Thursday, August 6, 2015

Practiced Resiliency: Joyful Jazz that drives out a Well Founded Fear

If you do nothing else, click on this Vimeo clip and go to the 3:55 mark for Simon Wettenhall’s sparkling trumpet solo.  Simon plays in Woody Allen’s band most Monday nights in New York at the Café Carlyle.  Don’t worry, there is a tie-in to resiliency to come – the power of music, self-care, camaraderie, striving for excellence, and also that it’s okay not to be so excellent.

Like so many other clinicians during the summer, I have to be a lawyer again when there are fewer students around.  On Monday, I first chaired an asylum hearing.  The hearings usually are not so bad, it’s the prep that’s the killer.  Trying not to re-traumatize the client too much, worrying about the inevitable pimples on any case, discovering new evidence late in the process, hearing new and disturbing details of harrowing incidents of death and torture (hopefully more on that in an upcoming blog).  I internalize too much, do not (cannot) get enough sleep, wake up at 3 am and then think that if I’m not sleeping, how well are the clients sleeping?  And so I worry about them, too.  And then I try mostly unsuccessful strategies to get back to sleep (counting sheep, listening to classical music, moving to the couch). 

Serendipitously, I had booked tickets for a concert the night before the hearing.  The court hearing got scheduled after I had the tickets, otherwise I would not have gotten them out of thinking I would need to be preparing for court.

The concert? Woody Allen and the Eddy Davis New Orleans Jazz Band at the State Theater in Minneapolis. Why did we go?  Because of the trumpet player, Simon Wettenhall

Back to the concert in a minute.  Simon works not only as a musician, but also an accredited immigration representative for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) in New York, representing asylum seekers and other immigrants.  Years ago when I practiced in New York for the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, Simon and I would often find ourselves on the LIRR train out to the asylum office on Long Island. 

My students see Simon in action every August and every January, when I show the Well Founded Fear video in which he’s featured.  Back in the mid-nineties, Simon and I had the pleasure along with many others to collaborate with Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini as they filmed and produced the Well Founded Fear series about the asylum process.  [There is also a fun interactive website].  The title comes from the legal standard for asylum – a showing of a well-founded fear of persecution.

The feature length film, now available on-line at PBS, is best known to the public, but many immigration clinicians still make use of the training videos they put together afterwards.  I’ve created a 90 minute training sequence around the video of Simon’s client Lyudmila, a Jewish Refugee from Belarus, as that one story allows for an introduction to nearly every major issue in asylum law and practice.

So, back to the concert.  It was a great chance to see Simon, and the concert got a good review.  Having spent Sunday afternoon doing final prep for the hearing, I had found it difficult to concentrate on the music: I was replaying the direct questions in my head, reworking legal arguments, worrying about what could possibly go wrong, thinking about the small children depending on our team.  Fortunately, after 45 minutes, the music finally started breaking through the fog. The encore became a second set, and after the concert Simon exuberantly invited me and Susan backstage. Real live groupies, become had we!

I had not spoken with Simon in over 15 years, but we picked up where we left off, sharing current war stories.  Before too long, the conversation turned to how Simon manages to tour with two bands and maintain a law practice with HIAS.  In addition to exercise and Tai Chi (and another practice whose name I did not recognize and I do not remember), the music moves him and provides inspiration and energy for the challenging but draining work with the traumatized people with whom we are privileged to work.  Simon’s laughter and stories drove away the pre-trial stress like a cool evening breeze clearing away the stifling humid heat of soggy summer day.

There should be nothing surprising or revolutionary about that.  Simon’s joy and zest for life and profoundly good humor and generosity provide a testament to the physical and spiritual benefits of playing music regularly with people whose company you enjoy.  And at 65, Simon doesn’t sit on his talent – he shared that he’d been reading a number of PhD theses on breathing techniques to improve his already stellar performance.  

While Simon did not delve into much detail over beers backstage at the State Theater, he did mention learning proper relaxation and breathing techniques to improve his technique.  At the top of his thesis reading list is The Art of Playing Trumpet in the Upper Register by August William Haas.  Not surprisingly, exercise and diet, as well as proper embouchure, affect one’s range.  Practicing techniques like “yoga breath” and “wedge breath” get attention.  Best of all for the musical amateur are the interviews with notable musicians in the piece:

Bobby Shew credits Maynard Ferguson for showing him the book Science of Breath: A Complete Manual of the Oriental Breathing Philosophy of Physical, Mental, Psychic and Spiritual Development [p. 53].

Really? The “Oriental Breathing Philosophy of Physical, Mental, Psychic and Spiritual Development?” Now that’s some self-care.  And mention of Maynard Ferguson takes me back to my high school jazz band class in the 1970s, as he was the hero of all the trumpet players.  Here is one laugh-out-loud funky Maynard rendition in the upper register of “Gonna Fly Now” from 1977.

And here’s my scatological favorite: “Jon Faddis remembers, ‘Dizzy [Gillespie] used to say that breathing begins in one’s rectum (asshole) and that one should clench one’s butt cheeks together before playing.’” [p. 52]. For some serious upper register reach, here’s Faddis and Wynton Marsalis in 2014 and Dizzy in 1965.

So back again to the concert and 79 year old Woody Allen and the young(er) entourage around him.  I’m biased, but I would say that Simon is a really great trumpet player, and not a bad vocalist either.  Woody Allen, perhaps not so much, who even by his own admission in a pre-concert article said:

“I’m a terrible musician . . . . I don’t say this out of any false modesty. I never learned to read music or play correctly. I’m strictly an amateur New Orleans jazz fan.”

Allen certainly was not terrible, but the post-concert reviewer probably got it right: “In short, he was the musical equivalent of a Sunday golfer. But the weakest link was also the biggest draw. And there was an obvious sense of joy of these musicians playing together in this entertaining concert.”  That most of these guys have been playing together for a long time is a matter of public record – their 1995 tour of Europe is captured in the feature length film Wild Man Blues.  With a repertoire of over 1200 songs, the band worked without a playlist.

One watched the music move smoothly across the stage from solo to solo to duet to trio to full seven piece strong.  Simon was flanked by Jerry Zigmont on trombone on the left and Woody Allen on clarinet on the right. No intermission was needed or taken.  When the music reached its most frenzied, the physical effort required was obvious.  But the joy and fun flowed in such a way that while one musician performed, the others like us could sit back and enjoy (Allen folds his legs like he’s sitting in an easy chair, and not just when he’s listening). 

Decades of effort made it all look effortless.  Simon’s playing would recede almost completely into the background as he backed other solos; it would come out full bore in duets with Zigmont.  In his solos, I would start to think to myself “ok, that’s pretty good” and that’s when Simon would move from straightforward melody to an improvisational trip and I’d think “whoa!” out loud. 

And I still do not know how Simon quite manages to blend with Allen in duets.  Allen’s occasional flights of mostly-in-control squawking (dare I say it) would go careening down the alley and it was if Simon would calmly trot down after him and pull him back into the piece, catching him by the arm with a trumpet note that sounded exactly like the clarinet.

All of this is making me think that that it’s time to take my mediocre voice back to the University of St. Thomas School of Law Chapel Choir, in which I sang for about a decade before practice time changed to the hour right before my clinic class.  In her recent theological reflection on Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure, Karen Bray shares that Halberstam calls on us “to be underachievers, to fall short, to get distracted, to take a detour, to find a limit, to lose our way, to avoid mastery” in our struggles for social justice.  Sounds just like my choral abilities.  Hopefully, Bruce Grosland the director will not be too sad to see me back.  And maybe I need to find that clarinet stashed away in the basement . . . .

So what does this meandering take us in terms of lawyer resiliency?  Performing and listening to music is good and [usually] healthy.  Exercise and mediation are good.  Having joyful friends in your profession is good.  Striving for excellence in your profession is good.  Being okay with being just okay at something is good, too.

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