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07/25/2013 09:49 pm ET | Updated Sep 25, 2013

Hearing Words In Music

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

A teacher where I teach used to tell all the students they were geniuses. He was struggling to get through to them -- to get them to sit down and stop throwing things at him. He made a big metal button that said, "You're a genius" and wore it every day.

I'm not sure how effective it was for him -- he still, after six years, has his struggles -- but I like the sentiment. It exhorts limitless faith in potential but also, I think, a realization that there are many varieties of genius. Like Neil Harbisson, transforming our limitations into pathways of discovery by listening to color. Like Beethoven who showed the power of sense memory, writing his greatest compositions after he'd lost his hearing.

Teaching literature means working with genius every day -- but the genius doesn't all come from the past. Some of it comes in a fresh understanding from a student. Like the first time I taught "Sonny's Blues," James Baldwin's short stories, about a man's struggle to understand and help his brother, a junkie and jazz pianist. I remember the first time I handed it out to 11th graders at an at-risk high school in South Los Angeles. I don't think I was a very good English teacher those first few years but I worked hard and tried whatever I could to get students to think and write beyond their own experience and their often chaotic lives and the influences of the gang culture and the Rodney King beating and the 1992 civil unrest. Having been into jazz for what was then half my life, it frustrated me that those teenagers couldn't hear the music in the story, especially the last scene when Sonny is at the piano and his brother is finally listening. I played them some Louis Armstrong, some Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane hoping students would get a sense of the sound and that it would help them understand the meaning of that last scene. But none of that music exactly sounded like anything the fictional Sonny would be playing in the climactic moments of the story. I went home for the weekend and listened for hours to the CDs and records of my jazz collection and then more at the library and found a cut by a little known pianist, Ray Bryant's "Me and the Blues." I'd never imagined blues like that -- upbeat and exquisite. It seemed somehow to give a nod to all of life's sadness without giving in to any of it. It sounded to me like exactly what I'd imagined Sonny might be playing at the end of the James Baldwin story.

One young man named Jermaine stood up with the book and spontaneously started to read the last scene. -- Larry Straus

So I made a tape of that solo piano masterpiece and played it for the class and they seemed almost immediately to understand the transcendent sound of the blues as a statement about the vast life spectrum of joy and pain; the music had the effect of a painter's stroke which rendered a room full of suddenly introspective young faces. One young man named Jermaine stood up with the book and spontaneously started to read the last scene. He read it like he was taking a jazz solo, letting the rhythm of the music become the rhythm of the prose and pausing to let Ray - our Sonny -- say what needed to be said, what needed to be emphasized -- and when it was over the students and I understood that something really special had happened. Somehow, Ray Bryant and Jermaine had helped us all to understand the point of Baldwin's masterpiece -- that Sonny was a musical griot, telling his family history at that piano.

That experience encouraged me to write a jazz novel which I finally got around to some years later -- it's a kind of literary fictional riff on the lives of so many of the unsung heroes of jazz -- and when 'Now's the Time' was published my 10th grade students pestered me to let them read it for class. A few chapters in, I played them some of the music that had inspired the story and, as I'd by now been doing for nearly two decades with "Sonny's Blues," I had them read passages of the book along with the music. I made each student choose a jazz riff and a section of the text with which to create their own performance art. Naturally, self-consciousness got the best of many of these sophomores but a few of them had the genius to get beyond all that and find a way into the hot house of words and music. One student found her genius at the end of an essay she composed about the experience. She wrote, "Most young people don't like music unless there are words but yet most of us don't really like to read. But if you can hear the words that are already in the music then you don't need anyone to sing with it. If you can hear the music in the words you're reading and read that music like you're playing it with an instrument, then you can find the soul of the writing."

I hope that one day I can write like that. Meanwhile, I'll just keep trying to listen to colors and the music of memory and enjoy all the genius around me.

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