Calling the Children Home

callingAs a white boy in the Chicago suburbs who devoured every jazz biography I could get my hands on, my first encounter with the idea of “calling the children home” was a snippet from Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff’s Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya: The Story Of Jazz As Told By The Men Who Made It.  In it, legendary New Orleans trombonist Kid Ory speaks of Buddy Bolden, a cornetist and the first major figure in jazz, but one whose career began and ended so early that he was never recorded.  What we do have is reminiscences such as Ory’s:

I used to hear Bolden play every chance I got. I’d go out to the park where he was playing, and there wouldn’t be a soul around. Then, when it was time to start the dance, he’d say, “Let’s call the children home.” And he’d put his horn out the window and blow, and everyone would come running.

A few years later, as the only white kid in Professor Frank Suggs’ Black Music I and II classes, I learned that the phrase had a broader meaning having to do with important family business and events, for which every member of the extended family was summoned to return from wherever their lives had taken them.  Kid Ory’s usage of “call the children home,” then, was a poetic reference pointing, at least in literal terms, to Africa—but his words were brought back in sharper focus for me, against a far deeper background, a few years later again, when I ran across them in Michael Ventura’s essay, Hear That Long Snake Moan.

Ventura uses Bolden’s words to punctuate a brilliant and unprecedented exposition of the aesthetic—and the metaphysical underpinnings—of American music in general, and jazz in particular.  He quotes Ory quoting Bolden, then repeats Bolden’s words, adding one further sentence of his own.

Let’s call the children home.

That’s what this music is for.

By the time one of my students introduced me to that Ventura essay, I was into the first decade of my adult life, which I spent playing and teaching, as a jazz musician and as I like to call it, a utility saxophone player (see Baseball: utility infielder).  During that decade, I never felt that I was so much calling the children home, however, as that I’d finally arrived home, and was gladly working off a debt of gratitude for having been summoned.

During the prior decade, during which jazz had called me at the age of fourteen, my inner life had been characterized in part by terror and confusion, chronic, corrosive, and mute.  I had no language for what I was experiencing, and those who might have listened if I’d had the language were ill-equipped and unprepared to do so—much less to understand or explain how the world for me could possibly be anything other than a comfort and a joy.

What I was experiencing, though, I was hearing—not just the terror and confusion, miraculously un-muted, but also the home that lay beyond it, and the timeless Underworld beneath—when I listened, first and in particular, to the music of Charles Mingus (who had, rather improbably, played with Kid Ory), but to so many more as well.  Monk.  Cecil Taylor.  Late-career Art Pepper.  The entire arc of Miles Davis’ career.  And from back closer to Buddy Bolden’s time too, there’s that one incredible note, equal parts laugh and shiver, that Earl Hines lands near the end of his duet with Louis Armstrong on Weatherbird.  Chills.

It was music like that which carried me through my extended adolescence, and set me back on my own feet on the other side.  One of my favorite song titles, to this day, is Mingus’ “Don’t Be Afraid, the Clown’s Afraid Too.”

Whether I would have qualified for an Aspergers diagnosis as a kid is anybody’s guess.  I was terrifically intelligent; my own mute terror, coupled with my parents’ imperatives, motivated me to use that intelligence to find workarounds and finesse the denial necessary to hide and minimize those things a diagnostician would be looking for—and to do so at any cost, all while never acknowledging or being acknowledged for my effort.  I was an adopted child, the bearer of a decidedly un-famil-iar mindset in the eyes of my sometimes bewildered, sometimes worried parents.  And of course back then, Hans Asperger was not a name known to many diagnosticians in any case.

And really, terror is terror.  What does it matter which side of the diagnostic line you fall on?

Ten years ago, I left the only calling card I would leave on the web for a decade, an intensely personal, rather histrionic, somewhat entertaining rant on what an unsatisfactory home I found the world to be for the children of the woman I would later marry, one of those children having just been discovered to be an Aspergers kid.  It’s been, for what it’s worth, a markedly undramatic ten years; no one of us besides me, anyway, has any personal grievances with the world.

While I haven’t mellowed much in the years since I wrote that rant, I have noticed that other, better ranters have taken my place.  The chance to contribute to Shift came suddenly, without much time for me to think through why I was here, or what I want to do that I don’t see enough of elsewhere.  But it’s coming clearer.

Spectrum folks, those of us with an autistic cognitive style, with or without social difficulties, are the largest, oldest Secret Society in the history of mankind.  We are many, but we’re strong only to the extent that we are self-aware—and to date, we are such a secret society, such a lost tribe, that by and large we do not even know how to recognize one another.  Let alone stand up for one another, act in our own collective interests, or decide for ourselves where to go from here.

It’s time, and past time, to call the children home.

on 09/15/09 in Art/Play/Myth | No Comments | Read More

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