Miles Davis, So What, and being in accord no matter the chord

This story that opens jazz great Herbie Hancock’s memoir, Possibilities, is profound:

I’m onstage at a concert hall in Stockholm, Sweden, in the mid-1960s playing piano with the Miles Davis Quintet. We’re on tour, and this show is really heating up. The band is tight—we’re all in sync, all on the same wavelength. The music is flowing, we’re connecting with the audience, and everything feels magical, like we’re weaving a spell.

Tony Williams, the drumming prodigy who joined Miles as a teenager, is on fire. Ron Carter’s fingers are flying up and down the neck of his bass, and Wayne Shorter’s saxophone is just screaming. The five of us have become one entity, shifting and flowing with the music. We’re playing one of Miles’s classics, “So What,” and as we hurtle toward Miles’s solo, it’s the peak of the evening; the whole audience is on the edge of their seats.

Miles starts playing, building up to his solo, and just as he’s about to really let loose, he takes a breath. And right then I play a chord that is just so wrong. I don’t even know where it came from—it’s the wrong chord, in the wrong place, and now it’s hanging out there like a piece of rotten fruit. I think, “Oh, shit.” It’s as if we’ve all been building this gorgeous house of sound, and I just accidentally put a match to it.

Miles pauses for a fraction of a second, and then he plays some notes that somehow, miraculously, make my chord sound right. In that moment I believe my mouth actually fell open. What kind of alchemy was this? And then Miles just took off from there, unleashing a solo that took the song in a new direction. The crowd went absolutely crazy.

I was in my early twenties and had already been with Miles for a couple of years by this time. But he always was capable of surprising me, and that night, when he somehow turned my chord from a wrong to a right, he definitely did. In the dressing room after the show I asked Miles about it. I felt a little sheepish, but Miles just winked at me, a hint of a smile on his chiseled face. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. Miles wasn’t one to talk a whole lot about things when he could show us something instead.

It took me years to fully understand what happened in that moment onstage. As soon as I played that chord I judged it. In my mind it was the “wrong” chord. But Miles never judged it—he just heard it as a sound that had happened, and he instantly took it on as a challenge, a question of “How can I integrate that chord into everything else we’re dong?” And because he didn’t judge it, he was able to run with it, to turn it into something amazing.

Miles Davis was the greatest jazz musician of his time. (Of all time, many would say.) And he was a famously difficult, contrarian personality. I was cringing with Hancock as I read this story, fearing the reaction from Miles.

But Miles merely heard Hancock’s “wrong” chord “as a sound that had happened” and did something excellent with it. And that the iconic jazz song they were playing is entitled “So What” makes this story perfect.

What has happened has already happened. Just say, “So what?” There’s no going back, and there’s no value in resisting reality or fretting about something you have no control over.

Miles didn’t judge that chord as bad or wrong. He used it, instead, to push him and his band into a new direction and to make something wonderful out of it. The obstacle is the way.

By being in accord with reality, by not resisting what is, you can take on whatever may come and use it as fuel to continue moving forward.

“Our inward power, when it obeys nature, reacts to events by accommodating itself to what it faces—to what is possible. It needs no specific material. It pursues its own aims as circumstances allow; it turns obstacles into fuel.” –Marcus Aurelius

Get a move on

Meditations 9.29:

“Do what nature demands. Get a move on—if you have it in you—and don’t worry whether anyone will give you credit for it. And don’t go expecting Plato’s Republic; be satisfied with even the smallest progress, and treat the outcome of it all as unimportant.”

Do your work. Don’t make a big a deal out of it or fret about whether you’re getting the credit you deserve or making a big enough impact.

Face what’s right in front of you and give it your best. Then move on without regret or second-guessing.

(“And don’t go expecting Plato’s Republic…” Ha!)

Good Government

“Not being able to govern events, I govern myself.” –Michel de Montaigne

Good for Montaigne.

He certainly had the right idea, and I don’t doubt that he had more success than the average person in governing himself and avoiding the futility of worrying over things outside his control.

How simple it is to understand that the vast majority of things that have happened, that are happening, and that will happen are beyond our control.

How challenging it is, though, to genuinely accept our very limited role in the unfolding of events.

Stuff happens. You can see events as happening to you. Or you can see everything—even, or especially, undesirable events—as happening for you, as opportunities for you to choose wisely how to respond and how to govern yourself.

Defying gravity

I get The Daily Stoic daily email. Today’s email quoted this passage from Walker Percy’s book, The Moviegoer:

“I don’t know quite what we’re doing on this insignificant cinder spinning away in a dark corner of the universe. That is a secret which the high gods have not confided in me. Yet one thing I believe and I believe it with every fibre of my being. A man must live by his lights and do what little he can and do it as best he can. In this world goodness is destined to be defeated. But a man must go down fighting. That is victory. To do anything less is to be less than a man.”

I read this and smiled and got up from my desk with a little more courage.

Lately I’ve been feeling a little less sure and a little more lost than normal.

I don’t seem to be getting wiser as I get older. I’m just becoming even more aware of how little I truly know. Or maybe that’s what getting wiser is all about. If so, wisdom is not living up to the hype.

Regardless, I do know that I can live by my “lights”, by my meager understanding of what it means to be good and to do good.

I know how it feels to come alive, even momentarily, and shake off the half-hearted, half-asleep caution that most of us cower behind perpetually.

I can fight. I can attempt to rise, knowing I’ll still go down sooner or later. But in merely making the attempt I will prevail and fleetingly defy the gravity that aims to keep us from escape velocity.

Make the attempt. Shine where you can. Get up and get going and put up a fight. Be the hero of your own life.

Invincible

“Who then is invincible? The one who cannot be upset by anything outside their reasoned choice.” –Epictetus, Discourses 1.18.21

(I came across this while catching up on my reading of The Daily Stoic, which has become a delightfully bracing start to most of my mornings.) 

I had an interpersonal communication class in college where I first encountered this principle. The professor pointed out that most of us regularly say something like “You make me mad!” 

No other person or external event, she said, can make you have a certain emotion. You generate that emotion on your own. 

As Victor Frankl made clear in Man’s Search for Meaning (which is a powerful little book overdue to be reread), there is a gap between stimulus and response. And it’s in that gap that we can choose how to respond. 

It may be a tiny gap and we may be conditioned to forfeit our range of choices in that gap, but we have the power to choose our response. 

This is hard and it puts us on the spot and removes our claims to victimhood. 

It takes practice—catching yourself at the moment of choice repeatedly, seeing the gap and owning the choice.

With concentrated effort and mindfulness, though, the gap between stimulus and response will seem to grow and your range of reasoned choices will offer clarity and a reassuring power over your actions. You will feel invincible.  

Take your stand right here, right now


Meditations 7.45:

“It’s like this, gentlemen of the jury: The spot where a person decides to station himself, or wherever his commanding officer stations him—well, I think that’s where he ought to take his stand and face the enemy, and not worry about being killed, or about anything but doing his duty.”

Marcus Aurelius just happened to be the commander-in-chief of all the armies of Rome. He was the most powerful man on the planet at the time. But even he didn’t always get to choose the terms of battle or have the advantage of the high ground or the luxury of waiting till the weather was nice.

Wherever you may be when the fight begins, make your stand there. Own the circumstances as if you had chosen them. Then give it your all.

The true enemy is the version of yourself that settles for momentary comfort over enduring excellence. Kick his ass.

Your duty is to be the best you can be, to do the most with what you’ve got wherever you may be.

Take your stand right here, right now.

Raw materials

I routinely forget to celebrate the arrival of unwanted circumstances that are beyond my control.

I need to remind myself that external events which I perceive to be happening to me are actually raw materials that I can use in my endeavor to craft a more excellent life. I can utilize events out of my control to work for me—to make me stronger and wiser and to propel me into previously unimagined possibilities.

I keep forgetting, though, and I resist, futilely, things that already are.

What is, is. Make something good with whatever comes your way.