Saxophonist Zane Musa Songs of the Soul Frances Livings Poet

Songs of the Soul ~ In Memory of Zane Musa (1979 – 2015)

 

Zane Musa – the first time I saw him play was at a small, hole in the wall jazz joint. It was the summer of 2005. I was on one of my first visits to Los Angeles from Germany, where the guitarist Greg Porée and I had met. We had been working together at a small theatre in Hamburg. Drink in hand, we sat down, shortly before the show was to begin. So here we were on a date at this – dump.  Secretly, I was thinking very dismissively,

“What is all of this? This is not a proper city! This is not a proper jazz club! L.A. is so ugly. It’s like a barren, flat and never ending suburb, punctuated every now and then by strip malls, like this thing here…”

But Greg swore, these were really good players.

Whenever I had attended jazz concerts in Germany, the venues in which they were held were mostly historical theatres, lovely outdoor venues, like parks or on the waterfront. They always mirrored the anticipated beauty and specialness of the music. I therefore simply didn’t expect much walking in to that dumpy little bar.

The small stage was only dimly lit. My eyes fell on this lanky, dark haired, good-looking guy. I watched him as he just stood there, swaying almost unnoticeably to the venue’s background music – or to his own? His horn hung around his neck and cupping its bow, he lightly cradled his instrument. He seemed oddly detached and lost, clutching his saxophone.

The Saxophone in Jazz

The saxophone is obviously a staple in jazz music. I personally however, associated the sound of this instrument with the sickly sweet and whiney notes of players like Kenny G. dwindling annoyingly from supermarket and car radios. Having gained most of my listening experiences in the eighties and the nineties, a saxophone was the epitome of elevator jazz. But then the band started and this disinterested seeming guy started hitting his first notes; delving deeper and deeper into the music, spiralling into almost delirious solos – my jaw hit the floor. Zane Musa was the most brilliant, moving saxophonist I had ever heard live.

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After the performance, on the way out, I grabbed some of these square, flimsy paper napkins from the bar and in the car I just dotted down every thought, rushing through my head. In the following weeks the poem Songs of the Soul evolved. I only told my husband that Zane inspired the piece. Nobody else. I was somewhat embarrassed by the impact he had made on me –

I had a musical crush on him.

Once the poem was completed, I felt as if I needed to deepen its intensity. I had only just started a new project recording some of my poetry. Nervously I contemplated asking Zane to play on “his” poem. I wouldn’t tell him of course that it was about him. My goal was to recite the piece and ask him to respond in a duet, as if he was at a live jazz gig, improvising on the spot. I wanted to capture a complete performance –also of my reading– rather than the usual studio procedure of assembling tracks for overdubbing and editing.

The Recording Session of Songs of the Soul

A few weeks later, I arranged a session with Nolan Shaheed at his studio in Pasadena, an environment that has now, over the years, grown into a very “safe” place to record. There I stood, in the vocal booth, Zane opposite to me in another one. We were connected by sight, large earphones and the piece and separated by the thick studio glass of the individual chambers. I didn’t read the poem out to him before we were ready to record. I wanted his reaction to be spontaneous.

So in dialogue with my recital of the poem, Zane played his musical interpretation of Songs of the Soul. The atmosphere was electric and invariably I achieved my concept in only two magical takes. The first recording was wonderful, very soft, sensitive and flowing but the second take had a lot of passion. That was the one we then mixed and mastered. Even in the somewhat disconnected and sterile environment of a recording studio, I experienced Zane as inventive and daring. He would blend Middle Eastern quarter notes with American jazz. I was impressed by his ability of delving into the music like into the depths of an indigo coloured lake that lied within him.

In the Recording Studio again…

A few years later in 2013, I was recording my first solo album, The World I Am Livings In, with eleven of my original songs. I couldn’t resist asking him to play a solo on my song Only Time Will Tell. It’s a very sad piece about fearing your loved-one will one day emotionally leave your once passionate relationship. So I needed some melancholic magic. I booked a session at Nolan’s studio and Zane played a short but very moving solo on soprano saxophone. While he was still in the recording booth, Nolan whispered to me that his older brother, the tap dancer Chance Taylor had only just committed suicide – the day before. Songs-of-the-Soul-Cover-tree-with-lightening-Frances-Livings-Musical-Poetry

My feelings shifted like waves. I went from being very moved by Zane’s playing over incredible empathy for such a loss to total disbelief that he had even showed up for the session. It seemed like too much! How was that possible, despite the pain, the shock and the anguish? At the same time I knew that sometimes that’s the very thing you have to do.

You show up and play, you sing, you write your heart out in order to not collapse. You keep going.

It was such an emotional situation because at the same time, I was also grateful for the fact that sometimes, when playing music, it’s like being handed a piece of that other person’s soul. It’s a very delicate and precious moment and I wanted to thank Zane and give him a piece in return. Greg and Nolan knew it but I had never made it public that Zane had inspired me to write Songs of the Soul.

So ever so slightly bashful, I told him that morning. His head was bent down, his eyes cast to the ground. Slowly, he lifted his gaze and through those tinted glasses he often wore, he looked at me almost with the eyes of a child, his heavy eyelids framed by dark eyelashes, batting slowly two, three times. Everyone who knows Zane will know the look. I will never know to date whether he had sensed this anyway that the poem was basically about him. I didn’t know what he thought at all – he wasn’t exactly an open book when it came to words.

What I do know is that Zane didn’t care about compliments; you couldn’t charm, bribe or seduce him into niceties. He poured himself into his music because he wanted to, rather, had to. So I didn’t judge or ask. But I had wanted to give him something back after he had given me these two heart-wrenching improvisations on his instrument and after the devastating loss of his brother. I wanted to simply say – I care.

That Night When Others Played Their Hearts Out…

And ironically, sadly and magically, that’s exactly what his fellow musicians did for him almost exactly two years later: They played their hearts out, hoping to give Zane back a piece of their souls:

On Monday, February 2nd, 2015 the jazz community received the incomprehensible and devastating news that Zane Musa had passed away. He had been on tour in Florida with the trumpeter Arturo Sandoval who himself had been a protégée of no one less than Dizzy Gilesby. At first the whole incident was perceived as a freak accident. But later we learned that tragically, Zane had taken his own life by jumping from the top of a park deck. He was only 36.

Two weeks later, on Monday, February 16, 2015, we celebrated Zane’s life: Organized by his family and three of his closest friends, the keyboarder Dennis Hamm, the bassist Ryan Cross and the drummer Tony Austin. I was asked if the recording of “Songs of the Soul” could be played and whether I could say a few words about how it developed. Of course I was more than honoured that I could contribute something.

For years, the Sofitel Hotel on Beverly Boulevard has been a slightly more glamorous venue for Monday night jazz sessions that Zane had often attended. Generously, the management once again supplied their venue, this time for Zane’s memorial service.

The large conference room was packed. Some of the guests had to stand in the back. I can only guess that there were at least five hundred people attending. Zane’s sister, his mentors and close friends shared very personal stories. Pictures of him growing up, tap dancing and playing his instrument were shown, and Zane’s peers and close friends played live music. Zane’s brother Chance, an award winning tap dancer was also commemorated. A slide show that Dennis had compiled, with pictures of Zane playing, illustrated Songs of the Soul. It marked the end of the well over three hour memorial. Finally, a brass band led the attendees downstairs to the piano bar. A lively jam session started to take place until closing out at 2 am in the morning.

I don’t want to speculate at this point why Zane ultimately made the decision to end his own life. It seems so much like such a contradiction of his brilliance and success. Moreover, he wasn’t some unpopular nerd, shunned and bullied. His family, friends and peers loved, respected and revered him. Couldn’t he get professional help, one may be temped to ask. But we know of others, whose idea of suicide has risen to loom over them like a black sun. We know of others, whose yearning to cease corporal existence will more often than not, lead them to their final definite act.

Your Elusive Creative Genius

I would rather more like to end this excursion on honouring Zane with someone else’s words. This is an excerpt from a talk in February 2009 by the writer Elizabeth Gilbert on “Your elusive creative genius”:

Centuries ago in the deserts of North Africa, people used to gather for these moonlight dances of sacred dance and music that would go on for hours and hours, until dawn. They were always magnificent, because the dancers were professionals and they were terrific […] But every once in a while, very rarely, something would happen, and one of these performers would actually become transcendent. […] time would stop, and the dancer would sort of step through some kind of portal and he wasn’t doing anything different than he had ever done, 1,000 nights before, but everything would align. And all of a sudden, he would no longer appear to be merely human. He would be lit from within, and lit from below and all lit up on fire with divinity.

[…] And when this happened, back then, people knew it for what it was, you know, they called it by its name. They would put their hands together and they would start to chant, “Allah, Allah, Allah, God, God, God.” That’s God, you know. […] Incomprehensible, there it is — a glimpse of God. Which is great, because we need that.

But, the tricky bit comes the next morning, for the dancer himself, when he wakes up and discovers that it’s Tuesday at 11 a.m., and he’s no longer a glimpse of God. He’s just an aging mortal with really bad knees, and maybe he’s never going to ascend to that height again. And maybe nobody will ever chant God’s name again as he spins, and what is he then to do with the rest of his life? This is hard. This is one of the most painful reconciliations to make in a creative life.

When I first came to Los Angeles –which is now almost ten years ago– the experience of such incredible talent and level of musicianship moved me profoundly. I knew, there was likely no return. To that date, I had only heard on recordings by the very best, the amount of brilliance as I then did and continue to hear live. I felt in awe, and as an artist myself inspired, challenged and frightened. In some way, Zane epitomized a lot of these feelings and conflicts. I have always highly respected his talent, passion and hard work. When he played, he invested everything – including his torment, which was what I saw that very first evening with such intuition I suppose, because it mirrored in a way some of my own. But did I have that courage?

Rest peacefully, Zane.

L. A. Jazz Scene Reels from Untimely Death of Zane Musa, by Tom Meek in LA Weekly, Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Zane Musa Memorial and Celebration of Life, event page with many comments and eulogies on Facebook

An interesting, older article praising the talent of a young Zane Musa appeared in 1996 in The Los Angeles Times: “They’re Young, Gifted and Gigging: Zane Musa, a Name to Remember, Opens New Jazz Talent Series” by Don Heckman in The L.A. Times, April 4, 1996.

 

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Still Lifes ~ The Art of Tranquillity

 

It was just one of these mornings. Lying there in bed, I felt as if my life was washing over me like a big grey wave. The murky waters were draining off, revealing bit of useless debris. My music and my writing, appeared like mere fragments. Projects scattered everywhere; unfinished poems, unsold CDs, unwritten essays. And ideas were just flying around in my head like annoying flies. There were no neat stacks of achievements piled up like thick, leather bound books with gilded letters spelling out that phrase, “a successful career”. There was no linear path steadily leading up to a golden throne – let alone camping stool – on which I could rest and observe my “kingdom”: a well sorted archive full of publications and releases, of awards and chronologically ordered press clippings.

I felt messy, insecure, depressed, a bit lonely but most of all irrelevant.

I was spending a few days in solitude at my mother’s house in the countryside. The peacefulness was very soothing but my mind can be overactive and therefore stressful at times. It was still early, so I went for a run, which always makes me feel better. Taking in the soft, luscious countryside bursting with green buds and concentrating on my repetitive breathing soothed me. Back home I had more espresso with hot milk, some toast with honey and promised myself to write for an hour before going on a little Sunday outing to the local art museum.

I drove into the village and parked the car just far enough away to enjoy a brief walk up the cobble-stoned street. The weather was beautiful; there was a light breeze, an abundance of fresh air and the sun was warming some wind-shaded spots. Cheerful little puffy white clouds hurried along a light blue sky that created a nice backdrop to the red brick of the expressionistic buildings and the dark green of the fir trees.

Out of my Head: Into the Museum

I entered the museum and my first cursory glance caught some paintings I automatically expected to be 17th century Dutch church interiors. Upon entering the exhibition however, I was astounded to see that these pictures, a few more interiors but mostly still lifes, dated from around 1968 to 2009. They were by a contemporary Dutch painter Henk Helmantel and the exhibition was to commemorate his 70th birthday.

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What struck me wandering around, was how tranquil, focussed and simple most of the pictures were. They were mostly fairly large in format. As a viewer I had the feeling that the artist was consciously showing these objects to me, rather than permitting an intimate view of something otherwise quite private. These works were therefore less intimate than their much earlier Dutch predecessors. But the choice of objects depicted were very similar. They were all simple household items, bits of fruit and vegetables, mostly locally grown like asparagus or chestnuts. There were simple boxes, bowls and glass vases, some antique, but displayed in a consciously chosen space, in a balanced and symmetrical way and whose clear and clean lines reminded me of Danish art that emerged around the beginning of the 19th century.

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Many items depicted stemmed from the artist’s collection. But there was no highly precious or prestigious aura surrounding them. There were no exotic features or valuable items. Their value was based upon, so it seemed, on shape and colour, or their proportions. A bowl on a narrow rim, with an even cream glaze, which Helmantel had painted holding nine eggs (see above) was displayed in a glass show case what accentuated its simplicity and serenity.

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The Artist Henk Helmantel

Born in 1945 in Westeremden in Holland, which lies North of Groningen, Helmantel was raised as one of five children. His parents owned a nursery and the children helped selling their plants and flowers at the traditional local markets, like in Groningen. The story goes that on one of these trips Helmantel made his very first visits to a museum and was overly impressed by Rembrandt. From then on he collected any snippets and pictures from newspapers and magazines he could find. He was determined to become a painter, later attending the art academy in Groningen.

It became obvious to me that he was a diligent and meticulous worker, dedicated to depicting these serene objects in the most naturalistic way possible. He was obviously interested in the unique surfaces of the objects, like in the irregular iridescent glass of his collection of Roman vessels (see picture above). But at the same time, he wasn’t taking any liberties by letting a single brush stroke stand out or have an expressionistic or impressionistic character, let alone by being textural. Each stroke serves the depiction of the object in the most naturalistic and realistic way possible.

Personally, I love texture and abstraction in painting. I only recently saw a quite impressive exhibition of William Turner‘s work at the Getty museum in Los Angeles. But that afternoon, it was the clarity and focus in Helmantel’s paintings that inspired me. Even his more involved paintings are evenly and thoughtfully grouped objects. There are no coincidences. Everything is consciously arranged, which also means that each object is taken seriously within its own unique value. I told myself:

Take every piece, each poem you write, every song you sing seriously, take it for what it is!

I could feel the jumble in my head and the doubtfulness that tortures every artist more or less frequently being soothed. I kept thinking,

Stick to what you do, and do it with dedication, clarity and consciousness!

 

Simplify and focus!

 

Henk Helmantel

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(c) Frances Livings, 2015

 

Here’s a playlist for a more uplifting mood:

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Livings in Los Angeles – Ant Man, Teddy and Rabbit. Thoughts on the Artist Mike Kelley

One afternoon, on one of my frequent outings to the Galerie der Gegenwart (gallery of contemporary art) in Hamburg, I found myself transfixed by eight very unusual portrait photographs. Individually depicted were seven cuddly toys. Their stitched-on fabric or glass button eyes, some loose and lopsided, seemed to be starring at me, wanting urgently to capture my attention. One photograph however, was of a stern looking younger man who I assumed, was of the artist himself. The portraits were all displayed in a very simple frame and hung as a group in two rows of four. They looked like mug shots.

That was in the mid nineties when I was a junior student of art history and first discovered the work of the contemporary American artist Mike Kelley and immediately, it clicked. I didn’t know anything about his background, but again and again I couldn’t help thinking about these colour photographs, which soon found their way into music culture when Kelley created the artwork for Sonic Youth’s 1992 album Dirty, using Ant Man’s “portrait” on the album cover. In addition to being a renowned visual artist, Kelley was also a musician. He was a founding member of the proto-punk Detroit band Destroy All Monsters, who earned a cult following with their experimental performance art. By the 1990’s his art career was blooming.

Mike Kelley, “Ahh…Youth!” 1991, set of 8 Cibachrome photographs, 24 x 20 in. each; one at 24 x 18 in. Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts.

On a cursory glance, the ensemble looked like an advertising campaign for an innocent and happy childhood. But it conjured up a completely different meaning: The features of its relicts, the stuffed animals, were stiff and unhappy looking. These were tatty creatures with dirty, worn and clumped fur, limp limbs and a blank stare. They were after all, visual tokens of having been thrown, kicked, punched, spat, cried and vomited upon. In the presence of a male adult however, they seemed to stand for a collective memory of child abuse and therefore seemed to almost immediately epitomize trauma. Were Ant Man, Teddy and Rabbit physical witnesses to something horrible that was inflicted upon them? Or did they stand – their images physically enclosed and kept in tyrannical order by a strict, linear picture frame – for something that was kept secret within the walls of a children’s nursery?

On the other hand, these individual portraits were like a collection of mug shots depicting cuddly toys more like perpetrators on the stand. From that perspective they seemed to suddenly stand for shame and guilt but how could stuffed animals be guilty of anything? But that’s exactly what was triggering and made the artwork so memorable. In society nurseries are considered to be safe, childhoods happy and parents loving – which is why ultimately, abuse is so crazy making. This is also why there are still so many moral conflicts with challenging these ideas; any notion that would disrupt these stereotypes and clichés are easier being denied, which is why at that point in my life, just intuitively, I found his work compelling and courageous.

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My second very intense encounter with the artist wasn’t until I was living in Los Angeles almost two decades later. On a fairly uneventful day, cup of coffee in hand, I was flicking through the L.A. Times when I read that he had committed suicide. I was shocked. He was only 57 and had by then established himself as an artist internationally. Online I read in further articles that only around four hours after confirmation of his death, an unofficial, makeshift memorial had started to appear in an abandoned carport, a few blocks from Kelley’s home in the Farley Building in Highland Park. Built from stuffed toys, wax candles, Afghans and dried corn, mourners began replicating his assemblage More Love Hours and Wages of Sin, two paired installations Kelley had exhibited in the Whitney’s 1989 Biennial. I also learned that The Mike Kelley Foundation was organizing a memorial that was to be held at his studio in Eagle Rock/Highland Park.

I felt he deserved my tribute too. He had shown courage touching upon subjects that are still – thirty years later – socially somewhat taboo. As a child you mostly have no alley when being abused or mistreated, ignored, neglected by a parent. He epitomized these complicated and highly problematic emotions.

So on one of these for Los Angeles typical, far too mild February evenings, my husband drove through dimly lit streets to Kelley’s former residence. We parked on a side street lined with old gnarly oak trees, spiked with well-kept 19th century craftsman bungalows, typical for South Pasadena. Like many areas of Los Angeles, it felt very insular, especially because of the isolating pockets of dim lighting. I walked up to the main road towards the building in which the memorial was taking place. Its concrete steps led up to a very somber looking entrance where a handful of people stood, collectively nodding as if to acknowledge our arrival. I felt a slight wave of guilt wash over me for being curious in a weirdly voyeuristic way. I had never met this man and yet I was showing up at a memorial – like a grief tourist?

Approximate another 100 people and I wandered around aimlessly through this vast space, which had been, only days prior to his death, his studio. Plastic cup in hand, filled with cheap red wine, I explored a maze of small administrative looking side-rooms, watching sometimes only for minutes films that Kelley had created. The main space, his studio, where more art installations were displayed and further screenings took place, reminded me of a large airplane hangar.

I was not really interested in speculating about why precisely he killed himself. From the press I later learned that he suffered from depression – quelle surprise. Looking at his body of work, one may interpret his works of art, like described above, as a result of trauma, translated into the many quite disturbing images he produced. But I wasn’t interested in asking whether this ensemble of abused looking creatures gave the observer biographical information.

Probably like a lot of other people, I asked myself, why would he end his own life? Unlike many artists he was successful and popular. Being a struggling artist myself, it actually made me a bit angry. How dare he? How selfish. I suddenly felt very strongly that every artist, whether writer, painter or musician carries a responsibility towards their creations, to ensure the future delivery of such. Without them their art will not be created and the commercial art world takes over. How can therefore someone give up on him- or herself without giving up on their art? Suicide is the conscious choice to depart from one’s life. Most artists are controlling. They have to be. I know from my own work that once I envision something and have a precise idea of what and how I want to create something, I am very adamant about its execution. I will explore, search, uncover, unravel, shuffle and experiment but once I get close to what I was meant to create I don’t dither or question. Interwoven with this notion is the question, where does art end and where does the artist start?