Pianist Miro Sprague was in the audience last night (Oct. 1) for the first Solos & Duos Series concert of the season at UMass. He recently came back from a jazz piano competition in Montreaux, won by a 15 year old Chinese kid. It got me thinking how far this “winner take all, virtuosity above all” mentality is from the core values of jazz.
On stage at Bezanson Recital Hall, writer David Budbill and multi-instrumentalist William Parker displayed grit, humanity, love and understanding, but little virtuosity.
Parker is one of the most important musicians to emerge in the last 40 years. His bass playing has anchored the bands of Cecil Taylor, David S Ware and Charles Gayle, and he has been leading various ensembles for decades. The jazz scene owes him (and his wife, Patricia Parker, who was in attendance) major props for the work they do through Arts For Art in New York. You can call him a virtuoso on bass, I suppose, but his music is not about that. He is self-taught on a number of other instruments, including the wood flute and pocket trumpet, both of which he played last night. But technique as an end in itself is not what drives him.
Similarly, poet and playwright David Budbill does not wow with fancy turns of phrase or elaborately constructed sentences. His language is simple, straightforward, powerful, with the self-contained profundity of a monk. His life is now compromised by Parkinson’s disease. His delivery is slower, his reading halting. He needs help moving. At one point in the performance, his lovely wife Lois had to come to the stage to hand him the water bottle that had fallen on its side.
The first set was devoted to “A Different Planet”, a new play of Budbill’s. It was an hour-long monologue that tells the story of the fictitious Edward T. Jordan, the first African-American chemist at DuPont and later a professor at Dunbar University. Told in the first person and based on Budbill’s experience as a professor at all-black Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, the work is an insightful look at racism in America. We might think we know about the effects racism has on its victims, but this piece bore into our understanding. During the wonderful Q & A after the performance, a young white man, presumably wrestling with racism’s profound effect, broke down while asking his question.
The second half focused on Budbill’s more recent poems, dealing mostly with death and aging. The simple, declarative poems looked squarely at the subject, made all the more poignant by the poet’s health.
The reading throughout was flat and labored. It was not virtuosic, but it was moving. And isn’t that the point?