Sunday, July 10, 2011

The spaces in between….

July 8, 2011

The spaces in between….

She was a Rajasthani miniature from the 15th century. The long aquiline nose, the alabaster skin, the raven black hair and dark swooping eyebrows above eyes slightly elongated at their ends. Yet, her hands made the piano sing jazz riffs by Charlie Parker and Jerome Kern. Renee Rosnes, Canadian citizen, half-Indian by birth, founding member of the SF Jazz Collective, brilliant composer, and long time pianist with James Moody, performed this evening at the Stanford Jazz Festival ( She made my heart soar, my feet skip, and my soul smile.

Renee is that rare creature – a woman jazz musician – a mother and wife and creative genius. A role model for women who make great music their reason for being. Listening to her play with her partner and husband, Bill Charlap, I could only think of how very much this was a case of “an equal music”. The music brought to mind words Vikram Seth wrote in his novel of the same name honoring the violinist Philippe HonorĂ©.

“Peace to the heart with touch or word,

Ease to the soul with note and chord.”

They were what tonight’s concert offered the audience. Yet, as in any brilliant jazz performance, it was not all peace and ease – there were edges and long pauses. Into that space crept my sense of disconnection and slight schizophrenia. How was it possible to be sitting serenely in a jazz concert in Dinkelspiel auditorium, barely 2 hours after speaking with my husband in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, hearing with horror about the hundreds who have been killed in violence that led the Pakistan army to issue “shoot at sight” orders?

Our daughter Mira, is a child who has grown up with Stanford university across the street. She has never gone hungry or had to worry about health care. For the past 10 days she has spent time in a Mumbai slum with girls, most of whom live in homes no bigger than a Palo Alto bathroom. She has made friends with sisters who lost a sibling to honour killings. Her emails back to us say she is grateful for being able to speak Hindi, but is shaken at what she is witnessing first hand - the inequality, poverty and injustice. How should she reconcile those realities with her life here?

And, what about me? I am someone who has seen extreme poverty and extreme violence in villages and towns from Gaza to Eritrea and Cambodia. How can I allow myself to get lost in the music being made by two brilliant pianists accompanied by Lewis Nash on drums, and Peter Washington on bass? What right do I have to spend an evening imbibing music? To meet friends before hand and feast on lamb chops and sushi? To decide between a Pinot noir or a Prosecco?

The Princeton philosopher, Peter Singer, makes the argument that, “In the world as it is now, I can see no escape from the conclusion that each one of us with wealth surplus to his or her essential needs should be giving most of it to help people suffering from poverty so dire as to be life-threatening. That's right: I'm saying that you shouldn't buy that new car, take that cruise, redecorate the house or get that pricey new suit. After all, a $1,000 suit could save five children's lives.” (

That means no money on jazz concerts, or fancy dinners. It means making a set of choices few of us are able or willing to make, even those of us who see ourselves as being deeply committed to human rights, social justice, and equality. In the spaces between these contradictions, I argue to myself that beauty and art are essential to our survival – to the nurture of the human spirit. I persuade myself that my lifestyle here is not really at the cost of the three billion people on this planet who live on US $2.50 per day - or less than the cost of a coffee at our neighborhood cafĂ©.

But we live in a world that is increasingly creating surreal contrasts for us all. We know that the poorest 40 percent of the world’s population accounts for 5 percent of global income. The richest 20 percent accounts for three-quarters of world income. In the last few years in the United States income inequality has reached obscene levels ….as the top 1% of the US population now controls 40% of the wealth of the entire country.

The silence between the chords is deafening now. It is not an Equal Music. Not at all.

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