Wednesday, July 06, 2011

"Just like ringing a bell"

Recently I’ve had this feeling that there’s a jazz pianist locked inside of me trying to get out. Of course the feeling occurs when I’m listening to the likes of Oscar Peterson, Billy Taylor, Bill Evans, John Lewis, Ray Bryant or Gene Harris. Increasingly my listening happens through my iPod as I’m jogging along trying to stay limber and fit.

My locked-up-jazz-pianist feeling is one of later life’s nagging little regrets. It isn’t all-consuming and besides I suppose that I could even take a “fun run” at dispelling it by...what? Taking lessons as I approach my eighth decade?

Not impossible but unlikely.

This morning I was vaguely communing with my inner jazz pianist while listening intently to changes in a spare and perfect Count Basie riff. The iPod was in its randomizing “shuffle” mode. Suddenly, after the pause following Basie’s little opus, Johnny Winter’s pounding version of “Johnny B. Goode” popped up on the play list.

Way down Louisiana close to New Orleans
Way back up in the woods among the evergreens
There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood
Where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode
He never learned to read or write so well
But he could play a guitar just like ringing a bell....

His mother told him someday he would be a man
And he would be the leader of a big old band.
Many people coming from miles around
To hear him play his music when the sun go down
Maybe someday your name would be in lights
Saying Johnny B. Goode tonight!

Oddly the line that jumped out at me was “He never learned to read or write so well.”

Imagine. There’s a trade-off, I thought. What if I had “never learned to read or write so well” but could play the piano “just like ringing a bell.”

What if I had to choose? What difference would it make? Would the wisdom of the choice be determined by whether my name “would be in lights”? Or was there something more here? Emerson and Thoreau perhaps. Or Hemingway or Baldwin or Orwell.

To me, the story of Johnny B. Goode is a story of success and failure. It doesn’t consider Johnny’s regrets in later life because “he never learned to read or write so well.” Who would he be if he had written and read well?

Then again, perhaps “playing a guitar just like ringing a bell” was enough. We don’t regret what we don’t know. (Question for another time: If ignorance is bliss, what is knowledge?)

For me, simply playing and having my name in lights would not have been enough — knowing what I do know from reading, and, yes, the challenges of writing.

Still, thanks to the Johnny B. Goodes (and the Johnny Winters and the Chuck Berrys) and the Basies and Petersons, I have music in my head.

Come to think of it, why not do it all? Find music in the words — and words in the music.

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