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Quincy Jones - a man dressed for action!

Quincy Jones - a man dressed for action!

Austin got some much-needed rain (and some unwelcome hail) in recent days but its not enough to end our drought or to wash away the lingering notes (and hangovers) of our yearly music feast/fest/conference, South By Southwest (SXSW) – or, as the locals and long-time attendees call it, with casual familiarity, “South By.”

I’m just getting around to reading last week’s Austin Chronicle interview with Quincy Jones, this year’s SXSW keynote speaker. Quincy! If you don’t know who he is or only know about a few of the ways he has touched your life musically or otherwise, go read the Wikipedia entry about him. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Amazing, huh? Yes, without him there’d have been no “Thriller,” no “Color Purple,” no “We Are the World.” Etc. etc. etc. And that’s just scratching the surface.

One section of the interview in particular caught my attention. Quincy is talking about the importance of American artists like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane – and he expresses his dismay when recently realizing that most American kids do not know anything about these artists: “They have no idea of the basis of their culture. They don’t know.”

When the interviewer asks Quincy what it is that kids can learn from artists like these, he answers as follows:

“Let me put it like this: The only two absolutes are mathematics and music. Music is the only thing that engages the left and the right brain simultaneously. That’s the intellect and emotion, simultaneously. Nothing else does that. Maybe romance [laughing]. And that’s it. That’s some powerful stuff, man. That’s why it has healing abilities for autism or Down syndrome. It’s a healing process. The melody itself is the work of God. There’s technique for counterpoint, and there’s technique for harmony and all that stuff, and that’s a science. But melody, there’s no technique. That’s straight from God.”

I’ve written songs for a long time and I know what he means: “The melody itself is the work of God…melody, there’s no technique. That’s straight from God.” You simply have to be open to it and ready to receive, ready to channel, ready to capture it, accept it. Boom! And you better be ready…or it slips on by and you (and others) never get the joy of sharing it.

I’ve heard people (Christians?) twist Biblical passages any number of ways over the years, like rotten, writhing communion pretzels with shards of glass baked in, but one of the appropriations that has irked me the most is from Luke 12:35 – “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit.” The passage is about readying yourself for God and it is often used in conjunction with dire projections of the “end time” or the “rapture.” Well, fuck that. My turn to co-opt it.

That passage is about being ready to receive God because life is going forward for you, not because the world is ending. It is about readying your temple at all times for God’s visit because God has things to share with you and if you aren’t ready for them you will miss them – not because you’re gonna miss the Good Ship Heavenward cruise blimp, skating by to lift you up while the sinners writhe in fire in Las Vegas and Hollywood. Being “dressed for action” means listening at all times because “melody itself is the work of God,” it is “straight from God,” and if you aren’t listening (and prepared to act on what you receive) then you’ll miss a more crucial joyride: being engaged in the creative process with the original creative gangsta, Big G!

Now, you do not have to be a songwriter or musician or even able to carry a tune to know that if you’re prepared for whatever it is you do in this life that the ideas and opportunities simply flow better. They come more frequently, more fully, more directly from God, the Love Force, whoever or whatever it is you pray to or call to when in need or expressing joy. All of those cosmic gifts, all of that guidance is God’s melody getting passed your way because you were dressed for action.

Quincy’s right. Music has healing abilities. But for real healing we cannot just listen to the “music” of others. We have to make our own in whatever form we feel called to pursue: songs, quilts, bird feeders, landscaping, rave production, teaching physics, basket weaving, you name it. To hear the melodies God wants us to hear we have to be practiced in listening and dressed for action not because we’re afraid, but because we’re ready for The Loving.

I could recommend TED Talks all day long and someday I might. For the time being I will recommend a new 2009 TED Talk by writer Elizabeth Gilbert. Their synopsis is perfect: “Elizabeth Gilbert muses on the impossible things we expect from artists and geniuses – and shares the radical idea that, instead of the rare person ‘being’ a genius, all of us ‘have’ a genius. It’s a funny, personal and surprisingly moving talk.”

Essentially, this is an excellent perspective on the creative process that I appreciated, especially for its recognition of the divine and the role of something bigger, better and brighter beyond us that wants us to create, that tickles us, that runs us over, that loves us – but is not us.

Last night I finally got to watch “What Would Jesus Buy?,” a film I have read about for over a year now (it was released in 2007). If you’ve ever dreaded the approach of another All-American Christmas Season or shuddered as you wondered if somehow there’s got to be more to our culture than shopping until we drop then this movie will warm your heart (but only after it has justified your fears).

The Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir are a prime example of taking a passion and yearning for something good and true and bringing it to life with creativity, humor and guts. Part vaudeville, part televangelist spoof, part activist road-show, this challenging church bravely confronts shopping Americans (are we really “consumers” or is that just what we’ve allowed ourselves to be labeled?) and urges them to pause to consider their purchasing habits – and the dominant culture that pushes them forward like lemmings over the cliff toward debt, dissatisfaction and soulless communities.

I found myself wishing I were on the tour bus with them, in the trenches viewing the American capitalist landscape through their determined, hopeful lenses (I’ve actually done this for years, only I wasn’t necessarily supported by a bus full of like-minded patriots). It would be like joining the circus for God and Country – but toward a new future and paradigm, not the current one in which that circus uniform is either Prada or military camouflage. No, performers in this new sideshow wear robes, laugh a lot, and hug you after they call your values into question.

We can’t all actually join the Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir, but we can become converts to the teachings of the church itself and Reverend Billy – and sing the songs we write for ourselves about a new way forward.

What creative ways can we eliminate waste, kill the cycle of addictive consumption, and build new communities based on real relationships, true love and a deeper call from the Creator? Watch this film and kick start your inspiration. C’mon brothers and sisters…can I get an “Amen!”?

Here in my neighborhood (shout out for 78757!) we have intriguing, fantastic non-human neighbors. Sure, we have opossums, grackles, grey squirrels, doves, house wrens, etc. – all of whom we love and appreciate, but there are some creatures that are especially pleasing to encounter due to their uniqueness, their ability to make you holler “Hey, everybody, did you see that?!”

My family and I see, with some frequency, an albino squirrel (at least one, though there may be more) crossing the street just a few blocks north of our home. Nearby we regularly see a small family/flock of urban parakeets that frequents a particular group of birdfeeders. And, recently, in our own front yard I was doing some nighttime watering of our young trees (“Gardening at Night”) and while digging away some leaves and mulch around a tree base I rustled up some phosphorescent worms (I would provide a link here but can find no proof on the Internet that glowing worms actually exist in Texas).

Now, these features occur naturally or are based on adaptive techniques that the animals simply “do” or “are” based on genetics and a drive to survive, even thrive. They didn’t “choose” to glow green, have white fur or live beyond a rainforest. But each time I, being a human, see them I can’t help but do a little reverse anthropomorphizing and think about my various human qualities that are adaptive or can be exploited to express myself, be more myself, evolve myself.

What is my phosphorescence equivalent I should be wielding? What is my red-eyed twin I should be engaging? How do I adapt and create new ways of living when I am out of my element? AND, perhaps most importantly, how often in my life have I hidden those qualities (gifts!) because fitting in was safer or easier? (hid my light beneath the bushel)

I challenge us to stick our oddities out there more and see what happens. I want to feel good about someone pointing at me and saying “Hey, everybody, did you see that?!”