I was Paul Gonsalves

Posted by Nick Sieger Sat, 10 Apr 2010 16:40:00 GMT

I was Paul Gonsalves in the shower this morning. Most people sing in the shower, but when I get going I play air sax. For a fleeting moment I felt like I was blowing with the Ellington band at Newport in 1956. The way obscure things flow in and out of consciousness is a weird thing.

If you haven’t checked out the 1956 Ellington at Newport live recording of Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue, you really should. I hadn’t heard the recording for years until my lovely wife put it on a great jazz mix playlist that we listened to on the road last weekend. The recording is completely infectious; my foot was tapping within a few moments of the start of the song. The Newport concert is infamous in Jazz lore -- Gonsalves blew 27 choruses and put the crowd into a frenzy. The great thing about the recording, even though it’s a little bit scratchy, is that you can hear and feel the energy of the crowd coming through. Although it’s probably a bit hyperbolic, some Jazz writers claim that Gonsalves single-handedly revived Ellington’s career that day.

Why was my mind in that state at that moment? I wish I knew. The mystery of heightened awareness that is flow is an elusive quality. At lunch at RubyNation yesterday a discussion arose of just how rare it is to attain that awareness. Glenn Vanderburg described how only a few times in his double-digit year career as a conference speaker has he felt like he has had that hyper-aware state, where he was receiving feedback from the crowd during a talk and able to adjust mid-stream and feel completely on. The difference of timing and how that affects an audience’s response is striking. The difference between being on and having a joke or a point fall flat is incredibly sensitive, as any performance artist will tell you. Just to think about it gives me a newfound respect for stand-up comedians, where timing is so crucial.

I myself haven’t quite felt that heightened state while delivering a conference talk, but I have felt it while playing jazz. Still, it has happened only once or twice in my life. If you’ve felt that flow, you know rare it is and how you absolutely cannot manufacture it at will. The feeling is such a high that I suspect it leaves artists, performers, and creative types feeling unfulfilled and half-desperately searching for it for the rest of their careers.

I’m not very well read in this area, but I’d like to learn more. Any suggestions for reading material?

I tend to stew on these things for a while but fail to put together a coherent, digestible conclusion, I thought I’d at least write something up, get it out there, and start a conversation. When have you felt that flow, and have you noticed how you get into it?

Other tangential thoughts swirling around in my head:

  • Is flow related to a search for perfection? Instead, should we coach ourselves to cope with life’s imperfections? Dave Thomas gave his “Ruby sucks” talk last night at RubyNation and eloquently made the point that Ruby is not perfect, and that’s what makes it great. I’ve struggled with not settling for less than perfect and it ends up usually being more detrimental to my production than anything else.
  • Why Americans Don’t Like Jazz. Have we lost an appreciation for things we can’t put to words?

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