It was early March, and I had a plan. I was going to interview Patricia Nicholson, choreographer, activist, and cofounder of the Vision Festival. The interview would focus on the growth of the free jazz festival, now in its 25th year and scheduled to take place in May at Roulette. The whole thing would kick off with a concert at Town Hall featuring the Sun Ra Arkestra and William Parker’s Curtis Mayfield Project.
At the same time, a different drumbeat was growing louder. Since the start of the year, the news about the COVID-19 virus spreading around the world had been increasingly ominous. Reports from Italy of overwhelmed emergency rooms, people on ventilators dying of pneumonia—stuck in our American exceptionalist mindset, many of us wondered what that might mean. Lots of hand washing? Smaller gatherings? Holding off on hugs and handshakes?
For the time being, we carried on. On March 4, I saw the concert, and it was spectacular. I looked around Town Hall, its 1,400 seats gradually filling, and thought, “Should I really be here?” A cough from an audience member set off a shudder of alarm. But the music pushed those thoughts aside. Led by the 95-year-old Marshall Allen, the Arkestra cast its spell, spanning the history of jazz and pointing to imaginings beyond this world. William Parker—Nicholson’s husband and Vision cofounder—gave Mayfield’s timeless music a brilliant new context.
The next night I DJ’ed a party, and everyone danced. Could everything really be so bad? I interviewed Patricia at her apartment over the weekend, tossing out my idea that perhaps this time of dawning emergency might lead to other kinds of artistic and social emergence. “That would be nice,” was her wry answer. It was all still unreal, still abstract. I figured I would type up my notes, submit the finished piece, and carry on with my life.
But as the boxer Mike Tyson said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Within a few days, the reality of the change hit us. “Cancel Everything” declared a stark headline, and what started as a sucker punch, a bolt out the blue, began to look more like a force-gathering tsunami. Workplaces closed. Whole industries, ways of living, collapsed with no clear way forward. Massive unemployment. Social inequalities magnified. And with all this came a profound uncertainty: would the pandemic go on for weeks, months, years? The virus began taking its toll not just on our day-to-day reality, but on our sense of time, the medium for producing meaning in all of our lives.
In the midst of the growth of the outbreak, with the curve shooting upward daily, I came down with a case myself—thankfully, a rather mild one. It started with the chills after a walk through Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn; I couldn’t help wondering if this was some kind of grim foreshadowing. What followed was two weeks of recurring fever, loss of all sense of taste and smell, and general malaise. But the telltale respiratory symptoms never materialized, and after about 12 strange days and nights filled with worry, I started to improve. Regaining my appetite felt like a revelation.
During my time of sickness and since, I’ve read the obituaries, fixating on people from the world of music who had died of the virus: the gifted songwriter Adam Schlesinger, the genius curator and organizer Hal Willner, the rediscovered bassist Henry Grimes, himself a past honoree of the Vision Festival. Besides taking these people’s lives, it was also taking the last of many musicians’ livelihoods: money from recordings had already mostly dried up, and now live shows were no longer possible.
Every day in the news, the medical and economic news were fighting each other over which was worse, which stoked the deepest fears. Several commentators noted that the two were inextricably intertwined, and that nothing could be expected to improve until we “flattened the curve.” So millions around the world set to work… waiting.
All the forced downtime of our collective quarantine made us reflect on the way we are living. On a political level, it made many realize that our current social structure is broken, that the dismantling of government begun under Reagan and pursued by zealots in the years since then has left us woefully unprepared to face a national emergency. What happened to a government of the people, by the people, and for the people? On a financial level, we rediscovered (though we always knew) the dangers of living paycheck to paycheck. We saw again the risk not from what we do know, but from the much larger field of what we don’t; while we were hoping to guard ourselves against terrorism, gun violence, and the like, we missed a different threat entirely.
In the process, we also rediscovered aspects of our inner lives that had been obscured by the rush and distraction of urban existence. “Don’t just do something, sit there,” urge the Zen Buddhists, and staring out our windows can force a larger referendum on meaning itself. It has been difficult not to give in to darker thoughts at times. This passage by Milan Kundera seemed especially haunting: “Most people deceive themselves with a pair of faiths,” he wrote. “They believe in eternal memory (of people, things, deeds, nations) and in redressibility (of deeds, mistakes, sins, wrongs). Both are false faiths. In reality, the opposite is true: everything will be forgotten and nothing will be redressed.”
In other words, does anything we do matter? In the grand scheme of things, probably not. But it matters to us, and that may have to be enough. As a consolation, I found myself turning back not just to music, but to poetry, seeking out its distilled wisdom. I found a great deal of it in the work of Rumi, the 13th-century Sufi poet from what is now Afghanistan, in particular “The Guest House,” his meditation on worldly change (translation by Coleman Barks):
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Change is difficult, and sudden change even more so, but it is a necessity. Surrendering to it begins with a kind of radical acceptance, a gratitude for what remains. Vision leads to revision, and the cycle of adaptation continues. The place we return to can never remain the same. For all the talk of hanging on, we also have to let go.
As for the Vision Festival, it is postponed for now, but hosting various online offerings (www.artsforart.org). Embedded in its artistic message is something along these same lines: honor the past, hold on to it fiercely… and when the moment demands it, let it go.