We all know music has the magical ability to touch the human spirit, that music forms which are sufficiently developed can elevate and heal the human spirit, and in many traditional societies across the globe, music has been a pathway to reach a higher consciousness.
My chosen path, jazz music, is an international music form which was created by the experience of black Americans at the turn of the 20th century, an extremely developed form which is America’s greatest gift to the world of music and art. Its backbone is improvisation: the spontaneous creation of music within a structure.
The spiritual energy of jazz music has its roots in both mystical Christianity and west and central African-derived religions. The history of jazz music is tied to the history of Black Americans, of violence, sex and pain. The music ultimately seeks to transcend this pain. In jazz music you call it ‘swinging the blues away,’ and the music transforms the consciousness of the listener.
My own love affair with jazz music started very early in Kolkata, when I was five years old, and began to learn the piano. It deepened every year and I had two epiphanic experiences in my teens listening to records of pianist Oscar Peterson and saxophonist John Coltrane. I left India for the US to pursue a degree in mathematics. In 1995, at the end of my PhD studies at the University of Illinois, I quit the degree program to become a full-time jazz musician. I felt disconnected with mathematics and an inner voice was constantly nagging me to become a musician. Wherever I would go on the street, I could hear this endless stream of music in my head. I had to leave mathematics and dive deep into the waters of music.
The competition level for jobs in music in the New York region was exceedingly high. There were many hardships along the way. What has kept me going day after day is the faith that I am doing the right thing, doing what is ultimately best for me as a human being. At a more concrete level, the moment I made up my mind to do music, my body seemed to miraculously improve and for a short time some of my asthmatic problems seemed to go away.
Jazz spoke to me even though I was not from the culture that created the music. My own culture stopped speaking to me at any meaningful level and I had to go against its supposed ‘wisdom’. I did not believe that in order to live life to its fullest potential one had to approach life only according to what people said. I love Carnatic music but I do not like the safe approach to life of my Tambrahm roots. It’s not a risk-taking culture and if I didn’t take risks as a jazz musician I’d die on the bandstand. There were always doubts, but conviction gets rid of doubts and conviction can only come out of knowing the truth: this knowledge is not book knowledge, or what others told you, but born out of direct experience. Intuition and the inner voice are powerful guides, which uncover this truth and show you pathways. Interacting with jazz greats like Wynton Marsalis, David Murray and Max Roach helped me understand how to access the deepest emotion within, which actually connects to intuition.
Spiritual truth in music is not a textbook or cookbook approach, but a lived experience: no amount of reading the next new book written by the ‘now-fashionable’ spiritual guru, or following blind ritual can give you access to this truth. Much of my life was ‘coded’ in such textbook approaches to living on a day-to-day level. This ‘codifed lifestyle’ is the daily environment of many people in India today, even the so-called ‘creative’ people.
But when the time came to play music at a high level, there were no ‘guidebooks’ that prepared me for the performance. I had to literally let go and be carried away by the music. During the process of improvisation, I could not worry about what people were thinking, neither could I predict what the next moment was going to be like or even ‘plan for the future’. This was frightening, but exhilarating. There was no way to prepare for every situation: all one could do was go deep inside and react appropriately to every situation.
It did help that I practised everyday and constantly honed my piano technique, emotional depth and musical intellect: this is spiritual practice, and one has to do it regularly. It allows for more awareness, for clarity of perception and results in a state of being that sees connectivity everywhere. This, in turn, empowers us to react well in any situation.
I also had to change my attitude towards music. Music is not what ‘one did’, or ‘one’s job’. One lived music 24X7, one became music: music is a state of being, a living truth. This state of being allowed me to explore other spiritual practices in further depth, such as the connection between listening, breath, rhythm and music.
The core of all music is pranic energy. This truth is solidified by my sustained interaction with Carnatic musicians in Chennai in the last three years and especially with the martial artist-holistic healer-meditation teacher, George Kurien. There’s something about Chennai that makes it probably the most artistic and spiritually cultured city in India, though others may find it hard to access. It gives edge to my living reality, jazz, as a purpose in life.