This evening reminds me of why music matters. It can seem trivial so often, and especially in the lines I work through to pay my bills, my work feels novel at best. Sometimes the conditions are less desirable, as was the case this evening. But tonight this thing happened, which happens only a few times a year, at most.
I was playing down at Amazon under a tent. It was a little rainy and cold, and I didn’t have a space heater- plus this cold I’m fighting. I was in good spirits, as I always try to be, about this somewhat uncomfortable situation. As I began the first set, there were people who just passed, some who waved, and others who chose to ignore me. However, the most comical were those who stood behind me and watched me. From behind. Apart from the would-be voyeurs, I’m used to this treatment and pretty much have my program prepared for when the non-crowd orients themselves toward me in this way.
There were 2 young women who were walking and stood and watched for a while. They were walking and talking but then they became still. After a while, I asked them what they would like to hear, and I played a couple of the tunes they requested. They kept talking, and I kept playing, with the rain falling. I started listening to their conversation a bit between and during songs and realized that one of these people was preparing for a burial tomorrow. Her grandmother had died.
I learned that this was the woman who primarily care-took for her. Who taught her how to read. Who protected her and guided her through life. But she’d died somewhat suddenly. And this person was very upset because she had left North Carolina because of the bigotry and general hatred she found there. She was upset because these family members who she was supposed to grieve with had voted for Trump, and in addition to being angry, she was so embarrassed to be forced to affiliate with them. And that she didn’t want to hear any holiday music, because of what it meant and no longer does. She was quiet. There would be some swallowed emotion.
Her friend was comforting her, and they eventually sat and listened quietly. I sang some old jazz tunes, made some jokes, and sang some more songs. At some point the friend was also talking, lamenting how at the beginning of 2016, her best friend had committed suicide in the same week as her birthday. There was more talking and some more tears and I kept playing. They were appreciative of the music. They eventually got me a cup of tea because my fingers and I were very cold. They left the tea with me, I sang some dumb songs, and they laughed. They went and had drinks and came back. When my gig was over, they were there and sat, talking. There were hugs and some tearfulness, some southernisms, condolences. I left and they were still talking.
I thought about what I do, because often times it feels purposeless. As an instrumental soloist, often times people don’t know I’m there. They think I’m a recording, as I know because they tell me this and often times proceed to not tip. I can easily pass 4 hours somewhere where there may be no one who seems to notice me at all.
But it’s really just more where people’s heads are at. When people are upset, stressed, or otherwise agitated is when they say thanks. Or how meaningful it is that I’m there. Or how happy they are to be hearing live music. I think this is more characteristic of instrumental solo music than anything other I do in performance. And it’s a somewhat strange feeling, to realize that the majority of people probably don’t notice you, but those who do greatly seem to appreciate the presence of live music. I mean, obviously there’s folks who hate you and your music and won’t say anything, but who has time to care much about that?
It’s important to see how this thing which can otherwise be so novel or trite can have an otherwise profound impact on someone.