God Makes the Music 

These words came to me shortly after awakening one morning: “Lullaby in Birdland,” which I scribbled down on a notepad I keep why my bed to capture the night’s flotsam. I had almost let the words pass by, but then I wondered what they were doing in my head in the first place. I vaguely remembered they were the title of something, but what? Thanks to Google, I was not kept in suspense for long. They were a song title, slightly garbled in transmission: “Lullaby of Birdland,” a jazz standard by George Shearing. Not a song I was familiar with, but thanks to YouTube, I was able to track down versions by such jazz greats as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Count Basie and Mel Torme. That still begged the question: Why had those words popped into my head? The lyrics were of little help when I looked them up. It was just a love song, with some scat thrown in — at least in Sarah Vaughn’s rendition. “Birdland” was a reference to the New York’s Birdland jazz club, whose owner wanted Shearing to compose a theme song for a disk jockey show he was planning.

Then I learned Shearing had cranked out the tune in under 10 minutes, and everything became clear. He explained how he came to write the song in an interview with Terry Gross, host of NPR’s Fresh Air: “I heard it in my head. I wrote it in 10 minutes — I always say 10 minutes and 35 years in the business — over a steak in my dining room when I lived in New Jersey.” He joked, “I went back to that same butcher a thousand times trying to get that same steak again.”

Joking aside, Shearing makes a point that many creative artists can appreciate. For every 10 minutes in which inspiration arrives unbidden and seemingly without effort, there are 35 years of hard slogging. I am not a musician, but I have learned something about how the process works both as a photographer and as a writer. With photography, you might think the image is just handed to you, and all you have to do is click the shutter. But it’s funny how that usually happens only after you’ve taken a great many bad pictures — a situation that, in my case at least, stubbornly persists to this day. With writing, I may hear words in my head the way Shearing heard music. But it’s rarely more than a phrase or two at a time. For example, I might wake up with the words, “Lullaby in Birdland,” floating through my head. Where did that come from? What does it mean? And the chase is on.

Where does the inspiration come from? “I play the notes as they are written,” Bach said, “but it is God who makes the music.” Bach, of course, wrote a lot of church music, so it was only natural that he might invoke divine inspiration. Indeed, he wrote the initials S.D.G. at the end of many of his compositions, short for soli Deo gloria (Latin for “glory to God alone.” And where did Shearing’s inspiration come from when he wrote “Lullaby of Birdland?” I can’t say, but chances are it wasn’t from the steak he was eating.

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