[Note to my faithful readers, wherever you are: The Petchary has been weary of late, and folded her feathers for a while. This is the first flutter, though… Coming back to life, slowly].
A word about sweetness. It does not come naturally to many people, because, perhaps, it’s not something that’s valued and it’s a silly, trivial thing. The Petchary has no recollection of her beloved grandfather ever smiling, for example. He just didn’t see the need to. But he must have been charming when he proposed to her beautiful grandmother… Or was he restrained and careful in that British way?
But I digress. What is the essence of sweetness in a human being, as opposed to a cupcake, a rose, a small puppy? It is all about a gentle quality, a kindness, a connection.
And what is inspiration? Breathing in, of course, literally and metaphorically. Holding in that sweetness, then slowly letting go. If you really have to.
There are two things which, in the Petchary’s book, are sweetness and inspiration combined: good music, and the people who play that good music.
Such is Brent Birckhead, a saxophonist with jazz as his first love, and music slipping off his fingertips.
Sweetness comes more naturally (if it comes at all), in young people, and Brent is only twenty-five years old. It all flows naturally with him, along with the inspiration. And the two merged into a deliciously rich and nourishing river of goodness, like the Blue and the White Nile, at a workshop at the Jamaica School of Music in Kingston, Jamaica last week. The youthful participants bathed in that river of delicious jazz, swam in it, splashed around happily. Several dived straight in, emerging refreshed at the end of two hours of teaching, collaboration and learning.
I use the image of the two Niles merging advisedly, since that majestic waterway is the longest river in Africa. As Brent said at the workshop, “Any time we go back where we came from, it’s a good thing.” When asked what he thought about reggae music, he commented, as if everyone must understand this, “It’s all linked. It’s all African music.” (He also described reggae music as “off the hook,” an expression the ageing Petchary had never heard before, but it sounded like a compliment). He told the young Jamaicans present about Congo Square in New Orleans, the African wellspring of jazz. He told them about how jazz moved northwards to Chicago and Kansas City, and the flourishing of the music in New York City.
Brent was born in 1985 in Baltimore, Maryland. He told his new young friends that parental support was critical for him. His parents matched every dollar he saved with one of their own. And when his passion for the saxophone became clear, his grandfather bought him one from a pawn shop. So he took on the instrument at age ten, and clearly never looked back for one second. He has a bachelor’s degree in Music Education from Howard University and just got his master’s in Jazz Studies. He lives in Washington, DC, and was named best blues/pop/rock soloist by the illustrious Downbeat magazine as part of its 33rd annual Student Awards.
The most important thing about Brent is his spiritual connection to the music – “You must have the feeling,” he said. Sheldon Griffiths’ eloquent trumpet version of “No Woman No Cry” had the feeling. So did his friend Jesse Jones on saxophone. Both are from the gritty inner-city area of Seaview Gardens in Kingston, with so much focus and steel in their eyes and a gentle strength in their playing. Both played the evening after the workshop at the U.S. Embassy-sponsored “Blues on the Green” concert in Kingston’s Emancipation Park with Brent, in the finale – “One Love.” The feelings flowed all around.
Another young Jamaican who grasped that feeling and shook it around quite a bit was a girl saxophonist from the Jamaica Combined Cadet Force Band and Drums. She played fiercely and without flinching, leaning back with eyes closed with the jazz player’s stance. Standing among a group of about fifteen young men and Brent on stage, her spirit rose with every note she played.
Back to inspiration again. Jamaicans do love a vote of thanks. It’s a (sometimes) short and (often) overly formal speech at the end of an event; a bit like a version of the Oscars thank you speech where you dare not leave anyone out – and including the bit about thanking God, too. That “giving thanks” is so important here on this island. And I mean that sincerely.
But no fancy speechifying for our girl saxophonist. She got straight to the point. “You have inspired me,” she said, adding with great emphasis, “Believe me… One day I will be the best.”
As if taking his cue, Brent told the shining and satisfied faces of young instrumentalists from the Sam Sharpe Community Band in Montego Bay, Charlemont High School in Clarendon, all over Kingston, St. Jago High School in Spanish Town, “Music can save your life…and inspire your life.”
“Saving” is something Brent spoke a lot about. The kids understood that in a split second. Music, indeed, can and does save lives in the frayed, undone environment that is Kingston’s inner city. And, for that matter, in rural Jamaica, too. “Music saved my life” may sound far-fetched, even whimsical and pretentious. But not for these young men and women. It is, literally, true.
And the other stream of consciousness that flowed through the workshop was, as noted earlier… “I must go back to my roots… Spend time,” Brent urged, “Spend time going back.” African-ness.
Yes, Brent may well be an old soul – that sweetness and kindness and maturity is of one who has gone before. (The Petchary thinks – knows – she is a newish one herself). And his music stands shining above it all.
“Without music, life would be a mistake.”
Yes, Friedrich Nietzsche said that. Truly.
[My next post on Mr. Birckhead will be much shorter and with more photos. And hey, Maurice Gordon is a supportive and brilliant musician himself. More next time]
Mining the Audio Motherlode, Volume 94 (wfmu.org)