What Makes a Jazz Singer?
Trying to define what makes a jazz singer is similar to trying to define pornography; we know when we hear or see instances of each but we have great difficulty explaining why we know. Recently, a friend of mine said that he thought that Tony Bennett sang with honesty and told a good story but was not a jazz singer. I agreed with him but I was not sure why. Our conversation prompted me to try and figure out what the criteria might be to determine which singers deserve the jazz singer label.
Here is my list of those qualities that the perfect jazz singer would possess. I believe that the first four are essential qualities and the remaining four, while very important, are not.
1. Story telling ability / taste / honesty / emotional range
2. Improvisational skills / ears / interaction skills
3. Good time / relaxed swing / hip phrasing
4. Unique style
Important but not required additional qualities
5. A good sound
6. Technique / range / can scat
7. Good intonation
8. Ability to relate to an audience
My underlying assumption is that a jazz singer should possess the same essential qualities demonstrated by jazz instrumentalists. When Johnny Hodges played a ballad he played tastefully and honestly and the result is that he told a believable story. He understood that showing off one’s technique is not in good taste and that to do so is to sacrifice honesty. He was not only a fine improviser; he also had impeccable technique and wonderful time. His lovely sound, flawless intonation and great chops were all bonuses.
One way to assess the usefulness of the above list of qualities is to use it as a guide while analyzing a few singers with whom we are familiar. Even though some of the artists I refer to are no longer with us, I will refer to them in the present tense since we can still listen to their recordings.
Billie has the required four qualities but is, at times, short on sound, technique, range and intonation. Naturally, one can argue: “If technique is the ability to execute the things one wants to express, then Billie has technique.” I agree that she can execute but I must point out that her voice is at times undependable and shaky and as a result her range, and intonation suffers. She is an example of a jazz singer who possesses the four essential qualities but does not have full and consistent access to the other four. However, her style is so unique and her ability to create a mood and tell a story is so rich and powerful, we are more than willing to accept her shortcomings.
Sarah, perhaps the most talented of all jazz singers, has all eight of the listed qualities. If she has a weakness, it is that she sometimes lets her prodigious technique get in the way of her story telling. She cannot resist, at times, doing a huge, exaggerated bottom note or a big swoop in a spot where it negatively alters the story mood. We marvel at her virtuosity but we cannot help notice that the story suffers a bit.
I have the same reaction to Sarah that I do to Art Tatum. Each has the ability to add scintillating filigree to a solos; but such filigree, while very impressive, detracts from the mood of the performance. I feel a bit on edge listening to Tatum because he so often squeezes in one of his magical runs just when I am getting caught up in the mood generated by the lovely changes and passionate melody playing.
Ella, like Sarah, has all eight of the qualities. She also had a highly personal, almost girl-next-store voice quality that makes you like her without knowing her. Like Sarah, she could do it all—improvise, scat, swing like mad, sing in tune and tell a story. The difference between Ella and Sarah is tied more to Sarah’s harmonic knowledge. Because she is an accomplished pianist and has very educated ears, I think she is a freer and more creative improviser. However, I think Ella makes a stronger connection with the audience because she is more emotionally vulnerable.
Ms. Reeves meets all the criteria for a jazz singer. She tells an authentic story, has fantastic time (e.g., check out her comfort in 7/4 on her “Best OF” CD), can improvise and has a unique style. She is, I believe, the most talented of the current jazz singers.
Tony Bennett has two of the essential four qualities. He tells a wonderful and authentic story and has a unique sound. I do not think, though, that he meets the criteria for jazz singing because he cannot improvise and he has, at best, average ability to swing. I think it is easy to confuse his ability to swing with his trio’s. He uses great pianists (e.g., John Bunch and Ralph Sharon) and they do an excellent job of giving the impression that he swings. Like Billie Holiday, his ability to create a mood and tell a story is so powerful that we tend to give him slack in other areas. He is, I believe, a jazz-oriented singer, not a jazz singer in the fullest sense of the term.
I though it would be fun to contrast Tony Bennett with Billy Eckstine. Based on the above criteria, Eckstine, like Bennett, is not a jazz singer. He does not swing very hard and is not much of an improviser. He is essentially a jazz oriented crooner. He has a great sound, good technique and range and a wonderful stage presence but because of his need to emphasize his fat and unique sound he tells a so-so story. Yes, he is the legendary “B,” is very hip, dresses beautifully, had a famous bebop jazz band and hangs with jazz musicians; but these things do not qualify him as a jazz singer. He is, like Tony Bennett, a jazz oriented singer.
Though I have a couple of his CDs and admire his talent, I do not listen to Elling very much. I am put off by his sound and his uncertain intonation. However, based on the above criteria, he certainly qualifies for the label of jazz singer. He has a unique sound, can tell a story, can swing and is a skilled and creative improviser. I include him in this analysis because he is an example of a singer who meets the essential criteria but because of his sound, will probably never become widely popular. I have played his CDs for friends and few have liked him. Like me, they have admired his ability but not his sound.
SummaryI do not believe it is possible to definitively list those qualities which determine who is or who is not a jazz singer. The above criteria are simply my attempt to analyze and answer a very difficult question. Hopefully, I have written a piece that will generate some interesting discussion. There are probably as many definitions of jazz singing as there are listeners and I welcome hearing from anyone who has thoughts on the subject. I am taking the liberty of including a short list of those singers whom I believe meet the above criteria. The list is far from complete and I have no doubt that I have left folks off who belong on the list. One obvious drawback to my criteria list is that I ended up leaving some famous blues singers off the list (e.g., Bessie Smith) because the recorded samples I have of their music indicate that they could not improvise. I think that this points out how limiting such a list can be. A friend suggested that perhaps I should make the cutoff for inclusion three out of four of the essential criteria. It is an interesting thought. Psychiatrists routinely assign a diagnostic label to patients who exhibit three out of four symptoms listed in the DSM IV Diagnostic Manual. Why can't jazz fans do the same?
Singers who I believe meet the jazz criteria listed above
Louis Armstrong, Betty Carter, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Shirley Horn, Anita O’Day, Dianne Reeves, Kurt Elling, Joe Williams, Mel Torme, Abby Lincoln, Bobby McFerrin, Carmen McRae, Cassandra Wilson, Jimmy Rushing, Lou Rawls, Jackie and Roy Kral, Ray Charles.
Colonoscopies, passing wind and competition
About six months ago I had a colonoscopy. The doctor, in order to puff the colon up so that he could more freely root around with his camera-headed snake, filled it with air. The result of this inflation was that when he had completed his sight seeing I was left with a lot of the air still in my colon. Of course, before they discharge you from the post-colostomy waiting area the nurses want you to pass the air. That is, they tell you that you need to fart. Apparently, by farting, you show them that all is well and then you can be safely discharged.
The nurses in the room knock out the social taboo against farting by applauding and cheering all farts by all patients. Further, they give longer and more enthusiastic cheers and applause to those who fart long and loud. Naturally, the applause brought out the competitive spirit in me and I pushed and strained, trying for the loudest, longest and "best fart" of anyone in the room. When I received strong applause for ripping off a number of thunderous and fortunately non‑smelly farts (the empty colon doesn't produce odor) I was very proud. (Be clear—when I talk about applause, I literally mean the entire staff and all the patients’ relatives are yelling : "Yaayyyyyyy" and clapping long and loud). If I might toot my own horn a bit, none of my competitors' farts were as impressively in tune, demonstrated as much diaphragm support or had as big a tuba-like bottom. Like my dad used to say: "If you're going to do something, do it as well as you can."
This re‑defining of farting as a socially approved behavior was accepted by my wife and, of course, being the supportive and loving spouse that she is, she stayed with me in the waiting room and enthusiastically applauded me for my musical efforts. I must admit that I wondered if her enthusiasm was as real as it appeared; but I was greatly reassured that same night. At 3 AM I woke myself up with a very long and loud fart; probably the last of the forced-air pockets. She woke up, gave a little giggle, sang a sweet little cheerleader's "Yaaaay..." and then drifted back off to sleep. With a smile on my face, I too drifted back off to sleep secure in the knowledge that I still "had it" and that she knew it.
We are indeed funny and odd creatures. I must admit that now, in light of this victory, I am actually looking forward to having my kidneys checked.
Pat Robertson's Procrustean Bed
In the "Better Late than Never" department, here are some thoughts about Pat Robertson, the transparently slick, multi-millionaire televangelist, who has again exposed himself for the hypocrite he is. A few months ago, when the Dover, PA state's voters nixed teaching "Intelligent Design" side by side with evolution (a wise decision, since "Intelligent Design," a thinly disguised version of Creationism, is based on faith, not science, and thus has no place in the science classroom), Robertson went into a typical Fundamentalist right wing snit and said: (I paraphrase) "When a disaster strikes, these voters no longer have the right to ask God for help (since they rejected Intelligent Design) and so now they should ask Darwin for help."This guy is so transparent--he is masquerading as a Christian but he is anything but. He is not accepting or forgiving of anyone who does not agree with him. Like most fundamentalists, he has no capacity to live with grey. He needs a black and white world and any ideas or beliefs that are "relative" frighten him to death. Imagine the power and magnitude of the insecurity that drives his need to have only simplistic, "right-wrong" answers to life's unansweraable questions. He is like Procrustes, the innkeeper in Greek mythology, who bragged that he had a bed that fit anyone regardless of his size; but the way he achieved this was to either stretch the sleeper on the rack or chop the sleepers legs off to make him fit. Robertson, Procrustes-like, chops away or stretches any facts that do not fit his beliefs.
He does not accept science's demand that one needs to experiment with an open mind and that the findings of experiments give us a basic but still incomplete truth until new experiments extend and refine that truth. He approaches each of life's questions with a pre-conceived, biblical literalist driven answer and then confirms his belief by using a Procrustean approach and chopping away and ignoring all the data that indicates otherwise. Examples? He needs to believe that the earth is only 5,000 years old because the bible says so, thus he ignores carbon dating. He needs to believe that everything in the bible is the literal truth and so he ignores the fact that the bible has been a political instrument that has been arbitrarily revised many times over the centuries to suit the politics and beliefs of whomever was ruling at the time. It is a sad thing to see a supposed man of god acting in such a petulant and mean spirited way. The true Christian values of love, mercy, forgiveness and open-mindedness are lost on him. He is a chest thumping, holier than thou, judgmental, empire building little man. One only has to watch his TV show and observe him doing his sham "prayers" and making up stuff about literally hearing the prayers of "a woman out there with a bad heart who needs money" and then making his shameless pitch for bucks to accurately assess his act. He's really no more than a TV huckster with a slick line. It was predictable then, that when the smart folks in PA rejected the pseudo-Christian, pseudo-scientific line touted by him and his ilk, he would tantrum and give himself away. The inability to live with grey is his bete noir.
The Non-Drumming Drummer
I recently went to visit with a kind-hearted friend of mine. He has a habit of letting assorted people stay at his big San Francisco home. His house is a haven for folks who are either down on their luck, traveling on a limited budget or are friends or friends-of-friends of any of his five children.
While there, I was introduced to a young man of about 20 who, in response to my self introduction, said in a surly voice: "I'm Bob. I'm on a walk-about, traveling the United States." We chatted a bit and then I asked him if he was a college student. He replied: "No, college is a waste of time. It's the safe route taken by frightened people. I'm an artist, a jazz musician." I asked him what instrument he played and he said: "I'm a jazz drummer." I told him that by co-incidence I was also a drummer and asked him who he had studied with and he said, with a strong note of defensiveness: "I didn't have to study with anyone, I learned on my own." Trying to be tactful, I said: "That's brave of you. I was unwilling to try and learn on my own. How is your playing coming? It must be difficult to find opportunities to practice and places to play while traveling around." Sneering, he said: "There is no need to practice. I do all of my learning by listening to jazz and imagining it all in my head. I said: "But, I assume you have learned the basic drum rudiments such as paradittles, flams, and the like?" He answered: "That's all old, corny stuff and absolutely unnecessary. I learn by imagining and picturing the drum set and playing it in my mind."
After asking more questions and suffering the insults that went with his answers, I discovered that this boy had never owned a practice pad, drum sticks or a set of drums and that he had no idea what music notation looked like. I was further shocked to learn that he had never once played with a band of any kind. I was not surprised to find, after further inquiry, that he was the only son of wealthy parents and was traveling on their money.
Given that he was a snotty kid and not very likeable, I decided to tease him a bit. I said: "So, let me get this straight; you have never practiced, you have never played on a set of drums, you have no idea how drum technique works, you have never trained your hands to play the instrument, you have never played with another musician or band, but you advertise yourself as a jazz drummer. How do you justify this?"
Raising his voice, he angrily said: "You're like all the old farts; you do everything by the book. I'm taking a free, unfettered approach to jazz drumming. I can sit in right now with the best jazz groups and play as well as anyone. I've learned everything I need to know by listening. You're a slave to an orthodox, stodgy, old fashioned approach to playing drums."
I watched his face closely, because it occurred to me that he might have been working a beautifully delivered put-on. But, sadly, it was no put-on. His self-delusion was real. At this point I decided that he was getting too worked up and that further pulling of his covers would only lead to unwanted and unnecessary tension in my friend's house; but his pathetic attempt to gain respect by way of false advertising got me to wondering. What kind of parenting or home life would bring about such an obvious feeling of inferiority and enable such a blatantly neurotic and self delusional defense?
A couple of scenarios come to mind. I would guess that he had very little success academically. Given that he was articulate during our exchange and had a good vocabulary, he was probably tagged with an early label of bright under-achiever. His teachers could see he was smart but they did not know how to get past his defenses. I imagine his parents, whenever he delivered his silly "I'm superior to those who have a work-ethic" rationalization in response to confrontations about not doing chores or homework, continually backed down and let him off the hook without any consequences.
The anger that he demonstrated during our little exchange leads me to think that he learned very early to bully one or both of his parents with the tried and true defense of the insecure--"The best defense is a good offense" ploy. That is, if he attacks first, they are set back on their heels and never get their point across. I can imagine that he had weak, guilt ridden parents who folded in the face of his attacks or accusations of unfairness; or perhaps they were pre-occupied and never thought enough about his woefully inadequate study habits to consider it a problem. I would further guess that he was given money in lieu of attention, time and training.
Of course, it could have been a different scenario. Perhaps he had overbearing, judgmental, high achieving parents who put up such high standards that he had to develop this defense in order to justify not reaching such a highly set bar. I remember a patient of mine once telling me that both of her parents had doctorates and that even if she went on to graduate school for a Ph.D. after getting her undergraduate degree, the best she could do was break even. When, at my suggestion, she told this to her parents they were shocked. They had always believed they were inspirations, not daunting roadblocks.
But, for whatever reason, Bob, the non-drumming drummer chose to make believe he had a professional jazz musician's skill. His knew that esteem and respect are tied to such skills but because he had never learned to put in the necessary hard work he had to resort to a silly, delusional rationalization.
It seems to me that the world is populated with all too many folks like this boy. He and the Paris Hiltons of this world seem to think that attention, regardless of how it is gained, is enough. The idea of working hard to learn something worthwhile; the idea of delayed gratification; the idea that one's work is an extension of one's heart and soul; all of these notions are outside their awareness.
Once, while riding on a plane, I sat next to a wise man. We were discussing the challenges that each generation of American immigrants has faced during the last 100 years. He shared a pertinent old Yiddish saying: "My grandfather was a laborer so my father could be a businessman so I could be a professional so my child can be a poet." We can add that if the businessman or professional does not teach a value system that includes a work ethic and the value of delayed gratification, the happy chain of generational events in the saying breaks down. In this same vein, I once heard a definition of happiness: "Happiness is the awareness of my own personal growth." Bob the non-drumming drummer, until he learns to put in the practice, will never be marching to a real and satisfying beat.
The Great Frank versus Perry Moral Dilemma
I grew up in an extended Italian family. My father and his five brothers were third generation Italian-Americans but were still tied closely to their Italian roots, having been raised for the most part by their maternal grandparents, my Great-Grandpa and Grandma DiToro, who were first generation immigrants. As a result, they admired and were proud of all things Italian, not the least of which were successful Italian entertainers.
To a man, my dad and uncles all loved and admired Frank Sinatra and Perry Como. For those of you who may not know about Perry Como, he was a crooner popular at the same time as Sinatra but whose value system was the polar opposite. Perry had first been a full time barber, Frank had never worked a day job. Perry loved his wife and was, the story goes, always true to her. Frank loved his wives and was never true to them. Perry was married once and stayed married until death did them part. Frank was married a number of times and was always looking over his current wife's shoulder. Perry was relaxed and a homebody, Frank was career driven and usually on the road and partying. Perry was content singing and doing his TV show and did not make movies. Frank sang and was a television and movie star as well as an big time Las Vegas intertainer. Perry was squeaky clean, went to church, hung with his family and had golf scores in the low seventies. Frank went to bars, was tied to the mafia, hung with the Rat pack and had seduction scores in the hundreds. And so, they could not have been more different. Their only similarity, it appears, was that they were both Italian-Americans. Yet, both were revered by my father and my uncles.
When referring to Frank, the males in my family would, with exaggerated New York Italian-American accents and a lowered voice, say: "Hey, that Frank! He gets some tail, huh!? He screws all the most beautiful actresses. How'd you like to be Frank for a week, huh?" And as they talked about him getting laid they would make that fist pumping motion down below their hips which indicated that Frank, that most impressive of swingers, "was getting his and everyone else's while he was at it."
When I became a drummer and moved from New Jersey to Las Vegas to live and work full time, the first thing my dad and uncles would ask me when I would come home to Jersey on visits was: "So, Ron, are you screwing those showgirls silly?" Or, "So, Ron, have you gotten to see Frank and Dino in Vegas? I'll bet there's tons of gorgeous cooze hangin' around them all the time, begging to screw them--am I right?"
On the other hand, when they discussed Perry, the men were equally reverential but about his sound family values. My father and my uncles all said, more than once in one form or another: "You know Ron, Perry Como, he goes to church with his family every week and he doesn't fool around on his wife. He's a good man. He used to be a barber you know, so underneath he's like us, a working man. He doesn't let his success go to his head."
So what does an impressionable young man do with these conflicting moral positions? I can tell you, with some embarrassment, that I did not recognize the conflict. And so it never occurred to me to ask the men in my family the obvious question: "How can you value both Sinatra and Como when they each stand for such different things?" It was only in graduate school that I began examining the split and its effects on me.
I have, over time, concluded that my father and uncles were very comfortable with such a moral split because they were Italian and had bought the old world Italian party line that adultery is okay and divorce is not. For example, on a recent trip to Italy, this was confirmed when I spent time with an Italian physician who bragged to me at length about his trips to Cuba with his male buddies and the high quality of the "teenage screwing" that is available. He is married with three grown children and spoke lovingly of his wife and family. Based on his description of his own behavior and the behavior of his friends, I would not be surprised if this was the norm in Italy.
When I asked my father why Italian men do not divorce but have affairs he said: "Because it's the right thing to do. Italians are family men. We don't abandon our children. We stay together for the kids. We can always get something on the side if we're unhappy. It's what men do."
I did my best to live up to this value system and to earn my father's and my uncles' respect. I married but was unfaithful. I tried the best I could to sleep with as many women as I could and dutifully reported it to my dad and uncles. I basked in their approval but all the while was anxious that I was not really macho enough to be a real lady’s man like Frank because I felt guilty about my exploits and I suspected that no self respecting Sinatra-like male would feel such guilt. Apparently, I had some unrecognized Perry Como in me.
When I got into graduate school at age 32 I was forced, in my supervision therapy sessions, to begin examining my value system. Slowly, over time, I began to see that my Dad and Uncles had taught me something that did not work for me. I decided to stop the lies and the cheating. It took me a while because such behavior is highly addictive.
I often wonder how many young Italian-American men have struggled with this Frank versus Perry split. And when I see an Italian-American man with a slick Brilliantined haircut, his top three shirt buttons open, wearing gold chains and a flashy wristwatch and cupping his crotch while ogling women on the street, I can safely guess he is doing his Frank Sinatra imitation. And so the tradition continues.
An interesting post-script to this is that I recently presented this Frank versus Perry ethical dilemma to one of my cousins. I concluded my story by asking him: "So, what do you make of this?" He thought for a moment, and then with a silly grin on his face, said: "I think the solution is to be a barber and screw a lot of beautiful women."
A Chickadee Soap
Last Spring Felicia and I had the fun of watching two Black Capped Chickadees court, find a home, build a nest, have babies, raise them and then endure the anxiety of watching them leave the nest and enter a predator filled world. When courting, the male Black Capped Chickadee has a very specific three-note call he uses to attract the female. In musical terms, it consists of one high-pitched quarter note followed by two eighth notes, each one third lower in pitch than the first note. Felicia and I found the little call so appealing that now, when we go shopping and get separated, we whistle it as a way to find each other, using it as a kind of Marco Polo bird song.
We had a number of Black Capped males advertising themselves last spring and their calls to prospective females were constant. One couple hooked up and chose to live close to our house giving us the opportunity to observe their lives for about eight weeks. We have an Aspen adjacent to our second story deck and this particular chickadee couple built their nest in a little wren house I had attached at the 15 foot level. The female inspected the house a number of times before deciding it was acceptable and we wondered what, specifically, she was looking for. The male perched nervously on a nearby branch, hoping she would find the little house acceptable. Once she did, they immediately began nest building. They made hundreds of flights to the gully behind our home and returned with a variety of nesting materials, including tiny feathers, hair, plant down, and insect cocoons. It took them almost two weeks to build the nest and we were impressed with their industry and single mindedness.
Felicia and I watched them at eye level from the comfort of our lounging chairs and made many a guess about what they might be thinking or planning. Neither of us had ever watched Black Capped Chickadees before and it was fun observing their rituals and learning their different calls. While telling my daughter Shannon about the couple, she said: "You should name them." I asked her if she had any ideas for names and she said: "How about Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire? And the babies can be the Ginger Snaps." Felicia and I thought this was creative and funny and so we adopted the names.
Once the nest was completed, Ginger laid her eggs. Chickadees typically have a two to six egg clutch and the female stays on the eggs while the male feeds her. We noticed that if Fred approached the nest and did not announce himself Ginger would emit an angry hissing sound. Fred quickly learned to cue Ginger to his presence with a little six note song that said: "It'ss just me with a tasty spider or insect." His commitment was touching and we watched, impressed, as he worked all day, every day, morning till evening, making countless hunting trips to the gully and back with her food. We wondered if she, like human mothers, had particular yens, perhaps for the more salty variety of spider or for that sweet 3AM snack; maybe a berry or a particular kind of sugar filled bee or ant.
After about two and one half weeks, the babies hatched and at that point both Fred and Ginger went into high gear. Feeding six little chicks was hard work and within a week after the hatching we could hear the little chicks' high pitched chirping when Ginger or Fred entered the nest with something to eat.
It was at this point that we stumbled upon a story in the local newspaper. It was an article by an ornithologist describing the life of Black Capped Chickadees. He discussed their habits and mating rituals and as we read the article we were impressed with his expertise because Fred and Ginger were indeed doing the very things he described. But, toward the end of the article he wrote the following: "One characteristic of the female Black Capped Chickadee is that she is prone to infidelity. When an unattached Black Capped male is in the area and sends out his mating call, if the volume of his call exceeds that of her already chosen mate, she will fly out to the bachelor chickadee, have sex, and then resume nest building with her mate."
He also wote that she would almost certainly do this with more than one bachelor chickadee and that the number of these “quickies” depended upon the song volume of any given sweet talking Black Capped bachelors who were visiting the area. The greater the song volume the bigger the chest and who knows what else. These shenanigans all occur after she has chosen her mate but before she lays her eggs. The author further explained that such behavior is motivated by a genetic, improve-the-species drive. Thus, to our dismay, we were forced to conclude that some of the eggs in the nest were almost certainly not little Fred's. He was raising another bird’s children!
Felicia and I were shocked by this information and, needless to say, very disappointed by Ginger's behavior. We began to refer to her as “the little slut" and both of us felt genuine empathy for Fred. We were righteously angry that such a hard working and dedicated family bird should be cuckolded. We concluded that he probably knew about the multiple affairs but loved her so much he overlooked them, ignoring his pain for the greater good of the coming family. We gossiped about Ginger and our perception of her was now colored by our discovery that she was a liar and a cheat. We made sad little “what are you going to do," faces, and shook our heads disapprovingly at her lack of appreciation for Fred's loyalty and devotion. We spoke with disgust about the corrupt and selfish Black Capped bachelors who preyed on young, impressionable married chickadees who had too much time on their hands. However, we were, sadly, also guilty of revisionism and decided that Fred had all along worked much harder than Ginger and we wondered how we could have initially missed her obviously entitled, “What have you done for me lately" attitude. We remembered her hissing at Fred when all he was trying to do was feed her during her pregnancy. We agreed that Fred should have put some sort of pre-nup in place. But of course how could he have known the real Ginger. We agreed that she had done a masterful job of selling him a bill of goods. We also concluded that if they did not make it Fred should definitely get the house. We were the landlords, by God, and we will have some say.We also had discussions about whether or not the size of a bird’s mating song really mattered. We concluded that Ginger must have had many such experiences and had become sexually corrupt before seducing Fred. Yes, we concluded that, naturally, she had seduced him; and that he only thought he had courted her.
It was at this point that Fred and Ginger experienced a devastating family crisis. One so disturbing that Ginger's infidelity paled by comparison. It was late one afternoon as we walked onto our deck. We checked Fred and Ginger's house and noticed that some of the chicks were now missing from the nest. We concluded that they had flown away. It takes Black Capped chicks about three weeks to mature to the point where they can leave the nest and the three weeks were up. Then, at that moment, the last two chicks flew from the birdhouse opening down onto our back lawn. Their wings were strong enough to keep them from crashing but not strong enough to sustain flight. We looked for Fred and Ginger and discovered that they were each perched on low tree branches at opposite ends of the yard and both were sending loud calls to the two chicks. Their constant squawks had an intense and alarmed quality that we suspected was too strong to be merely attempts to urge the chicks to fly. Felicia and I scanned the yard and discovered that a mature, foot tall American Kestrel, an orange-brown falcon, was perched on one of our fence posts and eyeing the two chicks. The chicks were instinctively motionless on the grass. Felicia and I held our breaths as we watched the drama unfold.
Fred and Ginger were beside themselves, flying from tree branch to tree branch while entreating their chicks to fly away. I pulled out my Birder's Handbook and hurriedly searched for information about American Kestrels. I discovered that unlike some of their falcon cousins, they have no qualms about picking their prey off the ground and because of this they are described as "swooper” feeders. We watched the scene. It did not look good. We thought about intervening but dismissed that as unwise interference with the natural order of things.
The kestrel made its move, flew with lightening quickness into the yard, swooped down and flew off with one of the chicks in its talons. The other chick, flushed by the kestrel, flew into the safety of the gully. We were horrified. Fred and Ginger flew in circles and made sad little muted bird sounds. We felt for them. My god! Eight weeks of work and then this.
Though we looked for them, Fred and Ginger never returned to their home. Spring turned to summer and, over time, Felicia and I healed. Time has a way of helping. This year the aspen to which their birdhouse was attached had to be cut down due to a parasite invasion. Though there are still Black Capped Chickadees in the area, we are almost certain that Fred and Ginger are not among them. We believe that the affairs and the loss of their chick was too much for them to overcome and that they opted for a change of scenery. We also believe that Fred forgave Ginger and that his unconditional love combined with their new locale saved their relationship.
Friendship and "Air time"
I recently have had contact with an old drum teacher acquaintance of mine. He was a good teacher and a fine player. I studied with him for a few years back in the early sixties. Since I was the student and he was the teacher, our implicit agreement during those years was that I listened while he did the talking. We have had occasional contact over the years and recently he and I have had a few phone conversations. What I find interesting about our recent phone calls is that it is clear that he is still operating under the old assumption that he will get all or almost all of the “air time” when we speak.
For example, a year or so ago I mailed him a CD of an old tape I had made with a trio I used to work with. We were backing a name singer and I thought the tape had some very nice moments. He never responded to the mailing and so I never knew what he thought about it or even if he had received it. Then, one day during some down time he had at his job, he called me up to chat and he pretty much talked non-stop for 45 minutes. Just before we got off the phone I asked him: “Incidentally, did you ever get the CD I sent you?” He replied: “Yes, I did.” I asked: “How’d you like it?” He said: “It was nice.” Since he volunteered no additional information, I let it drop and we ended our phone conversation.
Then, a month or so later he mailed me a CD of a tape he had made with a big band back in the sixties. About a week after I received the CD he called and asked if I had gotten it. I said that I had. He asked me what I thought of the tape. As an experiment, to see how he would respond, I said simply: “It was good.” He waited for me to volunteer more and when I did not, he said, more aggressively: “That’s it? What do you think about my playing on the tape?” I smiled to myself at his insistence but decided to be nice; and so I spent the next fifteen minutes analyzing his playing in detail and describing all those things about it that I liked. It was not difficult to do because he is a good player and it was an enjoyable recording. Finally, the conversation came to an end and he hung up, satisfied that he had heard all he was going to hear about his CD.
The sad thing about this little sequence of events is that my old drum teacher's lack of awareness about sharing airtime is not unusual. Many people get stuck at the acquaintance level and do not get to the next level of friendship for the same reason. Real friends give each other an opportunity for equal air time; and this includes the gift of genuine interest in each others endeavors. When one person sets up an unequal “air time” arrangement by doing all the talking the imbalance becomes problematic.
Ron, a musician friend of mine who lives in Las Vegas, Nevada, describes his occasional telephone exchanges with a mutual acquaintance of ours who does not listen but loves to talk: “When he calls, I get a pillow, prop the phone on it, plop down with my ear next to it and get ready for a long listening siege. Then, periodically he asks me what I’m up to and after I give him one piece of information, it triggers something else he wants to talk about and he’s off again and I listen for another half hour. It’s a huge drag.” Not surprisingly, our mutual friend has difficulty making and keeping friends. This is understandable, because most people are not willing to pay the price of doing all the listening and getting no air time. We all need to get our chance to talk and to feel like our friends are interested.
An embarrassing personal example of not giving air time occurred one morning in my office with a patient. I had gotten into the habit of drinking two large mugs of very strong coffee with sugar on my hour long drive into my office in Denver. One morning, my first patient, a very bright and assertive business executive, after listening to me expound non-stop for his entire psychotherapy hour, asked me, “So, Doctor C., are you going to pay me now or should I just bill you?” Confused, I said, “I don’t understand. What do you mean?” He said, “You talked non-stop for this entire hour so I assume it must have been therapeutic for you. Do you want to pay me now or should I bill you?” Embarrassed, I immediately apologized and said, “I’m so sorry–it must be the coffee. Naturally, I will not charge you for this hour.” He laughed and said, “You were very interesting, but you might want to cut back a mug or two.” Fortunately, he was a very accepting man and overlooked his lack of air time, chalking it up to my caffeine intoxication.
The “Ten minute rule”
I have a friend who is one of the best listeners and communicators I know. He was the dean of music at a large university and is an accomplished conductor. I often inquire about conducting because he is so articulate and insightful about this fascinating endeavor. I have noticed that he observes what I call the “ten minute rule.” He will speak freely in response to my open ended questions for about ten minutes and then he will try to shift the focus of the conversation back to me. Being a sensitive man, he assumes that I would also like some air time. If I do not want the air time, I just reassure him that I want to hear more about conducting; he is then usually comfortable discussing it further.
Although he is a fascinating guy, and in my opinion he does not have to do a ten minute check with me, I think it is a good rule of thumb when you are having a discussion with friends. Sometimes the topics we are talking about are only of limited interest to our friends and so periodically giving them the opportunity to change topics or to get some air time by changing the focus back to them is generally a good thing to do.
And so, some final words about my drum teacher acquaintance: What is the effect on me of his poor ability to inquire or show interest? Since I have been relegated to the role of listener-audience, I do not have as much fun talking with him as I do with friends who inquire. Like everyone, I would like to think that I also have things to say that are of interest. When I feel that I am not being listened to or that there is no opportunity for me to get at least some air time I become bored. Having said all this, I think my old drum teacher is a good guy with a good heart. He has simply not learned to share air time.