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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.

Album cover of the Bob Ezrin-produced KISS "Destroyer"

Album cover of the Bob Ezrin-produced KISS "Destroyer"

I was in a band for a long time and still write songs, so many of my heroes are in the music business. One of the people I have always admired has been Bob Ezrin. He’s worked with some of my favorite artists of all time: KISS, Peter Gabriel, Pink Floyd, U2, Green Day and many, many more.

I started paying attention to him because when I was young his name kept popping up as I read LP liner notes around the turntable my brothers and I shared. KISS’s Destroyer in 1976? Produced by Bob Ezrin. Peter Gabriel’s first solo album in 1977? Produced by Bob Ezrin. Pink Floyd’s The Wall in 1979? Produced by Bob Ezrin. That alone would be enough to cement his legacy as someone who could channel and nurture the creative process, but in addition to those 3 albums he produced dozens of others, helped found several important musician-related nonprofits and continues to innovate in this field.

He spoke last year at one of the music industry’s biggest global conferences, MIDEM, about music and the creative process. The video of part of his appearance is only about 8 minutes long and worth a look whether you make music or paintings or socks or pre-fab sheds because his bottom line is this: creativity comes first and you should never devalue the stuff you make by calling it “content.”

In this blog I often write about where spirituality and creativity meet. Where does Bob Ezrin find his spirituality during the creative process? In the “HOLY SHIT” moment when a “deep visceral reaction” lets him know something very special and very much worth capturing is happening. To that I say “Amen!”

(special thanks to my brother Paul for sharing this video with me)

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!”?