On February 27, 2002, I learned that one moment – no matter how fleeting – is all it takes to completely change your life. It had already been a rather shitty week. Just two days earlier, my 1994 Pontiac Grand Am had gone its last mile – while my Mom and I were on our way to work nonetheless – and I had it towed back home. As any self-respecting high school choir director would, I made my illegal copies in the teacher’s lounge and was passing my mother’s Spanish classroom when one of her students raced out into the hall and told me there was an emergency and I needed to go to the main office right away. All I could think was that if some student hurt Mom, I was going to be on Channel 7 that evening. No… It was even worse.
My neighbor was in the office with one of my brothers. For the second time in my life, there was a house fire. For the second time in my life, one of my brothers had passed away as a result of a house fire. Both brothers were extremely special-needs. They were twins. They died 22 years apart from the same cause. In my adult life, it was the single most devastating experience I had ever been through and completely reshaped how I viewed everything. I keep things, but I don’t have the attachment to them I used to; I’ve lost everything. Things don’t matter. People mattered. My brothers mattered.
On March 8, 2017, I didn’t realize it, but everything was starting to unravel again. My father’s knee gave out and he fell to the side, breaking his hip. His condition deteriorated during his stay at a rehab facility. Over the next two months, I watched my father decline. I cannot get into details, but it was a heart-wrenching experience. Thousands of emotions were – and still are – swirling around in my head, from sadness to helplessness to anger to just complete overwhelm. I was my father’s primary caregiver for over ten years – my entire 30’s – and I felt like I failed him when he needed me the most. My family and I spent a lot of time with him, trying to make sure he understood he was loved. I thanked him for everything he did for me, even when I didn’t earn or deserve it. I apologized for everything wrong I ever did or everything right I didn’t do. Even when he couldn’t talk back, I told him how his investments in me helped pave the way for everything I was able to do now.
Calvin Joseph Powell, Jr. earned his heavenly promotion on May 4, 2017. While we may have known it was coming, that didn’t make it any easier of an experience. Here it is almost two months later and I am still fighting back tears. There is this huge gaping hole where Dad should be. I have time during my day that I didn’t have before and admittedly, that is often the time where I struggle to keep things from eating me alive. It used to be that I didn’t have time to think. Now, it seems like all I can do is think. Maybe I’ll eventually get those thoughts into more of the positive variety, but for now, they seem to swirl everywhere.
There are a lot of things I’ll have to work out in the months ahead. Mom still needs assistance. The two of us are handling Dad’s estate, which is a more complicated process than I had thought. I’ve signed on to launch a church that officially opens in September. Decisions I made years ago when I became a caregiver are due to bite me in the ass any day now. (The government doesn’t care about my sob story; they want their money.) I’ve got the challenge of figuring out an income stream that helps me dig out of the hole, lets me take care of Mom during the day, and doesn’t require me to give up music. (Thinking I should revisit my business ideas. Wish me luck.) Perhaps the most difficult part is making my own physical health a priority. I’ve tried before – several times – but always sidelined when “real life” got too crazy. That’s not sustainable. There is no telling how long “real life” is going to last. Tomorrow is not promised.
Thank God that I have a family – both blood and otherwise – to support me during this time. My mother and siblings – even while navigating their own grief – have been a constant spring of inspiration and strength. My extended family is scattered all over the country and have still checked in on us. Three churches and countless friends came together to help us send off Dad in style. My friends alone… They’ve been better friends to me than I have been to them. No, I don’t deserve any of you, but my life is better because you are in it. Thank you.
As my mother often says, “We will survive.” I often answer. “Yes… because we don’t have a choice.”
The video above is my playing Margaret Bonds’ Troubled Water. Out of everything I learned on the piano over the last 35 years, this was by far Dad’s favorite piece. He asked me to play it at my brother’s funeral in 2002 so I thought it fitting I would play it at his memorial service.
For the past week and a half, I’ve felt a burning need to start blogging again.
Just to be clear, I’ve tried to blog before. Several times. I tend to run into the same problem each time. What am I going to talk about? Given that I have spent approximately 87.5% of my life doing music, it seems the answer should be obvious… but does anyone really care to know the difference between how G-sharp and A-flat are used in the key of C major? Maybe there are people who are genuinely interested in that subject, but I’ve generally felt my expertise is considered irrelevant. There are many times I feel like a dinosaur waiting for the comet to slam into the Gulf of Mexico. I can’t imagine anyone caring what I think about – well – anything.
Still, I’ve felt this drive to start writing again on an ongoing basis. Why? I don’t know. Maybe there is a part of me that thinks I might be starting to figure it all out. Again, I don’t know. Just over the past few days, I abandoned what I wrote several times because I wondered if I should commit to that subject. IS there ever really a good time? Yet, I feel a need to start right now. I already know I need to post Midday Mondays to Tuesday morning or I won’t post. Note that my concern is whether or not I do it, not if anyone will actually even read it.
All my “internal turmoil” aside – first world problems… go figure – I decided to forget establishing a theme, go with my gut, and just try to be genuine. If it comes out depressed, angry, or annoyingly happy, so be it. Maybe if I do it enough, I’ll actually think of something useful to say.
The past week and a half has been both exhausting and trying on a personal and emotional level. I’ve spent nights laying in bed with insomnia and days rambling from task to task and getting nothing done. What can I say? I’ve recognized for years that my situation is growing more unsustainable with every day it continues and yet the only “solutions” – for lack of a better word – involve abandonment of some sort. A wise man told me “The first step of getting out of a trap is recognizing that you are in a trap.” This trap is one of my own making and I have to cut off a leg with a butter knife to get out of it.
So… No doubt you are looking back at the title of this post and wondering how it reflects what I have written so far. Context, I suppose. There is something else beneath the surface, pushing up past all the exhaustion, anxiety, and complete lack of focus: Gratitude. If I had to deal with all of these feelings by myself, there is no way I could possibly take it. Even in the craziness, I feel blessed beyond measure.
To the churchgoers and worship team, who extended grace, acceptance, and patience and understanding my way after I left the Ash Wednesday worship celebration and completely forgot about the second one until the music pastor called me 10 miles down the interstate: THANK YOU.
To the pastoral duo who reached out, prayed for me, and demonstrated patience after I had 3rd/4th/5th thoughts, declined a position suddenly without explanation, and reversed my decision less than 24 hours later: THANK YOU.
To the friends who have tolerated and accepted my indecisiveness, lack of communication, and periodic bouts of self-isolation: THANK YOU.
To the family – both living with me and not – who have put up with my impatience, complaining, and irritability for my entire life: THANK YOU.
To the physicians, nurses, and medical personnel at two hospitals who diagnosed, operated on, and coordinated treatment for my father who is currently recovering from a broken hip and the resulting replacement of the right femoral neck: THANK YOU.
To the family and friends who prayed for and sent messages of encouragement to my ailing father – a man many of you have never even met: THANK YOU.
To the Mighty and Ever-Loving God I don’t trust enough or talk to enough that blessed my undeserving ass with an amazing family, friends, and community despite my many many many failings: THANK YOU.
If you think I’m overdoing it – TOUGH. I want to get the point across that I appreciate everything you have done, said, and thought: even those of you snickering as you encouraged my father to pick on me. You have been far more patient, understanding, and accepting than I have or I even deserve. I am thankful that all of you are in my life and have freely given of your love at a time I have needed it most.
I went back and forth about posting this on my website. Politics tend to be a lightning rod, particularly if you happen to be Progressively-minded. Ultimately, I decided that this transcends the Liberal/Conservative divide.
No, I’m not particularly happy with the election results. I wasn’t particularly happy with the results in 2000 and 2004, either, however the election of 2016 has a new life altogether. This isn’t simply about a figure with political differences from me. This is about a man who has promised to institutionalize discriminatory policies targeting specific segments of the population, one of which I happen to belong. This is about a man who nodded and winked at white supremacist organizations and is even right now courting figures in the “Alt-right” movement for his cabinet. W-H-N is a man who is actively courting and giving a voice to groups who have ME in their crosshairs.
Yes, I know people EXACTLY like W-H-N. I’ve had people exactly like this man in positions of power OVER MY LIFE with no qualms whatsoever about stopping me and saying “I’m watching you, Boy. Don’t get out of line.” I’ve also had others say to me “Oh… I know so-and-so. He’d NEVER do that.” Like Hell he wouldn’t!
W-H-N has been elected to the highest office in the land and given a rubber stamp in the form of both Houses of Congress. This is NOT about “how you felt under President Obama.” I voted against GWB twice and at most I expected (and got) his gross indifference to my concerns, which is pretty much what I expected out of Sen. Clinton or Gov. Mitt Romney or Sen. John McCain. That man I refer to as W-H-N made bigotry, discrimination, and racism a central component of his campaign. And I’m supposed to believe his administration won’t do the same?
It’s easy to say “This was about policy” when YOU aren’t the target of his “policies.” Chances are you won’t be randomly stopped and frisked by law enforcement. Chances are no one will question YOUR citizenship based on your name or skin tone. Chances are that no one will question YOUR loyalty to the country based on which church you go to or your last name. Chances are that no one is trying to find every which way to legally undo the marriage you fought years to have. Chances are that no one is going to force you to allow toxic substances to be piped right through your water supply. These are ALL policies that W-H-N pushed for as part of his campaign which are specifically aimed at minorities. This is NOT about “feelings” or “emotion.” This is about REALITY. A reality that millions of minority Americans are facing being perpetrated on them by the incoming presidential administration. This is a reality that 211 million Americans – who are NOT minorities – will likely NEVER experience.
It’s kind of hard for me to get upset about someone kneeling during a song or burning a piece of cloth when the country they represent makes it a national policy to treat ME as less than American. No doubt that I’ll hear “If you don’t like it, get the hell out.” How about this one? “If you don’t want it done to YOU, then don’t let anyone do it to OTHERS.”
W-H-N is our president-elect. Out of everyone in that clown car, THAT MAN is the one who was chosen. THAT MAN who wants to institutionalize discrimination against ME. THAT MAN who is engaging people who not that long ago murdered people like ME for sport without any consequences whatsoever. And W-H-N not only has raised their profile, but is putting them into positions of power.
And the near 50% of the US who voted for him? They’re perfectly okay with it. Why? They can pretend it is just about Obamacare, Business regulations, etc. Don’t get me wrong. Minorities have diverse positions on it, however one consideration goes beyond all of it… SURVIVAL. As long as White Supremacists are given a platform and the power to exercise it, my LIFE and my LIVELIHOOD – and that of many people I hold dear – are at stake. Don’t ask me to give a damn about your “feelings” if you don’t give a damn about my life.
Note: I originally posted this blog entry seven years ago, on June 2, 2009 on my old blog. I placed it in “limbo” back when I rebooted my blog (the first time) a few years ago. That said… I think this is probably my favorite blog entry. I hope you enjoy it.
Impositional Creative Paralysis
There are times where being a musician is extremely aggravating. Artistic frustration with your craft can certainly be part of the picture, but I would say more of it has to do with external factors. Lack of respect, financial capital, personal egos, personal agendas, “dues-paying”, and interpersonal conflicts of various sorts are all about being in the arts. Racial and intraracial – that’s correct… within the race – bias and discrimination are also apart of that life. Hell, I can remember going on my first job interview out of grad school at an elementary school in Dayton and being asked – not a minute after mentioning my Masters degree from Indiana University School of Music and other qualifications – whether or not I could read music. I damn near blew my stack. However, I am not going to discuss that one now.
The topic of RMD #2 has more to do with what I’ll call “Impositional Creative Paralysis.” Nice little pretentious phrase, isn’t it? What does it mean?
“Creative paralysis” is exactly what it sounds like. You’re in a rut. You can’t get out of it. You can’t think. You can’t create. You can’t come up with something new. Drop it in a search engine and you’ll probably get a hundred or so listings of self-improvement websites.
So, how does the word “impositional” fit into it? Well, to be honest, I’m not sure that “impositional” is actually a word. If it is, though, it comes from the word “impose.” (If not, then my brother-in-law is going to have fun with this one…) “Impose”, of course, means to force onto someone else. So, I guess a more user-friendly way of describing it would be “the stifling of another’s artistic expression.”
What is the cause of “Impositional Creative Paralysis”? Easy. VAMPIRES!!!Energy vampires, in fact. People who lack imagination and therefore desire to pass that affliction onto you by bleeding every creative impulse from your body until you are a lifeless, energy-depleted, husk trapped in a self-induced adaptive catatonia. In a worst-case scenario, a victim spontaneously manifests a cocoon only to awaken soon after as yet another blindly roaming, comatose, vampire eager desiring nothing more than to perpetuate the same heinous process that was done to him on countless others. (Yes. I know. I’ve read too many comic books in my life time. By the way! Just 10 more days until Chris Claremont’s “X-Men Forever” comes out!!!) The field of music is rife with vampires or vampire-victims.
What are some examples of Impositional Creative Paralysis?
The first one that comes to mind is this tendency for musicians of all stripes to perform something exactly the same way or in the same style as someone else and consider any deviation to be incorrect or somehow proof that the deviator does not know what he/she is doing. There was this one time at a funeral that I was accompanying a trumpet player to “Joyful, Joyful.” My friend is primarily into Gospel jazz, so I worked out a much slower rendition with some different chord changes. The idea was that he would play the melody and improvise over it. I’ll be damned if the church organist – who used to teach music at one of the local universities – didn’t hop on the organ after we started playing it, speed up the tempo, and play it straight using the chords out of the hymnal. I about wanted to hop up from the piano, rip a pipe off the wall, and cram it somewhere on his person where the sun didn’t shine. He then proceeded to give my friend – one of his former students – a lecture about how it was actually supposed to go. I seriously wanted to tell this guy, “Look. If I wanted to hear it as it was intended, I’d go listen to the original version… You know, the one which has an orchestra, choir, lyrics that aren’t indisputably Christian, and no fucking organ!”
I’ve seen this thing at other times, in particular while working with musicals. I have had people tell me “That’s not how it goes” and get offended when I inform them “Well, I’m looking at the exact same score that the orchestra has and I can tell you that is INDEED how it goes.” See, what they really mean to tell me is that “So-and-so’s Broadway version that I listened to in order to learn my part/choreograph/make notes has a different arrangement than what you are doing.”
Yes, I’m calling some asses out. Just because Jennifer Holliday can do those runs on that song doesn’t mean you can. Just because her version might have this big ol’ dramatic key change on this recording doesn’t mean that the version you receive from MTI has the same key change. Just because her version might have this extended section with the vamp doesn’t mean that the one you receive from MTI does. So, when you come up to me and tell me that I’m “doing it wrong” because it doesn’t match up with a recording you have, my eye is going to twitch.
The recording is nothing more than an interpretation. LEARN YOUR PART FROM THE FUCKING SCORE!!! Then instead of trying in vain to imitate Jennifer Holliday’s runs, develop or improvise some runs of your own. And for heaven’s sake, learn to tell the difference between a change in tempo and a change in texture. The only thing that pisses me off more than lazy singer/actors who use the recording as the bible are choreographers and so-called vocal directors who encourage and perpetuate this gross ignorance and expect the accompanist or orchestra director to make it happen. That’s why I usually handle both the vocal and the orchestral end of it, simply because it allows me to lay down the law. Don’t ever tell me “but the recording…” It could be the most awesome recording on the face of the earth. I don’t care. My answer is “fuck the recording.”
There have been many times I have wanted to beat my head against the piano or the desk simply to dull the pain of dealing with obstinate people who want everyone else around them to do it like this one person they like or think is awesome. There is nothing as deflating as the feeling that you are simply there as a substitute or a bench-warmer for someone else the bandleader likes better. No, I’m not Chick Corea, Ahmad Jamal, Laurence Hobgood, or any of the other pianists that I listen to. I do feel like I’m at a place where I can start playing around and it is developing. One thing I have been experimenting with is improvising solos across both hands rather than improvising with the right and comping with the left. Based on the reaction from one person in particular, you’d think that I had a stroke and forgot how to play piano altogether!
Like all the arts, music is creative. It doesn’t matter what type of music it is. You have to bring something to it. Classical, Jazz, R&B, Country, Gospel… it doesn’t matter. It’s all interactive. You aren’t engaging it at all of your attention is focused on playing it exactly as someone else would. Who says that “Kumbayah” can only be performed around a campfire with a guitar? Why can’t “Fly Me to the Moon” be sung with a salsa beat? Why can’t I play a solo piano version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”? Yes, some things will miss. I could about guarantee “Toreador” would sound grotesque on a kazoo. I’m not saying that there aren’t standards, but when you constantly get caught up in virtual-fanatical mimicry, how are you ever going to get through that creative barrier? How are you going to find something new?
Impositional Creative Paralysis in the form of Mimicry is one of the reasons I refuse to ever perform “Ribbon in the Sky.” Stevie, I hate that tune, now. And if you ever get someone to read this to you, I consider you a bad person for writing it.
Does anyone out there have any other examples of “Impositional Creative Paralysis”? Or perhaps other artistic frustrations?
The title says “The Artist’s Conundrum”, but there are definitely other fields that could probably identify with the topic. Teachers, nurses, administrative assistants, restaurant servers, and minimum wage workers (off the top of my head) have all had the value of their work questioned and dismissed. I am ashamed to admit that I once caught myself uttering discouraging words about – of all people – the person preparing my dinner. (We all have brief moments of idiocy.) The fact is that regardless of “status” in an organization, all of these roles are indeed important. Because I am writing this from my personal experience, I am going to discuss it from the standpoint of a musician.
As a freelance pianist and occasionally a musical director, I often have to negotiate for my services. Honestly, I hate that part. What it comes down to is 1.) I want to take home as much as I can and 2.) the client wants my services for as cheaply as possible. Sometimes, we’re in the same ballpark and come to a rather quick consensus. Other times – particularly when the “budget” is low – I must respectfully decline. (People, I promise you: Toni Braxton’s third ex-boyfriend’s sister’s mother-in-law’s cosmetologist’s cardiologist will not be scouting some fat bearded 38-year-old pianist playing at your office potluck for “exposure.”) Of course, there is also the game where the client calls to see what your rate is so he/she can then shop around for someone else to undercut you. Playing that game is a good way to ensure I never take your call again.
“Value” is a difficult thing to quantify, because it means different things to different people in different situations. There has been a lot of talk in the music industry about streaming rates and royalties paid to performing artists and songwriters. I have spoken in the past about Beats Music and its successor Apple Music not paying the artists for music streamed during their trial period. (Fortunately, Apple changed that practice after Taylor Swift complained.) As a musician, music is both my life and my livelihood. To Apple, music is an expense to sell electronics. That company couldn’t care less if the artists who create it can buy groceries.
Needless to say, I am not a fan of Apple.
There are many ways I could approach this subject. As a music teacher, I’ve argued with administrators who expected me to use a piano with multiple broken keys to teach a choir class. As a musician, I’ve listened to community theatres and churches declare their love and need for music, but object to giving musicians even a token payment (or honorarium) for their services. As a freelance musical director, I’ve talked on the phone with a pastor who tried to guilt/bully me into accepting a musical ministry position at a rate that wouldn’t cover the cost of rent. I’ve also dealt with more than a number of college music students who seem to believe pianists should be lining up for the chance to accompany them on recital. Every once in a while, I get a message from someone asking why I haven’t shipped him/her a CD… for “free”… at my expense.
I am not writing this post just to complain “YOU ALL DON’T VALUE ME!!!” The world doesn’t value itself, so why would I expect it to change its mind just for me? As I just said in the paragraph above this one, musicians oftentimes don’t even value each other. Here is a radical thought I want to throw out there: What are you paying for?
Are you looking for background music for your dinner? Okay… Why don’t you just pop a CD in the stereo and be done with it? Oh… you want someone that can take requests? Well, that’s a different conversation, right there. Oh, you want a band that can take requests? Well, assuming that you want them to sound decent, then they would probably have to transcribe, arrange, and practice it first. Or have already done so. Are you sure that $50 that you are offering every band member is going to cut it?
Are you looking for a pianist for your church service or are you looking for a choir director? That’s two different things and two different discussions. Is it a Catholic church? Do you want someone familiar with the order of service? Or is it an organist you need? I promise you that piano and organ are two different instruments. Not all pianists play organ. Do you need someone to lead your band? Oh… you have multiple choirs and musical ensembles? Do they have music arranged for them? Now… how experienced do you want this person? You want a music degree? Oh… you want a Masters degree? Does your budget reflect the qualifications and skills you need from your music director?
Here are some things I look at when I am mulling over a possible gig or position:
1.) What am I expected to do?
Playing “atmosphere” music, interacting with a crowd, accompanying a soloist, directing an ensemble, arranging for a band, and renting out a sound system are all different skills.
2.) How much preparation does it entail?
Are we talking 3-4 pieces or 3-4 sets? Does the soloist need to rehearse? Is there written sheet music or do I have to transcribe a recording? Am I arranging for a group? How difficult is the music involved? How many hours do I need to spend learning and preparing music?
3.) What’s the risk factor?
Am I accompanying an inexperienced soloist cold? Does the soloist need coaching? Do I need to have other music ready to go because of “unexpected delays”? Does the soloist know which key he/she is singing her selection?
4.) How convenient or inconvenient is it?
Is there a piano on site? Do I have to bring my electric piano? Do I have to bring my electric piano, lug it three blocks, and haul it up three flights of stairs? Is it outside and uncovered? Does the client expect me to bring a sound system? Do I have to set up three hours ahead of time and stay on site throughout the entire event? How far is it from my house? Do I have to dress up? What’s the weather forecast? What else am I doing that day? How does this affect my regular commitments? Does it end at 2 AM and involve a 5 hour drive home?
5.) What’s the payoff?
What are my expenses for the gig? How many band members do I have to pay? How much does it cost to get there and get home? Is this a one-in-a-lifetime experience? Will I make a profit? How will taking this gig affect my ability to take other gigs down the road? Does the payoff match the preparation hours?
6.) How interesting is it?
Am I learning something new or gaining new experience? Is it something I might consider pursuing more of? Is it a direction I want to go creatively? Will it allow me to make new contacts and further existing relationships? Besides the money, what else am I getting from this gig?
7.) Why me? Why not someone else?
What can someone get from me that they might not get from someone else? How does this gig rely on my experience/background?
A friend of mine explained it like this: “You’re not only paying for time being spent in your service, but also time/money already spent learning and perfecting the craft.”
I’ll have a much easier time playing keys for a last-minute band gig with lead sheets than another pianist who can’t read a lick of music. No offense meant to my non-reading peers, but I’ve done the work. Chances are that Herbie Hancock will have an easier time than I would… but you probably can’t afford Herbie Hancock.
Experience and practice time are both factors. If I need someone with the level and skill of a concert violinist, should I expect to pay this professional the same rate as I would a musician who picked up the instrument for the first time last year? If a higher level of experience and musicianship is required, shouldn’t that be reflected in the pay as well?
Music is one of those fields that people feel passionate about. A lot of people feel passionate about it. When I was preparing my debut album, I was constantly barraged by stories – not from musicians, but rather those who “know” musicians and therefore feel entitled to relate their experience on their behalf. You know the stories: 12 hours in a practice room every day after their full-time job. Playing and performing strictly for the “love” of the art form. Sweating day and night as the unknown, under-appreciated musical genius looking for the “big break” when someone is going discover them and deliver them a record deal.
Yeah… You know. Pure unadulterated romanticized bullshit. Yes, I said it. Yes, I meant every word.
I’m not saying that all musicians do music solely for the money. My entire working life has been working as a musician. There are definitely more immediate and more “reliable” ways to earn an income. That said… Since when does being an artist obligate you to give your work/services away at your expense? There are people who love running mega corporations and cross-examining witnesses in court who still expect to be paid. And they should.
There are a lot of people who think they appreciate and love music so much and yet their actions and even their words don’t seem to reflect that same appreciation for the musicians who create it. Music and the arts especially seem to inspire idealistic “fluffy” comments from “connoisseurs” along the line of “Music is a gift (from God). It is a privilege/honor/blessing to be able to make it. You shouldn’t be doing it for the money, anyway…”
If you’ve ever said those words, quit pretending. You don’t love music. You love listening to it without paying for it. If you truly loved music, then you’d be passionate about making sure the artists who create it can make a living and – you know – create more of it. The vast majority of artists don’t have the record labels you cite to justify the increasing transfer of wealth created from the music business toward the tech companies. No, the major labels are not friends to independent artists, but anyone who says “You should be happy with the OPPORTUNITY… You are getting EXPOSURE!” is even worse. (Let’s not even get into the fact that the major labels are stockholders in the tech companies whose rates you are defending and typically do not share their dividends with their artists.)
Exposure and opportunity are nice, but that doesn’t pay for side musicians, sound engineers, instruments, or anything else it takes to create a recording or fashion a sustainable career in music. That doesn’t help an artist invest in himself or pay his car insurance.
The fact is that creating art is work. It is work that involves a lifetime of study, practice, refinement, and experimentation. Art is trial and error, oftentimes in front of a live audience who may not understand (or care for) what you are trying to do or the skill you are perfecting. Art is taking a vision and trying to make something concrete out of it that you hope will make some sort of emotional connection. Every minute of “play” you see involves hours of “not play” that led up to it. Like any field, you have to spend time figuring out what you are doing before you can say “Okay… Yeah. I get that.”
So… I throw my earlier question at you one more time: What are you paying for? I follow it up with: Do you really value it?
So… On Friday, October 2, 2015, I got to jam with one of my heroes: legendary pianist Ramsey Lewis.
If you don’t know who he is, then we can’t be friends. Go to Google right now, read his Wikipedia page, find his website and read everything on that, and then go listen to his music and buy his music. Once you have corrected that gross deficiency, return here and plead for my forgiveness. Ramsey Lewis is one of the foremost pianists in the world, particularly in the realm of jazz. Off the top of my head, there are only 4-5 living pianists that can even approach his stature. (Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Ahmad Jamal, McCoy Tyner, Keith Jarrett… Yes. Off the top of my head.) This man is a giant. So, I went to the Meet and Greet at the Steinway Piano Gallery of Nashville on October 2 fully expecting to learn from one of the greatest musical minds… from the audience.
Mr. Lewis and his wife Jan were quietly talking with people when I arrived. Yes… I admit. I was too scared to talk to either one of them. As I said, this guy is one of my heroes. Eventually, the crowd made our way into the Recital Hall where he gave a small presentation. I staked my place out in the middle of the back row. I think he was overjoyed to see a 10 and a 12 year old sitting in the front row appropriately named MJ and Miles. (Boys, if I switched your two names, I apologize.) Though Mr. Lewis spoke to the entire audience, I think much of his presentation was directed toward the boys. He wanted to inspire them and everyone in the Recital Hall – including me – were eating every bit of it up. He emphasized the necessity of not only practicing but falling in love with practice. After he gave his presentation and played a little, he said “Well… I’ve played enough. Who’s going to play for me?” The obvious answer was the boys.
Instead, my name got called. I knew the second I heard it exactly who did it. When I visit Nashville, I frequently practice at the Steinway Piano Gallery and know the staff pretty well. When DC called my name again, I looked away, pretending that I was another member of the audience looking around for this “Kareem” person. Unfortunately, no one else was fooled and everyone – including Ramsey Lewis himself – was looking directly at me.
I was scared out of my mind. Here I was having been volunteered by my friend and all I could think of is “He just gave a speech on practice. I didn’t practice today. Yesterday, I was in the car all day driving. I really haven’t practiced as much as I should have lately. Oh yeah… and one of my heroes is going to hear me. I got up and was still pretty much shaking. BH got another piano bench and plopped it down next to the one Mr. Lewis was using and the man himself asks me “So… What are we playing?”
I stumbled crazily inside of my head trying to think of what to play when I blurted out “Stella by Starlight.” He started at the bottom doing chords/bass and I hit the top, playing the melody out and doing some improv. Sometime after the improv started, he told me to take the entire piano. I won’t lie… I’m weak at improv. I’m really weak on solo jazz piano. I hit that lower end of the piano and I don’t remember what I did, but I think I started doing a little interplay between the LH “bass” and the right hand. Thankfully, the man himself came back and started tearing up the top end of the piano and we somehow found a way to end it.
FREAKING AWESOME!!!! Yes. That’s how it feels to play a duet with a legend. Even though the duet was over, I was still scared out of my mind and practically running off the stage. I managed to fumble out “Thank you for the lesson” and went back to my seat. By then, MJ and Miles were ready to get up there and show Mr. Lewis what they had. He was all too glad to coach him. (You did awesome, boys!)
My friend BH managed to catch the last part of our duet on video. I hope you enjoy it! I’ve got a couple more days in Nashville before I head back to Ohio. For now…
Note: This post was originally written before I decided to convert my entire website from Website Baker to WordPress. The old website had a picture from my pre-beard days, hence the opening paragraph.
Excellence Oozing From My Pores
So, if you have been following any of my various social media accounts, you have probably noticed something dangling from my face that isn’t on my main website. (If not, there’s a picture reference either to the left or directly above this post.) Okay… that “something” is actually an extraterrestrial alien creature with hundreds of thousands of probosces burrowing subcutaneously into my skull. The doctors have assured me that despite what friends and family believe, the creature is in fact benign and poses no danger whatsoever of attaching to my nervous system and taking control of my higher cerebral functions. Clearly, it is benevolent. I mean… It tastes everything I put into my mouth just to make sure that people out there aren’t trying to poison me. That’s love!
As of right now, my chinsulation is approximately two years, four months, and ten days old. We celebrated its second birthday on May 2, 2015 with a piano recital. Since then, I have actually trimmed it back about two inches. (Yeah… Spare me the shock, people. None of you even noticed when I did it!)
The response to the beard has been about as I expected. Some people shrug and go about their business. (A perfectly acceptable response.) Others have expressed their utter disgust and indignation and have never missed an opportunity to remind me of their displeasure. (I admit that it amuses me.) Then, of course, there are those people with similar afflictions to my own who greet me with a high five, a fist bump, and a shout at the top of their lungs: “YEAH! THAT’S WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT, BROTHER!” I would be remiss not to acknowledge the disappointed observers lingering tearfully in the background who desire but are afraid to release the brilliance from within their skin. I would say that I feel their pain, but in reality, the majesty of my chinfro has long numbed me to such empathetic feelings.
I often get asked why I chose to let my beard grow out. Sure, I could pretend that this was a mystical spiritual journey in search of a masculinity that had been suppressed by society and that I was finally embracing myself as God had meant for me to be or invent something similarly sexy, but that would be a romanticized bold-faced lie. The stimulus behind it was actually financial… and possibly a little laziness on my part.
In 2013, I got lazy with the razor and let it go for two weeks because I didn’t want to bother with it. Then, I went to go visit my sister in Nashville and accidentally forgot my razor altogether. I was too cheap to buy another one (and the blades), so I just let it keep going. As “luck” would have it when I got home, one of my brothers “borrowed” my last unused razor blade while I was away. Empty razor. So, I had to buy razor blades… which were over $20… knowing my brother would probably “borrow” a couple of them again. Fuck that. I needed to keep gas in my car, so Mr. Gillette took a back seat. Then, I decided that I kind of liked what was happening to my face. Next thing I knew, two more months had passed and I had no desire whatsoever to give Mr. Gillette any more of my money. By then, I set the scissors aside and just let the awesomeness ooze out from my chin.
I could sit here and go through all the various mistakes and things I learned while the chinfro took control, but that means little when I can just brush my hand across it and be soothed by its magical powers. If I had to do it all over again, I’d have never trimmed my mustache back about a year into it. (I didn’t like how it came out.) Since then, I’ve grown to love it even more and have no problem with the good-natured ribbing and the occasional “THAT’S GROSS” I still get. At this point, I already got my driver’s license renewed, which means that I’m committed to it at least until 2018. Given that I’m a fairly large (fat) Black man with an Arabic name who tends to put people off with my social ineptitude, I’d be an idiot not to look like my ID.
While “laziness” may have been cited as a factor in deciding to grow the beard, the reality is that I have to maintain it just like the hair on top of my head. You wake up with “bedhead”? Well, I’ve got “bedhead” and “bedbeard.” If I took a picture of the drooly side, you’d have nightmares for weeks. I’m Black – I know… shocker – which means I can’t win for trying. If I wash it too often, it will get dry. If I don’t wash it enough, I’ll get dandruff on my chin. I have to watch out mundane things such as coat zippers and seatbelts. Ice cream, hamburgers, and potato cheese soup are also known as “beard conditioners” and require an eye to watch out for stray piece of onion. If I blow my nose, I always wonder if the tissue missed a clump of my mustache stuck together by mucus. Of course, I’ve also got one of those beards that over time likes to go separate ways in the middle. (I’ve made peace with that.) “Laziness” may have got it started, but keeping it is certainly more tedious than scraping my skin.
Just how far will I let it go? I don’t know. Whenever I get sick of it, if that ever happens. For now, though… Winter’s coming and I know my face is going to be just fine.
Yep. Washed in the Blood of the Lamb. Dead to the flesh and risen again in the spirit. Something like that. I’m neither a poet or a wordsmith. Definitely not a theologian or religious studies scholar. (My Masters degree is in Music Theory. Not exactly Divinity. Wait… Does Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” count?)
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve read the Bible. Piecemeal, admittedly, and don’t ask me to quote chapters and verses. (For real… I’m doing good to remember song lyrics.) I can confidently say I’ve seen everything in there at least once. Hey… At 38 years old, I like to think I’m BEGINNING to make progress. This recent “go through”, I started at Revelations and have been going backwards, book by book.( I’m at First Thessalonians, now. Yeah, I’m slow like that.) I’ve been using the St. Joseph Edition, because while I’m reading it, I can jump down and read the footnotes. (I’m somewhat disappointed the NIV Bible App I have on my tablet doesn’t have footnotes. What can I say? Some things you read take on a different life when you get a little more background on it.) Sometimes, I really look at it and say “Okay… I gotcha…” Then, there have been times I said “REALLY, Paul?”
For anyone curious, one of my bookmarks is one of the “bad” letters from the church that says “We consider you part of our church family. So when we haven’t seen you at our weekend celebrations for the last few weeks…” (Hey… I was there most of the time! I just refuse to sign the attendance packet. Quit scowling at me.)
Okay… I’ve digressed.
SO… Why did I get baptized?
No, I didn’t get baptized as a child. My siblings did. I didn’t. Don’t ask. It’s like my first name; I’m not discussing it on the internet.
I could say “Jesus is doing such wonderful things in my life that I felt I owed it to Him.” Nope. Not true. That isn’t to say he isn’t doing wonderful things in my life. I just don’t believe that’s why you go to Jesus. Okay… Yes, you owe Jesus, but that’s not some debt you can repay. Ever. That’s the point. It doesn’t matter if he tells you next week’s Powerball numbers in a dream. Getting washed in his blood doesn’t make things even. Don’t get me wrong; next week’s Powerball numbers would be nice…
I could also say “I’ve decided it was PAST time to make a commitment to Jesus.” It wouldn’t be accurate, though. I served on and off in churches for years. There are accompaniment editions of hymnals on my shelves. The filing cabinet has evidence from past music ministry positions and pieces I’ve arranged for choir that have never seen the light of day. I’ve got MORE ideas in my head and on scraps that have percolated for years. Yes, I know that none of this is the same as “committing to Jesus.” I see it as indications that I’ve been guided and led for much longer than I’ve known. My past experience – much of it which borders on unbelievable – has been such that I never really questioned that I was a Child of God.
“By getting baptized, I was just making it official.” I mean… my sins have already been forgiven, so this was just an outward gesture. At least that was what I told myself. And yet… I still hemmed and hawed for years…
I saw it as one of those things – like marriage – that I just did not want to do until I was absolutely ready. You know how some women have the “Perfect Fairy Tale Wedding” fantasy? I had this “Kareem’s Perfect Baptism” all set up in my mind. (Don’t judge me.) My family would be there. Alison Krauss would be leading a choir singing “Down to the River to Pray” accompanied by a group of Irish Dancers. I’d get baptized in the name of The Father, The Son, and the Holy Ghost. There’d be this ray of sunlight as I came up. Aretha Franklin and company would be singing me out of the water on “Oh Happy Day” while the angels circled overhead. Jesus would be waiting for me on the shore with his thumb up, a wink, and say “Yeah… Nice job, Buddy!”
Yeah… I never said that fantasy was reasonable. That’s just how I imagined it. Don’t judge me.
You’re totally judging me; Stop it.
Okay… Yeah… I asked for it… ANYWAY…
I came up with all these excuses. My life’s a mess. I can’t get my family there. The church is having it in the river. There could be anything in that river. Snakes. Brain-eating amoeba. Ch’thulu. It’s not wheelchair accessible. The church is using a pool during the service. I’m playing electric piano; I can’t do it during service. I’d get electrocuted. The music director would strangle me with a patch cord if I asked. Well, I can’t schedule it during another time; I have to think about everyone else’s schedules. Too many people go to THAT service. Nah… He wouldn’t use a patch cord, but a bass guitar string. CH’THULU… IN… THE… WATER!!!
A little background on my church: It has three campuses with individual flavors. The small one is located in the Black suburb. The medium-sized one is about three miles away in the city. The galactic-sized one with five services alone is way out in one of the White suburbs north of the city. I often play keyboards at all three on different weekends, depending on whatever their needs are. I live south of all of them, so it takes me about 30-35 minutes to get to any of them if traffic is clear. When I go sit in the pews, I go out to the galactic-sized one. (5:00 PM on Saturday is when I’m the most awake.)
SO… It was Baptism weekend at all three campuses. As it turned out, I was on keyboard at the galactic-sized campus for all five of their service celebrations. (Two on Saturday; three on Sunday.) Since I was “on duty”, that automatically ruled that one out. Okay, I probably could have asked, but crowds in general tend to unnerve me. (Yes. I know. I’m a musician. I can play in front of 4400 people and be just fine. Ask me to sit among them and I need to be as close to the door as possible.) As rowdy as they get, I’d have ducked back under the water and probably drowned myself.
The small and medium campuses had joined up to do river baptisms that evening. Of course, my same “river excuses” came back. Ch’thulu. After setting all that aside, the only reason I almost didn’t go was because I knew I couldn’t bring my mother. (The wheelchair wouldn’t make it.) On the way home from serving at the Galactic Star Cruiser, I thought, “Maybe I should ask Bro #7. He could take pictures.” (See… Now, I was making excuses TO do it.) I came home after church, slept on it, decided enough was enough, and dug out the swimming trunks. Bro #7 said “Hold up… You’ve never been baptized?!” and off we went.
Nope… Didn’t tell anyone at any of the campuses I was going to do it. Just went there.
Like many people headed to the river baptism service, instead of getting directions, I just Googled the address. (I know “Google” isn’t a verb, but I’m using it anyway.) We arrived at the edge of the hosts’ property, but had no clue whatsoever because everyone was near the house! (We couldn’t see the house.) Fortunately, we had plenty of company. We eventually got around to where everyone else was. Yeah… There was still a bit of a crowd, but not TOO bad. Once I gave Bro #7 my car keys, I knew I wasn’t escaping. Jive turkey!
Actually, the service was enjoyable. We prayed and sang to get us warmed up. The Pastoral Trio of RE, JM, and RP waded into the river and got things moving. I think there were about 20 or so people. I waited until last… admittedly, because I was still thinking “There could be ANYTHING in that water.” Mind you, I probably should have been worried about cutting my bare feet. Yet, I was still thinking that Ch’thulu was going to rise up and eat me. (If you haven’t figured out how my imagination works by now…) By the time it was my turn, I was pretty sure Bro #7 was ready to knock me into the water if I didn’t get in there.
First, there was DJ, one of the worship pastors at the small church. Gotta love DJ. She had the good camera out already.
DJ: KAREEM… You’re getting baptized?! Do you mind if I put it on Facebook?
TKP: Sure… Go ahead. My brother was going to t…
DJ: Yeah, I was going to do it regardless of what you said. I’m so HAPPY I’m here for this!
Bro#7: (He flashed an evil grin. It was his way of letting me know I was getting in that river one way or the other. He’s a 5th Degree Blackbelt. I wouldn’t win that one. He also had my car keys and my shoes. By the time I could climb out, he’d have already driven off and left me stranded, soaked, and barefoot.)
By this time, the Pastoral Trio have now figured out I’m the last one.
“Kareem, you’re getting baptized?”
“Is this a reaffirmation or…”
“REALLY?!” They laugh and decide they’re all going to join in on it. Yeah, I almost climbed right back out. Then, I remembered the steps were slippery, my brother was waiting to shove me in, and DJ was waiting with a camera and would probably take pictures if he did shove me in. She was going to get pictures one way or another!
Okay… I might be exaggerating. Might be.
“You have to bring me back up. You promised.”
Now I’ve got these visions of being dunked in the river, them letting me go, me flailing around, stumbling to my feet, and being sucked down by the tentacle of Ch’thulu, as the three of them laugh sinisterly. Yes… That’s right. I’m thinking this of three clergymen trying to bring me to Christ. If you’ve read this far and haven’t figured out I have issues, then there’s no hope for you.
So, I hand ZW my glasses, which now means I’m wading into water with these three laughing pastor-type people and blind. My first thoughts?
TKP: Oh God… The water is cold. Oh God… I just said the Lord’s name in vain.
RE: Yes… Twice, now.
TKP: Oh God… I said that aloud. Oh God… STOP THAT! Wait… No… God, don’t YOU stop it. Stop ME from stopping that. No… Don’t stop ME from stopping that… Get ME to stop that… Wait? Did I just presume to command the Lord Almighty to do something for me? GAAAAH!!! That’s NOT what I meant. Oh God, am I saying all of this aloud?! Okay… WHEW… my mouth is closed. I think. ****!!! I DID IT AGAIN!!!
(No wonder I thought Ch’thulu was waiting to eat me. Here I was about to be baptized and I was sinning along the way.)
By then, we’re out there. I believe RE was on my right, JM was on my left, and RP was behind me. So, if they let me go, I was sure I could grab at least two of them to take with me to my watery doom. Then I remembered, I have to use one hand to pinch my nose shut while the other arm was crossed over my chest. If they did let me go, that probably meant I would at best only be able to grab one of them.
Yes, I know. I’m a bad person for even thinking any of this.
Well, I’m glad to say the immersion went extremely well. Ch’thulu decided not to eat me and I did indeed make it back above the surface of the water. Aretha wasn’t singing “Oh Happy Day” like in my perfect baptism fantasy, but I can say there were probably at least 40 Jesuses cheering on the bank. I’ll take it!
So… after making it back to the bank, we hung around for a bit, ate pizza… I barely introduced anyone to Bro #7, which meant that – Yes – I’m still a horrible person. I was asked how I felt and I said “Okay.” Yep. I was relieved and glad I finally did it… Then, Bro #7 looked at my phone and said “Yep… You’ve just been tagged in a picture on Facebook.”
Sure enough… DJ posted a picture and tagged me. There were Likes and the first response was from my cousin CL. Of course, that significantly increased the likelihood that Mom would find out about the baptism by checking Facebook! (Yes, that’s right; I told neither of my parents that I was getting baptized. I’m a really horrible person.) Bro #7 looked at me and said – in his own charming way – “Hehehehehe… You’re dead.” After my no doubt being an anti-social post-baptized crazy-thinking crazy-guy, we decided to make our way home. I’m still thinking “Yeah… I’m feeling okay…”
Then, 20 minutes into the drive, I’m thinking “What the **** did I just do?!”
Yes, I know the obvious answer, but I think the question beyond that is “What does it mean?”
If you were to ask me why I got baptized, I couldn’t give you an answer. I can’t explain it. I can’t explain it to you. If Jesus walked in the door and asked me, I couldn’t tell him why, either. Yes, I’ve thought over it through and through. For years. I’ve spent my entire life trying to figure out logical explanations. There isn’t one. Not for me. Maybe I’ve just concluded that faith cannot be reasoned. If it did, would it be faith? I don’t know.
Yes, I know. It’s not an answer. Well, I’m still searching for it. Baptism was an important step along the way.
Back in October 2012, I had the pleasure of talking with Joleen Knowling-Norman, Publisher and CEO of JO Magazine. The main focus is on entertainment, fashion, and the arts. What has me particularly excited for her and the magazine is that it is focused on uplifting the community, which is all too often marginalized. I would much rather be profiled along the likes of actor Omar Gooding or Earvin Magic Johnson than whatever professional athlete acted like and idiot this week. In any case, here is our interview as published in Issue 10 of JO Magazine. I encourage you to check it out.
A Word with Kareem Powell
By Joleen Knowling-Norman
Reflections in Black and White
JO: I love the title of the CD. How did you come up with it?
Kareem: While I was practicing the piano, I happened to look down and see the reflection of my hands on the keys.
JO: How did this project come about?
Kareem: My concept of being a professional musician has always been centered around recording, touring, and performance. While I had been playing with different bands and working as an accompanist and choir director, I knew that none of those alone would pave a road for my working and touring with major artists. To reach that level, I needed to shop around something that showed a taste of my musical abilities. I needed my own product!
It’s nice to have the idea, but the actual execution was more than I counted on. Recording costs money and with my chief sources of income being from part-time and contract work, that meant a shoe-string budget. I even took a loan out against my car! It was well worth it. I learned so much.
Time, money, and lack of experience were all factors, so I made it a priority to keep everything as simple as I could. The entire album is strictly solo piano with every track either an original compositions or an arrangement of a public domain songs. Where genre is concerned, I decided against either jazz or classical. The competition for either is overwhelming, cut-throat, and not the direction I was headed. With my personal stake in this so high, I wanted to maximize the opportunity and set myself apart in an extremely crowded field.
As reluctant as I was to embrace the New Age title, I knew that was my best opening. It provided a clearer route to my goal of breaking into recording and session work. I knew I could create an individual “sound” that others could possibly hear and imagine being on their projects.
Using an acoustic piano was extremely important to me, not only in terms of artistic sound quality, but legitimacy to myself. Just to make it clear, I understand why others prefer electronic pianos. They’re mobile. They don’t have to be tuned. They can be plugged directly into the sound system. They can imitate a range of other instruments. They can loop, sequence, and a bunch of stuff I don’t know. A particularly lazy pianist can get around playing in other keys by pressing a button.
My background and training is as a pianist, not a keyboard player. Once it involves buttons, switches, a programming book, or more than three pedals, you’re getting away from my core as a musician. There is also the visual aspect. I have noticed a tremendous difference in how people respond to me after I’ve played an acoustic versus an electronic piano.
I better stop. I’ll talk about this all day!
JO: Now that the recording is released, how does it feel to have fans creating playlists with your music all over the world? I hear that your music is even being played in Austria…
Kareem: The Digital Age is something else, isn’t it? It’s both amazing and humbling that it is easier than ever to distribute your music all over the world. Where the challenge before was distribution, the new challenge is in finding ways to cut through a highly-saturated market. More musicians than ever are pushing their music out there and the danger is in becoming yet another one jumping up and down screaming “HERE! HERE! LOOK AT ME!!!”
At the same time, you have to find places where the fans are. Right now, I’m being carried on Pandora, Woodroot Radio in Austria, SoloPiano.com, and Sky.Fm Solo Piano Radio. Distributing through CD Baby has been particularly useful in getting my music out to other digital platforms such as iTunes and Spotify. It’s out there and available. The challenge is getting people to remember your name! As you can see, I focused primarily on internet stations. Perhaps I’ll figure out terrestrial radio next…
JO: How did you get into music?
Kareem: I was about five when I started. My older sister was taking piano lessons and I got extremely jealous… and probably very whiny. At the time, there were five other children in the house and my parents likely wanted a reprieve. I took piano lessons for a few months before my teacher moved and then didn’t have another one until I went to college! Obviously, I hadn’t stopped playing the piano.
JO: So your sister inspired you?
Kareem: That won’t see print, will it? I don’t want it to go to her head…
JO: Have there been any significant mentors or role models along the way?
Kareem: Absolutely! A lot of them. There is Paul Murachanian, from whom I took both clarinet and saxophone for nine years and was constantly pulling together instrumental ensembles. My high school choir director Malana Turner went out of her way to provide opportunities to grow.
One of my greatest influences was Dr. Maria Thompson Corley, my piano instructor at Florida A&M University. That woman put me through my paces both at the piano and away from it. Literally. I had to walk a mile off-campus to the Florida State University music library to do research for her legendary take-home exams. She did a lot to inform me and other students about what it takes to be a professional musician and perform at that level.
Getting away from just people I know, I also looked at the career of Jim Brickman. In terms of mainstream music, he’s an excellent model in maintaining his identity as a pianist and songwriter even while collaborating with the likes of Dave Koz, Martina McBride, Lady Antebellum, and all these other artists. One of my goals is to be one of those pianists so iconic that a listener will be able to pick me out just from the sound.
Kareem: It has exceeded my expectations! I had made the decision at the beginning that this was going to be a starting point, regardless of how it sold. The project served as a foundation to field further opportunities and build my career. It hasn’t been easy, but it has been rewarding.
JO: How so?
Kareem: It’s an entirely new learning curve that comes with it many opportunities to mess up. It sounds cliché, but mistakes teach you more than getting it right. In the process, I’ve learned a lot about the recording process, promotion, and marketing. (I still consider myself to know only slightly more than nothing, however.) It has shown me which directions I can grow and invest my time as an artist and businessman. The feedback has been tremendous and getting an endorsement from writer/director/producer Reginald Hudlin didn’t hurt either!
Kareem: Boomerang, Bebe’s Kids, Black Panther, The Boondocks, Django Unchained… Yep. That guy. He even mentioned it on his website! He said it passed the “play in the car” test. I’ll take it! It sounds much better than if he hurled it out of the window, ran it over, and then backed back over it again to make sure it was completely pulverized, along with the rest of my hopes and dreams…
JO: You’re melodramatic, aren’t you?
Kareem: How so?
JO: SO… What have you been up to lately?
Kareem: My big story is that I got to play the Grand Ole Opry House on September 18th.
JO: The Grand Ole Opry? Nashville?
Kareem: Technically, it was the Tuesday Night Opry, but yes… Same venue!
JO: How did you get to the Grand Ole Opry House?
Kareem: Twitter! It was a fluke and an awesome example of serendipity or God’s grace.
A little over year ago, I was looking into Nashville. Twitter suggested a country singer/songwriter by the name of Jimmy Wayne. I knew nothing about him or his music, but I clicked “Follow” anyway. Glad I did!
The man has a powerful and inspiring story. Here is the Cliff Notes version: His mother was in and out of jail. Jimmy and his sister were in and out of foster care. When he was a teenager, his stepfather dragged Jimmy and his mother all over the country trying to escape from the law. Jimmy was dumped at the bus station at gunpoint and left on his own. While he was homeless an older couple took him in and housed/parented him enough so he could finish high school and go to college. He’s dedicated his life and music to advocating for kids who have been in his position.
Anyway, Jimmy and I started tweeting back and forth at some point. He announced this “Spotlight Artist of the Week” feature on his website, so I sent in a link to a YouTube video I’d done of “Take It Away” from my album. It was selected and he said to me in his Appalachian drawl “You know, we should do the Opry together.” I figured that was the last time I’d hear anything. That was the beginning of August.
On September 13th, he called me up and asked me to accompany him on the Tuesday Night Opry on a not-yet-released song he wrote with Pat Alger called “How Jesus Felt.” (Pat Alger also co-wrote “The Thunder Rolls” aka the biggest country song ever.) It was only going to be me on the piano and him. I think I said yes before he even finished asking…
The entire situation was definitely intimidating. I was on one of the world’s most famous stages with a national artist in front of 4400 people and being broadcast by WSM Radio to countless more people all over the country. Also performing the same program was Lorrie Morgan, a freshly-shaven Kellie Pickler, and Dierks Bentley. Jimmy was a pro and the performance came together exceptionally well. The coup de grace was when the Opry House raised its lights to show the audience applauding on their feet. I was all done after that.
JO: Wow! So what happens next?
Kareem: As far as a definitive follow-up, I cannot say. I’m pretty sure Jimmy and I will be working together again at some point. (We played The Ryman Auditorium on December 11.)
In the meantime, I’ve been working on tightening up my music-writing and piano. Nashville is a highly-addictive place for a musician and I’ve been making every excuse I can to get there as much as possible and meet people! My goal remains to break into the major recording and touring circuit, which means I need to make some new friends and become a part of the community. The most intimidating part is the sheer amount of stuff I don’t know. Well… and bills don’t pay themselves.
Regardless, another album is certainly in the works. 2013 is set to be an exciting year!
JO: I agree! JO Magazine congratulates you on your start and wishes you much success in this new direction. Thank you for speaking to me!
Kareem: Thank you! This looks like it is going to be a year of growth for both of us! I wish JO Magazine nothing but the best. Let’s go places!
Reprinted from MainlyPiano.com. You can find the original review here.
Reflections in Black & White
2011 / Sunstrike Entertainment LLC
Reflections in Black & White is the debut CD by Ohio pianist/composer/arranger Kareem Powell. The thirteen tracks are an eclectic selection of original jazz-infused compositions and his arrangements of three traditional folk songs and spirituals. Powell has a very impressive background that dates back to his starting piano lessons at the age of five, and continuing through to a BS in Music Education from Florida A&M University (1998) and a Masters of Music in Music Theory from Indiana University (2001). Since then, his musical activities have shown tremendous versatility – Music Minister, director of musical theater, chorus rehearsal accompanist, adjunct faculty, to name only a few of the items listed on his website. While Powell’s playing is masterful and elegant, he has a strong sense of when to keep it simple. The music is sometimes flowing and sometimes a bit edgy, but it is never difficult to listen to. The multitude of musical genres that Powell has become fluent in have shaped his musical voice into one that is strong and distinctive. I’m impressed!
Reflections in Black & White begins with “Let’s Remember,” an upbeat piece with complex rhythmic changes and a conversational style that suggests that maybe this song has lyrics – an intriguing and inviting opening piece! “Louisa” also has a very strong melody, but the mood of this one is more reflective and somewhat nostalgic. “Walk With Me” is the first of the arrangements. Its gospel/jazz feeling is infectious and demonstrates Powell’s very impressive chops. “Londonderry Air” is a very pleasant surprise. Powell’s arrangement is fairly straight-forward, but played with such heart that it sounds brand new. “Take It Away” is a beautiful ballad and one of my favorite tracks. Flowing and poignant, the melancholy melody and Powell’s emotionally charged playing make this a standout that I could listen to over and over. (sheet music???) Powell’s arrangement of “Deep River” is elegant and heartfelt. “Piano Keys” picks up the tempo and playfully dances all over the piano keyboard. “Demons In My Head” is perhaps the most improvisational and experimental piece on the album. The closing track, “The Sun will Rise Again Someday” is another favorite. I love the haunting melody and dark minor chords, played simply and with abundant grace.
Reflections in Black & White is an exceptional debut, and I look forward to hearing more from Kareem Powell in the future! The album is available from www.kareempowell.com, Amazon, iTunes, and CD Baby. Recommended!