Stephen Andrew
A funeral parlour

One day all this will be gone. For me. For you.

One day, I’ll be gone. I can’t stay in this headspace for long, contemplating my death. Spins me out. The end of others is hard enough for me to think about. But mine? In it, everything goes. Everything. My friends, my enemies, lovers, strangers, family, fortune, debt, good deals and bad. Houses, cities, countries, animals, insects, thoughts, dreams and wishes.

Some Tibetan Buddhists say our fears are the one thing that can stay with us after we die. I hope they are wrong.

There will be no earthly light, no sound. The sea, the stars, the sunshine, the river and bushland of my birthplace – gone.

Music will be silenced. Although, it will play on, and in my physical presence, after I die. At my funeral. One will be arranged, I’m sure (I hope!), with a hole or a fire for my boxed body to go into. Some people will speak, and some tears will fall. Tea in the foyer; sandwiches, cakes. Maybe a wake or something afterwards.

Please play Oscar Peterson’s Hymn To Freedom when I’m done. For me. For you. Send it into the silence after all the talk has stopped.

I want the space to fill with the stately chordings of Peterson’s piano. It starts measured and solemn, reflective and slow. A little hesitant, uncertain, perhaps. Then, heralding, four forte chords (0:45 seconds), followed by a return to a reflective tone. It’s a jazz-blues-classical hybrid with roots that sink deep into our collective musical souls. There are no sides here, except this side and the ‘other side’ and even life and death feel a bit smudged right now.

Oscar’s piano sounds like a church organ as he plays. Sounds, too, like a marching band. And a small orchestra. He is steady at the keys, but something keeps shifting as he plays; something moves and won’t be stilled.

A minute and a half in, a subtle, fingered flourish welcomes in brushes and bass. A breeze floats across the music as a theme from the opening section is revisited, unlocked and released into the supportive hands of the rhythm section. It’s like a newborn baby being handed to its mother for the first time. Here some soothing is let loose, to fly, to be free.

At three minutes, the brushes are deftly exchanged for sticks. Ride cymbal ting and bass fingerboard buzz and unhit hi-hat huffs embrace the piano. The swing rocks between melancholy and hope, despair and some sort of salvation.

Three minutes forty-six and the piano rolls like an ocean as the basic chords are played with shaking hands, rapida arpeggio, ecstatic fingers, swells of sound, deepened down and lifted skyward, simultaneously. Drummer Ed Thigpen simply press rolls portentously on the snare. Ray Brown’s bass, swamped and carried, anchors the beat.

Then, at four minutes twenty-seven, a revelation.

Freedom? Rebirth? Transformation? Release? An epiphany? Maybe all of these. There is a calm that settles across the trio here. The striving and the grasping have gone, the attainment has occurred, and all that’s left is ‘hymn’ (as a verb, a singing of praise). This is the end: it is the beginning.

For the final words of his “I have a dream” speech, Martin Luther King goes back into history to quote an old spiritual song: “Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last”. Note the present tense of the lyric.

Written and recorded a year before King’s speech, Hymn To Freedom also seems to be already thanking God for the freedom that was still being sought by those in the civil rights movement. King and Peterson seem to be saying that freedom will come out of a dream, but that that dream is real, now. Hymn To Freedom sounds both prescient and present.

It’s how I want to go (after I’m gone). From what, is kind of easy to say. To where is impossible, in my mind, to know. Somewhere, and somewhere different to the place that those still living inhabit. Hymn To Freedom (for me, for you) is the way I want to go out.

©Stephen Andrew.

Stephen Andrew is a psychotherapist, writer and musician. A former contributor to Rolling Stone Australia, Rhythms and Juke, he is also a multi-instrumentalist of The Stereo Stories Band. Guitar, bass, vocals, drums...