Be Broken or Be Better (For“JM")

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” (Ecclesiastes 3 Vs.1 & Vs.4)

I had a dear friend over to my home the other day, and we began to have a great conversation about life. We both began to share some of the previous challenges that we had been through, and she began to discuss some issues that affected her incredibly deeply. At one point I asked her how she got through it, and she simply said, “Ulysses people need time to be wounded, and broken, and I gave myself the time to be broken.”

I thought her response was so incredibly profound because I find that many times in life when I have experienced traumatic situations, I have been so committed to understanding and identifying the timeline of when I will get over the trauma instead of properly processing the traumatic experience. 

Oprah often says, “One of the great things we can ever gift ourselves with is time,” and without it, I find it’s easy to self-sabotage.

Within that conversation with my friend, we began to talk about the power of brokenness and also the many stages of brokenness. Anytime I have to deal with situations that create brokenness in my life, I break it down in a few ways. 

Stage 1 for me, is acknowledging the impact of the situation. For instance, something that really can create brokenness in my own life is rejection from various sources or opportunities. So I began to deal with the reality of being rejected, and of course my pride wants to enter the room and immediately nullify what or who is rejecting me, which is the worst thing possible. I first work really hard to surrender to the impact of this rejection which has caused brokenness. 

Stage 2 is acceptance, and knowing that it’s truly okay to be broken. No one is above being hurt or disappointed. Hurt and disappointment are a part of the human experience. 

Stage 3 is the conversation I have with myself all the time which is, “Ulysses, it’s okay to feel, and be thankful that you can feel.“ I remember going through various relationships and working so hard to be coarse; not feeling anymore so I could avoid pain. Thus, I kept an emotional wall in front of my heart. One day while I was in prayer, the first thing that came to my spirit was, “Be okay with feeling again.” If I can’t feel, nothing is coming in or out, and I will begin to repel the very thing I say I want, which is love. 

Stage 4, the final stage that my friend and I discussed was, “Choosing to be Better.” She said to me, “Ulysses once I chose to allow myself to be broken, I then had to make the decision to be better.”

That’s when it hit me: be broken, or be better. The reality I have found in life is that I must make time for both. One of the greatest  gifts I have experienced in being human is the ability to be all over the place, and then come back to square one. The human mind and spirit is so complex, yet very simple, so I find acknowledging those paradigms and truths keep me realistic. 

How do I work on becoming better? I simply choose to grow the hell up and move on, live, and truly be in the present moment. One of the hardest things that could keep me from being better is living in the haze of yesterday and what was, and I’ll never ever be able to live yesterday perfectly. But, I can definitely make the best of today, and I’m excited about what I can bring of myself into tomorrow. 

What are you listening to?

One of the first questions every young jazz musician will get is, “What are you listening to?” People, elders, and musicians want to know, what is in your ears because they can get an idea of your sound, personality, and your musical trajectory from what you’re listening to. 

A musical “Blindfold Test,“ is a thing where someone will play a random album, or song and ask who’s playing. You are supposed to name everybody on every instrument, and if you’re special, you’ll be able to name what date and where the album was recorded. The man who is the best at it is, Kenny Washington, the “Jazz Maniac.” 

However, the first blindfold test I got was by my cousin, Kevin Sibley. He turned on an Oscar Peterson record of “Honeysuckle Rose,” and blew my mind. I had never quite heard the piano played with that level of speed and proficiency, which I later found out was sheer virtuosity.

The second blindfold test happened after I had been playing some gigs around Jacksonville, FL with a great bassist, Claude Bass. He is so incredibly knowledgeable, and every time I would play with Claude, he would give me a record to check out. I would come back and he would say. “Good man, that’s great, so how about this record…” Then, he’d send me on my way…

The third musician to test my skills was, and is, one of the most soulful pianist and jazz organist in Jacksonville, FL, Scott Giddens. He was the first person to introduce me to Coltrane. He said, “Man you should check out this record, “Coltrane and Hartman,” and he began to imitate Johnny Hartman’s beautiful baritone voice. 

The fourth person who had me on an extended “blindfold test” for over twelve years, and that was Mulgrew Miller. The first record he suggested was, “Walkin,” by Miles Davis. Then he suggested, Cedar Walton’s “Live at Boomers,” and told me just to listen to the ride cymbal. Then he played Roy Haynes with Chick Corea, “Now He Sings, Now He Sobs,” and told me just to listen to the bass drum.

Eric Reed was the king of blindfold tests with me as a young musician; we would be riding in a car on the way to a show, and he would quiz me on every song that would come on WBGO radio station. Eric was much more demanding and he had a right to be. He takes the music incredibly seriously and if you are mentored by him, you better do the same.

Jazz is such an amazing art form because I feel with each record, you are learning new devices and strategies to the music. There are things given to you in records that can’t be retrieved any other way. I love that about this music, and adore the book, story, and life lessons that are in records. 

So, what are you listening to? Rock, Jazz, Hip, R&B, Gospel?

What you listen to, determines what comes from you and that will determine the arc and reach of your impact to audiences.