Posts Tagged ‘Bellefonte’

Late in the afternoon the heat broke.  Now it was like a veil had lifted and we could see across the valley, everything sharp and detailed, the clouds white and rounded above the hill.  The veil was the dense vapor of humidity that had hung in the sky like a blurred thumb print on a glass.  After the rain, the humidity eased and the porch was cool with a breeze.  We sat and read magazines.

The day before, on our way to the Bellefonte jazz festival, the temperature on the display we passed in Centre Hall read 96 degrees.  I was driving my daughter to a master class held on an outdoor stage on High Street.  It was hot all over the northeast, days of unrelenting heat and the murderous humidity.

I staked out a piece of shade on the street while the stage was being set up for the class and unfolded a chair I had brought.  My daughter found a friend in her high school jazz band and they settled up near the stage.  I looked around at the marvelous old buildings up and down the street, wondering what it would be like if I could live in an apartment on High Street for a year, looking down from one of the tall narrow windows on the people walking below, hearing the music from the street, writing unrhymed poetry on a pad of cheap yellow paper. But I’ve had that dream for as long as I can remember.

The teacher was a well known jazz musician I had never heard of, a member of the Wynton Marsalis sextet from New York with the lovely name of Wycliff Gordon. One of  the things about jazz, and most art, is how famous you can be to so few people. As he stood on the stage making his trombone do all sorts of intricate and amazing things, his shirt slowly turned into a wet rag in a sort of strange progression from his shoulders down to the middle of his chest.

I had never been to a master class and didn’t know what to expect.  I thought the students might get out their instruments, and he would offer them some pointers about technique. I thought it would be like a regular class, but it was more like a life class. It was all improvisation, not just the music but his words.  He would take an idea and play with it  until it began to take shape.  And then he would do a few phrases with his trombone, and sometimes they would be weird and sometimes beautiful.  It was like he was waiting for an idea of music to take shape.

It was all about the mastery of the thing, the instrument or maybe the life.  There were years of discipline, making a sound with his voice and learning to recreate it on the trombone. Learning to breathe, learning to shape his tongue. Making the same note last without falling off the edge. It was about years of hard practice that continues to this day.

It was truly a master class, there in the hot sun with the sweat dripping off his face.  You don’t get one of those every day.

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