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The Healing Power of Jazz
How a Friday night in Indy’s remodeled Jazz Kitchen helped me bring much needed closure to a lot of emotional darkness.
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by Donovan Wheeler
photos by Rich Voorhees
and Tim McLaughlin
I have only been to The Jazz Kitchen twice. Admitting this is embarrassing. After all, Tad Robinson is a friend of mine, and I live five minutes from his house. I’ve seen him perform here in Greencastle some two or three dozen times in the last decade, but I’ve never followed him to Indy for a Kitchen gig.
In my defense, my interest in both jazz and the blues have been casual. In the case of the latter, I listen to the blues because Tad got me interested in it, as did other friends such as Jon Strahl, Paul Holdman, and Rebekah Meldrum. As for jazz, I developed my taste for that thanks to the recent work of guitarists like Indy’s Charlie Ballantine. Before the pandemic ended my school year, I graded more than one batch of essays listening to the likes of Bill Frisell and my new favorite: Julian Lage. As I said, it’s a casual interest. But had I never gone to the Jazz Kitchen, I doubt I would even have that.
My first visit to that SoBro joint finally happened in the summer of ’18. Inspired by Ballantine’s work on Life is Brief—his Bob Dylan tribute collection—my wife, our close friends, and I snagged four tickets for the band’s early set. Everything about the place impressed me back then. The close-quartered feel of the dining room, the enveloping darkness, the rug under our feet, the narrow doors—leading you to yet more narrow doors—in order to find the restroom… all of that exuded a kind of “back in the day” charm which has been getting more difficult to find.
And when Ballantine plucked his strings—and when his wife, saxophonist Amanda Gardier, belted out her leads and soft harmonies—the sound cascaded off the walls with a velvety clarity you just can’t hear in the Hi-Fi or in Bloomington’s Bluebird. The Jazz Kitchen, I realized, was like those low-ceilinged casinos on Vegas’ Freemont Street: a place where serious people go to savor serious work. It’s a place to get away from the loudmouths and buffoons.
The experience was so powerful, that it even rewired my thinking about Bob Dylan. To be fair, I was also never an avid Dylan fan. But in the two years since that evening, whenever I hear any other cover of “Don’t Think Twice,” I unconsciously assume it’s a knock off of the rendition Brandon Whyde sang on that Kitchen stage next to Ballantine, Gardier, and company.
Maybe it was because, like us, he was enjoying a live gig for the first time in an epoch. Or maybe it was because the teacher in Buselli is wired so deeply into his DNA, that he exudes that role in front of the microphone. Whatever the reason, I felt it, and I connected with it. -Photo by Rich Voorhees of Voorhees Studio, Inc.
Emotional Object Permanence
Tucked in my rolodex of happy memories, that night is certainly a good one. And while good memories matter to us because of their emotional currency, the best memories matter even more because of their vector.
We’re always thinking about our lives according to trajectory—the heights we’re climbing or the valleys into which we plummet. As a barometer of sorts, our ups and downs are nice because they can give us perspective. When life goes to shit, we can remember the good times. When life feels pristine, we think of the shit, and appreciate the good days all the more…or at least we say that to others. The problem with this thinking is that it almost always replaces the more important part of our lives—the stuff that’s always right there.
We can grasp the object permanence of a rocking chair on the front porch, but we can’t seem to apply the same conceptual understanding to our own lives. A strong gust of wind catches the top of the chair and scoots the tips of the runners into the cleft of mortar between the house’s bricks. That’s fine. We notice it. We put the chair back in its proper spot, and life goes on. Despite the wind, the chair never changed its hue, nor its balance, nor its ability to support our weight and lull us into a soft afternoon coma while the sun saturates our cheeks.
Like a lot of folks, my pandemic experience has been one largely of emotional inconvenience. Meanwhile, my life’s object-permanence held steady: My income remained steady and I didn’t get sick. And in one case life even improved: I married my fiancée of five years. By all rational accounts, I should have risen every morning, checked the “chair on my porch," put it back in place when it moved a smidge one way or the other, and counted my blessings that it never blew over collapsed into kindling.
That’s not what I did, however. Of course, it wasn’t.
The Jazz Kitchen [is] a place where serious people go to savor serious work. It’s a place to get away from the loudmouths and buffoons.
The Worst Kind of Funk
Instead, I let myself slip into a funk. I feel embarrassed to even admit it. I mean, I’ve been in real funks before. I’ve faced divorce, bankruptcy, foreclosure, a dying parent, and a cancer diagnosis…all in a five-year span. But when you’re facing a crisis that is physically existential, and one that’s going down in a very busy, very fast-moving world, the speed of the rapids washes over you. So, you deal with it. You face each oncology visit, each lawyer meeting, each “celebration of life” with the same seat-of-the-pants orthodoxy that got you through grad school.
In a fast-moving world, a funk is an abrasion. It hurts like a motherfucker…no doubt about that. But it eventually scabs over, itches for a while, scars a bit, and gets better. In a stalled world, however, a funk is an infection. Painful in the center, gangrenous around the edges, and causing fever everywhere else.
I returned to the Jazz Kitchen shaking off the lingering vestiges of an infectious funk. It snuck upon me in those first warm days of the pandemic. I had just celebrated running National Road Magazine for five years, patting myself on the back for every interview, each editorial, and all those little Vignettes. I had even wrapped up our first series of local music awards. The feedback had been positive, and the support was strong. By late January, local artists like Chad Mills and Keller&Cole dropped their newest batch of singles and albums, and my whiteboard filled up with interview targets and future story ideas. As the cliché goes, big things were ahead.
But when March turned into a warm April followed by a hot May and sweltering June, the once Friday evening IPA became a mid-afternoon Old Fashioned. I pushed the keyboard farther away. I tried to get into the Facebook livestreams and the virtual house concerts. I just couldn’t.
So, I fidgeted about the house, stripping and staining the deck, cleaning the pool three times a week, mowing the yard until the drought had turned the grass to cinder. The only successful thing I could do was the one thing I absolutely did NOT want to do: get hopelessly lost inside my head. Once there, I turned over the cognitive tumblers packed with memories of old resentments, embarrassing gaffes—all of it wrapped up in insecurity and bow-tied with obsessive narcissism. Slowly and steadily, I made myself irritable and lazy and apathetic.
As it happens—as it always happens, I think—on the morning before my return to the Jazz Kitchen, all of my angst spilled out during a spontaneous conversation with a wise colleague at work. In fifteen minutes, she listened to me and effortlessly showed me how to flip off the recurring movie in my head which had plagued me. And ten hours later, feeling better than I had in months, I walked back into the Kitchen.
We can grasp the object permanence of a rocking chair on the front porch, but we can’t seem to apply the same conceptual understanding to our own lives.
Back to The Jazz Kitchen
When I passed the ticket attendant and rounded the bar—a once tucked-away feature that now stood as featured bookend to the stage—I was moved less by the remodeled improvements than I was by the immediate feeling that I was returning to a world that harbored me. One that protected me.
And yes, the improvements are grand. The new Jazz Kitchen showcases a perfect blending of the modern open-concept while retaining much of the closed-in vibe that gives the place its “charm.” It’s further impressive given all the ways that a remodel could have gone wrong. I could have walked into the gleaming, fluorescent hell of a sanitized “Aldi’s for music lovers.” Likewise, I could have sat myself down in a bastardized “rustic-prefab” sporting “wood that looks like plastic.” Instead, I saw an interior which showcased what had always been hiding in front of us. The Jazz Kitchen grew into an even better version of its old, glorious self.
Framing my return to the Kitchen was Amanda Gardier, sharing center stage with trumpeter Mark Buselli. Fronting an ensemble comprised of Ball State music faculty, Buselli impressed me with his authentic balance of humility and professionalism. He wasn’t up there to “own” anything, and while he more than once deftly removed himself from the spotlight for his bandmates’ solos, the vibe he seemed to cast our way felt welcoming—a tone of accommodation. Maybe it was because, like us, he was enjoying a live gig for the first time in an epoch. Or maybe it was because the teacher in Buselli is wired so deeply into his DNA, that he exudes that role in front of the microphone. Whatever the reason, I felt it, and I connected with it.
To Buselli’s right, Gardier spent the night delivering another impeccable performance. To say that Gardier is captivating is an understatement. Her technical precision combined with her easy-going aesthetic makes it hard not to zero-in on her. Of all the musicians in the Indy scene—across any genre—who people look to as model for the future of local music, she’s the lead ambassador.
Her technical precision combined with her easy-going aesthetic makes it hard not to zero-in on her. Of all the musicians in the Indy scene—across any genre—who people look to as model for the future of local music, she’s the lead ambassador. Photo by Tim McLaughlin of Hapless Guitar Photography
Joining the group were brothers Joel and Nick Tucker working strings and Cassius Goens III at the drums. Joel, seated under his guitar, played with an air of technical deliberateness. It was a style that juxtaposed nicely with his brother’s fluid, loose-shouldered movements beside the upright bass.
But of all the folks on that stage, I found myself most interested in Freddie Mendoza’s work on the trombone. The native Texan spoke briefly when he introduced his own tune—one of my favorites of the night dubbed “El Jefe”—but most of what I got from him was the nonverbal exchange that always happens in a gig. Every bit as professional, and every bit as sharp, as his bandmates, Mendoza carried himself in a way that spoke to me as if he were someone going through his own journey and making his own peace with the isolating nature life’s turns.
Maybe I totally misread him up there. Maybe it was just me projecting my own emotional place on him, but for whatever reason, everything about Mendoza’s work on that Kitchen stage felt like an extension of that conversation I’d had that morning. My colleague helped me verbalize and articulate all the things that were toxifying me, and Mendoza let me take some long, slow breaths, allowing the poison to seep out of my system.
I don’t know why serendipity works out like it does, and I further don’t know what is about music—more so than a night at a Pacers’ game or in the multi-plex—that helps us come a moment of closure. But at a very specific moment in my life, when I needed to zip up a long-neglected wound, Mark Buselli’s ensemble helped me do just that. I still don’t have a word to describe what the hell was wrong with me. But do think I can say that jazz is word that describes one way to cure it.
Featured Image Credit: Rich Voorhees of Voorhees Studio, Inc.