I have always been fascinated by stories of people who were dead and then were revived. Many times, they come away with memories of incredible images - bright lights, an out-of-body perspective, encounters with religious figures or loved ones who have passed. I never know what to believe about these experiences, since the details vary so much from person to person. What fascinates me most is how these experiences forever change their perspective on life...as if their death enabled them to really live!
Musically speaking, I have undergone death and rebirth at least twice. And each time I have emerged with a greater sense of purpose and joy in what I do. So what did this look like for me?
I finally found something I could be good at...
One day my mother presented me with a choice. Either I was going to play an instrument or I was going to get karate lessons. As a pudgy little 9-year old, I wasn’t really interested in exercise. Felt like an easy choice. I literally walked into our local music store, picked the shiniest horn with the most keys, and my mom rented it and we brought it home. Not exactly born with a saxophone in my hand...
I joined the elementary school band and started private lessons with my band teacher. Then I joined the school jazz band. We went to play at a festival in Palm Springs, where I met soprano saxophonist George Probert. He was an old, crusty, pipe-smoking Sidney Bechet kind of player, but he was like a big teddy bear. After that day, he took me under his wing, invited me to play at jam sessions and performances all over the place. My parents faithfully and sacrificially drove me to everything. It felt like I was beginning to find my niche.
This experience was undergirded by a rich arts-culture in the public schools back home, where I had all kinds of opportunities to perform and compete with other students. In fact, the culture was hyper-competitive, since music was about the only thing Hemet was still known for at the time. That, and an outdoor play about natives being tragically slaughtered by American settlers in the 1850s.
After winning the 2000 Spotlight Awards in the Jazz Instrumental Category, I began playing regularly for the LA Music Center. I got my license the day I turned 16 and started driving myself to Los Angeles for gigs and lessons every week. At 17, I was on my way to Manhattan School of Music in NYC on a full scholarship.
While in NYC, I found out what real competition was, and where I really was on the musical food chain. Suddenly, my dreams of joining the jazz elite of the world were crushed as it seemed like there was way too much talent and way too little room in this seemingly dying art form. And the only ones who really made it were not just great players, but great business people, scholars, charismatic innovators, brilliant people who knew how to create a market for their music and navigate all the politics in the process. That wasn’t me. I didn’t like promoting myself as it was, I just hoped that while I worked on my playing, one day someone would come along and offer me $100k a year to keep doing what I loved to do...as if the music industry was one big scholarship fund or a charity.
The tension between these realizations and the competitive culture that drove me became too much for me to handle. I was running around trying to meet the expectations of my family, my home-town, the industry, and not to mention my own expectations. I cracked under the pressure, dropping out of college and diving deep into hard drugs as medication to dull the pain of my perceived failures. Eventually, I just walked away from it all.
This was the first death of my music.
In my despair, I began searching for spiritual reality for the first time in my life, which was kind of shocking since I had previously been very outspoken against all religion. What I learned was that everyone had a view of spiritual reality they thought was the right one - including me - but that we could simply assess religious claims and decide for ourselves which ones make the most sense to us based on the evidence. After a year of investigating different religions and holy books, I took a chance and called on Jesus one morning.
The previous night, I had spent hundreds of dollars on crack cocaine, was robbed by a gang of drug dealers, after which I emptied my account to buy more crack from another guy, got home and loaded my pipe with a $50 hit, smoked the whole thing in one hit, then passed out. I felt myself slipping away, and what’s worse, I didn’t care. But the next day, I had an incredible encounter with the power of God as I called on Jesus. I cannot describe all that I felt, but the result was a complete reset of my mind, heart, and body. In one moment of time, my crack addiction was gone, never to return again. My sanity was completely restored and my thoughts were coherent, a stark contrast to the neurotic, messy brain I had been living with for several years. Jesus called it being “born again”, and that’s exactly what it felt like. I was 20 years old.
This experience led to the first rebirth of my music career. I found out there was a place for me. I discovered that I was loved by someone no matter where I was or what my circumstances were. I found that I mattered to someone regardless of ability, status, or success. I found out it was safe to just be me. And that gave me courage to try again.
So, I moved to Orange County and re-engaged the SoCal music scene, went back to my old network and started playing again. And it felt SO good. The newfound freedom in my spirit had translated into a new freedom in my playing. For awhile, I was performing up to 5 nights a week with some of SoCal’s finest musicians. I was privately teaching several college students every week. I was considered among the ranks of the best sax players in SoCal. I got to play incredibly challenging and innovative music almost every night of the week. But, I still did not want to promote myself or expand my horizons. I only came half-way out of my shell. Soon, I began feeling that pressure again and went back to the same old patterns of thinking, being crushed under the weight of my own expectations while constantly feeling inadequate to meet the challenge. On top of that, I continued to struggle to connect my earlier spiritual experience to my path in music. I was a mess...again!
In 2009, things came to a head when the housing market crashed and everyone went broke overnight. Once thriving live-music venues were closing left and right all over SoCal. Well-established musicians were moving back in with their parents. Students didn’t have the income to pay for lessons anymore. Gig money got cut in half everywhere we tried to play. After awhile, it felt like people stopped caring altogether. They were too busy surviving.
This led to the second death of my music.
I went back home (where my faith journey had begun just a few years earlier) with a sense of peace that it was time to move on from music once again and focus on a more holistic approach to my life. I dug into my faith, wrestled with my doubts, and eventually become a pastor. I learned how to connect to a new community of people from all walks of life, people who didn’t necessarily understand my background or even particularly care about my musical abilities, but loved me because we had Jesus in common. It was incredibly refreshing.
As I was working and learning this new way of life, I watched God bring my wife, Jennifer, directly to me. Both of us were on a journey of faith to the unknown and ended up in a place that most would consider to be a dead end (Hemet). Even though I was completely removed from the music scene, the little music I did play was a big draw for Jen. After watching me play at the church a few times, she asked me why I didn’t play more often. I said, “If I played the music I really wanted to play, everyone would run out of that church screaming.” She quickly replied, “I want to hear that music!” So, I said, “Just Google my name.” Hook, line, and sinker! Little did I know my wife would be such a huge catalyst in bringing music back onto my radar.
3 years of marriage and a couple of kids later, we left the church to work with a non-profit youth center in town. We were working with high schoolers and teen parents, making ourselves available as mentors. This time the refreshment came in working with people who were different from the church crowd, people who wouldn’t even go near a church. The only problem was I needed to fundraise in order to have the flexibility I needed to be effective.
As my burden for my community grew, I gradually became more open to different ways I could leverage my gifts to build relationships as well as make some additional income. So I started helping out in the same band programs I came up through so many years back. I started creating opportunities to turn more kids onto jazz in the schools. I started teaching private lessons again and I started taking more gigs.
What surprised me along the way was that people seemed to be very grateful for this. As I shared my story of my journey through drug addiction to spiritual awakening to a more balanced life, people were inspired and challenged in positive ways. In the process, I slowly began to realize that I had done with my ministry the same thing I did with my music: I had created more self-imposed expectations in an attempt to live in a comfortable box created and controlled by me. And yet, because I was neglecting one of the most significant areas of my life - music - I still felt an enormous amount of pressure and challenge to my identity. Something still wasn’t right.
In short, I had to learn that there was not only a place for me but a specific purpose for me as well. I had to learn that God wanted to use me and the gifts He gave me no matter where I was or what my circumstances were. I had to learn that I had something unique to offer, something that could enrich people’s lives and give them hope. I had to learn that my music could become a powerful platform to share my unique story. So, here I am. I’m back from the dead...again.
But why now? At this point, I can think of 3 reasons: 1) Because I have a burning desire to create awe-inspiring music, and I feel like I have cheated myself and others by refusing to do something I was made to do; 2) Because I have a story that someone needs to hear, a story that will give hope to someone who is also being crushed under the weight of self-imposed expectations - theirs, other people’s, society’s - and I want them to be free to be who God made them to be; and 3) Because I live in a community where people need to be inspired to realize their potential and build community around their giftings, a community that can band together around good, useful, and beautiful things.
Through this blog, I want to continue to share my story as it unfolds through my personal reflections as I rediscover my music. I also want to share the story of my family and how we are learning to integrate faith and life, while leveraging our gifts to benefit our community. Lastly, I want to share the story of my city, a once thriving arts community that somehow became a war-zone of poverty, racial tension, gang violence, and broken families, but is currently being rebuilt and redeemed as it is getting back in touch with its roots.
So I hope you’ll join me for the continuation of this story and perhaps find courage to tell your own story.