It's been said, many times and in many ways, that music heals and lifts us up. Music can lift me from the grip of lethargy or depression; it's Adderall for my focus, an analgesic for my arthritis, and an endless fountain of youth. Take the other day—my feet were almost immobile with Mrs. Arthur-itis. I mean, them dogs were barkin' after hours of working. And I still had a ways to walk before returning home. So I tuned in Jon Batiste's latest "I Need You" on my phone and I literally started to dance down the sidewalk—I was my very own second line. Screw drugs, give me some rhythm and blues and I'll create my own Soul Train as I vacuum the house or rake the yard.
I've always loved music. Can't play any instrument other than a radio or turn-table, and I certainly cannot sing worth a flip, but left alone with Billy Holiday and my chops are transformed. I'm grateful to wear my mask when walking the sidewalks of my neighborhood because I can sing along with my transistor radio or smarty-pants phone. No earbuds for me—I want the world to hear my tunes. Plus, they drown out my vocals!
While music has been my companion since I was a kid, I have gone through spells without it. But like a dear friend not seen for a bit of time, it's there waiting for me, and I wonder how, even why, I ever started my day without the magic. Like today, I simply couldn't quite "get on the good foot" as they say, so I turned on WWOZ and, bingo, it was like someone shouted, "Lights, Camera, Action," and the doldrums slipped away.
WWOZ is due a big shout-out from me (and, of course, that includes donations) for being an educator and music appreciation mentor for me. My listener repertoire has grown and expanded thanks to the varied music presentations and programs that this radio station provides my ears with. Genres of music that I used to overlook have been presented to me via the airwaves. The truly dedicated DJs use their various air-time slots to showcase specific genres of tunes: blues, modern jazz, traditional, R&B, world music, gospel, folk, New Orleans brass, and more. During these generally two-hour slots, I'm immersed in different worlds of sound and learn to appreciate styles and musicians I might never have sought out if left to my own devices. Thanks, WWOZ, for my music appreciation, education, and expansion.
OZ is not the only radio station to introduce me to music. My love of jazz began when I was around 18 years old by way of a yellow portable radio and a station I have long forgotten. Until that day, I had only heard "My Favorite Things" performed within the confines of my beloved musical The Sound of Music. Well, this was no Julie Andrews. In fact, no vocals at all; just John Coltrane's saxophone crooning. I fell in love with modern jazz that day. I often wonder if my ears would have taken to it had the introduction not been made with the familiarity of a show tune I so loved. It was a moment that proves to me that all music is intertwined and connected somehow.
Movies and theater have always gifted me with treasures that remind me of how lucky I am to possess the sense of hearing. Musicals, show tunes, and soundtracks were my first intro to the pleasures of listening. I was absolutely heartbroken when it became clear to me that I could not sing worth a damn—but it didn't stop me from belting out Broadway numbers in the privacy of my home. And movie soundtracks always caught my ear. My favorite to this day is Elmer Bernstein's To Kill a Mockingbird. I would check-out this movie soundtrack from the public library over and over until I am sure I wore it out. Every time I listened to it, I relived every moment of this movie and the book by Harper Lee that inspired it. Broadway has taken me from tap dancing tunes to the rap and hip hop of Hamilton.
In recent years, television has lifted itself to the heavens in terms of quality and, as it has soared, it has taken many a musician or composer along for the flight. Just take HBO's Treme, which showcased New Orleans musical artists—performers that, while beloved here, might never have achieved the attention of the world stage. Another HBO masterpiece was The Wire and its theme song "Way Down in the Hole," written by Tom Waits, renewed my appreciation for him and the other artists, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Neville Brothers, DoMaJe and Steve Earl, who each performed Waits' captivating and haunting song for the show's various seasons. Other television series such as Deadwood and Justified spiked my interest in modern country, bluesy hillbilly, and bluegrass merged with rap. These were genres of music I had forgotten or overlooked, and I am so grateful to have them in my personal musical obit now.
These are crazy times, often lonely, sometimes stressful, and always challenging. For me, music has been the most potent source of comfort and motivation. Having a bad day? Then change your playlist…and turn it up loud. R&B puts that needed gut in my strut; Nina Simon tweaks the radical in me; the Hamilton soundtrack activates activism; jazz cools my soul and allows me to take a deep breath.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart to all our musicians and performers, festival organizers, and those who have offered their business spaces as venues to our struggling artists during this pandemic. Bless each and every radio station and all the music/record stores. And may I shout out a truly heartfelt "thank you" to WWOZ for its "Festing in Place" series and the sponsors who made it possible. Magic does exist and I hear it every day.