“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” And with that bit of tortured verbiage, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld chiseled himself into the marble of military history saying, basically, we have little to no idea what we’re doing, but hell – it’s too late to turn back now. I’m here to confess that there are moments when I feel that way about music.
Don’t get me wrong – I love what I do. I love that I get to perform and compose and teach this beautiful art form that exists in an existential space that is beyond words, beyond visuals, beyond description, drawn from the infinite emotional palette of human experience in all its intense colors and textures. I love being a musician, I just find it kind of remarkable that, after a rigorous conservatory education and years of live performance and countless creative collaborations, there are times when I feel like I know pretty much nothing. Bubkis. It’s as if I’m looking out on a vast mountain range that represents great jazz artists who came before, with their brilliant body of work and depth of expression and invention and soul, and I wonder if I will ever manage to make even a tiny little chip in that granite, ever get anywhere near one of those summits, ever feel like I really do know something.
But what always brings me around in these moments (and hours and days) is the belief that that know-nothing feeling is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it proves that the journey truly is the destination for all who choose a life in this art form, and that journey will never, at least not while I draw breath, end. I will never achieve complete “mastery,” never feel like there’s nothing left to learn, never be finished, never phone it in. The magical gift of improvised music is the art of being in the moment; if one can stay in it and not allow anything to pull focus away from the immediate soundscape and flow of ideas, the musical conversation can go in any direction, which is a totally unique, thrilling feeling. Depending on the day, that moment may be transcendent or it may be a train wreck, but whatever happens it will be immediate, it will be real. And I have faith that I will come out on the other side with a little bit more knowledge, one more known known, maybe even a little chip of granite in my hand.