by Nowick Gray




Bob Marley sang it best, bringing into mass consciousness the concept of jammin’—the musicians’ favourite pastime. Jimi Hendrix was another legendary aficionado of the art of the jam, honing his chops by sitting in at night clubs after hours. And the jazz greats, it should go without saying… except at a jazz festival today you are more likely to see the players reading from charts. True improvisation, when predictable marketing comes into play, I guess gets too risky.



More than entertainment, jamming brings us into the heart of organic life itself, into the core creative force, into the perpetual motion of Flow.

Long committed to the practice of a balanced life, I once conceived of it as a kind of “lifestyle architecture.” But as one desired project gives way to another over time, a more appropriate model comes to the fore: improvisation. Being willing to tear down or leave behind one edifice to build another, or to ride out free of solid structures altogether.

In making live, spontaneous, original music with others, we ride the roller coaster of creation itself, with no time to think in our static ways. We must bring everything we have learned or suffered or desired in the past into that arrow of forward motion, too fast and immediate to know what’s coming next. Bringing the best of who we are to the shared container, we have nothing left to constrain the joy of living fully. We fly forward, not random but grounded in trust, guided by our muscle memory of what works to nurture beauty, harmony, coherence.

All that said, it’s naïve to think that good music results when “anything goes.” Music, like life, or any other art, requires experience and sensitivity to turn out better than a chaos, a shambles, a shapeless porridge. As a hand drummer I strive to find the appropriate balance in any given situation between a solid foundational beat, and more inventive variations.

How does all this apply to you, if you are not a musician?

Step outside of your established self, for a moment. Suspend your beliefs. Imagine a view with no room. Think Nature, raw and ready for what comes next.

Picture a universal avatar, who responds from the heart to notions of nationhood; juggles eternal truths for closer inspection; tries on hats of other identity. Taking the path that always opens, one foot forward.

When you dance, try moving from the belly. Do improv as a political practice: could it be any worse? We just might glimpse the possible beyond the impossible closing walls.

Nature, Culture and Spirit are all organic (which is to say living) in their essence. Not fixed, not static, not formulated and dissected and rigidly defined once and for all. But evolving, morphing, transforming, growing, changing… alive. Even that trinity of realms are not separate, but overlapping lenses of our whole reality. In a college course I took on music improvisation, the instructor gave us our first homework assignment: Listen to nature.

A spiritual culture is not dogmatic, restrictive, jealous or guarded. It favors adaptation, innovation, creativity, respect, harmony, expression, ecstasy, fun, sharing, beauty, communion, communication, cooperation, intuition, and freedom.

The anthropologist Mircea Eliade observed that traditional cultures conceived of time as a circle. Changes over time meant little more than repetitions of the “myth of eternal return.” Western thought broke that circle of tradition and laid time out on a linear railroad track bound for “the end of history.” If it appears that 2020 has brought us close to the end of that line, it’s probably by design.

Could we not update the time-honored circle, making use of our progressivist notions of evolution, without discarding the natural and human altogether?

How about the spiral as a vehicle of change? That figure would suit what works for music: where solo melodies and polyrhythms can lead the bass beat structure into pleasing avenues of expression, while still respecting the comfort of the common ground.

The circle formed in moving time is a spiral. Always the next moment brings a new resolution, yet unresolved for what comes after. We enter the realm of meta: as the Tibetan chant says, going beyond, beyond… even beyond beyond! (Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate).

We can use tradition to depart from. We can critique present and past politics to prime a springboard to something other. That leap requires letting go of fear. A good antidote to fear of the unknown is to acknowledge the madness and folly of continuing on the dreadful path of the known. That time to leap, unfortunate or not, is now.

“The path of the wanderer, renegade, or spiritual warrior (all of whom, in their own ways, are dedicated to bringing genuine light into our world by making the darkness conscious) is far from an easy road to travel, and this path gets narrower and narrower… as there are so many traps, temptations, and distractions that can steer us away from what we are here to accomplish.”Bernhard Guenther

We born of the last century were programmed into that linear mindset of Western “civilization” that discarded the ancient cultures in favor of a “brave new world” of urban life and technology, a one-way ticket to… where?

Returning to my own life story, I have noticed rather a recurring pattern—a repeating cycle, in each successive phase of a nomadic life—of attraction, adaptation, assimilation, turning to alienation/disillusionment, detachment, disconnection, leading to a new discovery or decision. Coming to the end of each stage, I arrive at the gateway to change.

I like to think that along the way I progressed, in following an inner call to the wild and free, while seeking also a sustainable home close to nature. Neither stuck in a stagnant circle somewhere in a suburb, nor aimlessly adrift on a solo jam to nowhere… but rather like the eagle in the Rainbow song…


We circle around, we circle around, the boundaries of the Earth… the boundless universe.

I gather these leaves before you, not as an altar to my unique or common history, but to light a small fire for your own inspiration, to warm your hands as you contemplate the course of your life, and of our pressing predicament.

What are you called to play next, on this instrument of your life, to sound in our shared song?




Nowick Gray writes from Salt Spring Island, BC. His books of genre-bending fiction and creative nonfiction explore the borders of nature and civilization, imagination and reality, choice and manifestation. Connect at NowickGray.com to read more. A regular contributor to The New Agora, Nowick also offers perspectives and resources on alternative culture and African drumming,and helps other writers as a freelance copyeditor at HyperEdits.com.


[image credits: tipi and firejam, Nowick Gray; spiral and eagle, royalty-free images from Designrr]