Resits: “J” is for Hank Jones

How well do you know yourself? Could you identify your arms and legs if they were in a photograph? If you feel certain of something, do you know it, as the saying goes, “like the back of your hand”? Look again. Whose hand is it?

It was the nineties, I’d just done my first dose of magic mushrooms, and the answers to all of these questions were by no means straightforward.

Running across Tooting Bec Common, I’d looked down to see the grass not coming towards me, but moving from left to right. Trees were people, upended, half submerged in the seemingly watery wasteland of the earth. My friends were all changing places with each other, periodically morphing into dogs and gateposts as part of some strange black and white animated film. This was reality for a few hours, and it was a hoot.

But I was curious to see what would happened if I tried to play the piano. Music had given me a more convincing identity in life than that built from my interactions with the world and the people in it. High as a kite in a hurricane, I was curious to see if that inner reality would collapse in the way that the outer one had.

I’m sure you can guess what happened next. I started to play and, feeling increasingly disconnected from my body, I looked down to discover that I had….women’s hands….and yes, women’s and men’s hands are not always that different, but these were small, too small for my arms at least, and had bright red nails protruding from their smooth, airbrushed fingers. The music I was hearing seemed somehow urbane, effortlessly sophisticated, a kind of carefree unity of mood and direction. In other words, everything my music wasn’t. I wasn’t trying.

I realised, with what seems now like inexplicable calm, that I had been invaded by the ghost of Hank Jones, who was at the time very much alive.

In these polarisingly algorithmic times we live in, it’s easy to assume that if you love someone then they must think like you, be like you somehow. Hank Jones is a truly otherworldly kind of genius. He has a natural gift for song-like phrases. He seems like someone from whom great melodies emerge, one on top of the other, as long as he doesn’t get in the way of himself. He’s the beach ball that floats unharmed on the white water rapids, getting everywhere fast with the minimum of effort. This is exactly how it is recommended people should improvise, to allow the music to unfold.

It’s hasn’t really been my experience of doing it: for me it’s a struggle, always, and that’s the music, that quality is embedded into the very nuts and bolts of it. I identified with the hacking determination of Monk and Ellington more than the quicksilver runs of Wynton Kelly. It goes without saying that Hank Jones is an undisputed legend, and his recording of spirituals and hymns with Charlie Haden is one of my favourite recordings. Part of the pleasure of listening to that music for me is the realisation that he is doing it differently to me, that there’s an ecosystem of music out there, not a solitary standard of excellence that we are all chasing in vain.

We live in times of easy platitudes copied and pasted over scenes from nature. “Be Yourself”, that fatuous update of the Bible’s “know thyself”, is the one thing everyone seems to agree on. Everyone except me that is.

My one and only trip on magic mushrooms ended with me watching myself do something that only I knew was impossible. It was impossible because it was not me. It’s not the cataclysmic epiphany that some have experienced through hallucination. I didn’t fly or see God, I laughed for a long time, threw up the leftovers of the mushroom soup, and resumed, after a short period of recuperation, normal life.

But I was, and am, changed forever. I never, ever say to anyone “Be yourself!” There may be more than one of those in each of us. Perhaps “be whoever you are right now” might be a better piece of advice, but you can’t write that under a photograph of a sunset.

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