The Healing Power of Music
by Matthew Sumera
I recently had the opportunity to see Elvin Jones perform with his quintet at a jazz club in St. Paul, Minnesota. It was a performance that reaffirmed my belief in the essential beauty and goodness of this world.
The night began inauspiciously. Elvin was scheduled to appear at 9 pm. But it wasn’t until 10:15 that the seventy-four year-old drummer slowly walked onto the stage. I was shocked at how tired and aged he looked. For some reason, until that moment it had never occurred to me that legends get old.
I felt sad. I also felt guilty. I had brought along a fellow drummer who was unfamiliar with Elvin’s work. The cover charge was a bit steep, and frankly, Elvin just didn’t look capable of performing at the level that I had promised. For me it was no loss. I had been waiting for years to see the greatest drummer of all time. But I was concerned for my friend, who had to get up early to go work the next day.
My apprehension only grew when Elvin took the microphone to introduce the band and the tunes they were going to play–entirely forgetting the name of one of the songs. After the announcements, he made his way behind his set (with a little assistance), sat down, and began to play.
There are moments in life that burn into your consciousness. Moments of such profound clarity that you truly–if briefly–understand the fundamental nature of existence. A first kiss…the birth of a child…a ray of light illuminating the sky in just the perfect way. Elvin Jones lifting his sticks and laying them into his drums will forever be one of those moments to me.
He started with a simple fill: just some pickup notes to kick things off. The band began to play, and the music swelled. Elvin’s face beamed. He was ageless. Clusters of sounds floated from his set. There was an eerie inner logic to what he played. Tempos fluctuated, yet remained constant. Time signatures became irrelevant, yet were always there. Lightness and weight, circularity and linearity existed simultaneously. Toms alternately thundered and whispered. Cymbals crashed and then sighed.
The band rode Elvin’s wave, darting in and out of his rhythms, first pointing in one direction, then quickly heading in another. The music transcended notation; the musicians played in the realm of raw emotion. I began to smile, then I looked around. It was clear that everyone in the room including my friend, was as enraptured as I was.
The next ninety minutes passed in seconds, but they will remain with me forever. Elvin’s artistry, passion, and genius transcended all physical frailty. His consciousness poured forth with beauty and courage. He welcomed a room of strangers into his world and shared with them the core of his soul. He created immediate and eternal intimacy, and all who were present clearly responded to his call. At the show’s end, people stood and screamed. We had shared an epiphany. Time stood still.
On September 11, 2001, time also stood still. For several awful minutes, we were under attack. With the rest of the world, we watched in horror as the Pentagon and the World Trade Center were hit by hijacked airplanes full of innocent citizens. In the aftermath of the tragedy, we all struggled to make sense of the senseless, and to grasp the enormity of the situation.
I watched the news coverage for days as the story unfolded. And then, on the fourth day, I shut off the television, turned on my stereo, and listened to Elvin Jones play drums. I listened to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. I listened to Ascension. I listened to Larry Young’s Unity, Sonny Rollins’ A Night at the Village Vanguard, and Sonny Sharrock’s Ask the Ages. My mind traveled back to that night in St. Paul.
I listened to as much Elvin as I could in the following days and weeks. I had an insatiable need to hear the majesty of drums made holy. I didn’t listen to avoid the situation; there was no possible way of doing that. I didn’t listen out of fear of the uncertainly, or with hatred or malice. I felt none of that. Instead, I listened with sorrow and with pain. I listened with love and awe at the beauty of which we are capable. And ultimately, I listened for one simple reason: If evil is represented by the act of destruction, then surely the reverse must hold true. Good–indeed the greatest good–is personified by the act of creation.
That is what music can and should do. The moment of creation–of discovery–of inspiration that changes the ordinary into the extraordinary–that’s the essence of music played glowingly. Elvin Jones turns drums and cymbals into thunder and lightning, sheets of rain and glimmers of sun, the calm and the storm coalesced into one. To do that in front of an audience is an intimate act of love. There were no strangers in that club in St. Paul. There existed no strife, no competition, and no anger. There was only a community of musical believers, honoring the sanctity of sound and the ministry of Elvin Jones.
As we begin to put our lives back together and re-establish our daily routines, remember this: Music can transcend adversity and help to make you whole again. Music can heal. It will never replace our loss; nothing ever could. Embrace your sorrow and let it wash over you. But when you’re ready to move on, turn towards the sacred sound.
I’ve listened to a lot more than just Elvin in the past weeks. I’ve also listened to Bob Dylan, Fela Kuti, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. I’ve cleansed myself with Black Flag’s Damaged and with The Velvet Underground Nico. I’ve listened to Monk’s silence and to Cecil Taylor’s blocks of sound. And perhaps most importantly of all, I’ve gotten together with friends, and I’ve played my drums. I believe that this is what all of us can and must do.
Give blood absolutely. Give money if you can. Give of your time and energy. But remember to give of your talents as well. Musicians are the storytellers, the modern-day oral historians. We have the ability to reframe the story, and to retell it as our own.
I ask of you all: Go out and create that sacred sound. Pick up your sticks, breathe, and play your drums. Generate that intimacy, that freedom, and that community. That is your special gift to the world. You have the power to heal.
Reprinted with the permission of Modern Drummer magazine. Thank you.