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Archive for April, 2020

Now several weeks into “sheltering in place” and other measures of uncommon isolation, I feel the kind of natural readjustment that comes with such a huge and sudden shift of what I had previously considered “normal life.” What normal will become at the end of this long, imposed “time-out” is anybody’s guess. In the best case, though, it gives us the opportunity to reset so much that collectively we humans have been doing to our own and the earth’s detriment. That is what I try to focus on and imagine in the long view.

In the short view, as my husband and I continue on our daily rounds in a newly adapted slow motion, instead of focusing on what and whom we are missing, I have found widening opportunities to appreciate what is directly in view. This includes, of course, the suddenly absent fumes, diminished traffic and ambient noise that is replaced now by clear skies, empty roads and birdsong. In the extra time I have to fill because I’m not going anywhere, I can spend longer contemplating the changing contours and colors of a newly clean San Francisco Bay from our back deck, and inhale the fragrance of the flowers all around me, many now laden with bees and bombarded by hummingbirds. Down the hill is a cherry tree in full dress, reminding me of others I have seen in Washington, D.C., or Provence.

And in those now occasional moments when I encounter other people, strangers, I make eye contact above my face mask to acknowledge the strangeness of our shared moment. Even more, I’ve given serious thought to the concept of heroism, and feel a gratitude I don’t know how to express to those people who are working to make surviving this time possible for the rest of us.

Yes, a salute to the health care workers who step into the line of fire every day and then return again, even after recovering from illness themselves. But also a salute to those who risk danger daily by coming to work to fill shelves and man checkouts in grocery stores and pharmacies; who work in restaurants to make carry-out available; who drive delivery vans or buses, trains or trash trucks; who still rush to emergencies, who still put out fires, who keep the lights on.

Thank you.

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The first time I stepped foot in New Orleans’ iconic jazz club and restaurant, Snug Harbor, it was at the invitation of jazz master and legend Ellis Marsalis, who, at the end of a remarkable interview, said, “Why don’t you come on over to the club tonight and hear some music.” So I did, and so I have done on every visit since, including one a year ago. And every time I have been lucky enough to catch the master himself at the key board, always sharing the limelight with others, often his students.

Now I am grieved to learn that he has succumbed to the Covid-19 Coronavirus.

In 1993, when I met him, I had been on a reporting trip, crossing the country by train and writing stories along the way. In New Orleans, I hit the jackpot, with Ellis Marsalis agreeing to speak to me in the jazz department of the University of New Orleans. Even before we talked, as he sat in a casual T-shirt, expansive and welcoming in his windowless office, I sensed that the windows didn’t matter to him but the sounds of students practicing their drums did. I sensed that he was as masterful a teacher as he was a musician, composer and performer.

At the end of a couple of hours, I knew that to be true. I had been taught, not lectured to, and the insights he imparted are still with me. He said, for example, that “jazz is like democracy. Jazz was from its inception to make order out of chaos, which is what democracy does.” Then he added he wasn’t sure if either experiment has worked.

He talked to me of the history of jazz, evolving from its roots in plantation entertainment to minstrel shows to vaudeville “Music was an Africanized version of what the master was familiar with—like Irish jigs…When the slaves were playing for themselves, it was a different rhythmic component.”  And he explained that as we closed out the 20th century, it was important to follow carefully the changes that occurred from Scott Joplin through Ellington, Monk, Gillespie and Miles Davis, “in order to get a real sense of who we are as a people.”

He went on to say that 1964 was a pivotal year for two reasons: the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Beatles arriving in America. “Passage of Civil Rights opened up a Pandora’s box not only for black people but for women.” And the Beatles, he said, ended an era of “white males passing down (refined) jazz—Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie—to their children. For the first time white kids could get ‘black music’ through the Beatles, who acknowledged their debt to black music … by 1964 the lid was off.”

We talked of other things, too, including his amazing musical family, and the four of his six sons who became musicians: Wynton, the trumpet player; Branford, the saxophonist; Delfaeyo, the trombonist, composer and producer; and Jason, the drummer. Ellis shrugged off the suggestion that his family was anything special. “There are plenty of musical families in New Orleans,” he said. And if his family benefitted from any extraordinary genes, he said they surely came from his wife Dolores, who came from a stellar background of church music.

That first night I visited Shrug Harbor, Ellis did tell me that one of his sons, Jason, would be performing with him that evening, and he allowed as how Jason did seem to show a lot of promise. When I heard Jason at that performance, he was just sixteen, and he blew my socks off.

I left the club, and New Orleans, with my head exploding not only from what Ellis Marsalis had taught me, but from the several CDs I had in my bag with music from the remarkable Marsalis family.

My husband and I had intended to visit Snug Harbor again three weeks ago. We hoped, of course, to hear again the legend, by now a man of 83 who walked with a cane, hit the piano keys once more. This time we intended to take two young friends, college students with whom we wanted to share the genius of New Orleans, of jazz, of the Marsalis legend.

But then, the trip was canceled due to the Covid-19 coronavirus, and in the silence of this peculiar isolation, I learned the hard news of Ellis Marsalis’ death. The only consolation I can think of is music—his music. I hope to hunt down those old CDs.

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