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Willow Weep For Me

All I wanted when I got to college was to fit in. An 18-year-old woman who felt like a girl, I sat in the top big band between two men in their late twenties and in front of and behind a couple more. The band had four or five women (actually pretty impressive), but I was the only first year.

One day early in the year, one of those men who seemed so ancient to me but probably had a lot of maturing to do and a lot of pain in his heart, looked past me to one of the other older men and made an inside joke about the song “Willow Weep for Me.”

I wanted to fit in.

I laughed.

Rookie mistake.

He glared at me and said, “You don’t even know what we’re talking about.” It wasn’t a joking “You’re my friend and I’m going to call you on that laugh and laugh about it with you,” it was a “You do not belong here.” Lest you think I’m misinterpreting, this was the same guy who had already told me I was in the top band because the director wanted to sleep with me, and he wasn’t kidding about that either. Although I know now he must have had pain in his heart, I still call him Dick Wilton in my memoir.

I always hated the song Willow Weep for Me after that. I’d never played it, but I heard it now and then.

I’ve blogged about quitting jazz before, so I’ll spare you the details. The short story is that after two years of college I quit jazz and finished my music degree just performing in symphonic band and brass ensemble and didn’t get back into jazz seriously until I started Sonoma Jazz Girlz about 20 years later.

In Sonoma Jazz Girlz, we use the iRealPro app (get this app!!!) when we don’t have a rhythm section. There’s a list called “1300 Jazz Standards,” and I chose a few songs from it to work on with the girls. After a couple months of showing the girls Youtube videos of female jazz instrumentalists, I finally thought, “Duh, I wonder if any of the 1300 jazz standards on my phone were written by women!”

There are precious few. One of them is Willow Weep for Me.

I Googled Willow Weep for Me and its composer, the successful and prolific Ann Ronell (1905-1993), and I wrote out lead sheets for that song with a little more pressure on my pencil than usual, thinking “That note is for you, Dick Wilton, and that fucking note, too. No, actually that note is for ME. This is MY. SONG. YOU were the joke. And you didn’t get it.”

In the beloved front yard of the beloved house where I grew up, we had a beloved weeping willow tree. Once, one of the major limbs broke off, and its many branches created a three-room home with green, leafy, walls glowing with sunlight. My dad let me play in it for a few days before getting out the chainsaw and hauling it away. I don’t remember what I did there. I probably brought out a pillow and a snack and a book and walked from room to room wishing I had beaded doorways in my house. Despite the tree’s name, I don’t remember ever thinking of it as weeping for me or anyone else. I thought of it as a secret, magical place of respite.

The beloved house where I grew up has since been sold, the beloved tree now entirely cut down. But I have my beloved jazz back, and I have my song—a place with many secret, magical rooms, and you can have your place, too, whoever you are.

 

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Your Own Thing

Lately I’ve played a few gigs with a band called Awesome Hotcakes. Spike Sikes is the leader, and there are men on bass, drums, and trumpet. I’m the only woman, but it’s been a 100% great experience. (The people, at least. I’m never 100% satisfied with my improv.)

Last week we played at a cool live music venue, and when we were done, a woman came up to me. I’m guessing by the age of her children that she was about 50.

“Are you related to Sean by any chance?” she asked.

I told her that yes, he was my husband. My husband is well known in town for teaching music. He has taught thousands of kids band and choir in town, and everybody knows him. The woman told me who her kids were.

And then she said, “It’s nice that you have your own thing.”

“Yes,” I thought. “It darned well is.”

But later, I thought, “How sad is it to think that those words would never be said to a man?” Can you imagine a popular female elementary school teacher’s husband being told “How nice that you have your own thing?” It’s absurd to even think about, and yet it seemed like a perfectly normal thing for her to say to me at the time, and most women know the feeling of either not having our own thing or feeling exceptional, bold, or lucky because we have our own thing.

There was nothing wrong with what she said. There’s also nothing wrong with women who want “their own thing” to be raising kids or being a good wife. I just think it’s a little sad that it’s something we women have to say to each other. And make no mistake, we do say it to each other all the time in a hundred different variations of “good for you having your own thing,” or “make sure you have your own thing.”

When I got married and moved to my husband’s hometown twenty years ago, it was not easy. I was the woman standing and smiling while her husband chatted with an old friend or a grateful band parent. Then I was the woman entertaining her baby while her husband chatted with an old friend or a grateful band parent. I really didn’t feel like I had my own thing for a while.

I don’t mean to say I’ve had no opportunities. The Sonoma County Philharmonic seemed perfectly happy to have a woman on trombone. When I played with the ska band The Hoovers, they didn’t balk at my being a woman either.

But it’s still seen as special to have your own thing after getting married. Why? This question might seem like no big deal to many people, but I think it gets at something deep in our culture. I’m quite sure I haven’t gotten to my deepest thoughts about it yet. The statement is still simmering in my brain. It’s nice that you have your own thing. It’s nice that you have your own thing.

Women, have you heard this statement? I’d like to hear your thoughts and experiences.

 

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