HARRY PICKENS AND MUSICAL JOY

Harry Pickens at the piano. Yes, he’s very tall. No, he doesn’t play basketball. But if you’ve ever heard him play, you’ve heard somebody having pure, uninhibited fun playing music, which is a life lesson in itself.

Harry Pickens at the piano. Yes, he’s very tall. No, he doesn’t play basketball. But if you’ve ever heard him play, you’ve heard somebody having pure, uninhibited fun playing music, which is a life lesson in itself.

 

My relationship with Harry is an interesting one, as he started out as a musical idol and guru, morphed into a musical confidant and part-time spiritual advisor, and in later years has ended up as peer and friend (although I use the term “peer” generously for my part in this instance). Regardless of which “stage” is under discussion, Harry has been a giant figure in the musical and spiritual landscape of the last decade of my life. His most important lesson as teacher is a holistic one: namely, that in order to become a better musician, you need to start by accepting who you are and embracing it. Then, and only then, can you go about the business of truly molding the shape of where you want to go. Another great lesson is the notion that if you want to sound a certain way in any given moment, you would be best served to try to be that way in that moment. For instance, I once asked him what he thought I could do to sound more like Ray Brown, and how I could get closer to that pure musical joy that Ray had…you know, that kind of groove Ray could always lay down where every person in the room is smiling and moving their neck to the beat? Harry just laughed and suggested that if I wanted to sound happy, I might want to start by being happy. “Try smiling more when you play”, he said. 

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Isn’t that the most precious, tree-hugging, granola-chewing bunch of California self-help psychobabble you ever heard in your life”? And maybe it is, except for one small detail: It works, folks…and believe me, no one was more surprised to discover this than I was. I mean, wouldn’t it have been cool if I could have done something easy in my pursuit of “Rayness”, something like playing transcribed solos with a metronome, or stealing a bunch of Ray’s licks and playing them in 12 keys or something concrete like that? Or if all I had to do was pretend to be happy, and I’d sound “happy”? What Harry taught me, both directly and indirectly, is that if you want to sound “joyful” or “Joyous”, the easiest way to get there is to just be full of joy when you play. Okay. So, uh…how do you do that? While I can’t say that I’ve got this one completely figured out, I think I can say that so far it seems to be about getting your ego out of your way enough to not let your creative flow be choked by your fears and insecurities; in other words, to give up the notion that it’s a good idea to be afraid of making a mistake. If I were a sportscaster, I’d sum it all up by saying that it’s about “playing to win” rather than “playing not to lose”. Of course, if I were really a sportscaster, I’d have to continue by making some stupid remark about how “in the big games, the big time players step up and make big time plays” (or some equally vapid **** like that), and then we’d all just have to roll our eyes and change the channel (which is yet one more reason I am infinitely glad I’m a musician instead of a sportscaster). So I’ll just let that analogy rest with “playing to win”. 

As corny as all of this sounds, any doubts anyone might have about these nebulous descriptions I’m fumbling around with here can be easily laid to rest by just watching Harry play. Like most great musicians I know, he exudes a powerful aura of sincere belief in what he’s doing, and what’s more, it’s clear within a few seconds of his playing that he really loves what he’s doing at the moment he’s doing it. And if you are lucky enough (as I have been) to get the opportunity to play with him, you quickly discover that this love and this joy are contagious as hell…and that’s a good thing. For one thing, it allows you to ride the wave of someone else’s joy into the realm where you quickly find your own, as if the emotion of the other person has led you to some kind of “universal wellspring” of that particular feeling that you can then tap into on your own. For another, your inability to easily find your way back to that “wellspring” (in my case, anyway) as soon as you are not in the presence of the person who originally led you there is a clear indication of the next major goal you’ll want to go about pursuing. And it’s always nice to have that next crystal-clear large scale goal in mind, isn’t it? These are the kinds of things that knowing Harry makes me think about and pursue, and I can’t help but think that in the end, I’ll be a much better person for having been lucky enough to know him.