A Last Lesson from Sensei

05 Nov 2014 by Jack Arnold

I don’t know how I came by this thing about telling stories. I’ve always enjoyed a good joke and prided myself in knowing how to tell a good story well. I’m sure being a musician had a lot to do with it. I never heard a good musician tell a joke that wasn’t funny. I used to love going to the studio in the morning. There was always someone waiting with a great joke. Musicians, especially jazz musicians, have a natural ability for story telling. A well told story has a rhythm to it, like phrasing in a jazz chorus. Timing, knowing when to breathe, what words to accent, an understanding of tension and relief - jazz musicians know all of that instinctively. It’s a big part of what makes them jazz musicians. And great story tellers.

I grew up with radio, Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Fibber McGee and Molly, and the movies of Fields, Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, the Stooges and the others. The Thin Man, The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca - masters all of the art of the story - the set up, the hook, the come on, and the finish. You knew from the gitgo that something bad was going to happen to Ollie, but the set up was so great you had to stick around for the finish. Everyone knew it was going to be a disaster, and yet we laughed, because we knew Ollie was going to be okay in the end. That’s the way it works.

I can’t imagine how many times I have been told a really good joke so badly the story almost wasn’t funny. So you take it with you and you fool around with it for however long it takes until you get it the way you think it should be. Then you tell it to yourself a few times to hear it out loud, making sure the rhythm is right, and the inflections and accents are the way you want them. Now you’re ready, and you can’t wait to lay this new gem on the first friend you meet.

Which brings me back to the radio. I soon noticed that my favorite programs were also my grandmother’s. Sometimes she’d laugh and I wouldn’t get it, and when I asked why she laughed she’d say that the joke was intended for grown ups. Well, what the hell kind of joke was that, I wondered. How could it be funny if everyone didn’t get it? Not long after that I discovered that all humor wasn’t for everyone. What’s really funny is the expression on the face of the guy who didn’t get it.

People speak of Picasso’s Blue Period, or Green Period or his jive-ass period – that’s kind of how I look back on my life. Maybe everyone does. With me it was growing up in a small mid-western town, Ohio State, Europe with an army band, and the early, struggling, happy New York years, followed by the later, more successful New York period. Early Los Angeles and the years after I met Melinda. My unexpected retirement from a life of music led me to the equally unexpected and rewarding Aikido years.

I used to look back at these periods in my life as unrelated entities, each separate from the others. Of course, that can’t be possible. I know that one couldn’t have happened without the other. Again, like parts of a good story, it needed its set up, the hook, the come on and the payoff. Each of these times involved unforgettable characters I have known, loved, despised, pitied, admired, emulated, studied and envied, who, knowingly or unknowingly, contributed to and enriched my life beyond my wildest expectations.

For years my friends have been encouraging me to write this stuff down. I never got around to it until now. Just being a musician was the best joke of all. With few exceptions I’ve spent the greater part of my life doing what I wanted to do, and made a good enough living that allowed me to indulge in other pursuits, less productive perhaps, but equally fascinating. The experiences that follow are not in any particular order. (I’ll provide them later - MMA) To the best of my recollection these events actually happened just as I wrote them. However, of one thing you may be sure. I’ve never been accused of letting the truth get in the way of a good story.

Post Script. Tonight, November 5th, 2011, Melinda and I went to see the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra perform the Brandenburg Concertos. All of the incredible and difficult solos were played by regular members of the orchestra, sans conductor. The concert was extraordinary and when it ended we went down the street for a late supper at Far Niente, an excellent Italian restaurant. The orchestra members frequently go there for the same reason. As we observed those great musicians toasting each other for their magnificent performances, it suddenly occurred to me. My god. I’ve pissed away my entire life.

    JEA

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