Thursday, January 1, 2015

Happy New Year? Are You Kidding Me?

Photo of Bobby Tiimmons by Francis Wolff

Happy New Year? Are You Kidding Me?
by Carl L. Hager

Happy New Year? That's right. No kidding.

The salutation "Happy New Year!" has hundreds of variations in hundreds of cultures. It's fair to say that every one of the world's 6,500+ languages (minus some of the lesser used ones, like the approximately 2,000 spoken by fewer than a thousand people--I mean, who learns to speak FORTRAN any more?) has an equivalent phrase. Mandarin Chinese, for example, which is the heavyweight champion of planet Earth, is spoken as a first language by roughly 875,000,000 people, and you know what a big deal they make of a new year.

The English phrase "Happy New Year!" is what linguists call an ellipsis, a phrase/clause that omits one or more words that are implied, understood to be present in the context of the other words. So you could say that "Happy New Year!" literally means "(Have A) Happy New Year!" except, well, its meaning is virtual, because... never mind. You know what I mean. Right? Even if Oxford now says "literally" in some cases can mean "virtually", the original meaning of "virtually" can still be used to describe something that is nearly the case, a concept that is generally or broadly true without specifically showing the exceptions. Right? 

Stay with me here. The quiz will come later, in the form of daily life.

Auld Lang Syne

Oddly enough, this little ellipsis expresses a sentiment that appears to be the dead reverse of "Auld Lang Syne," that sentimental, almost morose music that we sing or perform or listen to as we utter "Happy New Year!" Robert Burns's poem, which he apparently constructed from a very old Scots folk song, and the modern song that sprang from it, are the glass-half-full version of the story of last year, a wee bit o' pining for the good old days. Because not everything about 2014 was so bad that we need to utter "good riddance" to all that happened. 2014 held some good times. It's just that it takes a little work to think of what those good times were.

The work is made harder by the fact that memory and recorded history seem to be designed on the basis of disagreements. Yesterday's triumphs get buried under the slag heap of losses and disappointments. You don't remember the times you received an "A" on a school exam, but you certainly remember the times you failed one. You likely don't remember much about your first kiss, but you remember every detail of the breakup with the love of your life. It's the way the memory's algorithm sorts things. When suppressed, these losses and disappointments become resentments. When vocalized, they come out as complaints. So a year-end review of 2014 transforms quickly--from the year that the San Francisco Giants triumphed in the World Series over the proud and daring Kansas City Royals in such a way that everyone on both teams, fans included, went home feeling like winners, to the year of deadlocked special interests and petty machinations in Washington, D.C., culminating in a violently displeased electorate voting to throw the bums out. Instead of being remembered as the year 12 Years A Slave won the Best Picture Oscar, it's remembered as the year when a NYC cop killed 350-lb. asthmatic Eric Garner for resisting arrest while committing the unspeakable crime of selling untaxed cigarettes on those mean streets. Instead of being remembered as the year when the first bionic eye was developed that would allow up to 85% of legally blind people to see, 2014 is remembered as the year Rev. Al Sharpton led protesters through the streets as they chanted "What do we want? Dead cops! When do what them? Now!," the same year we celebrated Christmas with thoughts of the families of two NYC policemen, slain by an avenging madman.

All those numberless insanities clogging our memory banks call for the singing of "Auld Lang Syne." It's meant to remind us that this world still holds a few good things as well as the newly-accumulated crappy ones. The phrase "auld lang syne" comes from the ancient Scots language that translates literally to "old long since," and idiomatically (virtually) to something like "a long time ago" or "long, long ago." So when you see Burns's line "For auld lang syne," you are being encouraged to remember not only San Francisco's Madison Bumgarner, but Kansas City's Wade Davis as well, for their historic performances in the playoffs and World Series. You are singing to remind yourself that if you had been in life-threatening trouble in a burning corner of Ferguson, Missouri, on one of those dark nights last August--and, whether black or white, you didn't start the fire--you would have been very fortunate indeed if a cop had come to your rescue. You are singing to remind yourself that if the same thing had happened to you on the outskirts of Kiev, Putin's boys would have put you in the ground without a grave marker or a grand jury, and certainly without any television coverage.

Bobby Timmons

Bobby Timmons was a brilliant 1950s/60s-era jazz pianist and composer who worked semi-successfully on his own and very successfully as a sideman for a number of jazz's giants, among them Kenny Dorham, Chet Baker, Sonny Stitt, Maynard Ferguson, and most notably, Art Blakey, whose signature smash hit tune, "Moanin'," was composed by none other than his pianist, Bobby Timmons. The Timmons biography, when written by a cynical jazz journalist fascinated by people's darker side, typically ends there, with a bleak epitaph about Timmons's death at 36 from cirrhosis.

But Bobby Timmons was much more than a brilliant burnout whose drug and alcohol addictions robbed him of half a lifetime's worth of a celebrated musician's lush life. Once upon a time he was a little boy with a mother and father (a minister) who were both pianists. He was also an ardent piano student fortunate enough to have a music teacher for an uncle in Robert Habershaw. On graduating from high school, he accepted a scholarship to attend the Philadelphia Music Academy, a school established in 1877 and currently known as the University of the Arts, one of the oldest in the U.S. dedicated to the performing arts.
So when Timmons later recorded "Auld Lang Syne," he wasn't contemplating the dreariness of a hardscrabble ghetto existence, battling through the school of hard knocks. He was looking back fondly at the kind of supportive upbringing a musician would wish for, at a time when it could only have happened when it did, and in a musical environment like Philadelphia. When such a person as Timmons played "Auld Lang Syne" and wished someone to have a "Happy New Year!," it wasn't just a silly social convention he was following. He expected the listener to understand that it could be so.

You can hear it in his music.

You can also see it in the smooth, calm visage of a young Timmons that is the subject of Francis Wolff's photograph at the top of this article. Wolff and his good friend Alfred Lion were both German Jews who had emigrated to New York, where they soon founded Blue Note Records in 1939. Both loved freedom and despised Nazis. Most importantly, both loved jazz. Coming to America and the little island on the edge of New York state was no accident for them, just as it was no accident that the little island they chose was the capital city of jazz music, whose birthplace of New Orleans had also given way to new homes for the energizing new music in Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and all points in between. Building Blue Note and creating the most enduring, prestigious jazz record label in the world could only have happened when and where it did.

Little Boy Blue

A close friend of mine has two sons he raised pretty much on his own. One son recently graduated from college after a course of study in psychology and criminology, in preparation for a career in law enforcement. The other, who is a few years older, had a similar interest in the law but chose an entirely different route and is now a practicing attorney, working with an important non-profit group--work that doesn't make him wealthy, but makes him rich in the value he brings to the world by helping the people he does.

I was thinking about both these young men while listening to Bobby Timmons's "Auld Lang Syne" yesterday. Their career paths are ones that were freely chosen. Much as Timmons was in his youth, both were encouraged and helped in every way possible by a parent whose ethical mettle is something I've admired for the 30+ years I've known him, so the careers his sons have chosen have a certain symmetry and logic that bespeaks their upbringing.

But what struck me is how much influence my friend, as a parent, still has on the future of his child, as long as he is raising him at or near home, and how little influence he'll have after he's gone. Parents have been haunted by what they could have said or could have done, and when, forever. What could Bobby Timmons's father or mother have said that might have kept him from killing himself with alcohol and drugs? Anything?

There is one thing, at least, and that is to tell a child he can always come home, that it will always be safe to walk through the front door and seek shelter from the ravages of the world. It worked for Miles Davis, after all, when he locked himself into a room at his parents' home in St. Louis, eventually ridding himself of a heroin habit in a promethean cold-turkey withdrawl. But even given the open door, there are no guarantees.

The question that I kept coming back to was: After watching two policemen gunned down in cold blood as they went about their jobs protecting the lives and futures of the next Bobby Timmons or Frank Wolff or Alfred Lion, plus everyone else in that Gotham that never sleeps, what do you say to your son about his future as a policeman? Not just in New York, but in Phoenix, or Atlanta, or Boston? What do you say when he asks you if what is left of the moral fiber in this country is worth risking your life for? What, indeed, has become of the land of the free and home of the brave, when the people we hire to protect all of us are no longer safe from a handful of us?

I'm glad I don't have to answer a son asking me that question.

But if I did, I might play him Bobby Timmons's "Auld Lang Syne" from his 1964 album, Holiday Soul. If necessary, I'd explain my take on why "For auld lang syne," and "(Have A) Happy New Year!" are two sides of the same coin. 

"For auld lang syne, my dear...," I'd say, "I want you to consider all the beautiful wonders of this life. Consider this way of life that has produced the likes of Bobby Timmons and Blue Note Records, Chuck Yaeger and Neil Armstrong, Emily Dickinson, Rhapsody in Blue, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan and Huckleberry Finn and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Ball Four, baseball, and cheeseburgers, all of which were born of the work of Leonardo and Michelangelo and Galileo and Shakespeare and everything that went before.

"When you're done with that, I want you tell someone you know and love to '(Have A) Happy New Year'," and mean it. Then go for a walk, and find a total stranger to tell the same thing. Not all cops or future cops are racists. But if you ever see one who is, one who is violating another human being simply because he can, because that human being is darker-skinned or weaker or in the way, I want you to promise you'll descend on that cop like the wrath of God."

"Okay," he'd say.

"Not all politicians are racists, either. Or Ministers. Or grieving mothers. Or lonely wierdos. Racists and psychos are a very small percentage of the people in the world. They make a lot of noise, though, and can convince you that they are bigger and scarier and greater in number than they ever are, or were. If you wanted to make your life's work to round them up so that I can go on living my life in safety, I'd always be grateful to you."

"No kidding?," he'd ask.

"No kidding," I'd say.

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