When I was twelve years old, my Daddy made a cassette recording of our family singing and playing music together. My sister and I have both spoken about his recording us when we were young, that he had a reel-to-reel recorder set up in the house, and that playing music at home and in public when we were children was a regular part of our lives. But by the spring of 1985, things had ramped up. Sissy was emerging as a real vocal talent and her desire to make singing her life’s work was growing. We recorded several songs on her jambox and Daddy put a label on it, as if it were a real record, with one word on it. The word was VANGUARD. I didn’t know what it meant then, so I went straight to our dictionary, as was my custom.
Vanguard: 1. the foremost part of an advancing army or naval force. 2. a group of people leading the way in new developments or ideas. 3. a position at the forefront of developments or ideas.
A little grandiosity never hurt anyone, though. At least when it comes to making art.
My sister and I completed our touring cycle for “Not Dark Yet,” on Saturday. There is a marker there for us, not only because we both returned home musically in a way by doing the project together, but because we made the record at all, because we went through the process hand in hand, and because it brought us closer than we have possibly ever been. The release and subsequent activities plus touring came with the same old set of thrilling victories and astonishing hardships as our individual releases have, but we each found more gratitude within them, mostly because we were together. Now, having completed that process for at least the time being, my mind turns to what comes next.
We sat close to the stage for the 1030PM performance of The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, a group which is not filled with youngsters, at The Village Vanguard last night. They were so incredibly adept at their jobs — they are masters, really — and clearly took their work seriously. Who knows what each individual member had on their minds as they sat and worked their way through tunes that could simultaneously make me think of traffic and the ocean at the same time — I know my mind will sometimes wander to inexplicable topics during a performance — but as each one stood to take a solo, they gave it their every cell. They sweated, turned red, and turned up. I smiled like an idiot through the whole thing and can’t recall the last time I was so happy seeing live music.
I said on the cab ride home that the cruel joke of life is that you’re old by the time you figure out how to really do a thing. It doesn’t take only 10,000 hours. It takes openness, a willingness to turn up no matter what, even when all of the possibilities for stardom are dead and gone, even when you don’t have a thing to gain but knowing you’ve put yourself forward in a way that shows the world the heart you’ve got. If a tree falls in the forest, yes, I believe it does still make a sound. And I believe that if a horn player blows the best solo of his life in front of an audience of 98 people when he is considered past his prime, it still got played and it’s still the best solo of his life.
I am forty-five years old and am just learning how to sing and write. My job is harder than it has ever been. But seeing those players last night made me appreciate how much I appreciate learning and trying to get better at whatever I’m pursuing no matter the form, and appreciate how exciting it is to know there is always a way to gain ground, even if it’s just the slightest difference that isn’t perceivable to anyone but me. That is new, THAT is what comes next, that is the dangling carrot that is making art, and that is the vanguard.