several hours to days of turn around, before staring at a package of mostly terrible shots while standing at the drugstore counter.
  • Shoot and edit video. It’s become so easy. Add music.
  • Write a poem. Even a bad poem gets you started and your psyche will thank you for being given a day-pass. Edit or don’t. It’s up to you. (Unless you do this for a living – WHAT!??)
  • Zoom or FaceTime with friends. Trish and I sometimes even do this while eating dinner with family or friends. We have great friends in Florida and lord knows when we will see them in person again. But we have lengthy visits with them using FaceTime. I also have two great friends with whom I Zoom once or twice a week. Usually an hour or more. Hardly replaces our every-Friday-hang at a local brewery, but offers decompression – at least 99% of the time!!!
  • to be continued.

The New Normal

There are times when I hear people write or say, “When will we find the new normal”. Usually in the context of hoping for an earliest possible end to the current pandemic.

So I start wondering about “normal”. What ‘normal’ are we hoping to resurrect? Being able to go to the grocery store without a mask or without worrying about social distancing? Being able to hug your children or grandchildren? Of course. But will that be the “normal” state of human interaction and activity?

Does the ‘new normal’ include exploding warehouses in Beirut? The elections of tyrants? The ongoing battles to stabilize or destabilize political activity?

Does it include heinous crimes against humanity (pick one). Does it include the creation of a masterwork?

Nothing is normal about human existence. All we can predict is the fact that lives begin and eventually end one way or another.  Maybe I should say that everything is normal.

Humans love with passion and hate with rage. Normal.

Humans are selfish and philanthropic to extremes. Normal.

Humans try to believe, to be faithful and hopeful.

Humans are cynical and pessimistic.

Normal.

When the pandemic ends the ‘new normal’ will be just the same old normal. Greed and love. Kindness and brutality. Hopeful and helplessly discouraged.

But we won’t be wearing a mask. At least not a visible one.

 

Poison and Beauty

©2020 Paul Read

 

In a world pulsing with

Poisons, abusive self interest

And colossal self-destructive

Ignorance

Pretense

And nonsense

 

Unsurpassed beauty may be found

not just in spring gardens.

And not just in the museums of Paris

Or jazz clubs in New York or Toronto

Or films at Sundance or Cannes

Or concert halls in West Palm Beach or Vienna

Or in the theatres of London

 

But in the love of family

The words of prophets and philosophers

The discoveries of scientists who

Search the microcosmic and the cosmic

For truths to trust

And shine a light

That scares the bejeezus out of the cockroaches

Who pretend to have our interests at heart.

 

Why land on Mars?

Why practice hours a day and play for the door

When they can just as easily pay 170 bucks and watch

Billionaires do next to impossible things on ballfields and courts

Or maybe less

To feel the heart and pulse of 19th century masterpieces composed

And played by

Musicians

working for paltry pittances

Or painters or models posing for promises unkept.

 

Why squander resources on Super Bowl ads

To entertain the Culturally Starved masses and

Get them to vote for you so you can poison the air

With lies

All the while

Hating those you supposedly serve.

 

Who the hell wrote All the Things You Are?

What the hell is the name of ONE concentration camp

Poisoning and incinerating people

For no unearthly reason

 

You mean like the billionaires who try to poison us with obfuscation

Who set the traps with cheeses of misinformation?

 

We will survive

 

But, in 1000 years there will still be poison

and also beauty

And HOPE

In the Gardens of Spring

The galleries of Manhattan

The jazz clubs and theatres

and

The discoveries of galaxies and microcosms

and

We persist.

 

 

PR

March, 2020

My daily activities often begin with reading the news of the day over breakfast or listening to podcasts, watching news – on a seemingly endless cycle- on television. I, and I suspect many others, find it easy to become discouraged. Our species, capable of such great kindness and love and empathy, also succumbs to evil and violent tendencies. It has always been the case. We war, we brutalize and we lie to each other. We scramble over one another to the top of some imagined heap. My great friend, Phil, reminds me there is only room at the top for one, so the gigantic game of “Who’s the King of the Mountain” is foolish…to put it very mildly.

My daily activity includes a generous amount of listening to music, recorded or live. Also, through practicing piano I get to enjoy great music (although, marred by my unintentional mangling pieces I’m learning to play, and sometimes ones that I think I know). Listening to a great recording of a beautifully performed piece of music, masterworks and others) is a time when the best qualities of our species are completely in control. There are no political debates, no cheating, no lying, no violence toward one another. Just pure, unadulterated sound. A slice of heaven, as the saying goes. Perfect mindfulness. I enter a world where I am continuously amazed and moved or excited. The performer(s) are focused on the same thing I am. The sound. The moment. Now. Now. Now.Now…..

How powerful and pure. No deceit. A celebration of human life in its highest idealistic state. Whether the music is tragic, romantic, celebratory, heroic, inspirational, it exists as an expression of the highest of our species ideals. Our better angels visiting.

The power of human imagination is tremendous, when one chooses to use it. For me, this is important and even essential while composing music. You imagine specific players playing in a specific situation and in your inner ear you hear their sound and you can imagine the situation to great advantage (when all your circuits or spark plugs are working well.)

The human imagination can be loads of fun. Today I’ve been imagining, with astonishing success. Astonishing to me that is. Imagine actually being Neil Armstrong, for example. In this example, I  start with an experience I know first hand (breathing using SCUBA gear) and then using whimsical flights of fancy, I add props…like putting on a motorcycle helmet (imagined only), and a big bully winter coat with fat mitts. I can hear my voice, not tinny and phone-like as humans on earth were able to hear, but my real voice inside the helmet saying “one small step”, as I put my big fat snow boots on the ash and dust below the bottom step. And then adding the rest, “One giant leap for mankind”. If that’s what he actually said. I know there is some argument about what was actually said. Imagine that. I mean, IMAGINE that was YOU doing that.

And saying….”One giant leap for mankind”.

Then an interesting development can take place. You can start to consider the situation in a real context. What was actually happening? Man’s first footprint on the moon was history with a capital “H”.

But was it? I mean, “a giant leap for mankind”? Maybe it was no more important than the first time a human jumped over a horizontal pole 7 feet off the ground. Unassisted. Or when Beethoven completed the final draft of the 9th symphony. Or when the first West African slave ship came ashore in the southern USA.

Maybe it WOULD have been a giant leap if Neil had found some ash or dust or even a rock up there that turned out to be a cure for all cancers.

Other experiments for the imagination. Imagine being the first person ever to ride a bike. Or set fire to something. Put yourself there. Imagine the astonishment. the sense of achievement. You probably would have wanted to run around shouting your word of choice (assuming eureka hadn’t already been taken, you certainly could shout that – or you could shout eureka anyway). How must have it felt for Wilbur Wright to experience the first moment of lift in the early part of the 20th century? Eureka!!! Bloody hell!!! Holy SHit!. I’m pretty sure the word, fuck was not used back then, but,…maybe?

There have been so many firsts. So many PROFOUND firsts. Some astonishingly beautiful or horrific. Some so destructive that their effects will never die away. Some so magnificent that human life will forever be the richer.

Just imagine!

 

Who was Gordon Delamont?

A major figure in Canadian music history, Gordon (Gord) Delamont was a great and influential teacher. His list of notable students reads like a Canadian jazz composer/arranger all-star team. Wikipedia lists the following partial list:  Peter AppleyardGustav CiamagaRon CollierJimmy DaleHagood HardyHerbie HelbigPaul HoffertMoe KoffmanRob McConnellBen McPeekBernie PiltchPaul ReadFred StoneNorman SymondsRick WilkinsMaribeth Solomon, among others.

He was also a composer with a unique voice. Regrettably, few are familiar with his music. Wikipedia mentions his  “Three Entertainments for Saxophone Quartet” which is published by Kendor Music. While it bears his personal stamp, the composition is not, and let me be clear this is a very personal opinion, his best or most representative work. From my perspective, his three-movement suite commissioned by the Ontario government for Expo ’67 in Montreal is quintessential Delamont. The orchestration is clear, simple, varied and rich. His use of serial techniques, which he taught us, is expertly and musically on display. The melodic lines are strong, the rhythms swinging and the harmonies fresh and engaging. The suite was recorded by a-list Toronto musicians and played on a loop at the Ontario Pavilion in Montreal in’67. Not only did it sound great on its own terms, but it captured a distinct Canadian vibe. It sounded like Canada!

I have been studying Gordon’s work lately and my first task (underway) is an analysis of the Ontario Suite. I will need permission to publish the paper because it contains score excerpts, and also, I need to track down who owns the performance rights. Hopefully permissions will be obtained soon, and I will be able to bring some well-deserved attention to this historically and artistically important composition.

How I Discovered Gordon Delamont and became his student:

When I was in my early-teens I had already been taking piano lessons (in the typical European tradition – largely German and French composers). I hadn’t played much contemporary music and if there were any Canadian composers present in my studies, I can’t remember any. Not surprisingly (as I look back) my teacher, Edith Goldthorpe, offered no opportunities to play music from the American ‘popular’ songbook or jazz of any kind. We marched down the Royal Conservatory path, playing the pieces in their graded curriculum. But Edith, to her credit, did supplement these pieces with a healthy dose of Beethoven, Kuhlau, Czerny and a few others. But my interests had already evolved. I started to hear a bit of Bill Evans, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, and then Herbie Hancock among others. These master players were heavily influential, but so were their compositions. I began to really want to write my own music. I listened to lots of ‘classical’ recordings (my dad’s small collection). Also, I had started paying attention to film/tv music composed by Henry Mancini, Lalo Schifrin, and others. Oliver Nelson’s tv music killed me, on top of his jazz recordings. So many of these musicians could play and write as well. And that is what I wanted to do.

So, I started off improvising at the piano. First, I slowly worked out some familiar tunes at the piano using my ear. Then I started to copy a few things I heard on records. My ear improved, and I wrote a few short piano pieces (nothing to write home about, as the saying goes). I was hungry to learn and my parents, recognizing that I was eager and needed help, bought me a copy of Henry Mancini’s “Sounds and Scores”. That was a game changer because Mancini showed score layout, the importance of learning to write and read transposed scores, orchestration both typical and atypical. I started to write out individual parts for some of the scores and I started to write for 3 horns and rhythm section. (I had joined a band by that time). My efforts were well-intentioned but much more training and education were required.

When I was 18, I contacted (the late, great) Doug Riley who I knew as a young and highly successful pianist, organist and arranger/composer. I remember thinking Doug was doing what I would like to be doing, so I asked his advice. He immediately responded. Call Gord Delamont.

Ok, I asked myself. Who is Gord Delamont? Some digging around and I found out that I had been steered to one of the most important and successful teachers in the country. He had published books on harmony and orchestration and taught many of Canada’s most respected and successful jazz musicians. That lead to my contacting him to ask for lessons and he agreed to see me for an assessment. I recall the trip to his home in the northern part of the city and being quite excited and anxious. He was kind, but business-like in that first meeting. He administered some ear tests and we spent some time talking about my musical aspirations and experience. He explained his approach to teaching and also laid down the ground rules for attending my lessons and completing assignments. I was relieved and excited when he said he would take me on as a student. But there was a wait list. In my case, that turned out to be about 6 months.

A bit of context is needed here. I had already begun my undergraduate studies at the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto. It was challenging and I was learning a lot, but I knew, once I was into it, that I was not going to get instruction in jazz at all. And I really wanted to study jazz composition and arranging. The only answer was to add supplemental studies with Delamont. Prior to my studying at the university I had studied harmony and counterpoint with Canadian composer, Walter Buczynski and had passed the required examinations to qualify for studies at U of T. So, I wasn’t brand new to theoretical studies.

Finally, Gordon called, and lessons commenced. I learned quickly that his approach was going to be very detailed and thorough. He took into account my previous studies but insisted that we start from scratch and work quickly (but thoroughly what I had learned or partially learned from other teachers and in university courses taken to date.

…to be continued.

 

I’ve started to read Mark Vonnegut’s “Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So”. Those who know me well, know that I have had a life long obsession (too strong a word? – probably not) with the work of his father, Kurt Vonnegut. Mark’s first book “The Eden Express” (1975) made a huge impact on me. I didn’t know it at the time, but my own battles with mental illness were emerging and Mark’s very personal account of his battle with mental illness resonated in a way I found surprising and, as a result, the book made a huge (and surprising) impact. Mark was initially diagnosed as schizophrenic, but that was later amended to the more user friendly term, bi-polar disorder.

My diagnosis has been cloudy too. I was initially told I was in the “bi-polar sphere” and then later received a more or less descriptively succinct diagnosis. I suffer from depressive and anxiety disorders along with something less well known, called “conversion disorder”. A friend once asked me about that last part and jokingly wondered if it meant I constantly changed religions. My joke about it is perhaps less humorous. I call depression, anxiety and conversion disorder the trifecta of mental illness.

These jokes, as hilarious as they may seem to be, exist to lighten the mood around serious life challenges. Mental illness is no laughing matter. In fact, although it didn’t happen in an obvious way, it cost me a great deal in my academic life and in other aspects of my diverse activities as a performing musician/educator/administrator/clinician. It likely had the least impact on my work as a composer and arranger, but, even there, there were negative consequences.

In 2005 I had a major depressive episode and had to go on long term disability from my work in the jazz performance program at the University of Toronto. In fact, I was the department head and my leaving my post for a term caused a tremendous upheaval in the staffing duties of my colleagues. While I was able to recover and teach the second term of that year and all of the following year (2007), my condition suddenly worsened and by the end of 2017 I knew I was headed back to long term disability. In January of 2008, my final official academic duty was to direct the university jazz orchestra in a fund-raising (Free the Children) concert off campus. That event on January 18, 2008 concluded with hugs with students and a wonderfully swinging and magical concert by a great iteration of the U of T Jazz Orchestra. I walked out of the concert hall (Ford Centre for the Performing Arts) and… never went back to the classroom.

In 2008 between the end of January and mid-April I spent 17 weeks as an in-patient in the psychiatric unit (affectionately referred to as F2) at Sunnybrook Hospital. The time there was essential and valuable – not that I would have told you that then.

Put succinctly, I lost my job because of my illness. Sometime in late 2008 or early 2009 I had a meeting with my dean and the department head in the jazz department. I asked them if I would be able to return to full time employment. They had every reason to give the answer they did, which went something like, “We would love to have you return to work full-time, but we need assurances you will not leave again.” Initially, and for some time, I was speechless. Talk about a Catch-22 situation. There was no way I could guarantee my staying healthy.  I never was able to be reinstated as an active full-time professor of music, and long term disability lasted until my official retirement date (aged 65) in 2103. Funnily, it felt like a victory to go back on the university payroll at that point, although my income was entirely from the university pension fund.

In addition to my active status as a professor, I lost the friendship and trust of many people. Those for whom I was a first call music festival clinician/adjudicator (a significant part of my career work) stopped calling. At first I was resentful. I felt healthy enough to perform those duties (which I enjoyed on so many levels), but in actual fact, I was not able to do the work as well as I once did. To do the work, one needs to be confident, observant, articulate, empathetic and sharp-witted. I had lost a step (maybe two) in all of those areas. It took some time for me to accept all of this, and to take steps to reinvent part of my working life. As it turned out, I stopped teaching altogether.

Some who I considered good friends, no longer stayed in touch. A lot of it, I think, was (and is) that people don’t feel comfortable or confident in speaking with or hanging with those with mental illness. Despite the fact that 1 in 5 Canadians suffer from some form of this class of illnesses, the ‘gen pop’ does not understand. Too many people misuse the hurtful and erroneous word, “crazy”. Depression is often dismissed by the uninformed as mere sadness or melancholy that can be dealt with by the patient with greater will power or effort. It’s as though they are thinking, “We all have problems. We all feel sad from time to time. Pull up your bootstraps and tough it out.” Etc. Those misguided, uninformed reactions are understandable if one hasn’t spent time looking at these illnesses carefully. If you have a form of mental illness, you know these are not answers. Many was the time I wished that my ‘trifecta’ of mental illness required wearing a cast or a sling. Those tangible signs of injury are never dismissed as fakery or hypochondriacism. Instead, the black dog visits and is invisible to all but the closest friends and family. To the person whose relationship with the black dog is personal and frightening, his or her appearance brings on the beginning of hours or days or weeks of battle. Sometimes it’s a battle to survive.

__________________________________

I’ll return to Vonnegut before concluding. In 1972, while out on a practice teaching assignment I was lucky to be paired with an ‘associate teacher’ whose first name was Jay. My secondary teaching certificate was in English. My main subject area was music. The week I spent with him and his students was a game changer. He and I talked about Kurt Vonnegut (in those days his name included, Jr.). I may or may not have read “Slaughterhouse Five” at that time. It had been published 3 years older and had made Kurt an instant celebrity and suddenly very wealthy. But I know I HAD read “Player Piano (1952) and “Cat’s Cradle (1963). My associate teacher/mentor, Jay, was one of those people one instantly respects and deserves close attention. He told me, in his opinion, KV was one of the 20th century’s most important authors and that I should read as much of his work as possible. This didn’t just pop out of the blue. We had long discussions during my time as a student teacher. His views on so many things were of tremendous value. I wish I knew his last name. I often think about him.

That experience lead to a lifetime of reading everything by KV that I could find. Not just the novels as they came out (every trip to a bookstore started with a visit to the shelves where Vonnegut’s work was displayed), but any and all short stories and collections of stories. I found audiobooks with his reading abridged versions of “Breakfast of Champions” and short stories like those found in “Welcome to the Monkeyhouse”. The reasons that his work resonated so powerfully with me are numerous and I can only attempt a short list as I type this. His writing had irresistible rhythm/cadence. No sentence was too long or too short. His insights could be hilarious and at the same time leap off the page and deliver a firm dope slap to my brain. He saw the world through the eyes of a visitor from somewhere off-planet. He saw the absurdity of all aspects life with clarity that I still find jaw-dropping. His language jumped away from the English I spoke and read as he came up with new words that seemed to me to be perfectly crafted. “Karass”, “Granfalloon”, and so on.

His writing is like great musical composition where careful and clever repetition plays a crucial part of establishing form. Form is, for me, one of the great challenges in composing. KV’s use of repetition appears within the borders of paragraphs, chapters, and even across the many books he wrote over decades. One example: Witness the regular appearance of the absurdly brilliant Kilgore Trout. Trout is an anti-hero. A failure who is unwittingly famous (at least for Vonnegut’s readers). Or the iconic ironic phrase “And so it goes”.

 

Morning routines include reading or listening to the news. I DO NOT get my news on Facebook. Is there one reliable source one can trust day after day? Probably not. So I read/listen to/watch an assortment of sources – looking for consistencies and hoping they indicate information I can trust. I often listen to the Morning Joe podcast from MSNBC. Read some of the Globe and Mail, CBC News, some of the New York Times and I WOULD read the Washington Post, the Economist and others, but there is only so much money to spend and only so much time because, believe it or not, I have other fish to fry most days.

So. I guess a solution in this “Who(m) can you trust Era?” everyone should be conscientious in rooting out reliable source(s) of information. I don’t think I like the word, ‘news’, anymore. I do like the word Journalism.

The Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year and have started posting articles about the Faculty’s history. Today this article concerning the beginning of the Jazz Performance Degree Program in 1991 was published and brought back many memories. I was hired that year to design a new jazz curriculum, hire faculty and became Director of Jazz Studies. For many years prior to the formal jazz degree program starting, Phil Nimmons had been teaching jazz courses. When I was hired in 1991 we kind of moved in together in an office we shared for many years. Maybe 1991-2008. Thankfully, this shared office arrangement worked well, or maybe I should beautifully. We knew each other for years before that, but in’91 our relationship blossomed into one of the great friendships of my life. Phil and Noreen Nimmons and their family treated me and Trish Colter (my wife) like family. There were many great events and adventures (golf trips and other holidays) with the Nimmonses over the years. I am so grateful to have worked with Phil all those years. We are 25 years apart in age, but we never seemed to be aware of that. Conversations would often start with phrases like, “People our age…”. The part time faculty we had over the years was tremendous. All were working A-list jazz musicians with a special knack for teaching along side us. And the students who attended while I was there were inspiring and exciting to be around (most of the time :)) Many of them now teach at the Faculty and so many went on to do great things in music in Canada, the USA and elsewhere. /PR

I listen to music a lot, particularly at this juncture of my life (retired??). My listening habits are extremely eclectic but recently I’ve been listening to a lot of French music. Durufle, Faure, Dutilleux, Jolivet and many more, including, of course, Debussy and Ravel.

I first heard the Maurice Durufle “Requiem” while a music student in the late 1960s. The version I fell in love with first was a beautiful vinyl LP which had recently won the Grand Prix du Disque. (Hope I spelled that correctly). The version recorded was chorus and full orchestra. There are recordings with just organ and chorus that are beautiful as well. Also recordings with chorus and chamber orchestra. Over the years I have acquired three different scores. I imagine the cut-down versions were provided so that the piece can be performed without undue concern for financial realities.

What I’m attempting to convey is that this striking performance and recording remain in my top 5 (or less) favourite recordings. I have studied the score and listened to this and other versions countless times. Many of my friends think of me as a jazz aficionado. But nothing moves me more than this composition. Nothing.

I do battle constantly with a variety of disorders, to a very significant degree in the past 14 years or so. I ingest a large number of various meds each day, but nothing has a more positive effect on me than listening to music. I am so grateful to live in a time when I can hear such a mammoth array of recordings whenever I want. A far cry from my meager collection of a few records I had back when I discovered the Durufle Requiem. Listening to this recording never fails to lift and stir my soul. It makes me wonder, even though I am an atheist, if there is in fact a grand plan of some kind. I have heard it said that God is love. If there IS a GP (grand plan) then the Durufle Requiem expresses, for me, absolute and unrelenting LOVE.

Heavy, huh?