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Winter 2010

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Winter 2010 - Feature

Tam & Young Chair Enhances Arts at ‘Iolani


New York Times music writer Nate Chinen ’94 spent a week visiting classes at ‘Iolani and speaking to students.
The Tam & Young Visual and Performing Arts Chair was established in 1999 to further promote the arts at ‘Iolani School.

Thanks to the generosity of Anthony A. and Anna S. U. Tam and their daughter and son-in-law, the Tam & Young Arts Chair brings dozens of visiting artists to ‘Iolani each year. Artists work with faculty to share their knowledge and talents with students.

New York Times music writer Nate Chinen ’94 spent a week in early November visiting classes and delivering a chapel talk to seniors.

‘Iolani School welcomes additional support to fund the arts chair. For information, call the Office of Institutional Advancement at 943-2269.

Nate Chinen ’94 with his wife Ashley Lederer and parents Nanci and Ted Chinen.

Listening to that Small, Still Voice

By Nate Chinen ’94

I’m really happy to be with you this morning, as I have been all week. Astonishing as it may seem, especially to me, I moved to the mainland 15 years ago. But listen: walking around campus the last few days has brought everything back into focus. And as I stand here in this chapel, it feels like no time has passed at all. Those of you who are Sons and Daughters of ‘Iolani have some idea of what I’m talking about when I say that I spent a lot of mornings in these pews over the years. When you all say, “We beseech thee to regard with favor, and to visit with thy blessing,” I’m right there with you. I mean, I could mutter that prayer in my sleep (and on some mornings, I probably did).

As you have heard, I write about music for a living. So in my line of work, I see a lot of shows and hear a lot of albums, and do my best to frame my thoughts on the page. I also try to place music in context, addressing the circumstances that made it possible. To that end, it sometimes helps to spend a little time with artists for a profile, or a feature, something that I discussed a couple of days ago in Mrs. (Karin) Swanson’s Writing for Media class. When I was home last year, I spent a couple of afternoons with Jack Johnson and his family for a feature in the Times. And as it happens, I ran into them just yesterday at Cholo’s in Haleiwa, discussing their Kokua Festival over a plate of nachos.

Listen: I had no idea that this was where I was headed. When I was sitting where you are, I had vague, romantic notions of some other kind of life. I remember in my junior year, I wrote a short story about a jazz trumpeter who played the club circuit in Chicago, and lived out of his car. It was understood that this was the future I saw for myself, except that my instrument is the drums. My teachers and my parents humored me on this point. (Well, my teachers did, anyway.) I know I spent a lot of time asking Mr. (Curtis) Abe about the jazz life, and I basically wore out a mix tape of Charlie Parker music that I had been given, around ninth or tenth grade, by Mr. (Christopher) Strawn.

Listen: these last few days, I’ve met with some of you in class, and that’s the word that has kept coming to mind, in Stage Band, in Women in Literature, in African-American Literature, in Creative Nonfiction. And when I say listen, I mean it on a number of levels. There’s the simple fact of paying attention, being open and awake to what’s around you. There’s the aspect of hearing someone, or hearing them out, when they have something to say. And then there’s a slightly more mysterious variation, which has to do with listening to your own inner voice, the voice that guides you through uncertain terrain.

You heard me mention Chicago. Well, it turned out that my immediate destiny was actually Philadelphia. I went to U Penn, with intentions to write for the school paper and soak up the city’s jazz culture. The first thing never happened, but the second thing happened almost from the moment I hit the ground. And something else too: During my first semester, I took a course in poetry. Working with language that intently, something clicked, something new. And before long, I had declared a poetry major, to the utmost delight of my parents. At least a jazz musician does something when he’s not sleeping in his car. A poet: well, what was that all about?

I couldn’t have known it at the time, but I was laying the groundwork for my career. Now I’m not a poet, just as I’m not a working jazz musician. But the combination of tools and strategies that I cobbled together through those experiences, that’s what made me who I am. And because I came through the pipeline at `Iolani, and then encountered the rigors of the Penn English department, I also had grounding in critical thought. And I can tell you, I draw on all of this experience just about every day.
Now this all sounds very logical and sequential, but I first began writing about music entirely by accident. The summer of my sophomore year at Penn, I stayed in Philly, and got an unpaid internship at the Philadelphia City Paper. I was opening mail and doing database work, as glamorous as it gets. But after I had been there for a month or two, I heard that inner voice, and what it told me was, you should try this. I knew about jazz, and I knew how to write. So I approached the paper’s music editor with some ideas. Soon she was giving me assignments: a CD review here, a short feature there. One thing led to another, and I found myself busier than I could have imagined. I became the chief jazz critic for the Philadelphia City Paper, usually writing pieces late at night, after I had finished my reading and coursework for school. Nothing could have prepared me for this, and yet, looking back on my time here and at Penn, I couldn’t have been better prepared.

After graduating, I spent a summer here at home, catching up with friends, spending long hours at the beach, hiking in Waianae and on the windward side. A lot of my fellow students at Penn had been recruited by companies in finance, making a smooth transition from the Wharton School to the business life. There was no such system in place for a poetry major, and when I asked the City Paper to bring me on staff, they didn’t have the budget. So I did the only reasonable thing: I listened to that inner voice, and moved to New York City. I had $80, and I went through that in one meal. But I was at the heart of everything. I couldn’t have been happier, even if the cheap room I found was literally the closet of some old guy’s apartment. For six months I slept on the lower tier of a bunk bed, surrounded by all of his junk. The top bunk was stacked to the ceiling with boxes of dusty office papers, dating back to 1974. It wasn’t sleeping in a car, but it was close.

I was working temp jobs, and scrounging for freelance writing gigs. Financially, I wasn’t making it. But I felt that I was in the right place; I had an instinct. And as it turned out, things eventually worked out. I met George Wein, a legendary music producer who was looking to write his autobiography. We wrote it together over three years, in New York and at his home in the South of France. Meanwhile I got a column in JazzTimes magazine. That led to a freelance gig with the Village Voice, which I had always considered the big time. And it was my work at the Voice that drew the attention of the New York Times, a little over four years ago. In many ways it’s my dream job: a field that keeps me constantly challenged, and yes, always listening.

You all heard a scripture reading this morning, about the prophet Elijah. He seeks out the voice of God, and it comes not in the form of a howling wind, or in the rumble of an earthquake, or in the roar of a massive fire. It comes in what the King James Bible describes as “a still, small voice.” Imagine if Elijah hadn’t been listening carefully at that moment. Imagine what he would have missed.

I’m not here to say that every voice in your head is the voice of God; that would be delusional. And I’m not here to say that I heard God’s voice myself; I’m not any kind of prophet. But as you all begin to face the prospect of life beyond this campus, I want you to think about what it means to listen: against the rumble of expectations, against the roar of convention, against the howling wind of this-is-what-I’m-supposed-to-do. Whether you’re heading toward a life in medicine or social work or even journalism, you’ll only do well to listen: to that still, small voice, whispering in that moment of silence. Mahalo.

(New York Times music writer Nate Chinen ’94, whose visit was made possible by the Tam & Young Arts Chair, spoke to ‘Iolani’s senior Class of 2010 on November 5 in St. Alban’s Chapel.)

Comments from Readers

  1. 9a40ed0a14d274e1875b68892ef648f8
    John Ishikawa on 1/25/2010 at 10:16am

    Hi Couz,

    Great Job !! Congrats !

    John Ishikawa
    C/O 94