Conscious Evolution

17 Mar

I settled into my stage-side seat at Snug Harbor, ordered an Abita Amber  and admired the palm-tree outline projected onto the wall .

I let out a sigh of satisfaction.

I was feeling a bit proud of myself. On my first full day of this visit to New Orleans, I’d moderated a panel on medieval literature at the annual convention of Sigma Tau Delta, the national English honorary for undergraduates. What makes this less impressive to my readers – but more impressive to me – was that I did it without knowing a whole lot about medieval literature.

But I knew enough to know a good paper when I heard one, and just such a paper had been delivered by Stephanie Giguere, one of three Assumption College students I was escorting. The escorting a few hours later was of a less intellectual variety – I walked Stephanie, Erin Sullivan and Caitlin Schneider to Mother’s for a taste of New Orleans cuisine, then led them back up St. Charles, beneath railings and trees still sporting its share of beads, relics of Mardi Gras just ended. Once the students, mature seniors all, were oriented, I did what any wise faculty escort does – I got out of their way.

Now, after a brisk walk of a mile or so, I’ve docked at Snug Harbor, a quiet and intimate jazz club recommended by a friend. Never has a music venue been named more perfectly: The place is “snug” to the point of intimate, with perhaps 50 chairs positioned loosely around small tables, so that one can turn around to talk with fellow listeners. The downstairs space in which I sit is smaller than the main room of Nu Café, a coffee shop I frequent back in Worcester – and that includes the stage. There’s a balcony, but it consists of a single row of chairs rimming a railing.

As for the “harbor,” this feels like the musical port in the storm I’ve been craving  – a place where I could gather with others who want to quietly appreciate some exploratory jazz, away from the stupid faux hedonism of Bourbon Street. Here I also might meet some folks who are actually from New Orleans. I turned to my left and got acquainted with an older couple who had come all the way from Canada’s Northwest Territories. I started to say how, in eighth grade, I’d done a presentation on the Northwest Territories, and had a great fondness for their people, their major exports and their natural resources – but suffice it to say I’d been on surer ground explaining Stephanie’s paper.

In contrast, a dark-haired younger woman behind them turned out to be New Orleans tried and true – and, even better, she knew Khari Lee and the rest of the band. She teaches with them at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, where she instructs younger kids from diverse backgrounds, “getting them ready for Khari.”  Given what some have told me about the struggles of New Orleans, it’s good to hear NOCCA is thriving – some kids even move to the city to be part of the program. My new acquaintance reminds me of the service done every day by those who teach arts – or any subject, really – in primary and secondary schools, most of whom, despite considerable obstacles, manage to keep their passion for both subject and service alive.

One way they keep it alive, of course, is to make time for their artistic growth. This concert, I learned, celebrated the release of Conscious Evolution, a collection of original works by Lee and his band mates in what they’ve chosen to call the New Creative Collective. “These are great musicians,” she said. “And they’re nice guys, which isn’t always the case.”

Soon enough the musicians arrived: Michael Pellera on piano, David Pulphus on bass, Geoff Clapp on drums and percussion, Ed Anderson on trumpet. For the first composition or two, during moments of personal amazement, I occasionally checked the responses of my new acquaintances – one staring intently, one smiling broadly, one listening with eyes closed. But soon their faces dropped away, leaving only the musicians and, when I closed my own eyes, their music. I slouch my way through too many events in life, but these guys have me bending forward, elbows on knees, fascinated.

Earlier in the day, Stephanie’s paper had posed the question of whether, in The Canterbury Tales, language itself can move someone not closer, but farther from an experience of the sacred. But the instrumental compositions of Conscious Evolution circumvented that problem. These prayerful moments – when words themselves drop away and there is only the searching and merging of musicians, rising together to the challenge of a passage – are why I love listening to jazz. No distracting – and usually disappointing – lyrics; no rigid formulaic patterns or musical clichés.

By definition, I can’t put what I felt that night into words – the only reference point was the last concert in which I felt that way, the sudden flashback to a moment five years ago at Mechanics Hall, when Dave Brubeck, and musicians he’d played with for decades, took me to a similarly ecstatic moment.

Lee in album cover by Angela Ortiz

When Khari Lee  did speak, he did so with a mixture of humor and joy.

“I think of conscious evolution as a way we can move into the world in which we want to live, the place we imagine living – a world in which everyone has what they need.” Then he laughs. “You know, every house has a garden, and the kids are all playing outside … and no neighborhoods are sketchy …”

While this dare to imagine is genuine, he delivered his vision with a knowing smile; the audience, which included a good many friends, laughed along with him. This is post-Katrina New Orleans, and folks here know evolutions are hard-earned. But the music had opened me to the spirit of the dream. While less tangible than a house or a soup kitchen, this music (like all art) is its own kind of service – providing moments of transcendent ecstasy. Like all manifestations of spiritual evolution, these moments re-energize us to go back into the world and keep trying to make a difference.

Of course, music teachers like Lee are helping the next generation of New Orleans natives experience the same.

At show’s end, before pressing his hands together at his chest and bowing as if to say Namaste, Lee expressed a similar sentiment: “I want to thank everyone. What you think, matters. What you do, matters. All the good stuff that’s happening, it takes more than one person to make it happen – whether you’re building a house … or doing a dance.”

For more on the music of Khari Allen Lee and the New Creative Collective, check out khariallenlee.com.

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