Music and Remembrance
It was at a little jazz joint on the north side of Chiang Mai, Thailand, on a sultry summer night near the end of May.
The hot season was ending, so when the sun sank down and a breeze came up and the temperature fell toward ninety, evenings were sweet relief. The night before a friend returned to Italy, we all went out to this bar that was hosting an open-mic jazz night. We’d met through a shared volunteering opportunity, and now we were unraveling again, each one back to our own country. It was bittersweet, both because, in the back of my mind, I knew I’d probably never see him again, and because it reminded me that the sand was running out of the glass. My own night was coming.
The music, unsurprisingly, varied in quality. The guys on the bass were solid, but then the bass is sort of the background, so you’d have to try to make it noticeably bad. The piano varied from “Trying hard, but not enough skill to keep up” to “Wouldn’t be that bad if he would actually pay attention to the rest of the instruments.” The drummers displayed a much greater range, from “Wow, she’s actually pretty good” to “Reminds me of the time I lit off a string of firecrackers in a metal garbage can.”
And then there was the saxophone player. . . . Man, oh man, this guy could play! The only problem was, he played with so much passion that he couldn’t sustain it. He’d go on strong for a while, but then he’d get carried away and hit a glorious solo, and the veins on his neck would bulge until you feared for his safety. And then, when the vein on his temple resembled a raging python, he’d have to rest. And I’d think it was about time to call it a night. But soon he’d rejoin, and the sound of the saxophone would make you think the night might go on forever. . . and you hoped it would. As long as the sax screamed out its defiance, all the other instruments came together, and the music just worked, like the baking soda that transforms the thick, unappealing lump into something light and warm and airy.
It was the kind of music that makes you think you need to step outside and get some air, and then you remember that you already are outside, and you realize that there is nowhere to hide. You can’t escape the warm evening breeze playing in the palms, or the soft sound of the water in the moat, which has been lapping gently at the crumbling stone of the Old City wall for 700 years, and will be, still, 700 after you are gone. It was the lights on the water and the smell of street food rising up to meet you, and underlying it all, a sense of nostalgia for something that you hadn’t actually lost yet, but which was inevitably slipping away.
If you understand that, then you’ll understand why, every now and then, I like to find a screaming saxophone piece, and I turn it up, and let it run, and remember.
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