Scott Robinson: Following the Music

There are times when I am reminded of the power that creative music can have in our world.

Living in the New York City area, I confess I am in a bit of a bubble. Creative opportunities abound here, with many inspiring colleagues, and even the most adventurous music finds eager listeners who usually know a thing or two about what we are trying to do.

But this music is a hardy traveler, with a well-stamped passport. She visits many places, opens many doors. She makes friends easily, sleeps around, and has children of mixed heritage. As a devoted servant of this music, I follow her where she leads… and she can lead me to some unlikely places. My trip to Pakistan is a recent case in point.

PAKISTAN?” you say? That’s exactly what I said when my old friend and colleague, bassist Pat O’Leary, first called me about going there. His wife Gabrielle Stravelli – a very fine singer -- was putting a group together for a State Department-funded trip, and they wanted me to go. For a guy who dreams of playing in every country on Earth (I’ve made it to about 60… long ways to go!), this was certainly enticing… but also somewhat concerning. What about safety and security? What were the risks?

My wife didn’t want me to go… and I don’t blame her a bit. But I gave it a lot of thought. Yes, I felt nervous about being in potential targets like big Western-style hotels (think Mumbai) and consulates (Benghazi). But, on reflection, I realized that I feel just as much a target every time I enter the Lincoln Tunnel right here at home. And there had just recently been a terror attack in Times Square. Maybe I was more at risk right here in New York.

And there’s something else: I feel a sense of duty when it comes to this music. She needs to be shared… to be taken out into the world. Not just to the comfortable, well-known destinations, but sometimes off the worn path, to places where she may risk being greeted with blank incomprehension... or even hostility. This is part of what we do. It’s a part of the job description for anyone wanting to continue what Louis Armstrong started. Sometimes you have to follow the music where she leads. It’s a bit like walking the dog – and then realizing at a certain point that the dog is really walking you.

I decided to go. My brother was stunned: “You’re going to go play jazz, in Pakistan… with a woman?!” I was reminded of my own reaction when my friend Bob Belden told me he was going to Tehran to play some jazz concerts. “C’mon, really? Iran? You’re joking.” Nonetheless, he later told me he had an incredible experience and was very well-received, and sent me an amazing photo of his Iranian audience cheering and waving.

My own trip was equally eye-opening. We travelled with armed guards, and every venue -- including schools, hotels, and TV stations, as well as diplomatic facilities -- was likewise under armed protection. Our performances were all by invitation only, with no advertising or advance exposure on social media, in order not to attract the wrong kind of attention. But never once did I feel any hint of hostility, whether under those controlled conditions or just out in the street. In fact, warmth and friendliness were easy to find. Visiting the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore one day, we were shyly approached by a group of schoolgirls in traditional Muslim garb who wanted their photos taken with us (we were the exotic ones), and before long we were all smiling, laughing, and taking “selfies” together. As we said our goodbyes, their teacher came up to us with incredible graciousness and sincerity. “You have no idea how much that meant to our girls,” he said. “They will not forget your kindness.”

Our first performance took place in a little arts café in Islamabad, run by two very industrious and dedicated individuals who are devoted to the idea of bringing such small venues back to the Pakistani landscape where, I was told, they once proliferated. Known as the Foundation for Arts, Culture and Education, or FACE (the word “music” being omitted due to the belief in certain quarters that music is forbidden by Islamic Law), this little venue serves as an art gallery, café, performance space and educational center all in one. It quickly filled with a small but enthusiastic and diverse audience, eager to hear – yes -- music. We played a short set first, after which we were treated to an amazing duo performance by two Pakistani virtuosos of the sitar and tablas. Then, the two groups joined together and gave an impromptu collaborative performance, the kind of thing that could only have taken place among improvising musicians (the Pakistanis are very fluent improvisers). This was a revelation, hearing these two disparate cultures meet in the realm of sound and creativity, the two musics intertwining like living things. The people loved it.

Later, socializing up on the rooftop lounge, I met a Pakistani gentleman who described himself as a documentary filmmaker, and I was struck by the depth of his gratitude and sincerity. “I want to thank you,” he said earnestly, “for bringing your music here, to this harsh environment.” I asked him what he meant by “harsh environment.” “We always loved music in Pakistan,” he told me, “it is in our blood. But now, it is very difficult for music here. Many feel that it is forbidden. This is very sad; we need music here. It is an important part of our culture and history.” I asked him what he thought was the solution to this state of affairs, and was rather stunned by his response. He thought for a moment, then looked me in the eye and said, “We must fight against religion.”

I know this answer will not sit well with some. But I found it remarkable to hear such candor on the rooftop of a tiny arts café in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan (that is the country’s full name) -- and ironically coming from a man whose appearance, to be perfectly frank, would probably be unfairly associated with the words “Islamic extremist” in the minds of many Americans. It caused me to wonder what sort of risks some of these people might be taking, both to present and to partake of this music here in this “harsh environment”… perhaps greater than any perceived risks I may have taken to bring it here. In fact, there is a long history of people taking extraordinary risks to embrace American jazz, in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and elsewhere. On my first trip to Japan I was standing outside a noodle shop in Nagoya with alto great Jerry Dodgion. The proprietor recognized Jerry and ran outside to beckon us in, enthusing about having once seen Jerry with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. “I love jazz, I love American jazz musicians,” he gushed while plying us with food and drink. Then, “I have something to show you,” and off he scurried… returning moments later with a tabletop wind-up Victrola and a small stack of 78s! To my astonishment, a few cranks later the sound of Louis Armstrong was filling the room. “My father kept these records hidden during World War II,” he told us proudly. “If you were caught with American music, you could go to prison… or worse.”

This was the moment that I began to comprehend the power that this music can actually have. Here I was, thousands of miles from home, hearing this glorious sound come out of a fragile disk spinning at our table, and thinking, this is who won the war. The generals, the battleships, the emperor are all long gone, but Louis Armstrong and his music came through it all unscathed. The guns and bombs long ago fell silent, but this music still speaks. It lives on… not just in New York, not just in America… but here in this little shop in Japan, where someone cherished and preserved it, and took considerable risks to pass it on to his son. That is real power: the power to move minds and hearts in troubled times, to serve as a kind of antidote to the ills and evils of the world… and ultimately to outlast them.

The timing of our trip to Pakistan proved to be fortuitous in just this regard. The very day we arrived, our American president delivered a speech containing some remarks about Pakistan which touched off quite a bit of ill will, and were considered by many Pakistanis to be threatening. The backlash could be seen daily in the Pakistani newspaper editorials. Anti-American street demonstrations sprang up and persisted for days, resulting in cancellations of several of our events due to security concerns and an overabundance of caution. And yet, whenever we performed, we were met with warmth and gratitude. There was the young woman in a head scarf, eager to tell me how excited she was to be hearing American jazz for the very first time… the astonished young man staring at my instrument, asking me what it was – having never seen a saxophone before (he was not alone!)… the star leader of the “Qawwali” band we collaborated with who, after a very long rehearsal with Gabrielle, told her it was the first time he’d ever sung with a woman… the music teacher and instrument collector who spent seven hours with me the day we met (taking me to his school, his home, out to eat -- even buying me a set of Pakistani clothes!), and who wrote the next day after being up half the night listening to my music, “You’re a great musician and I am your student and fan… I love your music from the core.”

This is why we’re here, I thought: to offer up our music and let it serve as an antidote, and to let its presence, and ours, bring commonality and goodwill. And not only our music, but the Pakistani songs we learned and performed as well. We touched a small number of people, I know… but they will carry the experience away with them. They will tell their families, their friends, that all Americans do not despise them. And they will remember.

Perhaps the most enthusiastic reaction I received came during a workshop we gave in the sweltering, smelly basement of a cultural center in Karachi, when I was asked to introduce my instrument to the crowd. “This is my saxophone,” I told them. “We’ve been together a very long time, more than forty years. She is much more socially adept than I am, much better at making friends. Smarter, too! And she likes to travel. So by staying close to her, I have been able to meet many wonderful people all over the world. And now I am very happy because, today, she has brought me here to meet all of you.” The place erupted. Music wins again.

I intend to continue to follow this music for as long as she will put up with me. I seem to show my age, but my 100-plus-year-old escort does not. Ageless, she has survived countless calamities, injustices, and upheavals, and will doubtless outlast many more... yet her voice is as clear and sweet as ever. As she trots around the world and makes herself perfectly at home, I am grateful to still be allowed to tag along. I hope we'll run into you somewhere.

 

About the Author:

Scott Robinson and his unusual reed and brass instruments have been heard in some 60 nations and on 260 recordings with a cross-section of jazz greats representing nearly every imaginable style of the music, including Bob Brookmeyer, Tom Harrell, Frank Wess, Maria Schneider, Anthony Braxton, Joe Lovano, Ron Carter, Ella Fitzgerald, Ruby Braff and Roscoe Mitchell. Primarily a tenor saxophonist, Scott once placed directly below the great Sonny Rollins in the DownBeat Readers Poll. As a composer, his works range from solo performance pieces to chamber and symphonic works. He has been a writer of essays and liner notes, an invited speaker before the Congressional Black Caucus, and a Jazz Ambassador for the U.S. State Department. Scott releases highly adventurous music on his ScienSonic Laboratories label, and his Doctette (celebrating pulp adventure hero Doc Savage) gave what The Boston Globe called "the most quirky and delightful set" of the 2015 Newport Jazz Festival. See www.sciensonic.net.