Life, Jazz, and Cameras

“Life is a lot like jazz. It’s best when you improvise.” – George Gershwin

And jazz is best experienced live in a small club packed with true believers.

Then amazing, astounding things happen. Feats of prodigious skill and imagination. Allusions that make you laugh.  Soulful passages that pull a sigh out of you. Whispered melodies that move you to tears. All magnified by the energy of live music, the voyeuristic intimacy  of artists engaged in musical conversation, the realization that this thing unfolding before you in this sanctuary has never happened before and will never happen again.

For a brief moment you wonder how you can capture the lightning and immediately realize it’s like trapping a firefly in a jar. To try to own it is to kill it.

Instead, if you’re wise, you let it own you. You ride the roller coaster, face turned to the sky, hands raised to the heavens. And afterward, when you unbuckle the seat belt and climb out onto the platform, simultaneously exhilarated and enervated, you smile with gratitude.

If you’ve never held a ticket for this roller coaster, come down to Austin on a Tuesday and I’ll sponsor you into this select fraternity. Festivities begin at 10 p.m. Prepare to hang for a few hours in the swirling maelstrom of the mystery of humanity and discover a different plane of spirituality wrapped up in the mathematics of chaos. Or just dig the amazing skill of three musicians at the top of their game.

I’m talking about Ephraim Owens, high priest of soulful jazz, Red Young, the Einstein of the Hammond B3, and Brannen Temple, percussive genius, all mixing it up in a way that will confound anything you may have experienced up to now.

If you want to take a different trip into life, come a few hours earlier to encounter James McMurtry. Not jazz, but an equally captivating and transcendent journey.

The point is that live jazz is a microcosm of life—best lived moment by moment and somehow diminished when encased in vinyl or cellophane or silicon.

The best of life is lived in the moment and savored in memory.

So what is it about a camera, because that is what we’re talking about, as you will discover, that calls to a man, urging him to forgo living the experience for the process of documenting the experience?

I can’t speak for my father, who immersed himself in the discipline, but I know that life conspired to mold me into an observer rather than a participant. In addition to my nature, my peripatetic existence as a preacher’s kid (much like that of a military kid in this regard) aborted my feeble attempts at bonding with my peers. And when I finally achieved geographical stasis in my teen years, my academic leanings and lack of interest in hunting, fishing, or sports created a vast gulf between me and the denizens of the small East Texas town where I landed. And the preacher’s kid thing didn’t help either.

Playing the role of the observer. It is my besetting sin and the role I have spent a lifetime both embracing and attempting to surmount.

When you walk into a room, do you immediately gravitate to the center of the action or drift to the periphery and watch? If you embrace the latter, then I welcome you as a fellow citizen of that high desert. I have learned to play the court jester, but nature and nurture have formed me for an observer and chronicler of life as she is lived. Long before I sat down to write novels, I set out to capture the world from the back side of a lens.

Perhaps Dad had similar motivations. Or maybe he just liked cameras.

There’s this thing about my dad. He was born in Port Arthur, in the same town as Janis Joplin but twelve years before and a whole world away.

Space doesn’t permit me to establish the Southern Gothic setting of his derivation, but as the youngest in a family of two girls and four boys, he emerged as a polymath, six semester hours short of a doctorate, one of six people in North America who could read Sumerian cuneiform. His voracious curiosity couldn’t be constrained. It ranged from astronomy and cosmology to  theology, metallurgy, mechanical engineering, agronomy, and who knows what else,

So it is no surprise that he was captivated by the potential of the camera and embraced it and all its technical accouterments. I wish I could ask him what drew him to the back side of the lens, but I squandered that chance, living life and making my own way in the world.

Late in life I have come to the realization that of the many things we shared, photography looms large, even though we never discussed it. Perhaps if we had also shared a love of jazz, we might have found ourselves one night marinating in the primeval soup of that expression of life and could have ventured into a discussion of photography, and then I could tell you what drew him to the practice of recording life as an observer.

All I can say for sure is that it is something we shared separately. As was his nature, he embraced the technical side of it. As is my nature, I embraced the story of it.

And therein lies the story.

*If you want a sense of the man, check out the foreword to Living with Fred, and then click on the Richard Whittington link to see who showed up for his funeral. The most telling anecdote is the one from  my cousin Beau Vincent. Over a decade later I cannot read it without misting up. I may be a crusty old reptile, but even crocodiles shed tears.