“American Masters” is a documentary series on public television that examines the life and work of noted artists. Among other programming for Black History Month, last month the Syracuse public television station reaching Ithaca, WCNY, re-broadcast a segment of the series on the musician and composer Miles Davis.
The segment originally appeared during Black History Month of 2020. That’s a short time ago in one sense but a long while ago in another: It was the last month before the coronavirus outbreak was officially recognized as a pandemic.
Miles Davis’ enduring fame and influence belie the fact that he died a long time ago, in 1991, at age 65. Times have changed a lot since then, and maybe time itself has changed in the two years of the pandemic, or at least our experience of time.
Davis had two particularly noteworthy quotes about time. Once, when asked about his importance (rather coldly, by another guest at a government reception), he replied coolly, “I changed music five or six times.” Meaning not just for himself, but for music history.
The other came when he was dying. He said to a friend that sometimes “God punishes you not by not giving you things, but by giving you everything you want, then there’s no time left.” The time it takes to chase down those things might be all the time you have.
Of course, Davis did much with his time that transcends it, and the first quote shows he knew it. The second quote voices the void we all fear of time’s end.
The pandemic, along with killing millions worldwide and bringing untellable suffering, has changed life and time on an everyday level.
The world outside is restricted. Business is no longer 9 to 5, Monday through Friday. Work and school are at home, partly or wholly.
Good health is something you no longer presume, but promote and protect. Leisure and relaxation are where you find them. Stability comes not from routine but from resolve.
The resolve that goes the furthest, to induce creativity and its authority, is something Davis understood. So did Ithaca’s own (for a while) Kurt Vonnegut.
Vonnegut died at age 84 in 2007. In a career of over half a century he wrote dozens of novels, short stories, plays and non-fiction works.
Vonnegut came to Cornell in 1940 to study engineering. He said what he learned was that he had no aptitude for it. He wrote for the school newspaper and became an editor before withdrawing from the school for academic failure. He enlisted in the army rather than being drafted on the verge of war.
Vonnegut was a prisoner of war in Dresden, Germany when Allied forces leveled the city in a firebombing that killed 25,000 civilians. He survived by taking refuge in an underground meat locker in a slaughterhouse. That experience was the basis of “Slaughterhouse-Five,” his sixth novel, published in 1969. It was an anti-war, counter-cultural breakthrough then, considered a classic now.
Vonnegut was a political and social critic whose work entertained with dark humor. Along with his outspoken ardor he had a plain-spoken kindness. If he was fatalistic about humanity and its capacity for destruction he also believed in each person’s capacity to create, and the importance of that.
In his final book, “A Man Without a Country,” a collection of essays published two years before his death, Vonnegut wrote:
“Go into the arts. I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”
Davis warned against hunting things that would make you the ultimate game, and capture your most valuable gift, your time. Vonnegut spoke of filling time with small gifts to develop the soul and grasp the world.
Creation is the basis for all this. It takes some tolerance for solitude, even deprivation, but we deal with these things every day now more than ever anyway, with no quick end in sight. It’s the difference between things done to us and things we do something with. The challenge is pretty clear, and so is our best response.
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