Prev Home Next


Bright Moments in Music

compiled by Bill Benzon

Rahsaan Roland Kirk rapped about bright moments, any and all bright moments. As a musician he was a messenger of bright moments. Many musicians have talked about bright moments. Here are a few of those moments.

The sources of these passages are listed at the end of this piece.

Note that all of the graphics have been, in some way, derived from the Rahsaan images of the original Bright Moments Tribute in Meanderings 2.04. By the way, we've just announced the winner of the Bright Moments Contest. Check it out!

A Higher Power

Stephanie Burrous is a gospel singer who tried to go commercial with her singing and failed, so:

At her music's deepest, she can forget the audience is even there, and she can sing not so much to herself but as if there were no distinction between her mind, her body, and her emotions, as if she were not so much singing as breathing. Odd, but it is when she most forgets her audience that her audience is most touched. But it can take a few bars or verses for Stephanie to travel to that private place - a place inexplicably similar to where she traveled when she was struck by the Holy Ghost and, for those moments, became totally devoid of vainglorious self-consciousness, totally within and without herself at once. Singing at her best, Stephanie feels as if she's sitting on the back porch of heaven.

The late Leonard Bernstein had a lot to say about music. Here is his account of what his most valued bright moments are like:

I know when I have achieved a really good statement of a work: that is when I have the feeling throughout that I am composing it on stage, at the event. If I think at the end, "What a fine piece I wrote," then I can be reasonably certain that I have achieved a true and good document.

Perhaps the fact of being myself a composer, who works very hard (and in various styles), gives me the advantageous opportunity to identify more closely with the Mozarts, Beethovens, Mahlers and Stravinskys of this world, so that I can at certain points (usually of intense solitary study) feel that I have become whoever is my alter ego that day or week. At least I can occasionally reach one or the other on our private "Hot Line", and with luck be given the solution to a problematic passage. Those are ecstatic times, those moments, and inform the entire Gestalt with new life. A new difficulty arises after giving such a "true" performance of what seems my own music, and then, suddenly, amidst applause and similar noises, having to become merely Leonard Bernstein again.

Are these two people, from very different backgrounds, making very different music, talking about the same thing? Does is matter?

Off to the Races

Part of the deal is making the transition from one's ordinary state of mind to performance mode. Three musicians comment:

Vladimir Horowitz (classical pianist) talking: The moment that I feel that cutaway -- the moment I am in uniform -- it's like a horse before the races. You start to perspire. You feel already in you some electricity to do something.

Earl Hines (jazz pianist) talking: I'm like a race horse. I've been taught by the old masters -- put everything out of your mind except what you have to do. I've been through every sort of disturbance before I go on the stand, but I never get so upset that it makes the audience uneasy. . . . I always use the assistance of the Man Upstairs before I go on. I ask for that and it gives me courage and strength and personality. It causes me to blank everything else out, and the mood comes right down on me no matter how I feel.

Roy Eldridge (jazz trumpeter) talking, about playing the Paramount Theatre with Gene Krupa: When the stage stopped and we started to play, I'd fall to pieces. The first three or four bars of my first solo, I'd shake like a leaf, and you could hear it. Then this light would surround me, and it would seem as if there wasn't any band there, and I'd go right through and be all right. It was something I never understood.

Life's Lessons

One's musical development is inevitably intertwined with one's personal development. Ms. Lena Horne makes the connection:

And then when they killed [Robert] Kennedy and Martin Luther King, it seemed like a floodgate had opened. There had been a lot of deaths in my own family. . . . and when I say, I was different. I began to "listen" to what I was doing and thinking. I listened to the audience. Even to the quiet. I had never listened to it before. . . . I was different because I was letting something in. The tone was developing differently. I could do what I wanted with it. I could soften it. I wasn't afraid to show the emotion. I went straight for what I thought the songwriter had felt at a particular moment because he must have felt what I'd been feeling or else I couldn't have read that lyric, I couldn't have understood what he was saying. And I used my regretfulness and my cynicism. But even my cynicism had become not so much that as . . . logic. Yes, life is shit. Yes, people listen in different ways. some nights they're unhappy at something that has happened to them. OK. I can feel that knot of resistance. OK. That's where I'm going to work to. . . . And the second "eight" would be different than the first because the first was feeling it out and the second would change because I could come in "to my mood." . . . It developed out of this relaxation . . . a tone that was softer, more liquid.

Jazz and Rock

Are these guys talking about the same thing? Is one a better musician than the other? Or do rock and jazz make different demands and give different rewards? All of the above?

Branford Marsalis: "High, you feel high. It's easy to do it physically, but it's hard to do it mentally. I feel that musicians who say it happens every time they play are full of shit. The sublime cannot be routine. Three times, and you never forget them. It's with a combination of musicians, it's never just me."

Eric Clapton: "It's a massive rush of adrenaline which comes at a certain point. Usually it's a sharing experience; it's not something I could experience on my own. . . . other musicians . . . an audience . . . Everyone in that building or place seems to unify at one point. It's not necessarily me that's doing it, it may be another musician. But it's when you get that completely harmonic experience, where everyone is hearing exactly the same thing without any interpretation whatsoever or any kind of angle. They're all transported toward the same place. That's not very common, but it always seems to happen at least once a show."

Diz and the Pope

Dizzy Gillespie is as great as they come. But he didn't play his greatest but a few times in his life. So, how can a few transcendent musical experiences have such a deep effect on one? And just what is the nature of that effect? Here's Diz in his own words:

Records you can listen to and tell the stature of a musician, but with many records, not one record. . . . Of course it's very seldom that you hear a guy who's best on records. But you can hear where his mind is going. Sometimes it gets on records and there's a masterpiece. I've never played my really best on records, and I've only played my best four or five times in my whole career. But I know records wasn't one of them-one of those times when everything was clicking.

Now, the question is, is the following concert one of the for or five Dizzy was talking about as "one of those times when everything was clicking"? And what does it have to do with Pope John Paul II saying mass?:

. . . in the Spring of 1972, I went to hear Dizzy Gillespie play a concert at Morgan State. At the end of Dizzy's solo in "Olinga" I had a definite sense that Dizzy was returning to himself, as though his soul had left his body during the solo and now was returning, perhaps from a spiritual Africa everywhere present, and available, to those who know how to ask. While it is almost impossible to describe this event-perhaps because I must do so in the language of a culture which tries very hard to deny that such things happen, and are important-my sense of it is quite firm. There was something in Dizzy's movement, as definite as it was subtle, that betokened his return.

This was not the first time I saw Dizzy, nor was it the last. Whatever happened, this is the only time I heard it. And I haven't heard it on any of his recordings, though I have heard it on a few other recordings. Whether or not what I heard and saw in Dizzy is the same as had happened to me the previous year, I don't really know. But I have treasured both experiences and hold them in my mind as touchstones, as individual stars aligned in a constellation pointing beyond the mundane limits of experience.

About a decade after Dizzy's ecstasy I read an article on Pope John Paul II in the New York Times Magazine that began by describing a mass celebrated by the Pope and attended by President Sese Seko Mobutu of Zaire. After the Pope's final blessing, one of Mobutu's young aids turned, awe-struck, to a senior official in his group and gasped, "I see him coming back into himself." That phrase struck me, for that is how I had conceptualized what I saw/heard from Dizzy Gillespie. It was the coming back, not the going out, that was remarkable, as though you followed the going-out without noticing it as such.


  1. Stephanie Burrous, story told by: Walt Harrington. Crossings: A White Man's Journey into Black America. New York: HarperCollins, 1982, p. 198.
  2. Leonard Bernstein, liner notes to: Igor Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring, The Firebird -- Suite, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein Edition, Deutsche Grammaphon 431 045-2
  3. Vladimir Horowitz in: Helen Epstein. Music Talks: Conversations with Musicians. McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1987, p. 10.
  4. Earl Hines and Roy Eldridge in: Whitney Balliett. American Musicians: 56 Portraits in Jazz. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press: 1986. pp. 87 & 176 respectively.
  5. Branford Marsalis, and Eric Clapton in: Jenny Boyd, with Holly George-Warren. Musicians In Tune. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992, pp. 173 & 185 respectively.
  6. Lena Horne in: David Craig. On Performing. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1987, p. 134.
  7. Dizzy Gillespie quoted in: Dizzy Gillespie, with Al Fraser. To Be or Not to Bop. New York: Doubleday, 1979, p. 491.
  8. The story of Dizzy's Morgan State performance is from an unpublished manuscript by William L. Benzon.

Prev Home Next

Meanderings 2.06 -- June 1995