Music for the Heroic Gesture
I'm a sucker for the hero's journey myth.
Blame it on 1970’s-era superhero comics, or being a lonely African-American kid in suburban Lakewood, Colorado, where I grew up. My childhood daydreams were of heroes – real and fictional – and embarking on a heroic path of my own.
When I first discovered jazz, I spent hours gazing at photos of pianists and keyboard players, imagining myself imitating their exploits. Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Joe Zawinul, Rodney Franklin, Ramsey Lewis, Jeff Lobber and Patrice Rushen, like musical superheroes, scaled the heights of my vivid imagination.
Their recordings also provided the soundtrack for my youthful reveries-stoking my ambitions, providing incentive and inspiration as I embarked, as best I could, on the path to becoming a professional musician. As I grew older and my musical interests broadened, the soundtrack expanded. I discovered Bill Evans, Lyle Mays, Cedar Walton, and Horace Silver. Chamber and symphonic works by Brahms, Schubert and Vaughan Williams showed up.
These recordings were more than an education in the art form. They, along with certain songs from the pop, folk, soul and R & B playlists of my youth, seeped into my internal fabric. They captured something about the way I experienced the world, and came to represent some ineffable truths that went beyond words.
Andrew Durkin in his book De-Composition talks about the partnership between listener and performer in creating a work of art. In the ears and mind of a listener a piece becomes personal and takes on a life that is unique to each person who experiences it. For me, the songs on this inspirational playlist have served to remind me of what I believe, what I care about, and what I aspire to. They seem to illuminate a kind of transcendence that opens up possibility. I usually only need to hear a few bars, and I’m back on track.
I call this playlist “music for the heroic gesture.” It's what I reach for in times of crisis or self-doubt. Over time I’ve come to recognize some common themes, both musical and emotional, that speak to me through this music. They are the threads that connect Brahms Symphony No. 1, Jan Garbarek’s Entering and Earth, Wind and Fire’s That’s The Way of the World. Every so often something new comes along that vibrates in a similar way.
There is a wonderful essay by Karl Paulnack, former Director of the Boston Conservatory, (who by coincidence I went to college with at Eastman School of Music) that speaks to this power of music.
"If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you'd take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at two AM someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you're going to have to save their life. Well, my friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft."
Lately, I’ve started to pose this question to different people – musicians and non-musicians:
What is your music for the heroic gesture? What music do you use to strengthen your resolve?
I don’t mean the workout mixtape, or the chill-out playlist, although these are also important functions for music. This goes deeper. What music opens you to being vulnerable, or brave, or patient when you don’t feel like it? When it feels like you have to lift the world on your shoulders, what music anchors you for the task? In the moments when you feel you’ve lost your way. What music sets you back on course?
The music for the heroic gesture playlist speaks to that little kid I used to be, reminding him to keep dreaming heroic dreams, and striving for the stars.