Beyond Control

Dian Parker

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Through compelling and decades-spanning vignettes coupled with a fascinating veneration of art, Dian Parker writes about the complications of entangling family with purpose.

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Yolk began as an electric conversation around a picnic table in Saint Henri Square.

Our scruffy pioneer and present prose editor had previously approached each of us with an idea, a vision: We would establish our own literary magazine in Montreal. And so it was, or so it would be. After that original encounter, eight individuals devoted to the word resolved that they would gather bi-weekly, on Sundays, and bring something new into this busy, manic world—something that might slow its spin down somewhat and cause its patronage to say: “You know what, it ain’t so bad, is it, Susan?”

We are undergraduate, graduate, and graduated students of writing. Some of us learn our craft formally from accomplished authors in seminar courses, and some of us learn by looking out the window of the world and onto the streets that sing below. Some of us learn from screaming squirrels, old curtains, departed grandfathers, and bowel movements. We learn from old lovers, long winters, imperfect mothers, and from the deep internet where a musical genius remains entombed.

Yolk is cold floors on Sabbath mornings, home-brewed ginger beer in the endless afternoon, and downpours of French-pressed coffee in assorted artisanal mugs. Our first official gathering was scheduled for a duration of two hours; most of us remained for six, departing only to attend to the summons of our own beckoning realities. Together, with time suspended, we talked endlessly of contributing something to disrupt Montreal’s literary ecosystem. Something unparalleled, something true.

But what? There was nothing to discuss. There was everything to discuss.

We volunteer our time, hounding some elusive beast composed of combustible words and works. We are hopeful, truly hopeful, that we can give something new, a new way, a new light, and that if we cannot, we might at least uphold the traditions of our predecessors, cast star-wide nets to capture their echoes. We are a thousand decisions. We are a sanctuary for the orphaned word, the solitary writer, the cereal-eating artist who yearns for company, for the comfort of a like mind; we sit together with them at foggy dawn, it rains a baptism, with our arms and hands intertwined, we form an umbrella—underneath, they scribble madly, the perfect picture.

Yolk in no way presumes to be superior to its contemporaries, but its contemporaries should not presume yolk to be anything other than loud—quite, quite loud. We are yippidy jazzed to address the oh-so-technicolorful magnificence of the human experience, but we are prepared also to address the ugliness, to stare at its wet, hairy snout and into its square depth and to roar in return at the things that yearn to devour our skin, beset our ethos, and dig graves in our own backyards.

There’s so much to say, there’s so much we don’t know, but together, with you, we can placate that ignorance, render it peaceful, tolerable, and perhaps even, fucking beautiful.

And Susan says, “Amen.”

“Jazz has always been like the kind of a man you wouldn't want your daughter to associate with."  Duke Ellington

On weekday evenings my father would swing open the front door as if he owned the place, which he did. Loosening his silk tie, forgetting the perfectly-creased and brushed fedora, he’d call out to anyone or no one, “Who wants to hear a twenty-minute drum solo?” After kissing my mother on her red lipstick lips, he’d be in the den, riffing, licking his seven-piece, pearl-white drum set with a buzz or double stroke roll. He played loud and fast, slow and easy, rolling the snare, tickling the cymbals, thumping the bass, accompanied by Duke Ellington on the hi-fi. He was letting off steam after eight hours at his office job. Drums were his flamming, riffing forte, his most articulate voice in fortissimo
          He was also accomplished at the xylophone, sax, trumpet, and piano. Two of my brothers played the drums, my third brother and I the piano. Some nights after dinner the five of us would jam, my mother the sole audience, applauding enthusiastically after every set. She’d played the bass viol in high school but I never heard her play. She was also tone deaf and sang off-key, which my dad found hilarious. I sang sometimes with my dad, which he often prodded me to do; his broad deep bass overpowering my breathy soprano or underscoring my belted-out alto. In my thirties, I studied violin to lighten and refine my sensibilities and ear, sidling around with Massenet and Schubert, seeking to balance the unpredictability of jazz with a more measured lyricism. I was never good at the violin but I loved the high notes and delicate handling of bow to strings. Violin and jazz are not a good combo. This became evident when my dad goaded me to improvise with him, only once. But with my singing and his piano, we were in deep play together for hours.
          Improvisation is the elongation and exploration of the moment, demanding trust and the ability to let go. I grew up in the bardo between improvisation and strict rules, maneuvering between repression and play. Between silence and jazz. Swearing and laughing. The irascible wobble of my dad’s psyche made him both a gifted musician and a tyrant, accelerating swiftly between the two. We were all afraid of him and to this day one of my brothers still refuses to talk about him. The oldest son became Dad’s best friend in his last years, even though that brother was the one my dad whipped the most with a belt. The youngest son is schizophrenic, diagnosed at 20, and at 65 is still medicated. Barely has a life. It was only after I was in my forties that I acknowledged my father was sick. I couldn’t accept this when I lived at home. One in the family was too much to bear. 

Dad never told us the bad stuff from his childhood, like when he was locked in a coal bin for disobeying. Or his parent’s violent fights. It was only when he was 50, at his mother’s funeral, that he told his sister he thought he was responsible for his father’s death by accidentally locking the garage door. His sister said, “Don’t be ridiculous, John. Dad committed suicide.” He never knew. We were never allowed to lock any doors in the house.
          My father was kicked out of third grade when the principal, during an assembly, was walking down the aisle to speak at the podium and my dad, in the band behind the kettle drums, broke into a sustained drum roll. Later his mother sent him away at 15 for being wild and untamable (skipping school, having an older girlfriend, making up stories). I improvised my way through high school, rarely attending classes, writing fake sick notes from my parents, inventing stories when the principal called me into his office. Dad yelled at me for my bad grades, which made me want to study even less. I managed to graduate with my class but I was anxious the whole time I’d have to repeat a year. This would have suffocated me. Our school was overcrowded, the teachers overwhelmed, and tests seemed pointless when I was set on a theatre career in New York City.
          Starting in second grade, Dad began taking lessons from a black drummer in Denver, and at the age of eight he studied the saxophone and soon thereafter the xylophone.  At 13, he sat in on the drums in the black section of town, playing with Jimmy Lunceford and Lucky Millander. He was the only white person in the building. He never learned to read music but he could play anything by ear. His chord changes were complex; his compositions beautiful. As an adult, Dad played drums with Ellington’s 17-piece band at the Riverboat Room in the Empire State Building; again the only white man. The Duke sent my dad a Christmas card every year. Ellington and Count Basie couldn’t read music either, common in those jazz days. 
          My father could play the piano for hours, tackling intricate chords with two hands, or jamming with two index fingers at lightning speed. He was also lightning on the drums, twirling sticks in the air and never skipping a beat á la Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, his idols. I never saw my dad sweat when he made music––he was one cool cat, thrumming and smooth.
          The drummer, Tony Williams, who played in a quintet with Miles Davis, said, “People ask what I think about when I’m playing drums. If I could tell you what I was thinking about, I wouldn’t have to play the drums.” 
          Sometimes after dinner, if we were lucky, my family would drop into that deep play for one timeless hour. Our brains would buzz with the joy of making music as a unit; one mind of five unique voices complementing, urging, allowing, caressing, cajoling, insisting, stepping aside. The next morning, Dad would put on his suit, white shirt, tie and hat, pick up his briefcase and go be the Personnel Director for a gas and electric company. If he’d only stayed with his music, everyone, including him, would have been far happier, buoyant and untethered. 
          Dad made magic and joy when he played and composed music. He played off the cuff because he had in-depth knowledge of the craft and long experience from playing with and listening to some of the deftest improvisers. When he played, his imagination changed his iron will to control into his servant, ready for anything. Hardness softened and he became gorgeous. 

When my Dad’s will was king, he became heavy and punishing with a mind-blasted need to control. When I was caught sneaking out of the house at night to see my boyfriend, he grounded me for a month. If I was on the phone for too long, he got on the other end and yelled to get off. He yelled at us for sleeping late, for not taking the garbage out when he said to, for making too much noise on weekends when he was taking a nap. Once, a neighbor kid fell down a cliff and my brother stayed with him while I ran to get help. My dad was taking a nap so, afraid to wake him, I ran to the neighbor’s and they called an ambulance. My dad yelled at me later for not waking him up. 
          After the violence there was always love. 
          To be spontaneous takes focus, and a delicate sleight of hand. To always be ready and aware, alert to the moment, yet seem nonchalant, without effort, riding the momentum of the group, the vibrations of the moment into the ride of a lifetime. Improvisation can’t be taught but you can learn to become aware of the texture in the air shifting, the ground beneath your feet quaking, the goosebumps on your skin signaling you’re in the groove. Life is good, the best, and there’s no stopping you now. Major can turn minor in a flick of a breath and you best be awake even though the crowd thinks you’re stoned or on the verge of madness. Like my dad jamming to Ellington’s “Rockin’ in Rhythm” or to Basie’s “Moten Swing.” Inhibition diminishes, even disappears, and he’s riding high. Unfortunately, you can’t make music 24 hours a day. 
          Because I went into the arts, I had an easier and also a harder time getting along with my father. As soon as I graduated from high school, I moved to New York City to begin my theatre career. Dad insisted I was star material, but I didn’t want to be a star, I wanted to be an artist. To me the distinction was great and mighty; a star is a commercial success, while an artist is well-trained and often unrecognized because of her originality. When my boyfriend starred on Broadway, my dad could talk of nothing else. When I told my dad the boyfriend and I were breaking up, he cried. He’d lost the star in the family. My dad wanted to be a star, along with Ellington and Gene Krupa, playing in smoke-filled clubs into the early hours. 

About John Coltrane, the extraordinary saxophone player, jazz critic Whitney Balliett wrote: “…in the singular manner of all great jazz improvisers, more human than musical, his tone deepens and yields, and he uses long, heavy phrases pulled along by a questing vibrato. His rhythmic placements are surprising, and so are his notes; it is magniloquent improvising.”
          This could have been describing my father’s playing; he had an impeccable sense of time, and a rhapsodic touch with the brushes, like soft and slow whispers.
          Emptying out, with no agenda or design, is an essential ingredient in improvisation. Whether you are alone, with another person, or with an ensemble, you have to be in deep and let go and go deeper until there is nothing but the popping chords, the bass viol strum, the violin’s tremble, the piano’s heart, the audience’s frequency. The racing action of a dancer running onto a partner’s back and he is ready to take your weight because you’ve both reached a heightened state of awareness. You’ve relinquished the need to control. You have chosen to surrender, yielding to the other dancer. This other, in improv, could also live outside the known, hovering in the ethers, always waiting to be joined. 
          At drama school in London, I studied improvisation with Keith Johnstone, one of the pioneers of theatre improvisation, which always seemed to me an oxymoron. How can you be trained to improvise? You can’t, but you do need a strong foundation, extensive experience, and extreme focus to really let go and fly. If you haven’t fine-tuned your instrument, whether it be a piano, voice, or your body; if you don’t know how to deeply use that instrument through years of experience; if you aren’t willing to step aside and be egoless and on equal footing with all the other musicians, actors, or dancers, then there will be no chemistry, no exultation, no hope for those rare moments of flight in a performance, or even in your living room. 
          If only my father had been able to stay true to the course of the first thirty years of his life. All the lessons, the combo, composing, his 14-piece band that filled his soul, instead of a family needing food, needing clothes, needing attention, needing discipline. Music offered comradery, equality. Come play with me. Music offered wide vistas. Let yourself feel the rhythm. Get inside that chord; it will give you the next. The musician father smiled and gave me a look that said Let’s go. Let go. Don’t worry. We’re together on this. But the disciplinarian, head of the household, gave absolutes. These are not the mores of this family, after I spent the night with my boyfriend. I’m going to whip you till you bleed, after my brother and I were running around the house, playing, laughing, making too much noise. My father arched from on high. You are to obey me.
          I hated the tyrant and loved the musician. 
          When he animated the wooden bars of the xylophone with the four cushioned mallets, his gaze melted and became soft and sweet. When he sat at our black, ivory-keyed grand that my mom kept polished and tuned, and sang “Toot toot Toosie goodbye, Toot toot Tootsie don’t cry,” splaying his long fingers over the chords, C, C sharp diminished, D minor 7, G7, swelling the ends of phrases or syncopating the chorus, galloping the words through his perfect white teeth that had no cavities, rounding the curve to the high verse, “Watch for the mail. I’ll never fail. If you don’t get a letter then you know I’m in jail,” he was not my dad any longer, he was a prized possession and I was his sole possessor. Only I knew his soul of souls, his heart of hearts – the artist. I was his kin, more than anyone else in the family, the closest ally to his innermost self, the musician. 

When I was five, I dressed up in Dad’s long overcoat, fedora, huge leather shoes and tap danced on the wooden floor. He laughed so hard, tears rolled down his face. I won him over the same way he won affection, by performing, so I went into theatre. 
          What did I love about my father? That when I was a kid, he was three times taller than me. That his brown leather shoes were always clean, polished, and reflected the sunlight. His booming laughter that I heard over everyone else’s in the audience when I was on stage. His cursive handwriting that curved and looped, like the signatures on the Declaration of Independence. His savvy in knowing how to get anywhere I needed to go in New York City – what subway, bus, or train, in or out of the city. The time he took me to Radio City Music Hall and bought me a Spanish flamenco doll and while he drove home in the dark, I layed on the back seat with my new gift, staring at the flashing lights streaming by. I loved how he walked the streets with confidence and ease, taking me to my first fancy French restaurant on 8th Avenue and 45th. Teaching me how to eat escargot with a tiny silver fork. He only had one drink at dinner, never more, Scotch on the rocks. But he smoked a pack a day and kept his Larks in the top drawer of his desk where I took my first cigarette that was not my last.
          I loved his tall, lean body and thick black hair and long fingers that teased the grand piano into sounds that remain a mystery to me. He once took me by the hand and walked me down the sidewalk to show me the thick yellow sky of an oncoming cyclone; then ran back inside with me when the wind picked up, holding me close in the cellar. I remember the time I was bitten on the lip by a spider and how he spent an hour going through every corner of my bedroom unsuccessfully trying to find the spider, then sat with me on the sofa until I fell asleep. I loved standing on his shoes while we danced, he looking down, me looking so far up. He loved me; I have no doubt. I was the mirror to his soul. His “Doll Babe.” His “Star.” 
          When he turned 68, he had to sell his beloved drum set, no longer able use his legs due to a neurological disease that made it difficult to keep that lightning beat, with the steady pulse of the Hi-hat and bass drum pedal. I abandoned my theatre career soon after, at the height of my success, to pursue a spiritual path by meditating six hours a day, turning my back on the world. I realized then that my dad was not a musician that I adored or the father I hated. He was a man. One individual that not only did his best, but did so spectacularly. Every burning curse and note of it.
          When I was 16, we took the train into New York because he had something to show me. A secret, he said. We ride in a cab uptown, to West 52nd street. My dad knocks on a black, nondescript door. A slat near the top of the door opens and wary eyes blink. The eyes recognize my dad and the heavy door unlocks. My dad gently ushers me in first. “This here’s my daughter, Joe.” Joe caresses my cheek, pumps Dad’s hand, then leads us to a front table, the air fogged thick with smoke, the trumpet and sax wailing on the platform close enough to see the sweat on the pianist’s face. My dad orders a Shirley Temple for me and a Scotch on the rocks, which he never touches because he’s sitting in with the guys now, stroking the snare with the brushes, soft and slow, lights shimmering through the smoke, riffing inside Ellington’s “Solitude.” 
          Dad never takes his eyes off of me. Playing only for me.
          Playing only for himself. Beyond control.
          “Remember,” he would say, “where you sit is where you end up standing.” I never knew what he meant by that but it always made me laugh.

Photo courtesy of Dian Parker

Dian Parker’s nonfiction and fiction has been published in numerous literary journals, magazines, newspapers, and nominated for a number of Pushcart Prizes and Best of the Net. She also writes about art and artists, including color essays, for arts publications. She trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, and currently lives in the hills of Vermont.

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