Dreams, Erika's Weird Dreams, Music

It was all a dream, or was it?

I’ve been seeing interesting dreams lately. In the most recent episode, I played my sax in front of my friends and a large crowd at a dimly lit, yet spacious venue. Velvet draperies decorated the interior. I was a bit nervous at first, simply blowing air through the horn, playing a one-note melody, keeping it as simple as Miles Davis soloing in “Surrey with the Fringe on Top.” Next thing I knew, the accompanying bassist, drummer, pianist, and I grooved organically to each other’s sounds and motion. My friends cheered us on as my solo intensified. I felt alive.

But it was all a dream. I woke up and thought, “When’s the last time I felt that alive?”

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had countless ecstatic moments over the years. The last time I felt that particular way was June 2012. My high school jazz band performed our final concert of the school year; for me, my last performance as a high school musician. For background, my jazz band dealt with serious conflict that had me and several other members wondering if we’d make it to the end altogether. Looking back, our band drama could have been a prequel to the 2014 film Whiplash… except rated PG and without any band mate getting into a major car accident on the way to a competition.

For this final concert, one of our numbers was Charles Mingus’s “Boogie Stop Shuffle.” Since we performed this tune at festivals and concerts all year long, and on top of the drama, we were so done. As planned, I was one of the soloists for the song.

Unlike previous performances, we had an alum on the drums since our regular drummer had quit before the concert. Despite all the drama that went down during my last year of jazz band, I decided to let go all of the stress and enjoy playing the music for one last time.

As planned, I improvised within the usual 16 bars or so. Then, without prior rehearsing, I started trading fours with the drummer. Akin to a conversation between two people, we played off of each other, anticipating what sounds would come out of us in reaction to our improvisation, culminating in the most energetic moment…ever. And, like the aforementioned dream from last night, I felt alive. Adrenaline rushing through my body, through my fingers pressing down on the keys, through my breath vibrating within the bell of my horn. My friends and family in the audience felt me, too.

When my solo ended, I was breathless, I was euphoric. The drama no longer mattered, everyone let loose, and we made it to the end. Everything turned out okay 🙂

…So I bring up that anecdote from almost five years ago (oohmygoodness I’m old!!) because I woke up this morning with that exact feeling from my last high school concert. Riding on the dreamy wave of excitement, I fixed myself a small breakfast and sat myself down in front of my piano. I sight-read some tunes from a book filled with piano arrangements from Studio Ghibli films. Being a lot more literate with treble clef than bass clef, I saw the sheet music for the first time and played with my right hand. I even sang along to the Japanese lyrics written within the bars while my fingers pressed on the black and white keys.

Although I bicker about being in the suburbs, I am thankful and privileged to have plenty of time to play the piano, to train for the marathon. Experiment in my creative side without the pressure of weekly deadlines or having to mold my words in dry academic language. Let my body digest food and water well enough before I run or workout without rushing myself in between work, school, and studying.

I’m working towards reaching that point of euphoria, but who knows how that will manifests? Someday, I hope to find a healthy balance of all these things that fulfill me.

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December 2015

Seven Steps to Heaven

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When a jazz kissa is so old that there’s a wall-mounted telephone…

Let me tell you about Miles. Yes, like Miles Davis.

Named after the iconic American trumpeter, this jazz bar opened its door in 1960, during a time when jazz music and culture peaked along with the postwar economy in Tokyo and throughout the rest of Japan. To this day Miles still remains in business despite the rapidly modernizing environment, despite the number of cafes and bars that have decreased over the decades in parallel with the decreasing popularity and demand of jazz music. To this day the same woman, who goes by the affectionate nickname mama-chan, runs the establishment since the sixties. If that’s not badass then I don’t know what is.

From my previous experiences of walking into jazz cafes and bars in Tokyo, whether with friends or by myself, I was always nervous about going in because I could never predict what kind of manager would be running the place. These managers often set the unspoken rules and mood of the space. At some places they were friendly, eager that a customer walked in. In a few cafes, they were intimidating. The general mannerism was little to no talking, to let the music speak for itself.

I came across this place on a Monday evening. It was a very rare occasion for me to venture out of the 23 wards on a weekday since I lived in central Tokyo for my study-abroad program. I went in with the intention of staying for an hour because of the commute. Besides, I had class at 9:00 the next morning.

With the exterior looking like any other bar in the older parts of town and the mysterious hype that I’ve heard about before, I had no idea what to expect. The stairway leading to the bar was quite daunting with the dim lights, posters covering the wooden walls that have yellowed and withered with age. This particular interior and atmosphere surely remained untouched from the Showa era. I turned left into the tiny bar space, bowing my head slightly toward mama-chan, who stood behind the bar. The space was very tiny and dingy but I had just enough room to squeeze behind a middle-aged salaryman sitting back in his car, a glass of whisky in one hand.

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Miles is one of the few bars where you can listen to music on a record player only. Mama-chan and one of the regulars I spoke to that day prided on that very fact. Unlike the other cafes and bars I’ve visited in Tokyo, not a single CD album and CD player was in sight at Miles. While I took a seat in the very end of the bar, I looked around my surroundings– a leopard print fabric that hung like a makeshift window curtain and a portrait of a woman atop a counter on my left. In front of me, behind the bar was the record player and an old telephone attached to the wall. I haven’t seen that kind of phone in years, not since the last time I saw My Neigbor Totoro. Looking back, I can’t remember if I’ve ever seen a wall-mounted telephone in person…

Feeling a little fatigued from earlier that Monday, I ordered coffee and lost myself in the wholesome sound coming out of the speakers through the record player. I really felt the age of the bar whenever the trains passed, causing the ground to tremble beneath my feet. Silence lingered in the air as soon as the record stopped spinning.

Nervously, I broke the silence with a verbal request for “Seven Steps to Heaven” by Miles Davis. Mama-chan nodded, turned around to face the library of records, and sifted through the middle area with her finger. Records were neatly shelved from the ceiling and probably to the floor (though I don’t know if there was shelf space that low).

“I don’t have that record,” mama-chan looked behind her shoulder to inform me. “In fact, that’s probably the one Miles Davis record I don’t own. But here, I’ll play you [“Quiet Nights (Miles Davis and Gil Evans)”], which was probably released around the same time as ‘Seven Steps to Heaven’.”

I was impressed that she knew the chronological release dates of albums when the bar held a huge collection. But I was even more mesmerized by her intuitive ability to pull out an album without relying on any physical indications of date or artist name. Nowadays, most people, myself included, would need alphabetical letters sticking out of the shelves to know the exact location of each record. And that’s when I realized I barely owned CDs as a child. Instead, I grew up with my cute pink iPod nano and my iPhones, all of which stored my iTunes library. The virtual MP3 files replaced the CDs, and the CDs that replaced vinyl records. As generations pass and technology develops, physical forms of music take up even less space than before. Yet recorded music remains in that exact time, capturing all the human moments–the pause to take a breath during a solo, the hollering by a member of a quintet during a recording session–that can never be duplicated in that exact moment.

As time passed, a couple more middle-aged salarymen entered the bar and sat on a bench tucked in a corner on the other end of the room. Since I chatted with mama-chan earlier, she introduced me to them as an exchange student who used to play sax and listens to jazz. Before, I rarely socialized at jazz cafes and bars because I’d try to listen to the music as much as possible. Plus I’d be too scared of starting a conversation since I didn’t want to disturb their peace after a presumably long day of work.

According to these men (who I’ll refer to as “regulars”), they’ve been going to Miles every Monday–or at least once or twice a week–for the past forty years. They shared awesome stories with me, like how some people brought John Coltrane to the bar when he performed in Tokyo. They were some of the most pleasant people I’ve ever interacted with at a jazz bar, and that would not have been possible without mama-chan’s hospitality and kindness, who must be loved by all her patrons as devoted as her regulars.

Without realizing how much time passed, I stayed for three hours but eventually had to leave before it was too late. Just before I stepped down the flight of stairs to go back to my dorm, mama-chan stood up from her seat and held my hand.

With warmth in her eyes and in her delicate palms, she told me, “Please come visit again.”

That night I walked out of Miles with a deeper appreciation for jazz music and for the people who preserve it in its original form, but also being mindful and open to ever-changing shapes of jazz. To think about how music by Ornette Coleman in 1959 or Miles Davis in 1970 was heavily criticized for pushing the boundaries and taking listeners outside of their comfort zones. Little did they realize what precedence these musicians set for the direction of jazz in the future. Yet, like humans who keep exploring into unknown depths of the ocean and extraterrestrial galaxies, I want to keep exploring and listening to the sub-genres and records that I have yet to come across. Despite the inhumanity and the cruelty enacted by humans in this world, I am constantly in awe of the human capacity for creativity and beauty through art and music. I think that’s why art and music speaks to me in great volume.

I hope I can come back to Miles. Will the bar still be there? Will mama-chan still be alive and well enough to run the bar? I’ll have to find that out someday.

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