Once upon a time, I fell in love with a jazz pianist who didn’t love me back.
As is often the case in stories like this, my love manifested itself for years in measurable silence: the lump in my throat, the awkward laughs, the carefully curated collection of private jokes and peculiar kindnesses that accumulate over the span of a friendship. (He’d sneeze, say “excuse me”; I’d scowl and say “there’s no excuse for you”; we’d both smile at the familiar stupidity of the exchange.)
But more than anything, my love existed as hope – a hope that one piece, one fragment, one note in one measure he wrote would someday belong to me.
When he wanted to – when he felt bold and brave enough – he could write the kind of music that changed the temperature of a room. The kind of music that rearranged the molecules of the air in front of your eyes.
I loved him so much.
But again, as these stories go, the silence eventually fell apart, along with so much else I’d fought to preserve. An inability to communicate morphed into an inadvertent ability to wound, and suddenly, we couldn’t be in the same room without every part of me wanting to shrivel up and die.
I didn’t want to hear another note of his fucking music ever again.
(I got angry.)
I have a curious habit I resort to whenever someone breaks my heart: I take a look at that person, and instantly, I strip from them in my memory the tangible things that I associated with them in an effort to reclaim those things as my own.
Like the tattooed blue-eyed Irish boy years ago who lit up at the sight of me, the one who secretly confided in me with his soldier’s brogue his love of poetry but publicly dismissed me because he didn’t want his friends to get the wrong idea and think that he fancied fat girls, for him, the spineless bastard, it was tea. Strong breakfast tea, drunk black; warmth and clarity, his eyes vs. his words.
In my anger at the pianist, I thought, “I don’t need him. In fact, I’ll replace him with twenty guys who are better than he is.”
So I did. Jazz was a thing that I only had a light, peripheral awareness of, so I decided that I was going to change that. Any time I’d get angry, or sad, or both (devastation starts as a mix of the two), I’d start a customized radio station on Spotify. I’d start with a track I knew, let the algorithm do its magic, and then start branching out. I’d get lost in it, which was fine by me. I had a hole to fill. I was looking for miracle makers.
Sure enough, I found them. Oh, did I ever find them. The watercolor melancholia of Bill Evans, how each note of “Peace Piece” seemed to be soaked in a different shade of blue. The calculated hesitations of Thelonious Monk, like a stonemason laying the foundations of heartbreak brick by thoughtful brick. Dizzy Gillespie’s wry sense of humor, the detached little-boy-lost croon of Chet Baker. The breathtaking trust in the acrobatic give and take between Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond. Vince Guaraldi’s “Moon River”! To say nothing of Brad Mehldau and Blossom Dearie and Horace Silver, Miles Davis and John Coltrane! “A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing”, Billy Strayhorn taught me, and I wanted to imprint it on my skin. I felt as if I’d learned a new language: the language of cosmopolitan heartache and nocturnal contemplation. Where words failed me, minor sixth chords would now do the rest.
Of course, as I researched the lives of the miracle makers, I found a shared thread of sadness. Crippling addictions. Abused wives and girlfriends. Impoverished childhoods and overdoses and stress-induced heart attacks. I couldn’t love these guys (or ladies) any more safely in the abstract than I did the pianist in reality.
Which meant that I couldn’t run from my heart any longer.
I told the pianist exactly how I’d felt.
What I got back was months of silence, which hurt, but in a different way. I was no longer burdened by the unspoken. Now, I had a way to confront and articulate how I felt. A funny thing happens when you can pin your pain to notes and words in a song – it changes form. Suddenly, you can look at it. You can say, “That is a thing that I felt”, and then? You can heal. You can move on. That is the wonder of music: it captures the ineffable things that we feel, and crystallizes them outside of us so that we can experience them on our own terms.
Months and months went by and then, finally, I heard from the pianist again. He wanted to talk, to apologize for his silence. Against my better judgment, I agreed to listen.
Halfway into our conversation, I looked him and said, “You know, in a weird way, I have to thank you.” I explained how in a moment of hurt and spite I turned to jazz to “replace” him, and how it became something so much bigger and richer than I’d anticipated.
“So, um, thank you, I guess,” I said, teary-eyed and sheepish as I smiled and shook my head.
The pianist smiled sadly. “No,” he said, shaking his head too. “Jazz thanks you.”
Darling boy, I thought, jazz speaks for itself.