In 1965, jazz great Horace Silver released his blockbuster album, Song for My Father, whose title track paid homage to the musician’s Portuguese father, John Traveres Silva, who instilled in his son a love of Bossa Nova. Listen to this song and you can’t help but be drawn to the memorable trumpet of Carmell Jones, who, along with Joe Henderson on tenor sax, added a layer of wonderful color to Horace Silver’s piano playing. If you’re not a jazz aficionado, you might still recognize the song’s famous horn riff because Stevie Wonder borrowed it for the chorus of his 1973 hit, Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing.
My father-in-law of blessed memory had a life-long love affair with the trumpet, having fallen in love with the instrument at the age of eight, and knowing almost immediately what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. A graduate of Julliard and a recipient of a Master’s in Music Education from Columbia University’s Teachers College, Bill’s world was framed by the music he learned from his mentors, the orchestras and quartets in which he played, and the countless students whose horizons he broadened.
I wish I could compose a song in tribute of my father-in-law. No, I don’t have the wherewithal to write a piece of music; still I am a composer of sorts, even if in an entirely different medium. As a rabbi I take Jewish texts and weave them into the rhythm of people’s lives and vice versa. And so I offer these words of Torah as a song, if you will, for my father-in-law, Bill Krinsky:
If a shofar is blown in a cistern, a cellar, or in a large jar, and one hears its sound clearly, he has fulfilled his obligation; but if one only hears a muffled noise, he has not fulfilled his obligation. So, too, if an individual was passing a synagogue or lived in a house near the synagogue and heard the shofar, or the reading of the megillah [on Purim] — if his focus was on the shofar’s sounding, he fulfilled his obligation; but if not, he has not fulfilled his obligation. Though one person may have heard the sound as well as the other, the former directed his heart to it, while the latter did not.
-Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 3:7
The Mishnah begins by emphasizing the importance of clarity. There is an objective quality to the sounding of the shofar — or any instrument — that relies on the physics of sound. Acoustics matter; but so does the mastery of the musician. Presumably a skilled shofar blower could adjust her technique to the surroundings in which she finds herself — a softer breath, a tilt of the ram’s horn, a slight shift in the placement of the tongue on the mouthpiece. One musician might have the chops to blow without distortion in a cellar, while another might not be up to par.
The text subtly reminds us there is a difference between genuine excellence and mediocrity. Living in a culture that prizes inclusion so much (and with good reason), we are sometimes tempted to level the distinction between outstanding accomplishment and simple adequacy. We give every player and every participant a trophy or certificate so that no one should feel left out. Our sensitivity to the feelings of others is praiseworthy, but it carries with it the risk of devaluing real talent and achievement.
My father-in-law was a great music teacher because he was able to see the forest for the trees. Bill had the ability to raise the bar for his most engaged and passionate students. Having worked so hard to become an outstanding trumpet player, he recognized excellence when he saw it and did everything to encourage it. At the same time, Bill knew full well that many, perhaps most, of his students weren’t going to make their careers in music; they enjoyed music as an avocation only. Never did he make invidious comparisons or disparage more casual students because they lacked the drive that was at the heart and soul of his commitment to music.
The Mishnah also stresses the significance of listening. Hearing the most accomplished shofar blower means little if one does not bring intention to one’s hearing. Thus, if one person directs his heart to hearing the shofar, while another who hears equally well does not, it is only the former who has fulfilled the mitzvah. The act of listening transcends the laws of physics. A Mozart concerto isn’t much different than elevator muzak if it serves as nothing more than background noise.
Inasmuch as Jewish law teaches that only one who is commanded to hear the Shofar can serve as an agent to fulfill the precept for others, we remember that there is an intrinsic relationship between playing and listening. Talented musicians must be good listeners. There is a tangible, even if invisible, place where the physical production of potentially great music becomes great music itself. Whether it is found in the ear or the heart, it exists in both the soul of the listener as well as the musician; it is the place where the listener becomes a musician and the musician a listener. Bill was well acquainted with this place because he spent a great deal of time there himself.
So as I sit here with the notes of Horace Silver’s Song for My Father echoing in my head, I’ll invite you to take a listen to the synergy of Horace Silver’s virtuoso keyboard, Joe Henderson’s great tenor sax, Carmell Jones’ crisp trumpet, Teddy Smith’s bass and Joseph Quevedo on drums. Listen carefully and perhaps you will hear something beyond a jazz classic. If you hear the sound of musical mastery, if you hear the love with which the musicians approached their calling, and if you hear how they transformed sound into meaning, then, you will have heard an echo of the song that was my father-in-law’s life.
Yehi zikhrono livrakha, Bill’s memory shall always be for a blessing.