The Last Weekend, Part 1: Talking in Jazz
“It’s a beautiful day outside. I wish they could all be like today.”
“It is wonderful. I’m glad we have any day like today.”
The past two weeks have included some of the most beautiful weather one could hope for in Washington. Of course, we’ve also had the thunderstorms, and flood warnings, and 95F weather, but today was wonderful. As a result, it was easy to take a few extra minutes to walk around the various neighborhoods and take in moments of beauty and peace on what is, amazingly, my last full weekend of The Adventure here in DC. (Next weekend, I will be on campus for Commencement and Liang’s PhD hooding; after that, it will be moves with Amber and myself, taking up much of my attention.) A sunny day, with a bit of breeze and clear blue skies to allow my mind to explore and expand across my internal and external landscape. Walking around down on the National Mall can even have those moments of peace among all of the people, if one listens. Hear that? A musician busking across from the Museum of Natural History, or in front of the Museum of American History. What’s that singer singing, at Lafayette Square next to the White House?
One thing that has helped me gain a sense of balance while I have been here has been the effort to take the time to notice and appreciate elements of nature and ephemeral beauty when they occur. I noticed this earlier this month, when (on an early Monday morning return from Indiana) I was listening to a delightfully resonant piece of music while walking among one of our busy commuting streets. Taking pleasure in the music (perhaps I was dancing just a little bit?) was something that could emanate easily in that sense of pleasure and enjoyment; people I passed brightened up a bit and smiled. Why was the music so important? Recently, I have come to the realization that I don’t just want to hear the music, I want to allow and enable others to hear that resonant tune that brings joy to the face or even a tear to the eye. So, it’s been on my mind a lot recently.
Imagine, then, a cool and sunny day earlier this week (yes, in July, in Washington); I crossed the street and, just as I walked past an old streetlight on my way into the office, a breeze caught and rustled my clothes and touched my face. This was truly a gift of sensory awareness. I looked up, and there between the old streetlight and a new tree, silhouetted by the sun, was a delightful dragonfly moving between branch and blossom.
“Dragonfly out in the sun, you know what I mean, don’t you know…
“And this old world is a new world and a bold world for me… And I’m feelin’ good.”
An actual dragonfly gave me the reminder of the shared experience of the classic Nina Simone tune, Feelin’ Good. How can I be upset about that? That was the start of a very productive day.
Hearing the jazz in a moment’s pause on the way into work… and wanting to share that with others. Recently, I was told by one or two GROUPERs, and my best friend, that I “talk in jazz”. How can that be? What can that mean? Well, imagine that people studying a discipline are learning to recognize notes and specific tunes. Well, one can play a melody using nothing but tuning forks, and someone could recognize a snippet of a Brandenburg Concerto, or a rock anthem, or a jazz standard. But most of us would not go to a concert to hear that. We want to hear the instrumentation, and the virtuosic performance, and maybe a unique interpretation. Especially in jazz, that unique interpretation does not just stay on the melody, but is a combination of skill with the basic melody and rhythm, and the ability to experiment with it within boundaries, while remaining honest to the structure and returning to the theme in time. (Perhaps my upbringing has something to do with this. I remember, as a young kid, reading the liner notes to a jazz album; I think it was Miles Davis’ “’Round About Midnight”. One of the solo riffs during the title song has a distinctive reference to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” as a type of musical joke—a baseball game at midnight? It’s where the musician went, and took us with him. I learned to hear the song differently because of those liner notes.)
Scan and connect; read widely and question deeply. Those are mottos of the lab, and critical elements of my personal philosophy. Don’t just hear the melody… listen for the nuggets in between. (Fortunately, as my son has gotten more accomplished in music, he has forgiven me for my strange form of dancing. Maybe Dad isn’t completely lacking in rhythm. Maybe he’s trying to dance to all of the notes.) Megan and I were sitting in a restaurant while she told me about this idea of talking in jazz, or in other words, talking around the answer. No, I am not meaning to tease my students, or in a more predatory sense, “play with my food”. I can hear much more, and want to share it, in the complexity and richness that some of the world appears. “Experience is a convolution function that elicits latent segments of the matrix of personality set” was something else I said to Megan. That’s not play. That might be an alternative time signature, or some unique syncopation… it’s also a reference to one of the pieces of the Cassandra’s Postcards entry.
Maybe I need to be reminded to play the melody a bit more often. W. Ross Ashby wrote a cybernetics text on “requisite variety,” which suggests the complexity of genetic variability is what gives us adaptive range in a variety of environmental conditions. That adaptive range is not always tested, if the environment doesn’t change. The genetic variability doesn’t go away, though. It is only when tested with changing environmental conditions that the relative value of variability is highlighted… in individuals or in populations. But just getting people to read and recite Ashby’s Law of Cybernetics is like playing the melody of Feelin’ Good on a set of tuning forks. We don’t learn important questions there: How is it used? What does it evoke? What do we learn by that experience?
I have already started to recognize elements of my experience here that I will miss once I return to Indiana. But there is a richness of available experience everywhere, and it is wonderful whenever I can experience it in beauty and pleasure. A summer day with bright sun and blue skies is a great opportunity. And guess what? I even got a moment to replay a bit of the melody: another dragonfly.
Figure 1. Dragonfly: You know what I mean.