The Love Never Goes Away

Reader responses, including Peter Lin and Jacob Hamburger on jazz; Michelle and Albert on inclusivity and exclusivity of musical spaces

Reader response roundup

We’ve been overwhelmed by readers continuing to write to us in response to our tribute to Michelle’s grandmother several weeks ago. Michelle’s dear old friend J., with whom she taught in rural Arkansas, shared the story of his grandfather, a farmer who dreamed of going to college but couldn’t: 

I think about my grandpa often. His birthday was last week. He was a farmer, the son of two immigrants from Poland. Both were widowed prior to fleeing Poland with their kids. They met at some point en route or shortly after arriving and had my grandpa. His dad then abandoned his family when my grandpa was in high school. He couldn’t go to college and had to drop out of school. According to the family legend he’d already had an offer to go to Ohio to play football by age 16 but had to stay home to keep the farm in order when his dad split.

He ended up marrying young and hustling through a few ventures (sod farming, over the road trucking) until he finally secured a major contract to truck Old Style beer. He had to hire a bunch of truckers and buy a bunch of semis. He grew the Kolnik trucking company and that became his career. I worked for him when I was 14 washing semis. I still see his semis on the highway as my uncles took over the business. There’s also some irony in that his financial success trucking beer helped pay for my sister’s (his eldest granddaughter) college education at a Christian liberal arts college known for being in a dry town until the late 80s.

He was really proud of each of us for graduating college—and could really give a damn what college it was from.

He was one of the first Democrats I ever loved. My mom is his daughter and she became more involved in the church a few years after marrying my dad who came from a strongly Catholic and Republican family. My parents left the Catholic Church for a Protestant church when I was 4 or 5. From then on I knew mainly evangelicals and Republicans until I joined TFA (Teach for America). His memory and personhood has helped free me from many of the Christian nationalist ideologies I’m realizing I grew up with.

Our conversation with Victor Lin prompted some readers to reflect on their own relationship to jazz. B. brought up the competing historical narratives of the origins of jazz, explaining that during the Cold War the Soviets wanted to claim jazz for themselves: 

My own encounter with jazz really intensified after I moved to New York City. Then in the 1980s when I was doing fieldwork in Nepal I encountered it in a different way. When I was away in the hills for months, I stayed connected with a short-wave radio I had that could pick up Soviet and US propaganda radio shows. The Soviet shows included a lot of jazz played by Russians and their ongoing theme that it was really Russians who invented Jazz music. 

Peter Lin, a Taiwanese-American jazz trombonist whom Michelle met through TANG and, shared similar stories about self-loathing rooted in growing up in a predominantly white suburban neighborhood: 

The constant, perpetual foreigner attitude of the people around me made me despise my own skin and look. I feel like that was one of the reasons why I went to school for jazz studies, as opposed to classical music. I wanted to break the stereotypes that haunted me. It wasn’t until I attended William Paterson University that I actually met other minorities that weren’t Asian. I became more aware of Black culture, which in turn led me to read, discover, and open my eyes to the atrocities committed against Black people here in the US. And I began to confront my own insecurities as an Asian-American.  

On being an Asian American in the jazz scene, he writes:

I often think about what space Asian Americans carve out for themselves in a predominantly “white and black” conversation. In my own experiences, I’ve played with many “all-white” bands and “all Black” bands. In most situations, I am often treated as an “interesting outsider,” but often function as a “racial sponge,” where they feel comfortable expressing their opinions without direct repercussions. I see ourselves acting as “moderators” or “outside commentators” in most musical settings, neither leaning one way or the other. 

In response to Victor’s anecdote about confronting his own racial biases at the Village Vanguard, Peter shares a similar story:

I think it’s important to acknowledge that these stereotypes of Black people are unfortunately instilled in us from our parents’ generation. I remember the first time I attended a jam session led by Winard Harper in Jersey City. This was my first time stepping inside a predominantly Black neighborhood. At first, I was extremely uncomfortable. It took deep unlearning, and I eventually came to attend the jam sessions every week. This has opened my world—I have become more familiar with the diversity of Black culture that exists in places like Newark, Trenton, Jersey City, and Harlem. 

Here’s Peter playing a traditional Taiwanese tune, “Longing for the Spring Breeze (望春風),” with his jazz band. 

And here’s a link to some of his albums. Check them out!

Our friend Jacob Hamburger, who runs the Tocqueville 21blog and also manages to find time to write op-eds for the New York Times while handling a full course load at the University of Chicago Law School, turns out to be a jazz musician as well. He reflects below on how jazz was a central part of his life, how he sidelined it for his academic work, and how he hopes to recover music when the pandemic is over. As he beautifully puts it, “There will be a moment of collective joy as we remember all the things we’ve missed in isolation.” For him, music will be part of that joy. 

I’ve never written about jazz, even though it’s the only art form I can claim to know well. Perhaps this isn’t accidental; I stopped playing piano around the time I started placing a great deal of importance on my writing. 

My entire life had revolved around jazz, through my high school years and into college. I was lucky to attend a high school with a fantastic jazz program, which I entered partially out of a desire to keep up with a few of the prodigious friends I had played with in garage bands as a kid. I wanted nothing more than to improvise authentically, to express myself immediately through my instrument, and to listen to and play alongside others.

School always came relatively easy to me, but jazz didn’t. The pianist Bill Evans, I read at the time, practiced obsessively to compensate for his sense that he lacked the talent of his contemporaries; so did I, often driving myself mad with frustration. And though I was always haunted by the suspicion that my improvisation was too mechanical, that I didn’t have a “good ear,” that I was too absorbed in my own world to listen to my bandmates, I became a passable jazz pianist—at least for an eighteen-year-old. I briefly became part of a community of young musicians in the Chicago area, going to jam sessions without embarrassing myself and even playing gigs at restaurants and small clubs with my friends. 

A main reason I chose to study at Columbia was its location in the hippest jazz city in the world. I spent plenty of Saturday evenings in Greenwich Village at spots like Fat Cat, Small’s, and the Cornelia Street Café, as well as our local Upper West Side jam session at Cleopatra’s Needle. My classmates included no shortage of world-class jazz players, a few of whom became my best friends. Having been raised almost exclusively on a diet of the bebop, hard bop, and post-bop of the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, I started to branch out, thanks to my college friends, to more contemporary jazz and its intersections with hip-hop and electronic music. Listening back now to some of my recordings from that time, I feel safe saying I reached a level of musicianship that—if not quite up to par for working pianists in New York—allowed me to make music with my friends that felt authentic and free. 

It’s one of my deep regrets that, not long after making these recordings, I convinced myself that music wasn’t right for me. For reasons I won’t get into, I decided during my junior year at Columbia that I wanted to pursue a PhD so I could study and teach intellectual history. Somehow I had gotten the idea in my head that the “life of the mind” required withdrawing from all other areas of life. That’s what I told myself, at least, but I think what actually happened is that I succumbed to the particular form of careerism that pervades places like Ivy League universities, encouraging you to seek one specific “passion” that you can translate into paid employment. I was certainly in no position to earn a living as a musician, but perhaps as a scholar, a thinker, a writer…

For several years, I rarely touched a piano. Once I got out of the habit of playing regularly, and after I moved abroad for my master’s degree and lost touch with the people I used to play with, it was hard to know how to start again. I took comfort in the fact that, while I never ended up actually doing that PhD, I had at least made writing a part of my working life. I was still a “creative” person. But something was missing. No matter how much time I spent reading about history or politics, I never quite came to admire writers the way I stood in awe of Cannonball Adderley or Roy Hargrove or Thundercat. There is of course a level of virtuosity to aspire to as a writer—even in political commentary, or the history of ideas—but it’s not quite the same. I’ve never been able to make words swing or groove, and frankly haven’t had much interest in doing so. (I’ve heard it said that certain novelists’ or poets’ work has these qualities, but I confess that this has always struck me as a sort of metaphor rather than the real thing.)  

I still don’t know if I’ll be able to get back to playing jazz like I did when I was twenty. I recently bought an electric piano and have sworn that once the pandemic is over I’ll haul my ass to a jam session, no matter how embarrassing the result. One thing I’ve learned in 2020 is that you can’t expect that things will improve over time, so if I end up a mediocre amateur pianist who forgets the changes, so be it. My hope is that once people are able to gather in person again, there will be a moment of collective joy as we remember all the things we’ve missed in isolation. I think I know how I want to spend that moment. 

Albert on jazz, inclusivity, and outsiderness

Jacob’s response resonated with my own experience—I basically gave up playing jazz when I started writing my senior thesis, only to pick it up again much later, in graduate school. And B.’s and Peter’s comments made me reflect on my own experience with jazz, which was also forged in a strange nexus between New York and a country in the “global south.” 

I went to a public bilingual high school in Taiwan in the 1990s, not long after martial law had been lifted. The school is located in Hsinchu, an hour outside of Taipei, and paid teachers a paltry salary. (In contrast, the elite private school that charged tuition was the Taipei American School.) We had both Taiwanese and American teachers; among the latter, the selection was quite random. Some were at the very beginning of their careers; others had been on the international school circuit for a while. Many were drifters, loners. They were hit-or-miss, and a few quit halfway through the year; only now, with the clarity of hindsight, do I recognize the racist condescension of some. But a few were real gems. 

One of these, knowing I was getting into music, suggested Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. I had just started playing the guitar, and my repertoire consisted of Green Day songs. At first the album confused and bored me. I went back to the teacher. I don’t get it, I told him. He told me to remember that they were improvising. Pay attention, he said, to how they play their solos. That night I gave the album a second try, and somehow, when Coltrane’s solo came in on “So What,” something clicked. I began to hear an unfolding conversation, sonic personalities clashing and then cooperating.  

Hsinchu had no nightlife to speak of (or rather I didn’t know of any at the time), but there was a small jazz scene in Taipei. I don’t even remember how I first discovered Brown Sugar, a club that closed in 2018, but I started going there regularly when I was seventeen, buying fries and a Coke as a cover charge. The weekend house band featured Mandy Gaines, an expat with a powerful voice. (According to this profile, Mandy went to Taiwan to promote Coca-Cola. “She was driven crazy for a bit,” the author explains, “since there were almost no other Black people in Taiwan her entire time there.” She now performs regularly in Europe.) 

In retrospect, the songs I heard at Brown Sugar were all pretty commercial—the band’s signature song to end the evening was a rousing rendition of “Route 66.” But I soaked it up. I’d never heard such a tight, grooving combo; I’d never heard live music so powerful.  

Hanging out around the club after the shows, I befriended the band. (I wonder now what they thought of me, a teenager who knew nothing, carrying around his soft drink.) The piano player, a melancholic American named Jeremy, fielded all my questions. When I asked him if he would teach me some stuff, he said he could give me a lesson. I went to his apartment, which was piled high with music books and records; he lent me his jazz “fake book” to photocopy and showed me how to play through a couple of tunes. When we chatted, he mentioned a divorce and a child in the United States. I realize now that he must have wanted another person to talk to, somebody he could communicate with in English. When I offered to pay him, he refused. 

All of this is to say that my first experience of the “jazz community” was one of inclusivity. The jazz lovers I talked to at record stores were eager to share their knowledge. One enthusiast I met, who owned a record shop not far from National Taiwan University, told me I needed to listen to everything, from mainstream to avant-garde jazz, and upsold me accordingly.  

It was total whiplash when I arrived in New York for college, my first time in an American educational institution since I was five. I went to the “clubs fair,” where eager students do their best to persuade you to join their organizations, and found myself at the booth of Columbia’s jazz radio station.

Unlike all the other groups trying to recruit new faces, the WKCR kids seemed to be doing the opposite—vetting you to see whether you were sufficiently hip to be one of them. I didn’t overcome their suspicion until I said I loved the Art Ensemble of Chicago, a tip I’d picked up from a Taiwanese record shop owner. The guy manning the booth raised an eyebrow, turned to his friend, and said, “He’s okay.”  

I understood in the abstract that your musical tribe served as a social marker in the United States—I had, of course, watched American high school movies like The Breakfast ClubTen Things I Hate About You, and American Pie, where people identified as punks or goths or band nerds. But those stories were all critiques of those ridiculous tribal identities. It had never occurred to me that people took that exclusiveness seriously. 

I signed up for the WKCR internship. First-time interns were assigned to the graveyard shift: from midnight to 6 a.m., the DJ showed us the ropes, taught us how to operate the machines, pick out music, and so on. He talked extensively about how he played the really cool stuff, how all the other people at the station didn’t know what was hip. My initial impression confirmed, I stopped going. Perhaps I should have stuck with it; perhaps I just never found my tribe. I ended up going to a lot of jazz shows my freshman year alone; when I did drag friends along, they often fell asleep.   

Victor’s descriptions of his first jazz audition also brought up scarring memories. After taking individual jazz guitar lessons for about a year, I went to audition for the Columbia jazz combos—this was before Victor started his combos for beginners. One of the bassists rolled his eyes, laughing at my mistakes. You aren’t good enough to hang with us, was the message I got. That’s okay, I thought in response. I wouldn’t want to spend time with these ungenerous assholes anyway. 

Talking with Victor made me think about exclusive and inclusive jazz communities, and how music can serve to facilitate an egalitarian ethos—or to foreclose it. Did I just get lucky in Taiwan? I discovered jazz in part because the people I encountered happened to be generous. Maybe the outsider status of the music itself fostered a specific ethos within the community—it had to take on anybody it could. We were just weirdos who loved the music; anybody who showed an interest was welcomed into the fold, then welcomed others in turn. We were all fellow travelers on a small island, lovers of an art that wasn’t in the mainstream, peripheral to the world’s concerns.  

Michelle reflects briefly on music

There’s a story in Lewis Hyde’s The Gift where a child sits down to play the piano. He plays beautifully. But as soon as someone begins to watch him, he just can’t play.

I remembered this as I read these various accounts of music, which are as much about loss as they are about magic. We grow up and grow self-conscious. We evaluate how “good” we are. We measure ourselves by whether we’re better or worse than others. And we professionalize, or think it’s not worth pursuing if we don’t. (A prominent debate coach whom I looked up to once heard me playing on an idle piano, and said: “So how do you compare to others? Like, how would you rank in Michigan?”)

My first disenchantment—my equivalent of Hyde’s child who couldn’t play—was probably while I attended Interlochen, a music camp in upper Michigan. I must have been eleven or so. Of course it was a privilege to attend such a camp; all day I played piano in a little practice room, and felt very proud of my loud, dramatic Rachmaninoff prelude. (Apparently he wished he’d never written it.) On Mondays and Wednesdays I attended a group class with a teacher I adored named Miss Koga, and on Saturdays and Sundays we gave concerts for visiting folks. I say “we,” but really only the prodigies performed, their names announced like they’d won a prize. During each concert I kept hoping somebody would call my name. (Looking back, I realize the special kids must have been notified in advance.) There was another Asian Michelle who got called up every time, raising my hopes only to crush them. Damn you, Michelle Chen!

Reading these responses, I wonder how it is that we come to cease a daily relationship with music, or with other creative forms. Most children love to draw, for instance, and then they lose that too. Sure, we get busy, we have lives. That’s part of it. But I also think we have trouble turning off the critical inner voice that says This isn’t worth the time. You’re not as good as others.

As a teacher, I’ve come to hate grades in part because they distract students from achieving clarity on the worth of their work, the terms of which must ultimately be their own. More recently, I’ve become a student again, taking singing lessons with a wonderfully encouraging teacher. This has been at turns mortifying and pleasurable. Part of what I’m learning, or-relearning, is how to nurture creativity without instrumentalizing it, no pun intended—of simply trying to take one note, one breath at a time.

I’m grateful to Jacob, Peter, Victor, and Albert for their words. They remind me that some of us might stop playing music for vast chunks of our lives, but the love never goes away.

Links for the week

  • This interactive walking tour of New York’s Chinatown is a remarkable blend of history, technology, and storytelling. The article brilliantly overlays old photos with contemporary street scenes.   

  • We loved this article about book clubs in Taiwan as a site of resistance—and this article too, in the Financial Times, about political bookstores, from Hong Kong to Johannesburg. (Also: Support your local bookstore! Ours is The Red Wheelbarrow, run by the delightful Penelope Fletcher. To learn about about how bookshops are faring in Paris, here’s Pauline Lemasson’s recent piece.)

  • The Supreme Court ruled unanimously this week that U.S. citizens born abroad who were placed on a no-fly list have the right to sue the FBI. In separate incidents, the FBI asked people to spy on their friends and fellow congregants at mosques in the New York area.

    Tanvir, for instance, was in his 20s and working in construction and at a New York discount store when the FBI first approached and threatened him, he said in an interview earlier this year. U.S. customs agents seized his passport when he returned from a vacation in Pakistan, he said. Then FBI agents came to the dollar store where he worked and asked him to come downtown.

    “They took me to Manhattan, into a building, and there was a room and cameras,” he said. The agents sat at a table, across from Tanvir, who was frightened and spoke poor English. They agents accused him—without evidence—of belonging to the Taliban, he said. When Tanvir denied it, they shifted their message, suddenly offering him money and immigration benefits for his wife if he agreed to become a spy.

    The FBI harassed him for years after, including placing him on a no-fly list—which he only discovered when tried to board a flight to Atlanta. He was told he wouldn’t get taken off unless he became an informant.

    There are more than forty-seven thousand people in this situation, according to the ACLU, which filed lawsuits on behalf of some of them. Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), has called the list “a de facto Muslim registry.”

  • If you missed last week’s fascinating interview with Nomi Stolzenberg on the Supreme Court’s decision on religious services, read it here.

  • Our favorite goofy link, courtesy of Kira Thurman. What do you think is going through the kitty’s mind?!?!?

We’re in the process of launching a monthly book club in which we revisit our favorite dead authors, including Tolstoy, Joseph Roth, and others. If you have particularly beloved short stories or novels, let us know. We hope this will create community, get us to read more (and away from Netflix!), & give us a chance to see each other, if only virtually.