Cloister Commentary, Day 309: Jazzy Indoctrination

What was occurrin’? Not much–but that’s ok.

We awakened early to hit the grocery ahead of the crowd (6ish). Indeed, it was a graveyard, though Nicole witnessed a customer haranguing a poor shelf stocker because he didn’t know where the new city trash bags. If I’d been there, I’d-a harangued her because she didn’t know where the new city trash bag contactless pick-up was. Undoubtedly, that would have inconvenienced the harridan.

One of the first student teachers I hosted was Tasha Terrell. Besides being smart and professional, she had a dry, quiet sense of humor (I was dealing with a case of labyrinthitis at the time, which she dubbed “David Bowie’s disease”–I still laugh every time I think about it). Tasha and her husband Ryan have two crumbsnatchers that they desire to be acculturated, and to that end she asked me to send her a list of jazz songs with which she could start their indoctrination. I heard/read that as “construct a streaming playlist,” so I put together a “Tiny Terrell” Jazz to 1960 compilation for them. I hadn’t been commissioned in awhile so I was like a pig in slop. Sample it for yourself; you may consider Louis Jordan a ringer, but “Beans and Cornbread” is a must for wee ones. Ornette Coleman? Really? Hey, I like to embed a few challenges–though “Lonely Woman” is sheerly beautiful.

For dinner, Nicole continued to perfectly perfect her chana masala recipe. We’re trying to cut down on the salt, but the other spices she blended in made that seem easy. After, we had tea, homemade oatmeal cherry cookies, and Cobra Kai Season 3 (again). I have to support the work of my other brother William Zabka!

Streaming for Strivers:

Gabriel go home.

Cloister Commentary, Day 85: There Is No Sweeter Sound

Nicole and I opened the day with our 68th slice of pandemic peanut butter and jelly toast since March 17th, and hiked from Cosmo Park to the start of the Bear Creek Trail. We met Bess Frissell, in her role with Columbia Parks and Recreation, tending to the health of the trail behind the wheel of a monster tractor. We’ve either seen or talked to her at length four times in the last week, and it’s always a joy.

I have written in the recent past about our work trying to establish a proper memorial for a great friend and teacher, Bess’ father George Frissell, who passed unexpectedly on May 14. Yesterday, through a fantastic group effort, we were able to finalize the project and launch a GoFundMe to make it a reality. It’s my first to help organize, and I’m filled with hope, excitement, but also tinges of fear, as our goal is ambitious, the times do not lend themselves to free funds, and momentum has grown very quickly in the first hours of the launch. The generosity shown by contributors so far has been overwhelming.

The mailbox issued forth an amazing but apparently out of print post-World War II gospel collection entitled There Will Be No Sweeter Sound, compiled by the near-infallible expert Opal Louis Nations. I immediately loaded up the CD player, and we were lifted and gifted as we read on the couch.

The evening: burritos, quesadillas, chile rellenos, sorbet, margaritas, Netflix’s Michelle Obama documentary (a companion to her excellent memoir), and a word or two of wisdom from Dave Chappelle. If you missed that, it’s less than half an hour, and it’s right here:

Streaming for Strivers:

I can find no full album link for Kahil El’Zabar and David Murray’s new album Kahil El’Zabar’s Spirit Groove, but it is absolutely hypnotic. This sample is 15 minutes–it might just center you if you need that.



Cloister Commentary, Day 53: Dead Chicken ‘Round a Dog’s Neck

Anyone else out there feeling a little slippage in the routine they’d established to keep themselves together during this mess? We are. We had a fantastically full day yesterday; the signpost of of one of those for us is being able to meditate and get out and walk both, and being able to work on school and read and listen to music both, which we did. However, inconsistency in sleep patterns, going to bed with and waking up to crazy shit from life in your head, feeling anxiety and anticipation about the future, frustration trying to get work or get work done, suffering from “skin hunger,” too much snacking, missing important people and trying to figure out how to see them? All that can throw a person off track. We’re doing fine, but I just have to acknowledge the steep challenges.

Teachers often run into youth they WISH they could have taught, both in the hallways at work and out in the world. Among many, I especially wanted to teach the brother-sister team of Mitch Carlin and Madison Dickens. They are dear family friends from Monett, Missouri, whom I’ve known since they were younger than tykes. I had a terrific Messenger conversation with Mitch last night about great books (the latest in our series, actually)–he seriously gets into reading–and he made the “mistake” of asking me for recommendations for his “classics stack.” My own students know this is a perilous query; you best know you have some spare time after you pose it. Poor guy asked for 10 recommendations (actually, I asked him how many books he wanted me to recommend), and I predictably gave him 33 (including the entire Flashman papers; Mitch is a history scholar, a soldier, and just a dab of a rascal, so they are a must). Clearly, I miss teaching. Did I mention I’m a more-is-more dude? The list (I’d already recommended some prior to these, by the way):

Chinua Achebe: Things Fall Apart

Alfred Bester: The Stars My Destination

Octavia Butler: The Parable books

Alexander Dumas: The Count of Monte Cristo

George Eliot: Middlemarch

Ralph Ellison: Invisible Man

Louise Erdrich: The Roundhouse

George MacDonald Fraser: The complete Flashman Papers

Ernest Gaines: A Lesson Before Dying

Joseph Heller: Catch-22

Toni Morrison: Song of Solomon OR The Bluest Eye OR Beloved

Flannery O’Connor: Wise Blood OR The Collected Short Stories

Tommy Orange: There There

Charles Portis: True Grit

George Saunders: Lincoln in the Bardo

John Kennedy Toole: A Confederacy of Dunces

Mark Twain: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Alice Walker: The Color Purple

Oscar Wilde: The Picture of Dorian Gray

Nicole is having a disturbing Facebook experience! Twice she has employed a deeply meaningful metaphorical quote from the great Texas writer and talker Molly Ivins, and twice the social media mandarins have wiped the quote. Nothing profane was expressed in it, and as far as I know they/it/him gave her no opportunity to make a case for it. It’s one of many things that make me question why I’m here (on Facebook, that is), but apparently the growing pile will not prevent me from writing more paragraphs. I’ll share the quote in the comments and see what happens. Look for the name “Molly Ivins” (and if you haven’t read her, look her up). And here’s the quote:

My friend John Henry Faulk always said the way to break a dog of that habit is to take one of the chickens the dog has killed and wire the thing around the dog’s neck, good and strong. And leave it there until that dead chicken stinks so bad the dog won’t be able to stand himself. You leave it on there until the last little bit of flesh rots and falls off, and that dog won’t kill chickens again.

Streaming for Shut-Ins:

One of Nicole’s fellow Spartans emailed her excitedly that she had to hear this record, which caused me to remember I’d never played it for her. Mr. Danny Gammon, she gives it a thumbs up! If you wanna engage with the (now, not so) new thing in jazz–though that term doesn’t quite do justice to the sound–click play, and do some research on the band, and its talented spearhead Shabaka Hutchings:

A Supreme Love? (That Might Be Sacrilege)


My current excellent crop of freshman writers at Stephens College have a new task: make a case for a musician, act, album, song, video, or music film or documentary. It’s essentially a persuasive paper, but I like to avoid the traditional labels, and we’ve been arguing pop merits in class lately, so it fits. Also, our recent Socratic seminar–focusing on Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell–indicated that many of them are too comfortable with “like / dislike” to think deeply about whether a work works. Thursday, I arrived to work an hour early having made myself a challenge: write a rough draft yourself, to the exact specs you’ve given them, quickly enough to print them copies to critique. I’m a big fan of modeling skills you want your students to master; I’m not a professional, but after 35 years of teaching, you’d think I could, um, as they say we can’t, do. When I arrived on campus, I still didn’t know what I would write about, but as I took the sidewalk into Dudley Hall, it occurred to me that Nicole and I have a framed copy of Trane’s A Love Supreme in our living room. Out of tens of thousands of records in the house, why that one? So after getting coffee and brown sugar cinnamon PopTarts, I was off to the races. Here’s what I produced, in 45 minutes (still in its rough form, though I did have time to re-read it before class started):

Phil Overeem

English 107

September 19, 2019

“Making a Case” Rough Draft

The Album on the Wall

Should one enter our house through the front door and turn immediately to her right, she would see, hanging from the front wall of our living room, a framed album cover. In fact, inside that cover is the advertised LP, titled A Love Supreme after its lone 33-minute song, a four-part suite composed by jazz tenor saxophonist John Coltrane and performed by Coltrane’s legendary quartet. The black and white album photo that comprises the album cover is of the saxophonist in profile—significantly, looking very serious. In fact, A Love Supreme is very serious music. Elsewhere in my house are approximately 1,726 other albums; that does not count CDs, 45s, 1.5 TB of digital content, and music performance and documentary DVDs. How is it that, of all that musical tonnage, A Love Supreme is the lone piece honored by a place on one of our house’s walls? If one chanced to listen to it, she would very likely understand.

Jazz, though it is one of the few artistic inventions unique to the United States and known by practitioners and admirers as “black classical music,” does not command the attention of many young listeners. However, A Love Supreme is a great starting point for any curious Gen X or millennial listener. Simply put, the musicians—Coltrane, Elvin Jones (drums), McCoy Tyner (piano), and Jimmy Garrison (bass)—would make any list of the greatest performers on each of their instruments since the end of World War II, and likely before. In particular, Coltrane’s driving, searching, intense playing can yank listeners by the lapels into full concentration, and Jones’ stormy playing around (and suggesting of) the beat is one of the most easily identifiable percussion styles in jazz history. A Love Supreme is certainly a peak in each musician’s storied career. In addition, though curious neophytes, after their first sampling of jazz, often wonder whether they have the musical background to “understand” what the musicians are doing, particularly when they are improvising, and particularly in non-vocal jazz, this album only requires the listener to have ears, and to have lived. From the opening meditative sounds—a gong, a questing saxophone phrase, a brief chant of the album title—it is clear that the musicians (and listener) are going on a journey.

What kind of journey? Aside from being an outstanding “first jazz album” for the inquisitive, A Love Supreme stands tall in the annals of general music history as one of the greatest spiritual albums ever made. In his original liner notes for the album, Coltrane explains that the suite is a seeking after, and a paean (or a song of praise) to, God. He does not specify a religious denomination, which is a good thing: the surging emotions (carried by the players’ imaginative exploratory phrases and solos), the extended focus, rising tension, and serene relief represented by the suite’s sections, and the resulting aura of mystery and majesty, should be familiar to anyone who has ever been filled by religious passion and devotion—be she Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, or First Nations, to name but a few possibilities. The effectiveness with which the composition and the performance mirrors the path of the seeker can arguably overcome the musical persnicketiness of even the most skeptical of audiences, and, even so, can appeal just as strongly to atheists and agnostics, most of whom are no strangers to the search for enlightenment themselves.

A Love Supreme is an aural experience for jazz initiates and spiritual veterans that carries considerable potential for landing in their personal pantheons, but one more aspect strongly commends it to adventurous ears: among the hundreds of thousands of records released since the dawn of the turntable, when it is absorbed by two or more present in the same space, it can be a profound communal moment—and not just a moment, but conceivably the birth of a ritual. Many fans of A Love Supreme whom I happen to know excitedly tell stories of having listened to it with other people, a situation that has heightened significance in the age of headphones and heatedness. Sitting side by side with friends and family, in a candle-lit room emptied of smartphones and other modern distractions, one can be transported from the grinding monotony of this world—wake, eat, work, eat, sleep, rinse, wash, repeat—into a more complex, absorbing, mysterious, and—paradoxically–real one, one that can bind the group together and promote true inquiry and produce epiphanies.

That kind of transport, that kind of bonding, readers, is why A Love Supreme hangs on our living room wall. Thirty years ago, crushed flat by serial romantic disappointments, I’d vowed to become monk-like, and disavow romantic love. I drove to my friend’s house to inform him of my decision; he wasn’t home, but a young lady who was renting a room in his house was. I introduced myself, and as we were chatting, I looked over her shoulder to my friend’s stereo and stack of records. In the stack, I saw a certain LP. I asked her if she’d mind me putting it on—she hadn’t heard it. We still have that actual copy. We have it on CD and mp3, too.

Besides providing my students a copy, after I’d read the best final drafts from their last assignment, I read it aloud. Instantly, I noted the same ol’ bugaboos: convoluted sentences, unnecessary italics, inconsistent voice–they noted them, too (which was the point: if I struggle and it’s OK, then why not them?). I also tried to be Mr. Clever and, as I repeat too often, “stick the landing” on the final sentence; maybe it worked, but most of my students wanted to know more. However, I used the reading as a lesson on “Killing Your Darlings.” I love writing personal narratives, but I forced myself to abjure the story and just make the goddam case.

One student commented: “I want more of your story, and I don’t like the title! What about A Supreme Love?

Me: “Um, well, er…I’ve been married almost 30 years and my wife inspired the essay–but maybe let’s not go that far!”

Anyway, submitted, still rough, for your approval, too.