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Jimi, Jazz, the Buddha and What Might Have Been

Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix
Mike Berkofsky

I’ve been reading a book that came out in 2012, called “Hendrix on Hendrix,” edited by Steven Roby, a collection of interviews Jimi gave between 1966 and 1970. They’re remarkable for the vision he has of life itself, viewing it through the eyes of someone who’s wide awake and tuned in on the most universal level. After his enlightenment, the Buddha was walking along and a man came up to him, struck by something about him, and asked, “What are you?” Not “Who” but “What.” And he answered the man, saying, “I’m awake.” The translation of the word awake was “Buddha,” which is how the Buddha got the name. One who’s awake.

Jimi was awake. He often talked, with a mixture of disdain and mournfulness, about all the people who were asleep. He, in contrast, was wide-eyed – electric wide-eyed, remarkably insightful for a young man in his mid-twenties. Speaking of the difference in race attitudes between England and the US, he said, “America is a little boy. Countries to me are just like little kids, playing with different toys. But all these countries will soon grow up.” To hear that with one set of ears is to hear a hippie in the 60’s pronouncing an idealistic if slightly naïve message of love. To hear it with another is to listen to words of a timeless man who could see through the thickest layers of people’s strongest mistaken attachments to this world – patriotism, protectionism, ethnicity – those things humans have a gigantic propensity to kill and die for – seeing through them and past them to the essential and universal. The view of an elder who knows better, a father regarding his children with patience and generous understanding. They will grow.

Talking about the concept of the ‘electric church,’ explaining it on the Dick Cavett Show in 1969, he said, “It’s just a belief that I have… the belief comes into…through electricity to the people, whatever. That’s why we play so loud. We plan for our sound to go inside the soul of a person, actually, to see if we can awaken some kind of thing in their minds, ‘cause there’s so many sleeping people. You can call it that (electric church) if you want to.”

The role of a bodhisattva is that of someone who brings others into knowledge and understanding that will enlighten, or awaken them. This was essentially Jimi’s stated self-chosen role as a musician, (a true bodhisattva is always individually self-motivated) his goal, his sense of purpose. Ask musicians these days why they’re a musician, and you’ll get many answers – about self-expression, making it big, freedom, the benjamins, love of the music, making people feel happy – but few would be able to say, honestly, anything resembling what Hendrix said in terms of pure artistic altruism and higher aspiration.

Hendrix also had, besides his obviously deep love of the blues, an affinity for jazz. You can hear it as early as the first “Are You Experienced?” album, on “Third Stone from the Sun.” There’s Wes Montgomery in the melody figure, then in the middle improv section Mitch Mitchell breaks into an open jazz, Elvin Jones influenced groove, though still in 4/4 time. Hendrix’ soloing isn’t really guitar playing as much as it is pure sound/s, an extension of, a going-beyond the squeals and squawks of free form sax soloing. He’s been quoted as admiring Roland Kirk, Charles Mingus and John Coltrane, and before his death there was talk of plans for playing with Miles Davis. That possible manifestation of a radical new experiment in uncharted crossover music was lost, of course, due to Hendrix’ death. In Miles’ “Bitches Brew” you can hear the idea’s birth and first run, but if something like it had been carried out with one giant alongside another, Miles and Jimi, jamming/improvising/composing together, that could have unleashed a cosmic, universal sonic force strong enough to split music wide open for decades, for a continuing future, redrawing the lines to simultaneously expand the boundaries of both popular music and experimental jazz.

Over the twentieth century, jazz gradually retreated, in the process of a well intentioned attempt at modernizing, from the popular/artistic meld it was in the time of Louis Armstrong to a more elitist music, music of a jazz priesthood, let’s say – way too complex, technical, high and holy to be understood by the lowly plebian flatfoot unhip. In other words – the people. “Bitches Brew” tried to break that stranglehold on a dying art, but modern jazz has never truly shifted into the larger vehicle it might have. The trick would be to let it breathe the life of accessibility yet retain the essence of its art and complex beauty intact. Ellington did it, with a sense of effortless style. A modern equivalent? Surely a tall order, one that hasn’t been fulfilled. Jazz has yet to go beyond being a primarily cerebral music for the few – the jazz monks and ascetics – and move onto being an art form that the people in a wider realm actually enjoy. From “Head Hunters” on, Herbie Hancock’s made heroic efforts in that direction, Bill Frisell has explored jazz guitar in nearly every possible musical context, and other jazz musicians are working to expand the terrain, but there’s a vast/valuable/creative/artistic middle ground between vapid easy listening jazz of a Kenny G at one end and math formula non-melodies plus free soloing at the other, and that area is largely undiscovered country. Branford Marsalis on a Sting album isn’t what I’m talking about. It’s something else. I wouldn’t even know how to describe it, because it hasn’t been made yet.

There’ve been those on the outer fringes who’ve played extremely difficult stuff, driven by visions and in search of an unnamed truth they could feel but just could not touch. They were different, not of the priesthood but rather holy prophets out in the wilderness, hoping to find the deep lost well.

Thing is, Jimi knew where it was, and it wasn’t a well, it was an endless ocean. He visited it often, hung out on the shore and often dove in to swim across unimaginable distances. His ideas for the future were, at 26, endless. Imagine him playing with Miles, Herbie Hancock, jam bands, symphony orchestras not playing classical. New classical, electric church, blah blah woof woof. Or in any number of changing configurations. Cats he liked playing with. All the different portals that could have opened. That’s what was lost, that gigantic might-have-been.

Which points to the astounding singularity of Hendrix, his emergence in the 60’s, a time that called for change in the entire spectrum, at every level of life and society, and he, like so many other giants – The Beatles, Stones, Dylan, The Doors, The Who and the many many others who came alongside or following close behind – emerged to fulfill that need. As if the collective society, as if life itself at the time said, “We’re ready now. The time’s right. Come.”

And so they did. And Jimi was, arguably, though I hate to make comparisons, but here I’ll break my rule – Jimi was arguably the greatest. He was the greatest instrumentalist in modern music, anyway, which sounds like faint praise as I write it.

Let’s say this.

He’d taken a step through the fabric of ordinary (so-called) reality to deeply enter and experience the boundless. He had his left and right hand still in the world, though his mind was free to drift back and forth between dimensions when he needed to, or wanted to, and he played all the sounds he heard out there. Whatever “might have been” here in this world had he lived, well… it’s already being manifest, continued on, in another world, out there, somewhere. Personally, I hope to hear it next time, and to see you there too… don’t be late.

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