On a trip to New Orleans back in 2017, my husband Chris and I stumbled upon this outdoor bar, in a lovely little courtyard, nestled between two buildings in the French Quarter. The live jazz band, playing swinging arrangements of old standards had drawn us in. In the midst of too much work as usual, we had flown in earlier that day for a conference and so far been a little thwarted in our search for an authentic experience away from the drunken bachelorette parties. This little venue was the slice of Nola I’d been hoping to find.
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8: Part way into the second set a guy came in carrying a trombone case.
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8: He walked slowly, crossed in front of the band who had just finished a verse and was transitioning into the bridge of the song.
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8: He calmly set his case on a table and opened it in no rush at all. He pulled out the parts of his trombone and gently slid them together.
1, 2, 3, 4: Still in no hurry, he walked calmly over to the band,
5, 6 walked around behind the microphone,
7, 8 raised the instrument to his lips
& 1, 2, 3, 4…and came in right on time.
I was blown away. He’d nonchalantly walked in, set up, and began playing literally on cue like it was no big deal, like he did this four or five times a night with different bands in the Quarter, which he probably did.
Chris and I looked at each other in amazement because we knew enough to marvel at the timing. Chris played trombone in The Pride of the Southland as an undergrad at the University of Tennessee. I was expected to turn the pages of Bach fugues for my father when I was six years old.
Suddenly though my wide-eyed amazement turned to a look of horror.
“What’s wrong?” Chris asked.
“What that trombone player just did, that’s a metaphor of our whole lives right there in four measures. Practice like mad, hone your craft, then waltz in to do your thing, join the band and perform on cue, in the nick of time like it’s no big deal because it’s not; we do it constantly. Even when there’s a break in the song, there’s no break for us. We’ve always got a part to play in everything we do and everywhere we go.”
“Damn…yeah.” Chris suddenly shared my look of horror.
There is no question that music, especially jazz has shaped my whole life. There is certainly a performance aspect to what I do. As a former professional dancer, I recognize that holding someone’s attention by talking about my work or demonstrating how I do it is not so different from literally being on stage, but not being a musician, I’d never realized until that moment how the improv timing aspect had become the frame for all that I do.
My own “5, 6, 7, 8” might involve seamlessly transitioning from painting on vellum one minute to chasing our sheltie puppies back in side the house the next then hammering on copper a few minutes later. The next day I could be jumping on an airplane. Sometimes I’m listening to my son talk about his passion in life – politics – while I’m unpacking after teaching an out-of-town workshop then fulfilling online orders before responding to emails, or doing graphics work for my husband’s firm and then suddenly think of an idea that leads me into writing for my next book or blog post before heading back to the bench for another 45 minutes before I help make dinner.
There’s not much break, and there is always another song to play, though I do seem to get a lot done. The big difference between that trombone player and me is that he looks a helluva lot calmer sliding in just in time.