Bringing Back the Music

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My new practice space in Easthampton, MA

Click here to contribute to the Buddhist Peace Fellowship’s fall fundraising campaign!

This work arises from a pure and loving commitment

To victory over the forces of materialism

And trust in the bodhichitta of society

Just over a year ago, I was wrapping up my participation in Spiritual Activist Support, a six-month training program put together by the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. My final “assignment” for the program was to ritualistically seal my intentions for transformative social change by singing these phrases and burning the piece of paper they had been written on over a small candle. The melody that you hear in the audio above emerged from that spontaneous ritual.

This experience marked an important turning point in my relationship to my Buddhist practice—I realized that the creative, aspirational experiences that I had been a part of through grassroots organizing could also be distilled in music. Now that I’m finally settling into a new home, I have the space to start to explore this a bit more deeply. That’s why I’ve taken this on for a 30-day Challenge fundraiser for the Buddhist Peace Fellowship: bringing music to my daily practice! I’m a week in now, having been sitting and practicing trombone every day as part of a lovely contemplative routine. And tomorrow is the last day that donors who contribute $30 or more can pick up a very stylish BPF t-shirt as a thank-you gift.

Also, everyone who donates will receive an original improvised trombone melody, composed by me on the spot at the end of my daily sessions. I love sending these out—they give me a very unique and personal way to connect with you, even for a moment, no matter where in the world you are. And that connection generates resources for an incredible organization that’s doing great work to help the Dharma flourish in these challenging times. So thanks for chipping in, and I hope to play you a little song of gratitude soon!

Click here to contribute to the Buddhist Peace Fellowship’s fall fundraising campaign!

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An Unexpected Professional Transition

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The view from the window of my new home office in Easthampton, MA

“Bad news,” my new boss began as we sat around the conference room table. This had been the site of our small staff’s weekly meetings and check-ins since I joined the team in April. She then informed me that she had spoken to some other people who had attended last week’s training with me and had concluded that I would no longer be working for the organization.

She handed me a single-page letter that began:

“Dear Alex,
We have determined that you are not a good culture fit for [our organization] and are terminating your employment effective immediately.”

I felt stunned but somehow managed to remain surprisingly calm. They offered me two weeks’ worth of severance pay if I agreed to sign a non-disclosure agreement. I remember assuring them that I would be just fine, thank you, and left the room in shocked bewilderment to return my keys and laptop.

The deadline has now passed for my decision to accept the terms of the non-disclosure agreement. I have spent the past few days trying to let the energy of this disruption pass through me, to gather the mental and spiritual clarity to move forward with integrity and without causing further harm. So, I’m taking the next step in this process—evidenced by the fact that you’re reading this—to speak publicly about what happened. It feels important to share my understanding of why I reached such a painful and disappointing place in my relationship to the “Mindfulness in Higher Ed” scene so quickly. I hope that some of you who take the time to read this will be able to offer some support and encouragement during the challenging weeks ahead as I figure out what comes next.

This unexpected turn of events was the culmination of a process that had begun the previous week. I had driven down to New York to attend a “mindfulness in higher education” training on behalf of my new employer. Upon arriving in the space, the first thing I saw was the offering for participants: a water bottle, a notebook, and some other paraphernalia neatly arranged on the tables. I noticed a book in the stack, too—a prominent former Shambhala teacher had written the foreword. Seeing his name startled me; over the past year, I had learned of two very credible allegations of sexual misconduct by this individual from trusted friends (one of which was published by ThinkProgress.) I wasn’t prepared to process this in the context of this new “professional” setting—having spent much of the past year attempting to extricate myself from the Shambhala community and do what I could to stand by the many people who were assaulted by teachers like him, the reminder came as a bit of a shock.

A few minutes later, the first group session began in an adjacent room. The facilitator led us through a “body scan” exercise, which triggered a trauma-induced dissociation experience that felt like a panicked inability to stay in my body. I did my best to take care of myself in that moment, and then we were asked to introduce ourselves to the group based on the three words that best described the experience of what we were bringing into the room. We had been assured that this was a space where bravery, curiosity, and honesty were encouraged—believing this to be true, I introduced myself with the words that most honestly captured my experience in that moment: “triggered as fuck.” Later, I explained to the group that I had recently left the Shambhala community due to the abuse of similar “mindfulness” practices, adding that seeing this teacher’s name on the cover of the book had been an upsetting introduction to the space.

Afterwards, I spoke briefly with the training coordinator; she told me that she had no reason not to believe the women and that although this teacher was no longer teaching in her program, she still considered him a friend. She encouraged me to do what I needed to take care of myself throughout the rest of the training. That afternoon, I had been invited to lead a brief listening meditation session for the group after lunch. During the lunch period, the facilitator informed me that there had been a change in the schedule and my session had been cancelled.

For the next day and a half, I did my best to strike a balance between showing up in the space honestly and taking care of myself after experiencing episodes of dissociation. I was transparent with the coordinator about this and asked her to make sure that the facilitator knew that my struggles weren’t personal—clearly, there were bigger forces at play here. Nonetheless, during lunch on Thursday, the coordinator approached me and suggested that, given my experiences, the training was not a good fit for me to continue as a participant. Although she did not explicitly ask me to leave or suggest that I had done anything wrong, the insinuation was clear that I was to depart immediately.

I called my boss right away to report what happened; I had already told her that things were a little weird earlier on in the training. She knew about my history with Shambhala and was very supportive. She encouraged me to ensure that my registration fee was refunded, which I did. I then left the building to go decompress on a walk through Washington Square Park. A couple of hours later, my boss called me back.

“Where are you?” she asked.

“In a coffee shop in the West Village,” I remember responding quizzically.

“Just don’t go back to the training,” she urged. Apparently, the coordinator had reached out to her inquiring about my whereabouts. Building security at the training had been informed that my presence was perceived as a threat to the safety of the facilitator, and that I was not to be let back in under any circumstances. I remember my boss recounting that she had asked the coordinator if I had done anything to merit such a response, such as raising my voice or making threats. According to her, the coordinator responded that I had not. Again, my boss was supportive and affirming in our conversation; we agreed that she would inform our colleague in the office about what happened over the weekend and that we would meet on Monday to debrief.

On Monday, the bad news caught me completely off guard. I had, after all, just left another job; my wife had also left hers—along with guaranteed maternity leave when our first child arrives this fall—and moved across the country. Although it had been an intense and difficult week in New York, the idea that my family’s livelihood was in peril had never even crossed my mind. In hindsight, though, the signs were clear that this wasn’t a space where I could serve with integrity. It’s still painful to feel into the experience of being treated with such utter disregard, but I’ve been so grateful for the support and good will that I’ve received from my wife, close friends, and colleagues over the past three weeks. Even though this isn’t how I would have liked things to pan out, I’m sure that I’ll learn what really brought me back to Western Massachusetts soon.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read this. If you’re able, I would be very grateful if you were to leave a supportive comment here or reach out by email, phone, or text. And if you have some financial resources at your disposal, please consider donating to the Buddhist Peace Fellowship: I just recently joined the Board of Directors of this amazing organization and these folks have been the “sangha” (community of practice and study) that I’ve needed in this difficult moment.

And lastly, if you’re working with mindfulness practices in any capacity, may you bring great skillfulness and a healthier sense of skepticism into the institutional work than I did. I strongly recommend David Forbes’s Mindfulness and Its Discontents: Education, Self, and Social Transformation (excerpt here), David Treleaven’s Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing (learn more here), and Ron Purser’s McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality (excerpt here) as resources for honing an appropriate BS detector in these spaces. There’s tremendously important work happening, but the systems that support it are causing a great deal of harm. May our efforts to heal bring us all closer to making the world that we need for one another amidst the chaos of these times.

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Where In The World Am I?

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Portrait of a native inhabitant of Novosibirsk, Siberia

Sending a big, heartfelt thanks to everyone who reached out to say happy birthday yesterday. I’ve been receiving a lot of messages from friends and family recently, including something to the effect of “Well, I don’t know where in the world you are right now …”

So to clarify: I’m in Novosibirsk, Siberia. Novosibirsk is Russia’s third-largest city, located in the geographical center of the Russian Federation, north of Kazakhstan. Yes, it’s cold here—snow started falling shortly before we arrived, in mid-October. It’s also an interesting cosmopolitan place where my listening activities have brought me into contact with people from all over the world, for example: Uzbekistan, Japan, Germany, France, and Cuba.

If you’re curious about where else I’ve been in the past year, I’ve created this handy map for your perusal: http://arcg.is/2dYmTnr. In total, I’ve visited about 23 cities (and 12 jazz clubs) in 9 countries on 4 continents! Needless to say, I’m quite worn out from all the traveling, but incredibly grateful for what I’ve learned along the way. I had entered into this year with the intention of sharing more about it on this blog, but alas, that aspiration hasn’t come to pass. I did want to post this update, though, to say thank you to everyone who I have met!

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Alex in Novosibirsk

I’ll be here until this Monday, when I’ll begin the long journey back to the United States. I look forward to seeing my ethnomusicology friends at the Society for Ethnomusicology Conference in Washington, DC, from November 10-13. I’ll be helping with the Improvisation Section’s roundtable event on Thursday evening, and then reuniting with my Conn tenor trombone (which has been staying in DC with my cousin since June) to play with the SEM Orchestra on Friday night.

Then, I will be back in New York City for a week, from November 15-21. New York friends, I hope to see you there! After that, Marina and I return to Portland, Oregon, where we’ll be settling in for the next year while I write my dissertation. After 13 years away from the city where I grew up, this seems like just the right time to be coming home. I’m looking forward to spending a lot of time listening to KMHD and otherwise digging into what the local jazz scene has to offer.

Thanks again to everyone who helped make my 32nd year on Planet Earth an unforgettable and transformative one!

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Be There In Spirit For My First Performance of 2016

low fi concert jan 26Update: Thanks to everyone for being a part of this experiment! I wrote about the experience for the Ethnomusicology Review Sounding Board, which also includes a live recording of one of the songs we recorded. Click here to check it out!

Here’s the original post I wrote to announce the event:

So this is really happening! I’ll be performing this Tuesday, 26 January at a house concert with four Chilean musicians. My set will focus on the music of Ornette Coleman and also include a pair of my own Ornette-inspired compositions.

You can read below the fold for more about why we’re putting this event together. But before you do, please consider attending the event! Whether or not you’re in Chile, you can be there in spirit–here’s how:

First, buy a ticket at the low-fi.world website. At the concert, we will acknowledge your presence and support during the show. Afterwards, you’ll receive a high-quality recording, including your glorious shout-out, as a token of gratitude. Easy!

Buy your ticket here.

If you can afford to contribute more, please consider purchasing multiple tickets. This also allows us to make sure that those who do attend in person can contribute to the degree that they are financially able. This will also assure that the artists are all paid a fair wage for their work in bringing this music into being. Thank you for supporting this work and I hope you can be there with us!

OK, so a little bit more of the story behind this … Continue reading

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Interview: Rudresh Mahanthappa at Providencia Jazz Festival

 

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Left to right: Matt Mitchell, Francois Moutin, Rudy Royston, Rudresh Mahanthappa, and Adam O’Farrill. Photo by Gabriel Valenzuela, Papeles de Jazz.

Fresh off another round of critical praise for his 2015 album Bird Calls, Rudresh Mahanthappa and his quintet brought their assertive virtuosity to the Providencia Jazz Festival in Santiago, Chile last night. The large outdoor festival was free this year for the first time in over a decade, and the venue sold out days in advance. I managed to catch up with the alto saxophonist in the morning before his performance yesterday. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation:  Continue reading

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Interview: Branford Marsalis at San Bernardo Jazz Fest

Branford Marsalis and his quartet headlined the San Bernardo Jazz Fest in November 2014

Branford Marsalis and his quartet headlined the San Bernardo Jazz Fest in November 2015

Branford Marsalis is not known to mince words. So when the upstart Chilean jazz magazine Papeles de Jazz invited me to interview him, I know that he wouldn’t hesitate to share his first impressions of Chile in the midst of his first trip here. I managed to catch up with Marsalis after the gig, interviewing him in the band’s van on the way back to their hotel. The night before the concert, the quartet sat in with the Nicolas Vera Quartet at Thelonious—an event that I was very disappointed to have missed.

This is the original, lightly edited English transcript—the Spanish version will be published in the next edition of Papeles de Jazz later this year. (Para los que leen en castellano: esta entrevista se publicará en Papeles de Jazz en la proxima edición este año.) Continue reading

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A Jazz Band in Chile In 1917 @ Ethnomusicology Review

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The Word Jazz In The Jazz World

By Alex W. Rodriguez for the Ethnomusicology Review Sounding Board

I wrote about some preliminary research that I did for my Chilean fieldwork, which brought up a reference to a “jazz band” there in 1917! This piece gets at some of the challenges of what it means to talk about “jazz” from that period, when we don’t even know what the music actually sounded like.

Para mis lectores hispanohablantes, he incluido una traducción abajo. Muchísimas gracias a Fernando Ortiz de Urbina por su ayuda con la traducción:

Continue reading

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Listening Back To My Last Year In LA

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Schoenberg Hall, my home base at UCLA for four years

Yesterday, I returned to Peñaflor after a brief return trip to Southern California, in which I spent a week with Marina selling our car and finalizing various other aspects of our life together in Los Angeles. I’m happy to report that we have arrived safely—and it is a thrill to have her along for the rest of my time in Chile.

The week-long trip also offered me a chance to reflect on leaving Los Angeles, and although I am incredibly grateful to be moving on to Santiago, it’s always a little sad to say goodbye. What became especially evident during the week—and this is somewhat of a cliché but I’ll say it anyway—is that what I will miss most is being around the tremendously musical, thoughtful, and motivated friends that I made during the past four years. Y’all know who you are: the work you’re doing is an inspiration and I can’t wait to read more about it soon. Curious readers can familiarize themselves to the work of Albert AghaGanavya DoraiswamyDeonte Harris, AJ KluthScott Linford, Alyssa MathiasEric J. Schmidt, Darci Sprengel, and Dave Wilson—just a few of the UCLA scholars I am proud to call friends—at the links above. Catching up with so many of them in such a condensed period of time deepened my appreciation for how much they have taught me.

The other thing that became clear is that a lot happened in the last year and a half of my time in LA, and since I haven’t been documenting it at my blog, I thought it might be a useful exercise to summarize it here, as I have done in previous posts after long episodes away from the blog. Continue reading

Posted in Education, Ethnomusicology, Jazz Journalism, Links | 2 Comments

Remembering My 21st Birthday in Buenos Aires

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The Andes Mountains are massive.

Thank you to everyone who has reached out to send birthday greetings—it has been a pleasure to receive them throughout the day.

Scrolling through all of your lovely messages on Facebook and email reminded me of the first day that I remember experiencing the joy of the e-birthday-greeting, when I celebrated my 21st birthday in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I had just started using Facebook that year, and distinctly remember sitting in an internet cafe, slightly hung over, basking in the well wishes from friends and family back home in the States.  Continue reading

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Lubricity Is Back … In Santiago, Chile

My new home: Thelonious, Lugar de Jazz

My new home: Thelonious, Lugar de Jazz

Well, folks: I made it to Santiago. As longtime readers of this blog know, Chile’s jazz scene has already taught me so much about what it means to make music in the world today—and that jazz is thriving all over the world. Last month, I began what will be eight months of ethnographic fieldwork here, inspired by Chile’s jazz lovers to learn more about why people still make jazz happen today, and how that helps us lead meaningful lives. Continue reading

Posted in Chile, Ethnomusicology, Links | 11 Comments