Life is generally pretty good. I spend most of my life enjoying lolling about and sometimes doing the things that allow me to happily loll about.
A few times I have actually gotten to a place where I could perform with more focus.
In the arts we call this place ‘the zone”.
A state in which one can or feels as though one can perform with exceptional focus, skill and energy.
As a painter I have suffered through periods of abject failure. Canvases covered with bad starts began to pile up against basement walls. They wait quietly, reminding me of my ineptness. They are a result of my hand holding a brush loaded with the wrong color going to the wrong place. This can last for long periods of time. It is important at these times that I don’t quit trying to paint, when painting is an act that can bring me such great pleasure. It will take a lot of slogging to get through to better times.
WHOSE HAND IS MAKING THE RIGHT MOVES?
Then there are the times when after we work very hard and we persevere that we stumble on our best efforts. It is as if an outside force directs us to excel. At these moments we can’t miss. At these moments our vision is clear, and our hand is accurate. I heard Wendell Harrison and Vaughn Klugh play a gig at the Scarab Club in Detroit, and I was the audience of one. They started out with some standard stuff, but then they seemed to anticipate each other as they took off to new places. They were playing for themselves. They came up to my studio after the gig and we talked. I told them that I thought they were playing at their peak. They both smiled and said that it was good, but they didn’t quite get in the zone. Only those in the zone know when they are in the zone. Everyone has these moments but no one can explain them.
In the zone is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, the zone is characterized by complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss in one’s sense of space and time.
I can attest to losing all sense of space and time while being lost in “the zone”. I was alone in an idyllic situation for a painter. I had rented a small house in an apricot orchard on a hillside in the South of France. I had fresh food, good wine and all the art supplies I needed to paint great paintings. I had nothing standing in my way to create something worthwhile.
For three days I turned bright oil paints into poorly placed pools of mud. Nothing worked. My visions didn’t appear on the canvases. I drank more wine and then tried skipping the wine. At the end of the day I set up outside as the sun was still above the hill. Surrounded by beautiful light I started to paint. I had a black and white photo I had taken in a small rural church early one morning near Jonestown, Mississippi. The photo was of a man who stood with dignity and from time to time gave an affirmative “Amen” to the children attending the Sunday School class. He combined the quiet strength, dignity and grace that working men often have.
I had been floundering, but now I started painting with surety, using only one wide brush that I cleaned with a rag. As the evening light faded I stopped painting and with a glass of wine in one hand and a the paintbrush in the other, I started to walk. A little later I found myself in the middle of a cherry orchard. The last of an orange glow in the west was my only clue how to get back home. Here is the painting.
In music, except on rare occasions when recording, it is an experience known only by the musicians and those who happen to be there and can discern the moment. You have to be there. It will make you smile.
SHARING THE ZONE AT THE DIRTY DOG
I had a conversation with the young phenom Grace Kelley when she was at the Dog. We talked about how the best work comes out of a place when one is alone and has a single task. Later, while performing, she got noticeably lost in her music. She then told us a story about the song she was playing, a story was about about being alone in a motel room with her thoughts when suddenly the song emerged fully formed. She wrote the song down in just a few minutes. After she finished the story she looked over at where I was standing with my camera and smiled.
Jazz artists have their own language when they speak to each other while playing together. Notice when their eyes close and and the corners of their lips curl up. Something pretty good is happening. On these rare occasions they may have entered the THE ZONE.
PROFESSOR JAMES DAPOGNY 1940 – 2019
James Dapogny showed up at the University of Michigan with a one year appointment in the music department and stayed on for forty years. James is best known in Ann Arbor for his ragtime jazz piano. I heard him some time ago on the Prairie Home Companion radio show on Saturday nights. Everyone was cheered up thanks to the “good time” music Jim favored. The jazz he played was light hearted but not thoroughly studied. Professor Dapogny fixed that. He was a serious scholar, and thanks to James’ heart and scholarship, jazz pioneers like “Jelly Roll’ Morton will get their due recognition.
COMING THIS WEEK TO THE DIRTY DOG
March 27 – 30
PLANET D NONET
Planet D Nonet is a down & dirty little swing band from Detroit. It was founded by a familiar face at the Dirty Dog, drummer, RJ Spangler, and his long time friend, trumpeter James O’Donnell. The Planet D Nonet is about swing, blues, space-age jazz and classic American songs all served with plenty of good humor with an eye toward turning people onto this kind of music. It’s worth coming out just for RJ’s explanations of each tune’s origins and the stories behind the music.