Aug 11, 2008


As we get older, things happen inside of us that we never expected in our younger years, and they're not always good things. But sometimes dark clouds really do have silver linings, and that's how I'm choosing to looking at this particular dark cloud.

For the past five years, I have had terrible bouts of tiredness. I don't mean the kind of tiredness where you just get a good night's sleep and that fixes it. I'm talking about a pervasive bone-weariness, a lethargy that at times makes the simplest activity seem like a major expenditure of energy.

We're all like little suns, atomic furnaces that burn fuel and emit heat and light, joy and sorrow, creativity and work, all the things that make us who we are. My tiredness was more profound than I may ever be able to describe. It was like being trapped in a black hole where the event-horizon was threatening to just swallow me up. I felt like I was living on a drab, sunless, joyless, heavy-gravity planet.

I'm a trooper! Somehow I managed to play concerts through it all, but there were times when, just before I walked on stage, I wanted to walk the other way and just leave the concert hall. If I had done that I would have surely been sued by the promoters. But I was getting to the point where I didn't much care. I was THAT tired.

I flew to Brecon, Wales, in Great Britain, to play a concert, and wisely allowed myself three days to rest before I played a one-hour concert. I slept almost every single minute of those three days. At one point, a good friend whom I'd not seen in years knocked at the hotel door. I opened the door and told her to "please go away." About all that I saw of Wales was the inside of the concert hall, the keys of the piano, and the ducks outside of my hotel room. At least that's all that I clearly remember.

(Proving that Murphy knew something about law, BBC TV decided to do a profile of me on the day of my concert, which was seen by millions of folks all over the world. You can watch that here ... I suppose it turned out OK for a lady that felt as old as Methuselah.)

I figured, at 60, that I was dying. "Strange," I thought, "that I should die so young, but I guess quality is better than quantity." And I'd console myself, noting that I'd made a slew of records and CDs, most of which I could live - or die - with, and that I've loved and been loved.

Hypothyroid treatment started Feb 19, 08

Then, last week, I went to my doctor for my regular checkup, and came back home and fell into what I later found out could've been my last night's sleep... it was as near to mexedema coma as I ever want to get... my partner literally saved my life, expending an incredible amount of time and energy just getting me to respond and finally reach a state of semi-consciousness. Everything had gone WHITE for me! All around me, as far as I could "see", there was nothing but white.

The next morning my doctor called, telling me to have someone go to the pharmacy for me immediately; that he'd called in a drug that I needed to start taking as soon as possible.

It turns out that I have hypothyroidism. Mine is not not a mild form. My thyroid is dead as a door-nail. And that means that my pituitary gland has been working overtime, trying to "wake up" my dead thyroid gland, without success.

It turns out that I've been walking around for almost five years with little-to-no thyroid activity. My thyroid was most likely cutting in and out, like a bad stereo speaker. Some days static, other days, nothing at all. The thyroid gland regulates every single function of your body, and you can't live without it: you go into a coma and die. Turns out that I did nearly go into that coma, but was awakened by my partner just in time. And my doctor FOUND it, just in time.

(I should mention that my doctor never really missed it. He lived and worked in a state in which I didn't live, so he'd call in the blood panel to a lab in my area. I had my testing done by lab technicians in California. THEY missed it, several times over.)

So now, every day for the rest of my life, I have to take a synthetic "bio-identical" version of the hormone that the thyroid gland is supposed to produce on it's own, something called Levothyroxin. Meanwhile, my thyroid itself is out of the game forever, over with, kaput.

Hello, Levothyroxin, goodbye, thyroid gland.

I've now been on Levothyroxin for fourteen days [2.29.08]. I sleep again. I wake up feeling rested. I answer the phone and people ask for Jessica because I sound so GOOD. I laugh again. I feel life in my body again. My hair has stopped falling out. I can taste food again. I can walk around without gloves on. My body is WARM. I'm losing the edema (water retention) and I'm walking the dog again.

I had been dealing with a whole laundry list of symptoms:

Cold intolerance
Constipation or Diarrhea
Weight gain
Joint and muscle pain
Thin, brittle fingernails
Thin brittle hair
Yellow skin on palms of hands, around eyes
Slow speech
Dry flaky skin
Puffy face, hands and feet
Decreased taste and smell
Thinning of outer third of eyebrows
Overall swelling
Muscle spasms and cramps
Muscle atrophy
Uncoordinated movement
Joint stiffness
Hair loss
Appetite loss
The inability to deal with record producers

(That last may not respond to drug therapy, I am told)

What a horrible five years I've had. Being an optimist (I actually am, really really!) I made it through. But it's been hard to really give my best while dealing with such a formidable opponent as thyroid disease, and thyroid shutdown is a horrible experience.

As one friend wrote:

"Jessica! What a story! My heart aches to hear what you went through - and then the enormous discovery of what truly was the root of so much trouble. I was diagnosed as hypothyroid after my second child was born and have been taking Levothyroxin for 22 years. My case was detected very early and has been easy to manage. To hear your story not only makes my heart ache; I feel an ache in the marrow of my bones. No thyroid. You have been through hell. What a powerhouse you are to have survived these years. Hallelujah that you are on the way out of such a deep, dark hole, headed for the light. Love, B ___ "

And she is so right about that. The deep dark hole. It was that way, exactly. And I made it somehow, and I played really well most of the time. When one is so tired that just getting out of bed is a major miracle, it's a real accomplishment to walk out there in front of a hundred or a thousand people and play your heart out. But I did nothing else well. And I didn't know what was wrong, for five long years. That was the hell, not knowing. Just dying inside.

I wanted to write a little about this, because HERE'S WHAT HAPPENED AFTER I STARTED TO FEEL A LITTLE BIT BETTER:

I composed a letter, and I sent it to maybe forty or fifty of my best friends. I have a mailing list of thousands... you may be on it... but I sent this letter to only my dear friends. I may have missed a few, because this disease makes the neurons in your brain fire more slowly, it makes you forget things, and it makes you stumble and slur and feel dizzy and move slowly.

And, as their answers came back (and nearly everyone answered me almost immediately) I made a discovery. I found that out of the fifty emails I sent, maybe 80 percent were women, mostly in their forties, fifties, and sixties, and GET THIS, almost EVERY LAST ONE OF THEM (with two or three exceptions) were either on Levothyroxin for ZERO thyroid function, or were on a similar therapy for hypothyroidism of a milder form, where their thyroid hormone was really LOW!

So it's been going on all week, and it's like I'm running a clinic around here. I'm getting calls and emails, and we're all sharing experiences and we're all saying "wow, you too, huh?" Many of us were diagnosed only after years of misdiagnosis and tons of unnecessary tests.

Most of us were diagnosed late to one degree or another, and most of us consider those years of darkness and tiredness and misery our "lost years."

So the message here, the reason for this virtual orgy of personal self-disclosure is:

Get tested, and ask for a blood panel SPECIFICALLY directed at monitoring your T3, T4, and TSH levels. An elevated TSH (Thyroid Stimulating Hormone) level means that your pituitary gland (which controls your thyroid gland, which in turn controls every other organ in your body) is sending out stronger-than-usual messages to your thyroid, which, for reasons known only to it, is not doing the job. The pituitary gland is "flogging" your thyroid to please work, and your thyroid is just sitting there like a bump on a pickle.

So when the TSH is way up, the T3 and T4 (the thyroid hormone itself) is way low. Maybe it's not even there. And that's BAD NEWS for all systems in the body. That's why you can sleep through three alarm clocks and two wake-up calls, which I did on the road once, not too long ago.

The TSH panel is the most important part of the test, but knowing the T4 levels makes a diagnosis more concise.

This disease strikes mostly women, but guys can get it too. The ratio is 15 (maybe even 20) to 1, but it's still worth doing a panel. Do a "google". And here are a few links to get you started if you think you may have suspiciously similar symptoms that bear checking out:

The Mayo Clinic
Medline Plus
Hashimoto's Disease
Towards the end of the tunnel, which I took to be the approaching end of my life, it got so dark and I got so tired that I was spending most days entirely in bed. I made music in my home studio, but the pace of my creativity had slowed to a crawl. An example of this is in how long it took me to make an album. Back in '96 I had made Higher Standards for Candid Records, and did the entire album in 3 hours of studio time. The budget (as for all jazz records) was abysmal, and studio time is expensive. My most recent album is so beautiful, and very fast in places! But it took me two months.

The up-side is that the music came out very clear and focused. I thought it was slow, but I just heard it slow. Now that I listen to it, it's faster in certain passages than I would have believed. I'm not a fan of speed for its own sake, but I am amazed that my art remained virtually unaffected. I believe it even benefited. This will take lots more self-assessment.

I can only say that, at this point, I believe it to be some of my best music. But it's very transparent and honest music, and I hear the broken places, the pain, and the darkness, in places that others will not notice.

Do I feel better now? Let's just say that the difference is beyond words. Anyone who has spoken with me in this last week knows it. Everyone's very happy for me. I'm just thrilled to have my life back and humbled to have such lovely, steadfast friends waiting for me, at the end of that long dark tunnel. Life is good again.

And today, only fourteen days into a new chapter of my life, I recorded my old composition "Little Dog Blues"... I waited and waited for my dog Angel to bark (as she sometimes does in the middle of some of my more-perfect creations) but no. Not a peep. So I recorded her and pasted her bark in, exactly where I wanted it. It's a simply raucous, hilarious recording, with time like a rock and some serious foot-stomping stride going on. At 3'05" it could be a hit! I sure could NOT have pulled that off just a few weeks ago!

And, if it sounds as good to me next week as it did today, it'll be on my NEXT album!

Now, at 3 months later, I know more. I know that while it's a manageable condition, it's a bear to live with sometimes. Some drugs work for some of us but not for others. Dosage levels are extrememly difficult to balance. Different doctors bring their own strong and often destructive prejudices to the table, by relying solely on TSH panels and T4 levels.

"T4 is automatically broken down into T3 by the body." Whose body, anyway? Anybody and everybody's body? What hubris.

"The TSH panel is the only panel worth taking." Wrong. It gives the doctor a great picture of what the pituitary is up to, but no idea at all of what the T3 and T4 levels in the blood might be.

"Other hormones have little to no effect on thyroid hormones." Utter bunk. Estrogen can bind with T4 and render it inert, useless.

"The best way to treat thyroid disease is to either kill the gland with radioactive iodine or remove it surgically; that way the dosage can be clearly monitored and stabilized." The worst of the worst. Often, the thyroid that decides to lie dormant suddenly kicks in and begins to work again.

It's not a cake walk. I am so much better. Gee, it's 5am and I'm still writing.

But it's never "over". I am so glad to have a good doctor, lots of love and support, and a job that isn't a 9 to 5 deal. Now THAT would be hell for me!

The following entry posted June 17, 08, well into treatment

Hypothyroidism isn't as simple as I thought. There's more to it than being bone-tired all of the time. And the miracle drug called levothyroxine isn't such a miracle after all. I'm on Armour Thyroid now, as of today, and it's too soon to say what effect that will have, but I switched because I wasn't getting better and I wasn't staying better.

The first few weeks were good for me on levothyroxine. But the evenness of mood and the energy levels "wore off". Finally, I was pretty much back to where I had started. My "numbers" were OK (that is, the blood panels) but I felt very poorly, and my memory had big gaps in it. Words kept eluding me, and they still are doing so. Sadly, it's affected my ability to write well. Hopefully the new drug will restore my long-practiced writing style which, if given a chance to flourish again, could become as witty and revelatory as it once was.

[I'm saved by my piano, the glorious, miraculous, completely and utterly PERFECT instrument for me. I could never have chosen a better instrument, one so responsive and sonorous. Everyday I amble downstairs and play for hours. It's the first thing I do every day, and, on some days, it's very nearly the ONLY thing I do.]

So. Armour Thyroid contains not just T4, but T3 also. This is closer to what the human body should produce on its own. Some doctors have read the latest literature on Medscape, which indicates that Armour actually had the right idea all along. There was a time, not too long ago, when doctors were very reluctant to prescribe Armour (it's made from porcine thyroid glands) because it was felt that the batch consistency was wanting. Actually, this perception was the result of a multi-million dollar smear campaign by - who else - the main manufacturer of levothyroxine (Mylan Pharmaceuticals).

Big Pharma won out over the smaller company (Forest Pharmaceuticals) as the campaign was aimed at the physicians themselves. Most doctors are so busy trying to fit patients in and make the proper diagnoses that they have little time to read articles on Medscape. Mylan knew this and targeted their ads accordingly.

But... it turns out that evil Mylan was subject to an multi-million-dollar lawsuit, which it settled out of court. The lawsuit was brought as a class-action by many people whose lives and health were devastated by - get this - batch inconsistency.

So that drug did not work for me, and obviously hasn't worked out for a lot of other folks, too. Armour has a good record for consistency, and can hopefully stay on the right side of the FDA, which increasingly makes its decisions based on lobbying interests, and not hard science.

I'll keep you updated on this issue. I am amazed at how many page hits this article received, and how many folks share my condition. It's beautiful how much people care about each other when there's some common ground, and I continue to receive enormous support and advice from fans, friends, and acquaintances.

Writing used to fly for me. Now it's a chore. Hopefully my quick wit and typing speed will return with full force, very soon. Meanwhile, I play, every day. This disease has, thankfully, NOT aversely affected my ability to play the piano. In fact, it seems to have increased my focus, my dynamic range, and my imagination. Ideas spring forth unbidden, and I am somehow ready and able to express them.

If the Armour impedes THAT ability, I'll go cold-turkey on everything!

More soon. JW, June 17, 08

The following entry posted June 23, 08: more about Armour Thyroid and my response to it:

It's been a good six days. I feel more present. My friends tell me, "Jessica, you're more present!" They say I smell better too. I sure feel better.

Synthroid (Levothyroxine) seemed to be a "sharp, edgy drug", kind of like doing cocaine. The energy had a false sense to it, as if it were empty. I felt empty after being on it for awhile. I'm praying that this won't happen with Armour. I am realizing that this is a serious health issue, and that I am very lucky to have such support... and such and amenable doctor.

I am having a little trouble with sleeping, and I sometimes seem to just purr with energy, but it's been years since I've purred, so that's a good thing. My playing is definitely benefiting.

At a recent small concert in Portland, I had quite a few folks tell me how healthy and well I looked. This was quite a change from the usual "gee, you look tired" refrain. And I played well, too. A few weird clunkers. As my friend Diane says, "you're not perfect, and that's why people love you so much." I hope she's right. I definitely am not perfect.

It'll be a few more weeks before I really know anything for sure, and five weeks until my next blood panel. I'm feeling optimistic about this. I've had quite a few friends who are on Armour tell me that I'll start to get better now. They were right about the drug itself; at least that's my perception so far. It's softer, more real. I feel more like ME. That's a good thing, too. - JW, June 23, 08

Jul 31, 2008

[These are the Liners for a new solo album, Deep Monk]

I just finished what I think will be a major release. It'll be everything I said I'd never do. Firstly, it's a tribute album, a nearly unforgivable grievance to me, as I am as iconoclastic as one can get when it comes to originality ...there's only one me. And, to exacerbate matters, it's a tribute album dedicated to the legacy and the music and the person whom I would, at other times, least likely choose to honor, Thelonious Sphere Monk, because his music seems beyond the reach of a tribute. His music is so monumental, so strikingly original, so intimate and personal, that I had promised myself to steer clear of even playing an occasional composition by him.

Not too many years ago, critics had "accused" me of sounding too much like him. I suppose my insecurity was showing in those days: I responded to the accusations by not playing his music very often, if at all. But that didn't stop the critics, those "experts" who had somehow decided that I either sounded like this or that female pianist (because, after all, female pianists must all sound alike for some reason known only to male critics) or that I sounded like Thelonious Sphere Monk because I liked the sound of inverted and flatted tenths or sharp ninths or whatever they're called (I don't know what to call any of those things ...I just play them.)

In retrospect, the critics were probably right, up to a point. About three decades ago I got so lost in his music that, at times, I started to sound like his spirit-sister. It's all I could hear for years, and I think it cost me time in the developing my own personal style. My compositions from that period are remarkably similar in structure and (a)tonality to his. And recordings of mine from that period still remind me of him. He was one of my most powerful teachers when it came to jazz - a word I've come to avoid whenever possible, a word that I'm starting to realize is as unavoidable for me as breathing - and this was long before the massive searing fire-brand of John Coltrane settled in my soul, to be later tempered by the equally colossal but gentler Glenn Gould.

That I should be torn, influence-wise, between the triple-threat described above is, in retrospect, just like me. At sixty, I can see through the veil now, or at least my own. I can understand that I wasn't looking for anything or anyone but myself. But there were questions: how do I maintain the talent I have for genuine musical wit, loving Erroll Garner as I do, while being as serious as a heart-attack (which I suppose explains my fascination and incorporation of the viscerally mind-boggling sheets of sound and soul-reaching quest of a true Seeker of God, like 'Trane) and still stay as recklessly fearless as Evil Knievel in my improvisations? After all, playing the piano perfectly is akin to living perfectly ...practically impossible when doing so at maximum potential with all the stops out and the pedal to the metal. These and other elements of personality and character helped form, over many years, my own style. It's recognizable to anyone that has an ear for music. Most people know it's me on the radio after just a few notes. It's an amalgamation of everyone I love and everyone I've been musically touched by.

Whether I like it or not, I am influenced by a trinity of three giants: John Coltrane, Glenn Gould, and yes, Thelonious Sphere Monk. Imagine finding three more disparate and dissimilar influences to absorb and synthesize.

Many years have passed since I've seen myself as a part of the "jazz world". I and it never saw eye to eye on a wide range of things, and, as I grew older and stopped participating in the "universal hang" necessary to "get gigs", I fell off the map. I stopped drinking, gave up smoking. I wrote more essays and poetry, I learned Internet protocols including HTML, and I became healthier and healthier, both mentally and physically. At the piano, I played better and better, faster and faster, and deeper than I had ever thought possible. Still the incurable optimist, I had thought that jazz was about MUSIC and that life was about GROWTH and DISCOVERY and achieving one's own highest POTENTIAL.

I still believe that, but I am continually disappointed at the reality of the "jazz world" and it's inability to organize, communicate, and stand up for a set, any set, of core values.

So, disconnected from the center of jazz by the exclusionary policies of too many of its participants (mainly the promoters and recording executives, as opposed to the musicians themselves), I followed my own very clear inner muse. I wrote hundreds of pieces and recorded nearly as many discs. In my spare time I wrote articles on my Internet blog, articles with names like The Jazz Cartels and The Discriminating Gatekeepers, and watched (and listened) in muted amazement as poorly equipped, marginally talented technicians became well-known (sic) jazz stars, propelled by the money of investment bankers and bureaucratic administrators who would occasionally decide to make a CD or put on a "jazz festival", their equivalent of an alcohol-drenched barbeque, replete with scantily-clad groupies and an inner circle of politically-correct participants. Having stopped drinking and smoking so many years ago, I just didn't "fit in". The old adage "most deals are cut at the bar" may be true still, but it's an unsavory truth, and one I won't bend to.

So, when I heard people say, "I hate jazz", I'd say, "I can't blame you", because every time I turned on a jazz radio station, I was very very sorry. You can't just up and listen to Coltrane's A Love Supreme or Monk's CrissCross or Gould's Goldberg Variations and then expect to bear the play-lists concocted by radio program directors with degrees in business administration.

For awhile, "jazz" was a bad word altogether for me. The word's most obvious derivations (jis, jism, jissom) alone are off-putting. And it came, over the years of its undeniable decline, to represent discrimination, androcentric peer-bonding, cliques, and fashionable, mean-spirited "hipness", all things that make me mildly ill. Its pervasive and stubbornly persistent unwelcoming attitude towards women has always deeply disturbed me, and I had no time for any kind of prejudice, having played with Philly Joe Jones and having watched him enter venues - where he played his royal music - through their kitchen or rear service entrance. I always went in with him, through whatever door he had to go through. I loathe prejudice, and the "jazz world" allows too much of it to flourish, unchallenged. If the jazz business were Microsoft, Apple would have had a 97 percent market-share years ago.

And then, recently, there came a day when I started to play, alone, in my house, on my concert grand. I played a lot that day, maybe 12 or 14 hours. I didn't eat. It was very late by the time I got around to playing some Monk tunes. And I'll say this without ego: no one on earth plays Monk as I do. It is all too true. Not only his compositions, which anyone with sufficient pianistic skill can do, but his style, his take on things, his view, his ear, his rhythmic lope, his train of thought, his immersion in idea, his fixation, his perplexity, his audacity, his wry (or dry) humor, his homespun blues underpinnings, his way of pausing to fall into a chord, his flat-fingering (which isn't so flat when you get to know it), his refusal to bow to sets of rules, his way of making the wrong notes right, and making the right notes sound wrong, his way of bending a note, his full and arguably over-use of whole-tone scales, his time density and mastery (you can set your watch to him), and his distaste for "perfection".

We had just moved, and the piano was just a little bit "out of tune" ...but this would not have stopped Monk from playing, nor did it stop me. This was not about the perfect sound on the perfectly tuned piano with the perfect microphone placement and the perfect pollen count. This was about finding my way back home again. This was about the music in my blood, the blood that carried the strains of The Monk, like the genetic markers of some biologically shared familial characteristic.

The first tune here, his rustic waltz "Ugly Beauty", is a good example of all that follows. It's all in the reading, all in the way you play it. It's not what you play; it's what you don't play, and the way you play what you do play. It's not all these words, that's for sure.

I don't know why it's so easy for me to do this. I never studied his - or anyone's - music. I never sat down and figured it out. I heard his chords while others couldn't. They made sense to me and I heard them. And what I can hear, I can play.

After playing his tunes for awhile, what happens to me is this: I start to apply his approach to other tunes not written by him. I can take his approach and make it mine. I think he runs deeply through everything I've played or written for the past three decades. "The Monk runs deep..." That's what someone said once. They were right. I caught a case of The Monk and I still have it. It mutates, as do all powerful viruses. It withstands time and it resists treatment. It won't go away. It's my legacy.

It's like being bitten by one of those vampires. You're his forever. You live your own life, but sometimes, when the moon is full and it's just you and that piano, you drink the blood, you do what's natural for you.

"Ah ...listen to them. Children of the Night. What beautiful music they make."

They were the Count Dracula's words, delivered with magnificent aplomb by the great Bela Lugosi. Somehow they fit here. Monk is the Count. He is thousands of years old. He is indestructible, undeniable. He is in my blood. His malarial presence is unfathomably deep in my living tissue. He runs really deep. He is Monk, and I can't deny his influence. His music is my music. Ours, all of us, but mine especially. When you have a gift like this, it can't be terminated by a thought or a word or a whole campaign. It's just time to play some Monk, whenever the time is right, whenever he beckons.

He is timeless. he lives on in me and in many others. In me, he takes on clearly audible form. He inhabits me. His blood is my blood. I will play his music 'round midnight. I am a Child of the Night.

Let it be noted that I'm fully aware that Monk is dead. Long live Monk. I am not Monk, I am me, Jessica Williams. I am one of the last of my kind as Monk was the last of his. Only those of us who lived those years and those nights know what horrible sadness and brilliant, terrible joy was in the air. We walked through fire, we breathed the intoxicating acid of our times, we - those of us who survived - will never ever be the same. We are one. Whether some virulently racist and sexist critics - or even musicians - deny the possibility, there is that Truth among us who have lived it: it was truly the Music of Freedom. There were no barriers.

It must become so again.

Years after Monk had passed away, I played a concert in San Francisco with his tenor sax player, the great Charlie Rouse (to whom my composition The House That Rouse Built was dedicated). On the resultant album, Epistrophy (on Landmark-Fantasy), I can be heard playing Blue Monk with Charlie. Weeks later, Charlie would be dead, and that album would be released as a memorial concert. I can't remember the year, nor do I want to. But I remember the day. October 10th. The day Monk was born.

And, when I joined the band of saxophone innovator Eddie Harris for awhile, our bass player just happened to be the incredible Larry Gales. He had been Monk's bassist for years! Monk and I seemed to be members of the same karass (a term coined by writer Kurt Vonnegut, meaning "an unintentional but unavoidable extended family") or at least distant relatives of some non-terrestrial sort, beyond ancestry and beyond the limits of mundane lineage.

On Deep Monk, you'll hear me sound a lot like Monk at times. It's not me trying to sound like Monk. I'm not thinking here at all. It's death to music when you think. I never once tried to "sound like Monk". It's not possible to do that. It's me being inside of Monk and of Monk being inside of me. It's that way with all of the spirits inside of me. We inhabit each other, we grow together, we share the universal song of earth; the song of life itself. It is of no concern to me whether this or that "expert" takes exception with my words here or my music there. Where there is no gift, where there is no experience, where there is no blood, where there is no love, there will always be "experts".

A friend, upon hearing Deep Monk for the first time, exclaimed, "Wow! It sounds like a 1950 Prestige recording of Monk!"

There could be no higher compliment.

This is simply my highest, most immaculate compliment to one of my greatest teachers, the true teller of tales, the man whose musical spirit will flow through my veins until I die, his blood and my blood conjoined, the one and only Thelonious Sphere Monk.

JW, 08

Jun 10, 2008

John Coltrane

"I want to be a force for good. I know there are bad forces here that bring suffering to others and misery to the world, but I want to be the force which is truly good." - John Coltrane

May 24, 2008

My new piano

I bought my new piano from Classic Pianos in Portland, Oregon. I'll be playing a concert there on the 21st of June, 2008. My new piano is a 7'6" Conservatory Concert Grand, refitted with Renner Blue Hammers, and is a 1984 Yamaha, adjusted to my specifications. My conservatory chair, cut to spec, is 14" off the floor.

Not a Steinway, you may whisper. Sorry, folks, Steinway has been a lot sloppy lately, but I'll say no more about their fine company and their wonderful instruments. Let's not forget that Gould himself chose a Yamaha over all other models and makes of pianos to 'replace' his irreplaceable CD318. And the great pianist Chick Corea plays a Yamaha, as does the piano genius Alan Broadbent

I played it all day today and there is nothing I can say right now. It is my love, my lost love. It is come home to me. It is mine forever. I have never loved a piano. This one I fell in love with almost the minute I played it. It took about four minutes, actually. I notice that already my playing is changing. My lines are cleaner and speedier. I raised the chair one inch. I want that machine-gun like clarity that can only come when the dampers seat immediately and the hammers and action are even and regulated. Even now, without a tuning or a touch-up, having just been moved 150 miles, it sounds so wonderful, and feels like that too.

It was my search for the Grail, for my own CD318.

Every few years I would start looking again. I was never satisfied with the instruments I wound up with. I'm lucky in that they seem to come to me, brand new, at little or no cost. This is not because I have any arrangement with a piano maker. Indeed, most manufacturers eschew having pianists represent their brands, as far as I know. I don't think that any but the most famous artists are supplied with pianos, and I'm not so sure that Steinway does that at all anymore, after the indignities heaped upon them (and rightly so) by Gould.

It's always made me a bit crazy, knowing that Monk, and Bud Powell, and so many other great musicians went for years without instruments in their house. Many of these masters also went without houses. I was years without an instrument, myself, as were many of my esteemed associates. But quite a few years ago, my life took a turn. Rather, I turned it, by getting out of clubs, by becoming clean and free of alcohol and tobacco, by rediscovering my passion for GREAT music as opposed to pedestrian jazz music, and by nurturing my natural, innate ability to make audiences weep with joy as opposed to providing them with nearly free and usually recognizable (if unusually inventive) "jazz party music" - to the strains of which they might get loaded and lucky.

So it's no surprise to me or anyone else that discovering how a piano's action affects my creative process is quite a new interest for me. Suddenly, in my sixth decade, I'm concerned with fall-boards, and key velocity, and touch, and "the ledge". Where I would play any instrument without complaint in my youth, now I'm very hard to please when it comes to pianos.

I've written down a few things that I like:

I like a swift, soft, sure action, even from bottom to top. I don't like pianos that feel like Ford trucks. "Like a rock". Or is that Chevy? Whatever it is, it should never apply to pianos. I shouldn't have to be an athlete to play a swift passage. I shouldn't have to exert much physical energy to accomplish ANY task at a piano, other than to clean it or move it. It needs to be without discernable resistance. I know this goes against all the theories that one can get more dynamics if one has a wider range of "striking power"...

A piano, like a little dog, should never be struck. It should be caressed and teased and held and played with and trained, and, like a little dog, it should be full of life and able to get around just fine on its own power.

I also hate pianos that growl and scream. Steinway is known for its "growling bass".

Growling should be reserved for circus animals and professional wrestlers. I don't want a piano that growls at me or anyone else. Screaming is equally upsetting. The glassy tinkle of the high treble of some Steinways makes my brain hurt. Yamahas used to be guilty of that but the company is learning. The high end should be bell-like, even thin. Thin like clear, clean air at an elevation, not thin like aluminum foil.

At many concerts, I play with the lid fully closed. Lots of attendees and - more specifically - most promoters are horrified at this "break" from tradition. To have spent all of that money for something so big, and then, to have little me just amble in, and close the lid, as if the concert were over and I not yet having played a note. It's the metaphorical equivalent of having cold water dashed in their face.

Which brings me to a major gripe about pianos. All of them.

They should all be played, at all times, even during "thunderous" passages, with the soft pedal down, depressed, nailed to the floor.

The single most annoying thing about pianos is the inability for all of those strings to stay in tune all of the time, much less through a performance. Two strings per note, from lower treble to the absolute top of the register, is enough.

By depressing the soft pedal, the keyboard of a grand piano will - should - shift, and the hammer should hit only TWO strings. It sounds more sonorous, more pure. It has a clarity and a singing quality and a purity that three strings drown out. Three strings rarely can be tuned to produce such beauty, such lovely clear singing.

Three strings per note on the middle and upper register of any piano is a superfluous and nefarious roadblock, serving only to detract from the beautiful sounds that might emerge, were the instrument allowed to bypass all of the conflicting transient overtones created by three strings per note. One too many.

I am waiting for someone to make a piano with one string throughout the bass for each note, and two for each other note on the lower-mid, mid, and upper end. That will be a piano. With an action as fast as light, and less strings, the piano would become a truer, more playable, and more tunable instrument. More adjustable to the player.

Why should the player have to adjust to the piano, especially when you consider the cost of a decent one?

There was historical precedence for the madness of stuffing so many strings into such a small space. One imagines that some idiot tried four, and yes, probably five strings at once. Thinking on this for a moment, I'm sure of that, having lived long enough to understand the excesses that over-zealous, power-mad, self-appointed experts are capable of and given to.

The historical precedence was a) the use of the triceps and biceps, along with the quadriceps and other angular anatomical anomalies, usually ending in "ceps", that some men seem so fond of, to create great storms of sound, literal crashing cascades of notes played at the highest volume possible: think of the word thunderous - think of the concept of sturm und drang - think of the pouring forth of the passion of a tormented soul - all very noisy affairs... and b) the decision to put one orchestra (the piano) in front of another orchestra (the orchestra) and call it piano and orchestra.

"Also Sprach Zarathustra", and thus spoke history. It had nothing to do with music as we would have known it, had cooler heads (such as Bach's, or mine) prevailed.

The power of the symphony is a beautiful thing when it is used in its own setting, namely, as a solo entity. Nothing can touch the violin for sounding out above an out-of-control symphony orchestra's most mortally offensive din.

Take Rimski-Korsakoff's Sheherazade. Give me Yasha Heifitz playing it with the New York Philharmonic, conducted, at a snail's pace - which is its correct pace - by Lenny Bernstein. Put a nine-foot Steinway-D out in front and you've just put training-wheels on a freight train.

And I feel that way about jazz, too.

If only Bill Evans had been left to his own devices, sans the "interplay of his great trio" that, at times, became a hash of egotistical BS approaching the calamity of ten accordions improvising at once, in different keys!

When he played solo, it was about touch and song and drama and pain and joy. It was about romance and sorrow and longing. It was music from his heart. Introspective, quiet, simple, tragic, mellifluous, delicately lovely beyond any words.

When he played with that one cursed trio (you know, the one that the critics revere most highly; the one with the tragedy and the dying early and the miserable breakup) it was enough to wake Davy Jones and send him paddling frantically up to the surface to see what the hell was making that awful rattling.

So there you have it. Pianists trying to play as loudly as bassists with amplifiers that go up to eleven (just like in Spinal Tap) and drummers who, like practiced skeet-shooters, are adept at blowing every single important note that a pianist may play clean out of the air. Pull! Pull!


I said once, years ago, on the notes to an album of mine, that "I was a musician first, and as much of a pianist as I needed to be to express myself adequately."

Gould said it better (no surprise there): "I have no great love for the piano. But since it is the instrument with which I am most familiar, it is the one I choose to play to express my music."

I couldn't agree more. With the near-infinite shortcomings of the piano (the mere size and weight is daunting enough) who wouldn't long for the wonder, the sheer joy, of playing the same instrument that you learned on as a child? Particularly if it was a good instrument?

I learned on a Kimball upright. My daddy bought it for me in 1954 or '55. I was six or seven. I had been playing piano at my grandma's house since I was an early four (or a late three) and was addicted already. Abducted is a more fitting term. Every day I begged him for a piano. He got drunk one night and came home proudly brandishing an accordion. Of course, I wanted him to die, slowly and painfully (which he did, in due course, but not right then.) He broke down eventually, being the sentimental, music-loving, weekend-alcoholic, essentially good-natured man that I convinced myself he was (by the time I was thirty) and bought me the Kimball. A thousand dollars! In 1954!!! It WAS a fine instrument. At least it seemed so to me!

It was mahogany. It was a bit less than five feet high. It had three pedals. Yes, it had a soft pedal, but that soft pedal moved the hammers closer to the strings. On a grand, the soft pedal would mute the cursed third string. But I was too young and stupid to know about third strings or my looming distaste for them. The middle pedal sustained bass notes only. A weird affair. But I found that, by using it instead of the sustain for fast passages, it created a reverb-like effect. It was like playing in a hall.

And I disassembled that piano, as I have done to all pianos since. I took the top and front off to gain access to the strings. I took the lower front off (that part UNDER the keys, on an upright) and laid it on the floor under my left foot. I needed a drummer, and that left foot became the hi-hat foot. Even in 5/4 time, that left foot was going on 2 and 4 and 6 and 8 and 10. All by itself.

That little Kimball held up until I left home, at the age of - was it sixteen? Yes, I suppose it was. I played it to death, and I always pretended that I was playing to a full house. Off to my right, where the living room was, there were at least a thousand people, listening to every note. And, by the time I was twelve, I was burning up the road.

I would put on recordings of the Miles Davis Quintet, and play along with Philly Joe Jones and Paul Chambers. (I might've died right then and there had someone told me that, in less than 20 years, I'd actually be playing on a real stage in front of real people with Philly Joe Jones (!) and his band, of which I had become a member!)

But back then, there I was, alone, in my house, playing the piano, at the age of eleven or twelve.

Of course, no one was there to hear me. But my dreams all came true, and, years later, I played for the Crowned Heads of England and the Bald Heads of Charles Street ( a very, very old joke, at least where I'm from) ... but the England part came true, too. The last time I was there, at Brecon, I was invited into the country by the Home Office. I think the Queen may have some pull there. It was an honor to be expected and greeted at Heathrow as "Ms Williams, the prominent pianist from America."

(Now we simply need to impress that upon the Americans.)

My European audiences have been large, devoted, and enthusiastic. I never wanted to be famous, and am not capable of being delusional enough to believe myself so. Musicians, particularly serious musicians, are rarely famous in the traditional sense. Princess Di was famous. Any American President is famous. Elvis Presley and the Beatles were famous. There are also serial killers that are made famous by the press. But you have to be crazy to want to be famous!

And rich does not necessarily go with famous. Matter-of-fact, most times, the two words are not attached even remotely. In reality, the world's most creative people are very often NOT terribly well-to-do, and sometimes, they're even living in poverty. Lots of Americans seem utterly amazed to hear about this.

If you hear a person's music on the radio, don't assume that they live in a mansion and have a butler and a maid and sixteen bathrooms. I have to muddle along with one (bathroom, that is) and (gasp) no servants at all! The up-side to all of this is that it's tremendously fulfilling to do what you love. And you can only use one bathroom at a time.

Anyway, if you run into a jazz musician who tells you that they're famous, look at them askew. Do you really think that anyone down at your local Safeway or WalMart will know who they are? Do they? If they do, run.

We do not become musicians to make money or to be famous. We become musicians to make MUSIC. Perhaps this is why so MANY musicians make so LITTLE music.

The pianists that move me in deep ways are usually the ones who don't TRY to be pianists. (Alan Broadbent is one great musician.) Trying to be a great pianist is ridiculous. Trying to be ANYTHING is ridiculous. We are or we aren't. I am a musician. It is the thing my body does in its sleep, at rest.

I play in my dreams, or I am always trying to get to the performance on time. This may not be a good thing as viewed by a specialist in dream symbolism, but to me it usually indicates that I'm not working nearly enough. Which I never am, because I refuse to grovel, and I refuse to compromise, and, the older I get, the less time I have for games. I've devoted my life to exploring solo playing. If a promoter calls me and TELLS me I must play with a band, I am usually not amenable to that sort of thing (and that's putting it mildly). I'll play with others when I want to, not when I'm told to. That's in my music, that kind of obstinacy that refuses compromise.

That's why I am seduced by Monk. That's why I positively adore Gould. That's why I don't care much for many of the younger "cult" pianists who are more concerned with speed and appearance than with substance and moral courage.

That's why I find the music of Keith Jarrett so hard to write about. Music SHOULD BE hard to write about, by the way. Jarrett is at times the greatest pianist in the world, and at others he may be among the worst. THAT, I find enthralling and captivating. USEFUL. I find nothing useful in billions of notes spun out by millions of tiny flying fingers, in thousands of universities and institutions and halls of academia, not to mention concert halls, all over the planet, on any given average day.

The state of art and music - both being roughly the same thing - is deplorable, and has never been what one would deem acceptable by any but the most base standards. Mediocrity is everywhere, and it is the rule.

To be mediocre, one needs do nothing except to do what everyone else is doing. I think that's just fine, and it's why you won't find me around anywhere, not in a jazz bar, drinking and smoking and taking drugs and acting hip, trying to look 39 when I know I'm 60. I won't dye my hair. I won't wear silly, constricting garments that are impediments to movement. I won't try to look happy when I'm sad, and I won't try to act healthy when I'm ill. I will not try to act interested when I'm bored, and I won't say I like something when I actually abhor it.

Consequently, I am attracted to those artists, those very few artists, whose art offends. I am attracted to musicians who are controversial and not well-liked or universally loved. They must be magnificent. More than competent, and more than great. They must be profound. They must cross and effectively traverse, and even erase the line between life and death. That is the line between art and life. I won't settle for good or even great. It must be pure TRUTH I am hearing. For me, a few of the well-known musicians who have most often accomplished this are Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Keith Jarrett, and Glenn Gould.

I have been near death for so many years, and I have lived so close to it and crossed the line so often in my dreams AND in my waking state that it is now impossible for me to bend to the pressure of other human beings to be a certain way, to look or act or play or think or believe or behave a certain way. I can not be friends with just anyone, and I can not play with just anyone. And I can NOT just listen to anyone.

I am now re-crafting my music so that I may listen to it again. It is hard to call myself a pianist, because there is so much I can NOT do and so much I DO NOT know. I DO know that I am a musician, and I am that always.

I am now working at becoming a pianist, preferably one that I'll enjoy listening to.

Hypothyroidism for Dummies:

Being so sick for so long is not something I easily put behind me. It's left marks all over my consciousness, and changed me drastically. I won't be doing things that I did, and I will be doing things that I never did. It gave me perspective, and I have good days and bad days and some days that are just "blah" days, but I never have days that are cluttered with indecision about my art. Not any more. There's only one direction for me to take now, and it is like those lines that Trudell writes about. "Straight ahead and strive for tone." as my favorite bassist Ray Drummond always says.

[postscript: for all of their faults, six cds of mine that I made while I was ill all seem to stand up very well to my repeated listening of them. Songs for a New Century, Prophets, Deep Monk, and Tatum's Ultimatum are some favorites. I particularly have a soft spot for Songs for a New Century, as it is almost a see-through entity, as transparent as glass, as delicate as an exotic jellyfish. Every note is not right, but every note is revealing. It's probably the most revealing album I've ever made, almost embarrassingly so, and so I must love it the most. The other two have similar properties. Blood Music, being mostly electronic and very modern, is one of my favorites, but I'm wild about technology and know that it won't have appeal to a "purist" of any camp. It also seems to be an anti-war statement somehow, but it became that without any conscious help from me. Finally, Vital Signs, my way of challenging myself to a duel, was and is a success, except that we shall never know who won.]

I'm now happy. The new piano is wonder, a charm. A magnificent sweep of wood and cloth and iron, built by Japanese craftsmen before the advent of out-sourcing and price-gouging.

As Gould remarked to his technician, "Verne, I have never played a piano with such even touch and clarity of line." He was speaking of a Yamaha Grand. He played so fast that, at times, no piano could keep up with him. Only his Steinway CD318 and the Yamaha (almost the exact same model as mine, Renner hammers and all) that he bought later in life, came close.

I think I have found my beloved CD318.

Feb 16, 2008

Playing the Piano

When I play, sometimes I hum (very quietly), and sometimes I rock, or I move my upper body in circles, but in which direction, clockwise or counter-clockwise, I've never been able to tell. There is a spot I look at a lot, a spot off to my left and down towards the floor, and it seems to take me out of myself and put me in a trance. I read about something similar in a book by Carlos Castaneda, but I don't remember much about it, except it was to shift the observer into the second attention, a concept I fully understand and endorse.

The more I watch Glenn Gould, the more I realize how much I have in common with him when it comes to my present playing style. The old videos I see of me now were made before I ever saw or heard Gould play. I see a lot of similarities in them, though. The economy of motion, the deep concentration, and the hunching posture.

Back then, I sat on a piano bench. Now I sit on a chair with a back. The chair stands at 16 inches off the ground.

I could not ever use a bench or stool again.

The chair back is essential for my technique, and the lower height enables such precision and dexterity and speed that I can't even play a piece on a regular bench anymore. It has affected my Music immensely, in a very positive way, and has freed me of so many technical restrictions that I feel as if I can do just about anything.

It is the single biggest and best thing that I have ever done to improve my piano playing.

The other thing is to remove the fall-board when I play (and, of course, the music stand, but I have been doing that for many years to gain easy access to the piano's strings) and that gives my fingers more room to move about, not just from side to side, but inwards toward the key's fulcrum.

The piano's tone changes if I play closer in toward the fulcrum, so it's another way to change the sound and get more color out of the instrument.

Also, after removing the music stand, if I use the lid open at full stick, I "close the flap"; that is, I fold the top out and not over, so that the piano appears longer and the sound is directed downward, on top of me. Be careful when standing abrubtly not to bang your head or face on the piano's now larger "top".

I use all three pedals, and the middle pedal is as important as the sustain pedal is.

The soft pedal is essential. Sometimes I think the piano would have been better made (for me, at least) to have two strings (not three) in the treble and upper range. The tuning is better with the soft pedal down (remember, the soft pedal mutes one string and plays only the two remaining, by shifting the entire key assembly up a notch) and so is the tone. But the volume is diminished.

And that's a "sticking point" with me. Everybody wants the lid open, full-stick, because it looks better. I think that sometimes, most times, the piano sounds better closed. [If it's too loud, it negatively impacts your use of dynamics.]

So, at home, I keep the lid closed most of the time, with the fall board off, and the music stand off (if you read, how can you listen???), and the chair that's 16 inches high is there, all the time.


I have a Roland X8, with 88 weighted keys, and the touch is adjustable, so you can make it really difficult to play. I practice on this at 4 or 5am if I want to play and not disturb anyone. It's really a gas as its piano sounds are so warm and realistic, at least through headphones. But it's not a piano.

When I perform, which is never nearly often enough, I want the piano parallel to the stage edge. I don't like it angled so that "they can see my facial expressions" or angled so that "they can see my hands" because I don't like my back to the audience and I don't like the right half of the audience to see my hands and the left half not see them.

Putting the piano in a straight line, parallel to the stage, is the right way, the formal, and correct way.

Often on the road, someone will ask me for a "sound check at 3pm." Get real! A sound check for a solo acoustic piano? What are they going to do, knock out a wall? And so they'll say, "well, we thought you might want to practice." I've been playing for 56 years. Practice? Practice what? Badminton?

About Travel

It's really important to rest and sleep before a concert, and not to eat too much. If at all. An excellent food choice is sardines, in your hotel room, with chopsticks. Homeland Security will not allow forks to be carried. Chopsticks are fine.

Bananas and peanut butter are great too. That's what we call road food. But I usually eat NOTHING the day of the concert. After the concert, I'm famished.

I have discovered, after 40 years of travel, that Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is one serious problem for many performers, and for solo performers in particular. It's important to travel with lots of vitamins, and to stay warm and dry, and to reserve energy for the concerts. Do NOT let a promoter tell you that you have to take a cab to the venue, or rent a car at the airport. And at no time should you be exposed to the elements.

I have a boardroom pass for the airport that allows me to be in a much more controlled environment than that which prevails at most US hub airports. Airports in the EU are infinitely more civilized, with areas for reading, resting, and even showering.

Boardroom passes are expensive (usually 3-400 dollars a year) but they are worth every penny. Particularly when your flight is delayed or canceled.

When you get to flying a lot, you'll find that certain things become very important. One is hydration.

It's in my contract that I have 5 or 6 liters of Evian or Volvic Bottled Water waiting at my destination, with a few liters in the car or limo that picks me up. Some promoters think that musicians neither eat nor drink. They even think that we'll drink the tap water. And I've NEVER been to a town where the promoter DID NOT SAY:

"You can drink this tap water... it's the BEST water in the whole WORLD." Without fail, I've heard that innumerable times. It's a standard and very stale joke with me. Do NOT, EVER, drink that tap water. Even at home, we drink FUJI or EVIAN.

So hydration after a long haul is very important, as is sleep.

Sometimes (all the time for me) it's very hard to get to sleep. If you leave NYC for Heathrow (in the UK), you're looking at a 6-hour time difference, plus a six hour flight. From SFO, the flight is ten and a half hours. The planes don't fly as fast now, to save on jet fuel. Honest. Usual air speed at 36,000 feet is about 550 mph maximum, and with a strong headwind it can be as low as 420 mph.

And when you get to the hotel finally, you're bone-tired. You need water first, and food. I travel with sardines and crackers and natural health-food cookies or scones. I only pack one bag, but I know exactly what to take, and a bag is always half-stocked with things I need. I used to take a hair-dryer but now most hotels have them. The hard part in certain cities in the USA and most all of Europe is finding a non-smoking room. [Ireland leads the EU in changing this reality.]

The Brits will say "Oh my. Well, we'll remove the ashtrays, and that'll make it a non-smoking room." No it won't. The smell permeates everything. They have to do better than that. And, as consciousness is raised about the hazards of second-hand smoke, the world is gradually changing. But when I was in North Carolina it was AWFUL. The entire hotel smelled like a pub in Birmingham.

No aspersions on the great city of Birmingham.

After you hang up your clothes, you hit the bed. If anything is wrinkled, hang it inside the bathroom, on the door, so that when you shower, the hot water vapor will take out the creases and wrinkles.

If you have really cool cable TV, be sure you don't stay up until 7am watching an Adam Sandler movie. ESPECIALLY an Adam Sandler movie. Just bring a book with you and read. Put a cover over the light so you can see to read, but so the room is dark. Remember to put the "do not disturb" sign on your door. And always leave a "wake-up call" with the front desk, even if you have a good digital clock. Sometimes they won't go off, or you're so out of it that you won't hear it. The phone ringing will usually wake you up.

Before you leave the hotel to play the concert, pray or chant or do something verbal, something to clear your throat and lungs, something that'll make it easier to walk out in front of hundreds or thousands of people and feel like you can talk easily. I get really inward, pensive, and introspective inside those hotel rooms. Not a funk or depression but very inward... quiet and self-absorbed. So it's good to talk to anyone, even yourself, before you go out there to play the concert.

The performance

You'll usually be an hour or two hours early to the concert. Not because you need or want to be, but because the promoter is nervous and wants you there so that he knows you haven't flown the coop. Also, he wants you to "acclimate" and maybe even "check out the piano"...I always say this: "If I don't like the piano, are you going to go out and get me another one?" This usually works to stifle their panic enough to leave me alone.

Because they are ALL in various states of panic, all the time. And, if you're not careful, the panic will communicate itself to you. So you have to be really laid back. Go to your "Green Room" and stay there. Sit and drink water and don't think or say too much.

Never make set lists. It's okay to have a slip of paper up there with you but never write anything on it. It's just to look at. I promise, if you get bandstand amnesia, that by looking at a blank piece of paper, a piece will pop right into your head.

Also, take a small clock (not a watch) and set it strategically on the piano, inside where the music stand usually resides, so that only you can see it. Digital clocks are great. So when the promoter says "play about 55 minutes" you and go out there, calculate what time it will be when 55 minutes have passed, and stop when it gets to be that time.

I usually only play ONE set; I always say "if one set was good enough for Gould, it's good enough for me." So my set is usually one hour and a half.

If I hear a tune VERY strongly in my head when I sit down at the piano, I'll usually let myself play it. Otherwise, I'll hear that song for the rest of the concert and it'll undermine everything I play. My performance will arise spontaneously, and I'll know what to play next almost immediately upon finishing the piece I'm playing. If I don't know, I'll sit there for a while and stare. It's my stage. I'll do what I want to. But I try not to take too much time as the audience fidgets and gets nervous.

Sometimes I'll just play. Improvise, make things up. Sometimes those are the best segments.

When playing a ballad or an Adagio (or any piece) I'll let the last chord ring, but I WON'T REMOVE MY HANDS FROM THE KEYBOARD UNTIL THE SOUND HAS FULLY DIED AWAY.

I can't stress that enough. The minute you remove your hands from the keys, the applause starts, and the dying tones are mushed out.

If you are holding a chord with your left hand, as I often do, use your RIGHT HAND to conduct the piece to a close. It can just be a downward gesture, palm open, hand moving slowly down. Sometimes a natural tremor will run through the right hand, as if there is GREAT INTENSITY in the last chord, as if the hand was straining to close down the tones. There IS great intensity, really. It is the END, the last thing the audience hears of that piece. It MUST BE THE BEST PART.

And I try to never put two pieces together that are in the same key. That's an obvious one.

Now that I use a chair with a back, I can set back, lift both legs, and play very very VERY fast. It's like flying with your feet forward as if you were driving a car or a plane. It's a trip!

[For a long time, I had an issue: I was convinced that, as I aged, I was slowing down. Now, with the new seating arrangement, my recordings are evidence to me that I am speeding up, and my fears are thus allayed. Speed is only for the service of content and communication. Still, it is an important facility, and I am determined to retain and improve it.]

And when I bow, I bow from the waist, as it is a show of great respect for your audience. Japanese people do it all the time: the deeper the bow, the more respect is conveyed. I bow as deeply as I can with this old back of mine.

Then "show's over" unless there's an encore or a call-back. It's important to think of this piece alone before you ever walk on the stage. At that point, you have finished, and you're being asked, begged, to play another piece. Make sure it's the right one. Have several encore pieces in your arsenal.

Then I might sell some cds and sign them. I always like to sit down and have someone help me. The audience will want signatures but they won't often remove that hated shrink-wrap so I need help, as I don't have much in the way of fingernails. I always keep them clipped down drastically. (My own company, Red and Blue Recordings, does NOT use shrink-wrap for a number of very good reasons)

I'll always sit with a wall behind me so that no one sneaks up behind me and pulls a handful of hair out or puts me in a choke-hold. I know this sounds insane, but these things have happened. Once, in Saskatoon, a fellow who ran a local jazz radio show snuck up behind me, grabbed me by my head (in a wrestler-like scissors-hold) and lifted me out of the chair, all the while telling me he loved me madly. The last thing I heard was someone remarking, "I think you're hurting her, Chris." And I woke up in the hospital with a badly bruised nose and forehead. So now I sit against a wall, and I try to make it a brick wall if they have one.

Also, I'm VERY careful shaking hands. Some guys don't know their own strength. Either give them only a few fingers by retracting your hand just as theirs starts to close, or use your left hand turned sideways and also retract it before they can fully grab it. The BEST ADVICE is to NOT SHAKE ANY HANDS. This is a thing that most people will understand immediately. "Her hands are her life." If you MUST shake hands, use the techniques above. If you are like me, you won't EVER shake hands with a stranger.

Also, wear silly-looking gloves before and after the concert. They'll keep your hands warm before the concert, and after the concert they'll discourage too much skin contact. Gloves with the tips of the fingers open are nice. They allow you touch sensation (you can even play in them if necessary) but keep your hands very warm.

After the concert I NEVER "hang out" with the promoters. Or anyone. I came to do a job and I do it with all my heart, and afterwards I have nothing to give in a social situation. I never get too close to the promoters. I usually dislike most of them, but I'm not there to be liked and neither are they. They're usually all about business, and that's the way I prefer it.

The Courage to die, onstage and otherwise

This is what I love about Keith Jarrett. He takes enormous risks. Sometimes he succeeds brilliantly, and brings us gifts from the gods and goddesses that are priceless. Never before or since has anyone taken quite as many risks as Keith and Glenn Gould and John Coltrane. I can't claim the success rate of any of those giants. I'm beginning to understand this, though:

When we rely on formula for life, whether it's giving up your beloved art or music or other sacred gifts to pursue a lucrative career that you love not at all, because "that's the way we do things here in the USA", then the results will be predictable and uninteresting. When we step outside of the formula, we step outside of the zone of safety.

In Tales of Power by Carlos Castenada, Don Juan admonishes Carlos:

"If you take the warrior's path, you will cry a million tears. But if you step off of that path, you will die a million deaths. So cry, Carlos. Go on, have a fit."

So I work without a net now, and more and more people want to see and hear me do that.

That net's always there, should I need it. After playing predominantly jazz, professionally, for 45 years, I have plenty of licks and chops and cliches and lines. They're all "nets".

Without that net, I moan and whisper to myself. I forget my body, I forget my life, I forget my flu if I happen to have it, I forget my bills and my fears and my pains and, well, everything. I sing the Song of the Sirens. I'm alone in the Universe with the notes and they bring me to my God, which is the MUSIC that has run through my life like a red thread since I was a very very little girl. All of the things I am are in the notes. I sometimes exclaim loudly, wordlessly. I sometimes laugh hilariously. I am told the light is bright, and I am told I am very beautiful (at my age that's a real compliment). One woman left the room last night because she couldn't bear the light; she went outside and stared at the stars and cried.

This must be God. This must be what everyone seeks but few truly find. This must be what the Buddhists call "the sacred ground of being", the "bardo state", the "luminous state", the experience of being a Bodhisatva.

I am not happy to have this: I am blessed, elated, and humbled to have this, even for a moment. I could die happy right now. Buddhists embrace death so that they may know and love life better. I am no longer afraid of death and so I'm no longer afraid to live. This is not forever, for anyone. We know what we know, then we evaporate. We are visitors, renters. We own nothing. The world is a minute of our time. It's awful and it's awfully beautiful.

Makes me think of that tune by Thelonious Monk. Ugly Beauty. I just recorded that and it's on a new CD for Red and Blue called DEEP MONK. You'll be able to get that when it's released in a few weeks. Meanwhile my latest recordings are here.

Songs for a New Century

My new CD for Origin Arts, street date around Apr 22, 2008

"Songs for a New Century" is what I'm hearing and seeing now, all the time, under the surface of everything I do or say or feel, every day. It's the undercurrent of my life. I feel that it's my best work so far in terms of clarity, focus, and depth of feeling. But then, I can never say that for sure, as I'm too close to it. I remember something that Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington said when asked which of his albums was his personal favorite: "The next one!"

Perhaps it's my favorite because of its optimistic tone. After September 11, 2001, the universal key of life for me and many others, at least those in tune with the laws of nature and physics, was D minor. I have a form of synesthesia, the not-uncommon ability to see colors when one hears sounds. The one color I saw that day was orange - exactly matching our Homeland Security's usual threat level, i.e. "code orange" - or yellow. F major is brown to me, and E minor has always looked red. A minor is blue-green, and C is a cream color. I've never been sure if others with synesthesia see these same colors but I suspect similarities.

There is no doubt that, existentially at least, 9-11 was an orange, D minor event. It looked that way to me. It sounded that way to me. Its place in my heart is coded in that color. I had never before thought that orange could be a color of unimaginable sadness and grief. But it stayed that way for me until quite recently. I suppose I was grieving, and not just for the victims and heroes of 9-11. I was grieving for America, for the very idea of America.

Pianistically, I've always gravitated to "open keys" with brilliant colors. If I were a painter, I would be considered a "colorist". I hear in primaries. B-flat or E-flat, while the keys of choice for many "jazz musicians", have never struck a chord in me. This is perhaps unusual because some of my main influences in American Classical Music (Jazz) have been saxophonists and trumpeters. Particularly John Coltrane and Miles Davis.

To be sure, there are pieces that I've written that belong in these keys, and so I have always let the music choose it's own key, just as I let the melody-line choose its own motion. Also, my art always cycles throughout every key and every color. But "my" keys are E, A, D, G, F, C, and their minor equivalents. E-flat minor does certainly sing, though, and D-flat major remains positively mellifluous to me.

These observations are generalizations, but I mention them here because they comprise the primary colors and keys of "Songs for a New Century".

And now, some years after "The Day the World Changed", I hear and sense and see and smell happiness and hope again. I am so very hopeful that our country becomes the dream it CAN be rather than the nightmare that still lurks in the shadows. This Music is my own very small but personally significant contribution to the re-building and re-fortification of that new America that most of us long for.

The "painting" still contains Orange, but not nearly as much. Now, G major is here! To me it is the color of the sky when it is sunny and cloudless. And earth-brown F major has returned, too, with patches of green, like grasses growing in a once-barren landscape.

G major is so much with me, which is a very good sign, and finds its joyous expression in two personal favorites rendered here: Fantasia and If Only. They are very new right now, and will remain in a state of becoming as long as I play them. The new that I'm hearing is so vastly different from the old, and the shift in thinking so profound, that it seemed like alien territory to me for awhile. But in many ways, it's full circle, back to my childhood, my years at Peabody Conservatory, and my youthful search for the creative center of my existence. This has been my life of late. It's the return to form in it's truest sense. It's still improvised, extemporized, and spontaneous, while relying almost entirely on emotional power, visceral content, and heartfelt longing. I can not explain the feeling I have while it's happening to me. It is like "automatic playing". It has to do with grace and intent and genuine amazement. I am amazed it is happening. I am hypnotized.

Take If Only for an example. Literally simple beyond belief, it could be played by any proficient third-year piano student. But the density, the gravity, the fulcrum of the piece is not it's melody or its chords: they're wonderful but not the center. The center is its raw emotion. Emotion of such intensity can only be expressed on an instrument that responds to the slightest variations and the smallest permutations of touch. Since touch and tone production have become so central to my playing, I should share a few discoveries that might contribute to someone's similar quests.

It has been noticed (and remarked upon, not always favorably) that I sit very low - a mere 16 inches off of the ground at last measurement, with a strong inclination to go even lower if my chair would only allow it - because I do not wish to push the keys down.

I neither wish to push the keys down or "strike" the keys. I want instead to pull the keys down, thus imparting an almost imperceptible weight - or gravity - to the sound each key can produce.

Likewise, I want to use my fingers for the strength or softness, the loudness or almost inaudible quietness, of each note. I NEVER use my upper arms and shoulders for "power" anymore. Older videos of me playing exasperate me. They are studies in awkwardness to me. The fingers have to lift higher to attain maximum expressivity, and this can't be easily done by sitting high up. When I sit on a piano bench these days I can not believe that I ever made any real music way up there!

And since I never read music (I do write it, very, very fast) because I believe that one can not have their ears and eyes fully focused and "on" at one time, I always remove the piano's music stand. I can't understand how anyone can possibly think that they might play to their optimum potential while reading a blueprint or a roadmap or a novel. If they don't know the music, and are reading it off of a page, how in the world can we be expected to believe in it when we hear it? Obviously the musician playing it can not even remember it, much less play it with total immersion!

Similarly, I remove the fall-board, that piece of wood that your fingers bump into sometimes, the piece of wood that comes down to meet the keys. With the fall-board off, you can play much closer to the fulcrum of the key. Even onto the unfinished wooden part of the key. And, amazingly (but not surprisingly when you think about it) the sounds one can get are inaccessible when the fall-board is left on. I have been accused of disassembling the piano before playing it. The truth is that, for me, those parts are superfluous - even impediments - to playing.

I also "lower the flap" on the hood. At full-stick, the piano looks longer, and that's nice for appearances, but the main reason is that the sound now has another foot-and-a-half to bounce off of, and it is deflected down around the player. I am very careful when I stand up so I don't knock myself out on the overhang.

And all three pedals are fundamental. necessary. Absolutely indispensable. The soft pedal is my friend. Some critics say I over-use it. That's their opinion and they're entitled to it. The middle pedal is for, among other things, those beautiful drones and single notes that ring out and hold while other staccato notes fly by with precision and clarity. The best-kept secret of the piano is the middle pedal. Its absence on some Bosendorfers is unforgivable!

These are not things I worked on or even consciously understood. They were things that just happened. The low chair was inspired first by a fascination with Glenn Gould. I wanted to try that. It worked. But it is different for me: I need a certain kind of back to that chair, and it needs to fit the curvature of my spine so that I can lift both legs out in front of me at times and simply fly, feet-first. There seems no speed-limit in this somewhat ridiculous posture, and I'm going to continue pursuing these unusual-looking activities for as long as they serve me. My present chair is a height-adjustable, swivel, armless office chair with a bit of padding for comfort. 16 inches is its lowest limit and that will be addressed on my next visit to Office Max.

The focusing of powerful feeling through such a stripped-down vehicle is breath-taking to me. I don't care if it sounds or looks like this or that, like so-and-so, like me or not like me. It is right because it allows and encourages my heart to beat in symphony with all of life, and pour forth like a river, unimpeded by fall-boards and high perches.

So here we are. It is NOW, no longer 9-11, and even if it's in D minor (as are three of these entries) it is pure joy and for this I am so grateful.


Seeking Beauty and Truth in Music for the healing of people, for the healing of the self. MY self included. This is the intent of my Music now, as it is the intent of my very life. It must be clear and true and without the shackles of a tired and unhealthy past: the "hang", the promoter's greedy whims, the record producer's "brilliant" ideas, the critic's pompous decree, the rule of art by committee, and the general sense that being a Musician is somehow about being popular, accepted, approved of, and lauded by all.

That is no way to live. That is no way to make Art! There is no return in making billions of manic notes spin through the air like so many kernels of popped corn. That's exactly how I feel when I hear that kind of "music". I feel assaulted, I feel as if someone is hitting me with thousands of pieces of flying popcorn. It doesn't hurt, but it isn't pleasant, and it's a waste of time.

And of popcorn.

One lesson I've learned is directly from Star Wars' Yoda: "TRY, and you will not DO. There is no trying. There is only DO and NOT DO." All doing comes from love, and all love comes from a heart filled with peace. Conversely, all trying comes from the drive to compete, impress, and garner love. To get love we will usually always try, and we will usually always fail, because love is in one's heart, and letting it be free to speak and fly and soar is the only way to do anything creative. Setting it free is the wall and the obstacle we have to face. It is enormous. It is daunting. And when that is done, one must live with, and love, the results. It doesn't much matter what anyone critical or jaded or invested in reactionary thought-patterns will say or think.

It matters what a child will think, what a loved one will feel, what a stressed person will take away from it, what a sick person will get from it to help them heal themselves. It matters because we are human and frail and mortal, and that we will all, at the end, be the same if we are not already... The Beatles said it on Abbey Road:

"And, in the end, the love you take
is equal to the love you make."

All of us have been changed by the events of our world, and the events of the past decade have left many of us off-balance, seeking deeper meaning in our life. Love is the answer - we know this - but our material world is not always kind to affairs of the heart. It doesn't matter, it can't matter to the true artist. We make art because it MUST be made. We play because it is our one reliable source of inexhaustible wonder. And we ALL must believe in love as a force, a force as real and as immutable and as universal as gravity or electromagnetism, because it is literally what binds the planet and its peoples together. It may not look like it sometimes, but we really do love each other. Otherwise, we'd be extinct by now!

Here is my Music now, at this very moment, with its strengths and its weaknesses - which I suppose are my strengths and weaknesses. This is a very transparent album, from me, to you. It pleases me most of the time, and I hope it pleases you. It also speaks to me of new ideas and things that need to be done next. It is one more step. I really hope you enjoy it. It IS for you, from the depth of my heart.

It's my way to finally start off this Century.


Press Release:

Jessica Williams' newest album for Origin Arts, "Songs for a New Century", more than lives up to its proud title with 8 originals by Jessica Williams and one seldom-heard chestnut by Sonny Rollins. The music is as new as the 21st Century and quite unlike ANYTHING Ms Williams has committed to CD before: in a program that spans all of the emotions, from longing, sadness, wonder, and optimism, to melting love, there are times when one may wonder if it's "just a piano" they're hearing. On "Toshiko", she manages to coax the sounds of a Koto or a Shamisen out of the instrument, all without any overdubs. Her heart-breaking "Fantasia" is a strong reminder of her extensive conservatory training and extraordinary touch, often compared to Bill Evans (and, more recently, to Glenn Gould) by JazzTimes critic Doug Ramsey. Still firmly rooted in her nearly 50 year love-affair with jazz, she offers her deeply-felt tribute to the memory of the great pianist Oscar Peterson, and rounds out the mesmerizing program with her original compositions containing soaring lines and rapid-fire sheets-of-sound that were inspired by the ground-breaking work of one of her strongest and earliest influences, saxophone giant John Coltrane.

Remembering that jazz has always embraced - if sometimes reluctantly - new forms, we're amazed at the sheer BREADTH of music presented here, all in a concentrated ONE hour of continuously stimulating and moving revelation.

The recording sound is wide, resonant, and remarkably "present". Recorded on her new 7-foot Mason & Hamlin concert grand piano on state-of-the-art recording equipment in her own home studio, without any constraints or time limitations, she has created something simultaneously beautiful AND ground-breaking, something that fully lives up to its name and its scope.

"Songs for a New Century" is an album of wonders, music so colorful and hypnotic that you'll see it as well as hear it!

"Songs for a New Century"
1 Empathy (Jessica WIlliams, JJW MUSIC ASCAP)
2 Toshiko (Jessica WIlliams, JJW MUSIC ASCAP)
3 Fantasia (Jessica WIlliams, JJW MUSIC ASCAP)
4 Song for a Baby (Jessica WIlliams, JJW MUSIC ASCAP)
5 Blessing in Disguise (Sonny Rollins)
6 Lament (Jessica WIlliams, JJW MUSIC ASCAP)
7 Dear Oscar (Jessica WIlliams, JJW MUSIC ASCAP)
8 Spoken Softly (Jessica WIlliams, JJW MUSIC ASCAP)
9 If Only (Jessica WIlliams, JJW MUSIC ASCAP)
Total time: 1:00:57
ALL TRACKS recorded during the last 2 weeks of Jan 2008, direct to disc, 2-track stereo

Glenn Gould

Lately I've watched a LOT of flash videos of one of my very few piano heroes, Glenn Gould. You'll find a plethora of good ones on YouTube

Prepare to be mesmerized.

Most of my models in the "jazz idiom" were horn players like Miles and 'Trane. And Mary Lou Williams did my soul so much good, her just being there and doing what she did.

Watching and listening to Glenn Gould, the amazing Canadian pianist whose "eccentricities" made him both a major attraction and a pariah among the classical critics (what's new?) has stirred something deep within me, something in desperate need of stirring.

That first evening of discovery, I spent a two-hour listening session during which I cried tears of joy and sadness and laughed gleefully as a scarf-draped and overcoat-wearing Gould, right in the midst of a sternly-played Bach Etude, stood up, sang the part, walked to the window, looked at the ducks in the pond outside (keeping perfect rhythm all the while and conducting the orchestra that was obviously playing inside of his head) and then darting back to the piano to finish the piece with a flourish. Immediately upon releasing the keys, he bounced up and darted out of the camera's field before anyone could blink.

And I had that feeling of immense and jubilant discovery that I had experienced when I first really began to make Music, way back when I was four years old. I was making Music even then, no doubt about that. I can remember when it started to "lock in" for me. I wasn't one of those children that had to practice scales and study day and night. My hands may have been tiny, but, as I've said many times, Music doesn't come from one's hands. It comes from one's HEART.

As is usual, there were certain technical problems to overcome. Fingerings, mainly. My time was there, always, and you can still set your clocks to me. And not having perfect pitch was no shortcoming. Relative pitch in me was there to begin with. It was just THERE. Perfect pitch is an ambivalent anomaly, and not often one that serves its owner. I can play a piano INTO tune if it's out. I have known a few people who have that ability. But the piano may still be a semi-tone LOW. That doesn't hurt me at all. To someone with perfect pitch, that could be more than a mild annoyance. It could stop the Music altogether.

When I was four, as when I was fourteen, I could HEAR the Music before it was played, and sometimes AFTER it was played. But always I could hear it.

If I heard it, I knew I could play it. I was so full of confidence that it took many, many years for my teachers and my parents and my plague-ridden society to instill a small but potent fear in me, a certain self-questioning hesitation.

And that drove my Music into the realm of the technically brilliant, ego-driven, speed-centered, socially-sanctioned style that is so prevalent in "jazz".

I now avoid the word. I bracket it in quotation marks. I have come to dislike the word. The word itself derives from roots that hold disrespectful and flatly barbaric connotations for me. I do not feel like a jazz musician. I do not know what that is anymore.

Perhaps I am too sober. Being a non-drinker and a non-smoker, having left all of my nasty little vices and habits behind, I don't often feel comfortable around true "jazz buffs". When I play festivals (which I do with much less frequency than before) I feel as though I'm at a really big, loud party where everyone is having an absolutely great time but me. The wine is flowing and the smoke is blowing and the drums are banging and the bass is twanging and I feel totally displaced.

I have either moved away from it or it has moved away from me.

I see now that many jazz bands have hired turntable players or rappers. Some have taken to playing the music of Willie Nelson or Elton John or The Beatles (seriously...this is not something that I have the audacity to fabricate) and others have taken to wearing outlandish costumes and acting "hip" in ways not previously considered hip at all...

I've seen a band that has three very scantily-clad females and a turntable whiz kid (playing at the St Lucia Jazz Fest) and I've seen (and unfortunately heard) a pianist that plays so ridiculously fast that each and every tune contains every single "lick" known and unknown. Not an ounce of honest passion. Just a billion flying fingers.

It's like watching the great Jackie Chan doing Kung Fu, but stripped of all the love and the fun. It's barely believable, but without the joy and without the passionate involvement, it's just tricks... a thicket of notes that pelt me like teeny tiny pebbles. It's like being hit by little stones, or perhaps a nasty and forceful spray of cold water.

So, after being immersed in the great Gould, I went to the piano and let my fingers do exactly what they wanted to do. Emboldened by his very infectious (highly contagious) and passionate affection for his own nearly-immaculate abilities and for the Music that was literally bubbling up from the depths of his soul, I did what I haven't done since I was a young child. I played MY way, outside of "jazz" or "classical" or any category or box you can think of.


It was beauty pure and untarnished. To me.

And that was what I have been doing these past months. I have, every day, gone to my piano and let my soul and spirit soar and roam and wander and flounder and resuscitate and shine and grow dark and become brilliant. I have done this all alone.

Sometimes the thoughts come unbidden. "What would this or that critic think of this?" or "What would my daddy think if he were alive" or "what would my piano teachers have thought"...and I have to SHUT DOWN THOSE VOICES.

Now I better understand what the great Salvador Dali was painting about when he created "The Persistence of Memory" and now I more fully know where Keith Jarrett goes and WHY HE CHOOSES TO GO THERE, in the face of so much opposition from his critics and his culture.

I should insert here that I have always lowered the bench to it's absolute lowest position.

And I went out and bought a suede padded swivel office chair that is armless and puts me at 17.5 inches off of the floor.

I have found that this position is breaking up old playing patterns and creating new ones.

It not only enhances touch and accuracy: it causes one to be very close to the keys without slouching.

I have to sit up, and not slouch down, to touch the keys, and the sensitivity and RANGE of touch is vastly greater for me.

The WAY in which I touch the piano changed immediately. It's like a different instrument.

Music is like a river that's always moving, sometimes rushing, sometimes whispering by. Always carrying me along. Sometimes even in directions I'm not sure I should be going.

I never know where it will take me. We never know that, do we?

We, as artists and musicians and poets, in a dimming, darkening age, are often the last to know where we're headed with our creativity.

All I can say with any certainty is that listening to Glenn Gould has changed me in some fundamental way, at least for now.

And I need to let that happen.

About my dog Watson and his passing

This has been the most difficult, most painful, and most instructive holiday season of my life.

And it has been the happiest.

Life is not just about happy endings. It's about learning, about miracles, about powerful forces and our ability to access them; about the power of love and our ability to change reality.

Several years ago we knew our Scottish Terrier, Watson, was ill in some deep core sense. When one has a core illness, it means that the illness has gotten hold at the center of the being and has compromised the life force.

We took him to many veterinarians. One wanted to turn 'Little Dog' (one of our pet names for him) into a bionic android by removing this and that, and by attaching tubes to this and that. We fired that idiot immediately. The issue was and is always quality of life; life at any cost can be worse than death.

Sometimes it really is time to die.

We visited another who (rightly) assessed Watson as having periodontal problems. Watson had just turned 12, and his breath wasn't exactly 'mint-fresh'. Other than that, he seemed fine, if a bit lethargic, and so we accepted the diagnosis as being the root of his problem and started regular brushings and implemented some dietary changes (hard food to remove plaque, bones, healthy snacks).

For several years now, Watson has been the same faithful, guileless, noble friend he always was; but last month, food started falling out of his mouth as he ate, and he began to lose weight. His lethargy became chronic, and often he'd have sleepless nights. He never barked, and his interest in squirrels and alien kittens vanished.

On the advice of a good neighbor, we took him to Dr Miller, a veterinarian, animal lover and healer who has earned the reputation of being thorough, optimistic (a very important trait in any healer), and compassionate in ways that few folks are in any field these days.

He initially concluded that Watson needed 'multiple extractions', perhaps complete removal of all teeth. This was an acceptable option, as the gums harden over time, and toothless dogs can bite with the best of them. The relief from pain and the treatment of the infection will often bring a dog back from near-death.

He also did a blood panel.

The panel wasn't good; Watson's liver enzymes were extremely elevated. He might have liver cancer. But Dr Miller rightly felt that Watson had a will of steel (many Scotties are noted for their stubborn attitudes) and a healthy constitution, and so may have a few good years of life and squirrel chasing left to him, and we opted for 'multiple extractions' under general anesthesia. We prepared him for surgery with two courses of Baytril (a strong antibiotic) and SamE (a new drug just approved by the FDA and used predominantly in humans for the treatment of various liver diseases).

After three weeks of preparation, several days after Christmas day, we took him to the animal hospital and dropped him off at 8 am, expecting the usual call around 4 pm telling us we could pick up our friend.

At 10 am we received a call from Dr Miller. But we hadn't noticed. We had returned home moments after the call had come in, and it remained on our answering machine.

I had been playing the piano and chanting for Watson's health.

I discovered the call at 11:30 am, and called Dr Miller immediately.

He had discovered two massive tumors on the top of the tongue, one the size of a golf ball, far back in the throat; the masses had made intubation almost impossible! A third tumor was found outside the stomach lining. He had called to ask for authorization. Did we want our Little Dog 'put down', or did we want to go ahead with what amounted now to major surgery, on a dog that might not survive at all?

Of course we authorized the surgery, made all the more dangerous by the fact that he was in recovery already (because I hadn't caught that call) and would have to be re-anesthetized.

Those few long hours before the next phone call were excruciating, with emotions ranging from guilt (WHY didn't I check the answering machine?) to sadness (how will he survive this at 14 years old, so weak and so deeply ill?) to guilt again (WHY hadn't we been more aggressive in finding the root of his problems? He had suffered for years, and it was OUR fault!)

I sat down at the piano and played a tune by Coltrane, a tune I did not know, Crescent. Not knowing it, I played it wrong. I didn't care right then; I improvised a new framework, using what I remembered from the record (Crescent, by John Coltrane, on MCA Impulse, with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones). Tears streamed down my face as I played this tune, one that I had never ever played in my life, not knowing why, just playing and praying and crying.

Finally the call came. A very happy and somewhat amazed Dr Miller told me that Watson had done wonderfully; the tumor detritus was excised, the throat was clear, the mass on his stomach removed, and three teeth had been extracted. Also the doctor had done a vigorous and thorough teeth- cleaning. Watson's vitals were strong, and he was hydrated, stable, and starting to gain consciousness.

We were elated.


He's home now, it's day number 3, and he's eating chicken broth and rice, taking his Baytril and very mild pain medication, sleeping through the night, and making guttural, open sounds deep in his throat!

I spoke with Jane Librizzi on the phone recently. She has a radio show out of Syracuse, NY (WAER, Jazz 88.3 FM), and plays my Music all the time. She tells me that she played Crescent by John Coltrane and dedicated it to me. It turned out that she had played it on her show at the exact time that I sat down and tried to play it (she knew nothing of Watson or of his surgery)...

Today I put Crescent on the CD player and played along with it once, and learned it RIGHT. It is in D minor, the 'key of this time'. There's a section where McCoy drops out and it's just Trane with Jimmy and Elvin, and I comped all through that part, and it was such a revelation to play with them. I started to cry again, this time in joy. It was a time of epiphany and of release, of realization and of redemption.

A tsunami has just visited immeasurable horror and death to many many thousands of people in Sri Lanka and neighboring nation-states; a little dog has survived; a woman living in the mountains with her wonderful family feels the presence of the universal life-force, and the world now spins a bit faster. The earthquake was of such a magnitude that it sped the rotation of our planet by a fraction, thus shortening our days forever.

My heart bleeds and it also sings. Such extremes of events, such range and variation, turbulent as Beethoven, unpredictable as Stravinsky! Life is a high-wire act without a net. All moments are divine, and no moment is without meaning.

I no longer believe that our souls are so different from other animals. I believe that there are different WAYS to be conscious, and different KINDS of sentience. I do NOT believe that we are conclusively the dominant species on Earth.

My FRIEND, my FAMILIAR, my ALLY Watson has enlightened me in ways that no human has. I am humbled in the face of his nobility and courage and inner strength. I am amazed that Crescent came to me in this fashion. I am amazed that the world spins faster than before the tsunami, amazed that so many have died on the other side of the world, amazed that some people can not see the value of life and our moral obligation to worship and protect and respect it in all of its forms.

I am amazed at many many things, and I am also humbled, inspired, overcome, enraged, awed.

A 'certified health care professional' once told me that my passion, my elan vitale, was a form of mania, a liability in this culture (and, strangely, an admired trait in the romantic and artistic cultures, like Spain, France, and Italy). She told me that Wellbutrin or Paxil would stabilize me, narrow the range of my responses, flatten my emotions, and make me 'more like everyone else'.

From what I can see, the one and only spirit that I want to be more like is my little friend Watson. Got a drug for that, doc?

You can be sure, absolutely sure, that I will be playing, exploring, discovering, and rediscovering the piece called Crescent for the rest of my life. And you can be sure that I will fight for the lives of those I love, against any enemy of life, with all of my passion and will and spirit.

Life is a treasure beyond price, and Watson has taught me that it is worth the fight.

The squirrels are not sleeping quite so soundly tonight, I think.

To Dr Miller
This is an expression
of gratitude
for such a valiant man
who would give his
greatest effort
and use his blessed gift
to preserve this life-
to value this life-
to understand the
importance of a soul
so guileless and innocent
as our noblest and most
revered friend, Watson.
With our deepest


The Little Dog Update:

1.04.05: I feel bad for the squirrels. Watson is like a brand new dog. A puppy, actually. He's eating his new (very healthy, very expensive) gourmet food with unfettered enthusiasm, he's sleeping through the night, and he's even barked a few times! We have him back for a while. All any of us have is a while! This really has been a wonderful holiday season, and we're thankful to have our friend with us... he seems equally happy to be here, eating, barking, chasing squirrels, playing with the other dogs in the neighborhood, taking walks, enjoying his life again.

Meanwhile, even the kitty is relieved. Kayla really loves her dog; she just feigns disgust and disapproval, because he's... well... a dog!

As of 1.09.05, Watson continues to amaze us with his newly-won health. He is positively frisky. He is chowing down, bouncing along (Scotties swagger when they walk) and is generally acting like a young pup again. Don't anyone say there's no such thing as a miracle. Watson rocks. And he thanks you for all of your e-mails! (Well, he would if he could...) and I thank you also.


And today (1.10.05) was so sad.

He's still feeling wonderful, but the biopsy came back and reveals a very aggressive and fast growing cancer. He may have weeks or months. As I wrote to several friends this evening:

'We were doing so well. Watson had major surgery to remove the tumors in his throat that prevented him from eating and breathing freely. He had felt so terribly bad. He is still so very much better now. But today we went to the Vet and found the results to the biopsy... a very aggressive form of cancer that could put him in the same position in days or weeks.

'I don't believe much of what the experts say. I don't disbelieve either... Watson is 14. But no one can see the future. I could walk out tomorrow and get hit by a meteorite. We are going to love him and play with him every day and enjoy every single moment. When he's ready he'll tell us. No more surgeries or antibiotics or heroic measures. he is a heroic figure and his little life has changed us forever.

'Shalom and bless you - Jessica'


It's a truth none of us escape. We may not go softly into that good night, but we go anyway. I am very blessed to have had so many wonderful years with the Prince among dogs. Hopefully, we'll be given more time. Anything now is a bonus, icing on the cake. As so many of you wrote:

'GO, Watson!'


Update 1.21.05

Miracles are afoot. He's acting like a pup. He sleeps through the night. Please keep chanting, praying, thinking of him in your thoughts. It's working. I dare not say more. I am amazed. I am so happy! So is he! Life is a beyond our capacity to predict or fully understand.

Update 2.2.05

Watson passes quietly in our arms (with the vets assistance). We grieve.

b 7-17-91, d 2-2-05

(When we got to the vets office, the cancer had hit the bone, and he was in pain. I'd given him a pain med, but it wasn't enough. The nurse sedated him and still he was awake. We just held him and talked to him, tears rolling down our faces. Dr Miller gave him the euthanasia drug and he was gone in 15 seconds. His spirit went through my body and stayed in my heart for a moment before leaving. The love was a palpable presence in my heart. The room was filled with this noble spirit's love. In a very short time, his body, swollen and lumpy from the cancer, was no longer him, but a shell. He had loved the last weeks of life before his transition; practically pain-free until yesterday, he had chased squirrels, played with the big neighborhood dogs, and filled our lives with profound joy.

As we left the vet's, weeping and mourning and in shock, we were both struck by how banal the world had become in such a short time. A car passed us on a two lane country road and almost killed 4 people to get by us.

When we arrived home I checked the e-mail. 12 people tried to plant malicious code or spyware on my computer (business as usual), 14 were peddling drugs like O.x.y.con.tin (a powerful pain med), V.ico.din,, and 25 e-mails were of a nature unmentionable here; 2 were legitimate correspondences.

Later, to try and escape our grief, we (accidentally) saw, on TV, someone (a man who told us he had a mandate and lots of political capital to spend) making plans for our future in an ego-driven megalomaniacal display of contempt and disregard for any form of human decency or compassion.

This is not about love. Watson was about love. We need to strive for that in our lives.

Being driven by love, there can be no fear.


So that's that. No lessons, really, except that we need to appreciate every single day that we're here, and love who we love with a totality of being and an abandon of spirit. There can be no illusions about beginnings and endings. Things end. People end. So we have to do the best we can while we're here. No time for agendas, lies, games. Mother Teresa said, 'Every day is a gift from God. What we do with every day is a gift to God.'

I will always have the beautiful memories of Watson at the beach, doing things that Scotties are not supposed to be able to do, like swimming and fetching. He sat at my feet as they worked the pedals of the piano as I played (he is there on almost every recording I have released to date on my own label) and he stayed by my side throughout every personal storm and every joyous moment. Every time I came off a road trip, we'd play on the floor together and 'nuzzle'. He sat up late as I wrote poetry, and kept jazz musician hours. He was my friend.

Thank you all for caring and for sending cards and e-mails. He had a regular fan base. You can be sure he'll be in all my Music in some form, and that tunes will be written for him.

I just miss him.