Dai Shihan Shakuhachi Certificate for Cornelius Boots 2022

“Every creative thing leaves home and gets into trouble somewhere out there.  Me and this bamboo are all about connecting to each other and getting in creative adventures: that’s it.”

Born in 1974, my Chinese astrological sign is the tiger — the Wood Tiger to be specific.  This year, 2022, is a Water Tiger year, and I tried to be conscious of shifts and changes and transitions this year as they happened.  And they did happen.  After 20 years on the West Coast, I moved back to Pennsylvania, the state I grew up in.  Not to the same region, but still, “Penn’s Woods” all the same.  Shortly after the arduous pack n’ move process my shakuhachi teacher, Michael Chikuzen Gould, called me up with some news: he had decided to “graduate” me from Shihan to Dai Shihan.

Now, in our lineage we don’t make a great big deal about rank, status, stature, dogma or hierarchy — to say the least — but, at the end of the day, when you are dedicating your daily life and vital breath to such a rare, niche little universe, having demarcations, congratulations and, let’s say it, validations does make good, functional sense to an extent.  It feels good to have your commitments and creative efforts recognized, just as it makes sense in the earlier stages of training to have groupings of material and goal-posts to reach and eventually pass.  “Shihan” is often translated as “master,” which is a kind of short-hand for Certified Teacher.  This is the “master” of the time-honored master-apprentice scenario, and some in the shakuhachi world would prefer the “master” translation be left off the table.  Maybe they are worried about egos or abuse of authority — but to me this worrying itself sounds just like the ego in a thin disguise.

Right now, I’m purposely not reading my blog post from 9 years ago when I completed the Shihan stage (but its over here with a follow-up here if you want to travel down memory lane) but I recall saying something about it feeling more like a beginning than an ending.  That sounds so cliche, but it was true then and it is true again now.  “Dai Shihan,” as you might have guessed, is often translated as “grandmaster.”  Just as I had (internally) decided that I did not need this label or “status,” Michael suddenly decided it was time.  He basically views it as an honorary title, acknowledging dedication and contribution to the Way of Shakuhachi of some depth that goes beyond the Shihan parameters;  I guess 9 more years (after the Shihan, making it 21 years total as of this writing) of re-orienting my entire life to orbit around this bamboo fits this description. Of course, some of those Gatekeepers of the Orthodoxy of Japanese Shakuhachi might not be too excited about this “grandmaster” translation either, but you can be sure I am keen on using it.  Who wouldn’t?  I was a huge fan of Grandmaster Flash, and listening to him in 1984 would have been the first time I ever heard the term, and I still feel the influence of that mega-pioneer from my formative years, so this feels like a tip of the kangol to that as well.


My path began with curiosity, exploration and an instinctive attraction to the musical arts.  Even though we couldn’t see in the 1980’s that musical instruments were already in a societal decline compared to just 10 years earlier, on that threshold we still had the benefit of so many styles and threads co-existing and mixing into our little sphere of find-what-you-like-and-try-to-learn-everything-you-can young musician-ing: big band, New Orleans jazz, bebop, cool jazz, fusion, rock, R&B, soul, funk, 50’s rock ‘n roll, avant-garde jazz, musical theater — and these were just the genres that were still somewhat active or accessible and included the instruments we played (reeds and brass).  Beyond that there was orchestral, pop-rock, hard rock, classic rock, blues, heavy metal, rap, electronic pop, progressive rock, punk, surf rock (which sometimes retained a sax) and many more.

Trained in the essentially jazz saxophonist/woodwinder model of pedagogy from youth right on through to my Masters of Jazz Studies degree with David N. Baker, this voracious appetite is not only encouraged: it is foundational to the approach.  I have now begun to call this ethos Ellingtonianism, and every creative musician that you have ever looked up to or been inspired by is guided by some version of this, most likely.  I’m not saying there isn’t a place for extreme focus.  Narrow focus is often a prerequisite of depth, which is essential to true creative skill cultivation.  But after a period of focus, your musicianship needs to be re-contextualized into the larger landscape.

Next, you need to also have a creative voice: you need to have something to say, otherwise, we’ve heard it before.  This is too reductionistic but it gets the point across: 50% percent of what you do consists of everything your instrument was involved with before you arrived — and maybe a few more things — and the other 50% needs to be something that you have generated or created.  This is Ellingtonianism.  David Baker, Stan Kenton, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Etta James, Miles Davis, Tina Turner, David Bowie — I am confident they would all agree with this basic formula, at least as a starting point.  In fact, until my naïveté wore off, I equated Ellingtonianism with “musicianship,” and I will be making the case in other writings that this is actually true.

Instruments Are Not Styles

This is a natural confusion but it isn’t true.  If a trumpet plays jazz, is it a “jazz instrument”? If the sitar is from India, is its personality and destiny circumscribed by India? If all rock features amplifiers and drums, do a lack of amplifiers and drums mean it is not rock music?  Without going off on a rant (like the one I already deleted), let’s put it this way for now: the Academy (stagnation) and the Industry (regurgitation) would prefer the most predictable and therefore limited answers to these questions.  It also happens that any limited or limiting answers are false in the dimension of creativity. Creativity is faster than light, faster than thought and faster than culture.  Faster than Industry and much faster than Nations.  It is unlimited by an abstract, superficial notion such as Property.  Creativity and its twin Curiosity course through the veins of our universe as the primordial cause of most things we know about or enjoy, so let’s remain in reverence to those rather than only to our little constructs that we have come up with.


As a committed creative musician, rather than a predictable one, I have experienced some pushback here and there.  It has taken me over 25 years to learn how to push through the pushback, and I am still learning.  Often it is not overt negativity directed towards me, but what I have come to recognize as a kind of aloof, condescending “tolerance” — this is incredibly common for me within classical or so-called traditional spheres.

My current approach to this passive-aggressive stalemate is something like, not jumping backwards into aggressive defense, but being circumspect and compassionate — trying to patiently provide context in the face of ignorance and hubris.  If I can keep walking this higher path of illuminating rather than defending, I should be able to keep writing the books that I keep telling students are in-process — and they are.  Slowly.  Leaning back into my training and trusting my inner angels, sticking to the plan — the only plan that has ever presented itself to me — that is creative evolution, even if it seems to be happening in a poorly understood, empty landscape by myself.

To champion something means to be a standard-bearer, a proponent, an advocate.  In this sense, I am a woodwind champion.  And in a similar sense, this Dai Shihan has shifted my self-assessment right back to where my interest in shakuhachi started: to its core Zen repertoire and lineage.  Everyone knows that Zen is bigger than Japan, and so is shakuhachi.  That implies no degradation to the origin, the birth, the source, the Motherland — but every creative thing leaves home and gets into trouble somewhere out there.  Me and this bamboo are all about connecting to each other and getting in creative adventures: that’s it.  I’m thankful to have had two mentor-teachers that have seen, advocated and supported this vibrant approach, and I certainly aim to do the same for my great, dedicated students.

Today, I feel confident that all of my 5 dozen (!) compositions and arrangements for solo shakuhachi should not be seen as some fringe repertoire — a wild hair that an uppity bass clarinet guy came along and conjured to flip the bird at The Tradition.  No, that is not correct at all to me.  Today, I feel certain that all the pieces I play, all the pieces I have written, created, arranged, trained in, experimented with, taught and performed are fully and legitimately at the very core of the Living Tradition of Zen Shakuhachi.  But don’t take my word for it — go ask the bamboo.