How "So What" Became the Question and the Answer
Updated: Jun 20, 2020
This is the first entry in a three part series honoring teachers. This one honors my father.
Teachers are master storytellers, and storytellers are masters of the moment. They know which story to tell and how to tell it; and the power of their stories is in their “stickiness.” Good stories stick with us forever.
His foot-tapping showed the form, and his face showed the feeling. I found my father sitting in his overstuffed chair, listening to a jazz recording that I had heard him play many times before. The tune opened with the piano playing broad, seeking chords, and then yield to a call and response with the bass. My father, recognized my interest, began to narrate. “The music is a story. The bass is the man who’s come back from staying out too late. No matter what excuse he gives through his melodious lines, his wife flatly comes back with ‘so what.’” I pictured the scene. A man and a woman stand in their apartment kitchen. Wearing a white t-shirt, he holds his jacket under his arm. A cigarette bobs on his lips. The woman is in a house dress with her apron still on to underscore that he’d missed dinner long ago. “The man scrambles for excuses. His boss kept him late. His car broke down. Or closer to the truth, he was drinking and lost track of time. Whatever his explanation, the woman rebutts ‘so what.’ Even when he modulates his voice to plead his case, she doesn’t care. There is simply no way he’s going to talk himself out of whatever trouble he’s in for.”
The opening motif, the argument, set the scene for the solos. “The solos are the neighbors who are listening through the thin walls. One neighbor takes his side. One takes hers. Another neighbor just wishes they’d shut up.” Miles Davis takes the first solo. Measured thoughts told in measured phrases reveals a neighbor who has put down his book to comment on the late night squabble. He is not impressed by the man’s excuses and wonders why the woman married him in the first place. John Coltrane’s solo comes next. With bold opinions and paint chipping power, his commentary pulls no punches. He judges harshly. The last solo is Cannonball Adderley’s. He finishes his solo section with a cerebral offering that falls off into silence. He may have had a few drinks himself. The tune fades out with an exhausted reprise of the opening motif. A simple story and a lasting lesson, it was my education in Miles Davis’ tune “So What.”
An important feature of an education is that it’s portable. My father told me that story thirty-five years ago, and I remember it as if he had told me yesterday. As a musician, the story taught me that the notes are more than pitches taken from a scale. They are the words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs that tell a story. As an educator, the story reminds me that we need to put education within the reach of students. If the concept is complicated, simplify it or provide a familiar analogy. Tell a story and put the content into a meaningful and memorable context. As a parent, the story taught me to listen to my daughter. Which stories delighted? Which stories inspired? Which stories should I never tell again? And when she told stories of her own, I needed to give my undivided attention.
Sometimes children's stories are incoherent or take longer to tell than you had hoped, but in their retelling, children are processing and packaging important information. And, they are also inviting you into their worlds. It’s an exclusive invitation, and it’s one well worth accepting.
Markus Hunt is an educator, writer, speaker, and musician living in Aurora, Colorado.