LIFE AND ALL THAT JAZZ | WHAT 'THE DUKE' & MY DAD TAUGHT ME ABOUT LIFE, COURAGE & PURPOSE
Updated: Jun 11
My Dad was a talented jazz saxophonist who played with dance, swing and jazz bands up and down the country. If he was playing close to home, occasionally I would go along with him. I know, I know, “them there places are no place for a child” I hear you say. Well, this was the 1970’s, my Dad was a single parent of an only child and we had no extended family, so there were times when he had no choice. And, if it’s any consolation, it happened mostly when I was on school holidays. And anyway, I loved being there with him. It was such an exciting and creative environment.
I would usually be placed in the care of the barmaid (that’s what they called them then) and given a lemonade, a packet of Smiths salt ‘n shake and a quiet seat at a table in the shadows. From there, I would watch my Dad and his band mates tune up and my little heart would burst with pride. “That’s MY Daddy up there.”
I met so many interesting people on those visits. But, I was an introverted child who hardly spoke at all because of the stammer I’d developed after years and years of bullying and abuse at the hands of my violent schizophrenic mother and school bullies. I was really very happy to sit in the shadows with my lemonade and salt ‘n shake. But, lovely people would come up to chat to me. I think they were checking on me. They would do their best to engage me in conversation but I just couldn’t.
One particular night at the famous Band On The Wall in Manchester, (I must have been about 10 years old), I was sitting there sipping on my lemonade, watching my Dad and his friends tune up when a crowd of other men carrying various fascinating looking instrument cases came in. I had no idea who they were but the whole place seemed to light up and take on a new vibrant energy the minute they entered the building. “Wow”, I thought, “How can people…just people, do that?” Who were these guys?
Before long, one of the men came over to me on his way to the bar. “Want anything kid?” he asked in an accent I’d only ever heard in the movies. He was American. I only answered him with a shake of the head. He winked at me and headed to the bar. I watched him return to the stage and talk to one of the other men who was leaning on the piano. They both turned and looked straight at me. My blood ran cold and I could feel my face flush. I hated to be noticed. Being noticed, to me, meant trouble. What had I done wrong? Was Dad in trouble for bringing me? I didn’t want to leave. I wished I could shrink down, like Alice In Wonderland, and hide under the table.
The other man, who had wavy slick and shiny hair and a slim moustache, made his way over to me. Oh no!!! I was in trouble. But, he smiled and winked at me, walked straight past me to the bar. He came back to my table with a Coke and another bag of crisps. I’d never had Coke. “Here you go kid” he said. What’s your name? Oh my Lordy. That was the one question I dreaded because you couldn’t answer with a nod or a shake. You had to use actual words or you’d appear rude. And you could never appear rude! It just wasn’t allowed. “Michelle” I said, so quietly that he had to strain to hear. “Your Dad one of those guys?” he asked, pointing to the stage. He too had that exotic American accent. I nodded. “Which one?” I pointed as accurately as I could towards my Dad, so that I didn’t have to speak. “The tenor cat?” He asked. I nodded again. “Man, he’s good you know?” This prompted another, more enthusiastic, nod from me. Of course I knew!
Then, he said something that I would reflect on often over the coming years but that I’ve only recently come to understand the real meaning and significance of. “You know, the only difference between your Dad and my tenor guy, is that your Dad doesn’t believe he’s good.” Wow!
Later, I asked my Dad who the guy with the shiny hair was. He laughed gently and said “That was the Duke.” “But he’s American.” I said “How can he be related to the Queen?” He laughed harder, “He’s music royalty Babs (his nickname for me).” Duke Ellington, or ‘The Duke’ as he was known, had been in town for a big concert at the Talk of The North club and had come down to the club to have a pre concert jam session with an old friend who was in the band with my Dad. If only I’d known, maybe I’d have found my voice. There’s so much I’d love to talk to that man about now, if I had the chance. The thing is, I did have my chance, but I didn’t grasp it. I was too intent on hiding in the shadows. Something I would do for years to come…for far too long.
I learned a huge lesson that night from both The Duke and my lovely Dad. Of course, I wouldn’t be aware of it for years to come, but it would lie in wait in my memory. It was probably one of my earliest lessons about what sets people apart. About how mindset is everything. About how believing in your own abilities and talents can be the difference between sharing your gift and keeping it under wraps, hiding in the shadows. We all have gifts. And, we all have a duty to share them with others and with the world. If only more of us believed that. Don’t know what your gift is? Ask around. Ask your loved ones, your friends, your colleagues. Chances are they know. Or, get a mentor or a coach who can help you unlock your gifts.
I learned another big lesson that incredible night, about myself. I had become disconnected. From my mother, from my voice, from myself. Just as my mother was neurologically disconnected, I had chosen to disconnect because it felt safer. I would spend decades disconnected, trying to go it alone, because I truly believed it was the only way. It’s all I knew. How wrong I was! I would go as far as to say this has been my BIGGEST lesson yet. When we feel connected…to our work, to our business, to our purpose, to ourselves and to others, it’s no exaggeration to say that life is utterly transformed. We just aren’t meant to go it alone. We wouldn’t even be here if that were true. Our ancient ancestors on the plains of the Savannah literally wouldn’t have survived if they’d try to go it alone rather than acting collectively, as a tribe. They’d have become extinct and the human race as a species, would have died out.
So, if you’re feeling out of whack with your work, your business, your relationships, your purpose, yourself, the chances are you’ve become disconnected.
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