Giant Steps Through the Dark
Love in the Time of COVID-19

As of this writing, I haven’t left my house for more than a few minutes in eight days.

I like to think that I’ve been training for something like this my whole life. I’ve always been content with my own company, even as a child. Give me a good book or a good album and I’m set. Give me the literally hundreds of seasons of television on Netflix and Disney Plus and I should be able to ride out a global pandemic. I can go days without talking to another human being and feel OK about it.

But in more other ways than I can count, no one is prepared for what lies ahead of us. This new virus has spread through our population quickly enough that our only defense against it is what experts are calling social distancing, and over a much longer term than I think people have been suggesting. There’s no doubt that any concert or other gathering you had in mind for April and May will be canceled. Now I’m seeing events in June join the list. The only one on my calendar was AudioFeed in Champaign in July, and I have no doubt whatsoever that it will not happen this year.

It’s all for the good, of course – I am one hundred percent behind efforts to slow the spread of this virus, and I’ve been forcefully preaching the Gospel of Stay the Hell Home for a couple weeks now. We’re too late to prevent hundreds of deaths, but I hope we are not too late to prevent thousands, if not millions, in the coming months. It’s a scary thing, to know that just by leaving your house or forgetting to wash your hands you could contract something that spreads so quickly from person to person. I remember reading The Stand for the first time in middle school and wondering what it would be like to live through something like it. And here we are.

And I think we’ll be here for a while. Some of the estimates I have seen have us housebound and social distancing for five months at a minimum. I have no idea how the U.S. economy survives that, and I imagine we will come out the other side of it a changed nation. (Maybe one that values its front-line workers more, and considers health care a basic human right?) But it’s the only way we have to save millions of lives around the world.

There is hope. There is always hope. I personally know some of the scientists working on characterizing the structure of this new virus, in order to design some kind of blocking agent as a treatment. In some areas of the world, like South Korea, the curve has already been flattened, the virus more under control. It can be done. It will be a long and lonely slog for most of us to get to the point where there is a vaccine, there is a treatment, and it’s our job to make sure the hospitals and medical facilities are not overwhelmed with cases before then.

In a lot of ways, it feels like a sacred duty. One of the recurring themes of The Good Place, a show I feel beyond fortunate to have lived to see, is the notion of what we owe to each other. This is exactly the kind of crisis that brings that concept out of the abstract. And what I see right now is billions of people, all around the world, sacrificing so that others may live. My staying home is not out of fear for my own safety. It’s out of love and concern for people I don’t even know, people I may unknowingly infect by going about my daily routine.

It’s an act of worldwide empathy, and I think that’s beautiful.

The world feels strange and new now. It’s like humanity has drawn in a deep breath and is holding it. Eventually we’ll have to let that breath out, but for now it’s quieter, it’s more still. The things we thought mattered a month ago don’t seem so important. The people we know and love, that’s what matters. I’ve had people I haven’t spoken to in years reach out to me over the past two weeks, and it’s been lovely to reconnect, even as distanced as we are right now. It’s a time of deep reflection for everyone, I think.

As always, music is getting me through even the darker and more lonely moments. I’m hearing songs in different ways now, with different layers of meaning. (Jellyfish’s “I Wanna Stay Home” is a particular favorite at the moment.) I’ve had a lot of time to think about which music brings me the most hope, shines the brightest light into the darkened tunnel ahead. I’ve been asked a couple times on Facebook to contribute to playlists of inspirational songs, and have given those a lot of thought. I’d like to share one song now that has long been my “anything is possible” anthem, and I hope I can explain why.

It’s “Giant Steps” by John Coltrane.

Whenever I have trouble thinking about how I will manage to do some daunting task, it helps me to remember that in 1959, four guys made this, live. This music sounds impossible to my ears. It was unlike any jazz that had been recorded to that point – Coltrane built “Giant Steps” around a chord pattern that modulates constantly between three keys, and the notes that work in one of those keys won’t work in another, so you have to keep those changes in your head constantly. This is made far more difficult by how quickly the thing moves – the changes come at you like 100-mile-an-hour fastballs, and you have to be prepared.

Coltrane is absolutely on fire here, from the first moment to the last. By the time of this session, he’d had months to work out how he wanted to play “Giant Steps,” and it shows – he’s confident, playing at blistering speed without missing any of the tricky key changes. He’s inspired, and he inspires his bandmates too. Listen to Paul Chambers – that isn’t a bassline, it’s a 100-yard dash in musical form. Art Taylor’s drum part sounds simple, but it’s deceptive, and it’s really fast. This is basically a speed metal tempo, the song carrying the quartet along in its current.

But it’s pianist Tommy Flanagan I most want to talk about here. To set the scene: at this point in his young career, Flanagan was one of the hottest session pianists in jazz. He’d played with Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins and Ella Fitzgerald, and he’d led his own trio with celebrated results. He was one of the most reliable musicians you could tap for your recording, which is why it’s so strange to hear what happens to him on “Giant Steps.”

The simple truth is that Flanagan had never seen anything quite like the chart for “Giant Steps.” He’d practiced it, of course, but at a much slower tempo, so when Coltrane called for the one you hear on the recording, it caught him off guard. You can practically hear him learning how to play “Giant Steps” as the tape rolls, and when the time comes for him to solo – as if anyone could match Coltrane’s intensity – he starts and stops, falters and picks back up, uncertain of the changes as they come one by one.

It’s not bad work, mind you. It’s certainly better than any piano solo I’ve ever played. I think the important thing to remember about it, though, is that Flanagan got through it. He was blindsided by the material, unsure of how to navigate it, but he did it. I find that inspirational. Even more so, to me, than the courage to change jazz as an art form in four minutes the way Coltrane did here. Coltrane changed the world, but for Flanagan, the world changed around him, and he still made his way through.

This new world we find ourselves in is going to feel a lot like that. The changes will come quickly, and we won’t always know when to expect them. Very few of us will be like Coltrane, anticipating and skipping over the top of them with grace. Most of us will be like Tommy Flanagan when life calls a tempo we are not expecting. But we’ll find our way. Like any good jazz ensemble, we’ll help each other along, until our tentative strides toward the light become giant steps.

We can do this. Stay home, stay safe, stay connected. Love one another.

See you in line Tuesday morning.