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Living Life Well: 08/15/2016

Hearing all that jazz

In an alley off the boulevard, over in Petaluma, there’s a nightspot called the Big Easy. I go there to listen to the Chris Miano Trio – a jazz ensemble with Chris on guitar, Tom Shade on upright bass, and Kendrich Freeman on drums. They play Blue Note Era Jazz, BeBop, Hard Bop and a variety of Bossa Novas, with Steve Steinberg usually sitting in on the tenor sax. They’re good – very good.

Chris tells me the drummer provides the gravity and the bass provides the time, while the sax tells the story. In standard form, each piece begins with the rendition of a familiar theme before launching into improvised solo romps, one after the other, elaborating on the theme. Then they get back together in layered cascades of musical conversation, sometimes in happy consensus and sometimes pushing a remarkable edge. Chris says he just hangs on for dear life; but I watch his fingers fly across the fretboard, his eyes watching, intently listening – so I know better.

Playing together is a wonderful way to spend time, investing it in relationships. A few evenings ago our older daughter was visiting with her kids, and while we were playing Parcheesi, our other daughter sat nearby, listening to her boyfriend and her brother playing guitar and flute. It was a sweet evening, playing together; such play is not to be hurried, but savored, like a meal, and enjoyed for its ability to bring us together.

Vibrant communities grow by including and accounting for one another, while exclusion and demonization isolates factions, fracturing the community along fault lines. We need to work and play together, instead. During the first night of the Democratic Convention, New Jersey senator Cory Booker quoted an African saying that “If you want to go fast, go alone; but if you want to go far, go together.” In fact, we experience ourselves more vividly when we connect with others. Gregory Bateson said it succinctly: “It takes two to know one.”

This deeper knowledge leads to deeper understanding, and always involves the care and effort of empathy. I recently shared a brief video on my Facebook page in which retired CIA agent Amaryllis Fox said, “The only real way to disarm your enemy is to listen to them.” I would add – and hearing them, taking to heart what they are telling us. She continued, saying “while it may be easier to dismiss your enemy as evil, hearing them out on policy concerns is actually an amazing thing, because as long as your enemy is a subhuman psychopath that’s gonna attack you no matter what you do, this never ends. But if your enemy is a policy, however complicated – that we can work with.”

Democracy is messy, and policies are always complicated; the work of thoughtful discussion ought not to be taken up by the impatient or the undisciplined. Our current political landscape is fraught with crosscurrents of suspicion and accusation; everything that will be said between now and Nov. 8 will be contradicted many times more. This is a time for patience; nothing will be decided until the election anyway. The wisdom of that decision will come from the quality of the discussion, so it should be lingered over as if it were a banquet – not a food fight.

It’s been said that mental health is the capacity to withstand ambiguities. I would add there is a certain pleasure in appreciating the subtleties of the human condition, in which complex interweaving systems flow in a way that cannot be reduced to the simplistic absolutes of this versus that. Living life well is like listening to a performance of live music, or watching a good baseball team take the field. A coordinated coherence emerges that circulates throughout, connecting one thought to the next, one feeling to another, and each person – and everyone – to one another.

Chris tells me that discipline and internal work – sitting at home and practicing – may be of the utmost necessity in jazz; but, as he says, “there is a greater aspect in jazz that creates the space for improvisation and spontaneity. Although the willingness to take risks and possibly make mistakes is part of the path, none of it would make sense without the greatest aspect of playing: listening. Listening is the most important aspect of improv; to add to the conversation, as opposed to dominating it, allows for the opportunity to create and to shape the moment.”

“It appears,” he goes on to say, “that, in modern society, anything requiring discipline and years of work, hours of mental training and thoughtful reflection, is viewed as elitist. Maybe the simple way to say this is many people want simple answers: ‘it’s the terrorists’ fault, not that of our foreign policy.’ But it’s my experience that those who listen to jazz accept the fluid nature of the music. It is all about listening,” Chris concluded. “Maybe we all should listen to each other more.”

Jim Shere is a local writer with a private practice as a counselor in Glen Ellen. You are invited to explore his website at, or email him at

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