Grown Folks Music


By Charlene Diehl

Some winters are longer and colder and darker than others—I’ve clocked enough of them to know that when the inner weather lines up with the outer, you can become a bit like the tundra. Hard, like iron.

As spring thaws us out, I’m looking back at a few moments of genuine lightness in those months without warmth. They’re like the flowers we smuggle through a blizzard to keep us company while we wait.

The first of those occasions was an Asper Series concert at the beginning of March. Cyrus Chestnut, a pianist with the most agile hands, was on stage with his old touring mate, Steve Kirby, and Winnipeg’s new drum sovereign, Quincy Davis. The three of them are big musical personalities, but all so light on their feet—and willing to engage the emotional terrain of old standards with a nod to nostalgia but with real respect too. That repertoire stretches back to my parents and theirs, but I felt wrapped up in it, and connected to what it says now, and to people like me, struggling a little too long in the cold and dark. Cyrus loves to play. At one point, his cycling pattern rippled right off the top end of the keyboard, and he gave us a colluding grin: “I know, I know, but this keyboard is too small for what I want to say…”

Also on the bill that weekend was Jackie Ryan, a singer from San Francisco who loves those old standards too. Whenever I got jittery about her cabaret theatrics, she would surprise me again with her straight-ahead joy. Her performance of “RedTop” made me laugh right out loud, it was so unabashed. She was buoyed up by the music, by the powerful rhythm section, by her own love of singing. It was a flood of feeling, an homage, and an athletic feat for everybody on the stage.

I sat back in my seat and realized why I am so drawn to this music: it is real adult music—complex, subtle, witty, sentimental, and irreverent, often all at once.  It laughs in the midst of melancholy, and embraces the sorrow that gives joy its heft. It’s not a music to make you sigh over faded youth, or at least not without a dose of irony. It’s actually a music you get more out of as life puts some miles on you—you can better appreciate the skill and intelligence of great players, but you can also better track the eloquence, intentional and incidental, that circulates through every performance.

When I sputtered out something like this to Steve after the concert, he smiled and said, “Yeah, we call it grown folks music.”  I suspect from the musician’s point of view, that’s more an articulation of the skill and maturity it demands, but I think it works just as well from the listener’s side of the equation.

The second occasion has a different cast altogether. When the New York bassist Rufus Reid was in town to play with the Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra, I crashed a bass masterclass on the campus. I don’t play the bass (though I can hold one, and I know now how intoxicating it feels to have its voice charge right through you), but I wanted to watch this “Yoda of the Bass” teach. I sat behind him as he faced a semi-circle of bass players, half a dozen or more. He coaxed and prodded and counseled, and it was delightful, insightful, inspiring. Every so often, he would demonstrate an idea or a technique on his own bass. His sound is gorgeous, all liquid and dark, like peaty scotch.

But the moment for me, the thing that made me all giddy, happened toward the end of the masterclass. They had been working on “walking the bass”—that inscrutable musical sketching thing that bass players do to nail down a piece, a technique both routine and individual—then Reid kicked off a blues form, and all of them walked it, together but separate. It was weird and delicate and beautiful, a whole filigree pattern of low voices, not quite tuneful but absolutely musical. I thought I might faint.

The third occasion I almost missed. On a Saturday evening toward the end of March, people packed into the Angel Room at Aqua Books for a Japan Relief concert presided over by pianist George Colligan. I stood at the back of this huge crowd and watched my friends—George, Steve, and Quincy—play their hearts out up on that little stage. They shared some originals, they got lavish some standards, they blazed through a fantastic remake of “Come Together” by Beatles. When Marco Castillo joined them with his guitar, they were sudden samba masters too.  It was joyful, raucous, tender, and sweet. They are extraordinarily skillful players, and yet it’s not really about that—all they want to do is play, test the edges of their imaginations, dream out loud.

I almost missed this one for two reasons: I was worn out, body and soul (see above), which for me nearly always translates into an acute people allergy; and the place was sold out so I was more than lucky to squeeze in. But as I stood back there, just safe from the press of people, I realized that I was absolutely happy for the first time in many days. This music, this particular generosity of spirit, this reeling on-the-spot creation, this animating force of rhythm coursing through every body in the room—even in an Eeyore state, I was not up to resisting that.

Which I suppose is the point. When you are old enough to carry scars that deserve respect and dreams that are written with determination, you want for something to meet you there, something to put some air in your lungs, muster in your limbs, courage in your heart. Even in the cold of winter—or maybe especially in the cold of winter—I have this ace up my sleeve: I live in a city where I can listen to grown folks music, played brilliantly and big-heartedly, and it gives me back my nerve. I’ll take that.

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In the Pocket

Charlene Diehl

Charlene Diehl is the associate editor of dig! magazine and the director of THIN AIR, Winnipeg’s annual literary festival. Her last book is a memoir, Out of Grief, Singing.