"Black Is The Color" Claudine Jones Scene4 Magazine SPECIAL ISSUE "Arts&Politics" January 2014

Claudine Jones


January 2014

The semester has ended; I'm playing Sudoku on the couch, in uncharacteristic freezing weather; no desire to go for a walk or do anything but stay warm, & fighting off the sadness of no more singing for a while.

I had had some grand thought of making a stab at interviewing my choir director at the party today, but instead we brought out kazoos & got crazy running our 20 some-odd minute program a couple of times along with videos of the two performances. Horrible lighting, but sounded surprisingly good. Luckily—or unluckily for our chances at YouTube fame—nobody was filming when a segment of the band-shell fell down on our bass section.  One of the guys said 'Ow!' & rubbed his head, however there was no blood & we proceeded with the performance.  The opening number featured some sneaky castanet-clacking on my part, since I hid my hands & only came in on the second & third verses, adding to the surprise element if you will. Problem was, at the dress rehearsal my hands were so cold (see above weather advisory) I experienced some slippage; the cords were loose & the wood slick. This was not the level of control I would have preferred. I re-did the knots to correct the problem for the shows—couldn't be sure that slightly warmer conditions & a different venue would not cause the reverse-tightening effect to take place, cutting off the circulation in my thumbs, but in the videos, you can see all went as it should. I only regret that Carmen was not invited. Decorum, you see.

When the course started, I passed the requisite mini-audition for those with whom the director was not familiar, & then reminded him that we had done a couple of opera together & performed the Missa Solemnis at Carnegie Hall as Cantata Singers some 20 odd years ago—it was worth it to see the recognition dawn. My urge to join my colleague was born of our history as Conservatory grads back in the '90's; I definitely liked his present choice of repertoire & he always did have the crazy smarts. Plus, it seemed like a fun idea to pick his brains about Life as a Musician after Institutional Liberation.

Intrigued by the prospect of being back on the same campus, in the same choir room that I ventured into in 1982: freshly widowed, nothing to do with myself while the kids were in school, I explored the whole range: ballet, piano, voice, percussion, music theory & history. That took about two years & it cemented a purpose for me: if my tendons couldn't seriously dance anymore, I'd go for singing. I wanted to be a competent singer—one who would get hired based on the difference between that & ignorance, all things being equal. I got a lot of encouragement from one teacher in particular; a warm, jazzy guy who lit up a room. I still know some people from that choir & from the gigs we did that came after.

Here in the 21st century, in this room, with a voice degree in my back pocket, I got right down to business, claimed the right to strut my stuff.  Mind you, it was not my intention to storm the palace. No. I just learned my music straight up, off-book. Friendly, but no fooling around. Week after week I gazed around the classroom full of strangers who were coming into focus.

Saw the ones who wouldn't know to hold the music right side up if it weren't for the lyrics; the ones who panicked at the tricky rhythms or grimaced & called out for help. The ones who forgot to bring their music—okay, borrow this, but please don't forget to put it back—or hummed the starting pitch, not trusting their ears. The ones who came late, with glazed eyes, not really present & certainly not contributing much. Scared, maybe, or on meds.  The ones—male & female—who knew all this was going on & who were quietly doing their work at other sections of the room; the singers who politely asked for corrections of small errors when they couldn't stand it anymore.

The alto/go-fer who seemed glad to do double/triple duty, but was visibly unable to leave her concerns behind, spending so much energy worrying the room for something that might need doing one wondered what percentage of the time she actually sang.

The young woman—unsure of which section she preferred—barking out cheery messages to us all at random moments, finally getting her 'cheery' on to such an extent that during a crucial rehearsal, she invited a baritone friend in to have fun sitting next to her. When she opted to teach him her part—on the fly, as it were—of course it created a ruckus. Go-fer, sitting next to them, was not seeing the 'fun'.  Hushed words were exchanged, finally causing Go-fer to flee the room in anguish. Apparently this late-stage act in the drama was also an exit point: after this rehearsal, the damsel never returned. For a while, things were strangely subdued.

What I wanted to ask my colleague was how, after 10 years at this, was he not completely out of his mind with frustration & anger? I saw his method: soft voice, horrible jokes & puns, brilliant improvisational riffs on the piano, crushing pace running the various pieces—Basses! Page 4, bar 72…And, three! Four! Keep it moving!—all the while playing our parts, singing along with whomever he felt needed it, conducting a bit, glancing swiftly up at the clock, delivering another appalling (yet amazing) musical reference from the Beatles to Wagner—a regular Chico Marx at the keyboard. A couple of times it struck me that to survive, he needed a very firm mask; a well-defined shield behind which he could be thinking about painting his living room. Sure, he smiled & thanked us & did a Namaste. At the end of the day, we brought it all together; we made an ensemble, but at what cost in the loss of efficiency & support?

I think he actually gave me my answer a couple of months ago in the hallway before class; admitting that his pipes ended up not of the caliber needed for a career, he had stumbled into a part-time steady job that morphed into the present day. With the help of the division dean, he shepherded the department through potentially mortal budget crises. He began to love what he was doing. At the ten-year mark, he has crossed a line: he has bested the policymakers despite the death-knells, created an entity with a new name & freshly-minted non-profit status. The hi-jinks may fade, to be supplanted by a focused vigor & loyalty beyond the obligatory.

Only question is: will the politics finally kill him.

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Scene4 Magazine: Claudine Jones | www.scene4.comLike an orthopedic soprano, Actor/Singer/Dancer Claudine
Jones has worked steadily in Bay Area joints for a number of
decades. With her co-conspirator Jaz Bonhooley, she also has
developed unique sound designs for local venues. She's also a
Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4.
For more of her commentary and articles,
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January 2014

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