When I started writing A Riff of Love, an idea that was encouraged from day one by my friend Anthony Smith, I knew two things: for one, I would tell my story of how living in Enderly Park has changed me; and for two, that the Black American music that has formed me since I first encountered it as a child would play a large role in helping to tell the stories that comprised the book.
The central idea of the book has remained the same since day one: I live among master improvisers. Lots of ideas have come and gone since then. Many got included. Lots more got discarded along the way. But that one conviction has become a key idea for me. My story, as a neighbor, a Christian, and a musician, is that I have always been learning from master improvisers.
Improvisation, as one might typically think of it, is "making things up." But this is not quite the right definition. Improvisation is a creative discipline - a practice - of exercising creativity amidst tight restrictions. You might think of this in the kitchen: when an ingredient is missing, you improvise. You don't just throw anything in. You use your best judgment about what would work, based on experience, curiosity, and what is available. Sometimes the results are less than stunning. But other times, the result is better than what you thought you wanted to begin with.
My spouse Helms taught me that artists call the conditions that make improvisation necessary "enabling constraints." Limits are what make creativity possible.
As a student learning to improvise, my instructor would sometimes force me to use only one hand while playing the saxophone, an instrument that requires two hands. With those constraints - which are pretty severe - the goal was for me to expand the creative reservoirs from which I was working by placing restraints on my ability to access the fullness of the instrument. You would not have wanted to hear the results, but the exercise was important as a practice.
In art, you have "enabling constraints," which are helpful. But in the real world, you have oppression, which is in no way helpful. People's lives are not an exercise for the purpose of learning. Families should not be in the position of just barely getting by because of poverty and white supremacy and the crush of the domination system.
But that is in fact what humans do. We oppress others, and we suffer oppression. In Enderly Park, every person who walks down the street has a thousand stories of the way such cruelty has been visited upon them.
But humans also respond to the cruelty of domination systems with creativity. They create poetry and resistance and delicious food and art and love, even in the starkest of conditions.
As a writer beginning the work that became this book, I knew that I had been welcomed into two traditions that exemplify such creativity. For one, I had been welcomed into the life of the streets and the porches of Enderly Park. And, I had been welcomed into the tradition of improvisation in Black American music, especially in that branch of it sometimes called "jazz." I knew that I wanted to show how being welcomed into those two related ways of life had "turned me around" - given me new ways to think, new songs to sing, and new kin to love.
You might call this attempt at writing something like an "integrative spirituality." That is, I was trying to take the influences that had deeply formed me and to make them plain. Why was this important? How do they inform one another? What am I learning? What am I unlearning?
Among the wild dreams that has come true along the way, from starting the book 4 years ago, to seeing it published last October, is the opportunity to actually present the work with live music. Here's an invitation: join me, with some of the finest musicians in Charlotte, on May 9 for a night featuring music and stories from A Riff of Love. We will play, and talk, and sing, and we will pray that the God of us all will keep turning us around in the process. Come on out and sing with us.
**A Riff of Love: Jazz and Stories of Justice and Belonging will be presented on Thursday, May 9 at 7:00pm. Holy Comforter Episcopal Church, 2701 Park Rd.
Interested in bringing the presentation to your town or congregation (or Rotary Club or nursing home or PTA)? Contact me through this website.