Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Scat Man

By Matt Hanks

DECEMBER 8, 1997:  Superman may be dead, but the bizarro world is still spinning. And its renaissance man is one Mark Weiss. How else would you explain an individual whose resume reads as follows: counselor with a doctorate in psychology and several published writings, accomplished scat singer, expert Tibetan rubbing bowl player, and creator of the world’s largest balloon sculpture. If you’re looking for rhyme or reason to his vocational muse, you won’t find it. But you will find a man who is driven, simply, by his own bliss.

Two of the feathers in Weiss’ cap have their roots in his childhood. While still in high school he took a career aptitude test, “The kind of test bankers make their sons take to decide what they’ll major in at Harvard,” he quips. The proctor who graded Weiss’ test told him that he would excel equally as a therapist and a musician. “She also told me that if you have a talent and you don’t use it, it will come back and bite you in the ass,” says Weiss. “I really took that seriously.”

Weiss attended college in Los Angeles, where he wasted no time in becoming a full-fledged hep cat. L.A. offered a fertile jazz scene, and he spent most of his nights as a gigging trombonist and bass player. But Weiss’ discovery of his true musical calling was both a necessity and a happy accident. He picks up the story, “For some time at that point I had been taking these long road trips with a good friend of mine who was also a jazz musician. To pass the time, and also to get in a little practice, we would sing our respective parts to a few jazz standards that we knew. That’s how I started scat singing, from a lack of instruments.” As bad luck would have it, it was also around that time that Weiss developed a rather serious case of arthritis. He took all these merging factors as a sign: “I sold my trombone and bought a bunch of psychology books … and started to get serious about my singing.”

But aptitude tests and health problems still don’t explain how Weiss’ career paths intersect. He’s the first to admit that they may not intersect at all. Weiss chooses his words carefully. “The proper term would probably be ‘align.’ If there’s a place where this alignment shows up the most, it’s around spirituality. In therapy I work with people to find a sense of meaning in their lives, which is essentially a spiritual goal. The ultimate goal is not just to be okay. The ultimate goal is to go to a higher level of well-being. Clients [of mine] that know I’m a scat singer see me as having a very full life. They see that I’ve reached that higher level.”

Mark Weiss with his Tibetan rubbing bowl (projected on its surface are pictures of his balloon sculptures).
photo by Daniel Ball
Weiss began scat singing publicly about 20 years ago. He’s performed everywhere from large concert halls to small wedding receptions. Over time he’s honed his craft and introduced new elements into his repertoire, one of the most interesting being the Tibetan rubbing bowl. The Tibetan bowl is a large, thick stone object about 18 inches in diameter. When its periphery is rubbed in a certain manner, it emits a deep yet piercing drone. Weiss recalls, “The first time I heard it, it just knocked me out.”

Of course, everyone has their moments of inspiration, but Weiss turns those moments into life-long pursuits. No impulse is beyond indulging, so long as it takes him to that higher level of spirituality; a plane where not just a couple but all of his pursuits “align.”

He jokes that his idea for balloon sculptures began “as an exercise in representational art. It looks exactly like a world’s biggest balloon sculpture. Never fails.” But over time (he’s been assembling these sculptures for more than 20 years) Weiss has found a grounding in psychological theory for this massive undertaking – usually a day-long project that requires anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 balloons. “It has a lot of application to the idea of peak experience. Most people believe that we learn by plodding through life in a certain linear progression. But there’s also a process where we learn an incredible amount very deeply, in a very brief period of time. … The balloon sculptures can be like that. It can teach equality between adults and children. It can teach that you simply can’t do certain things wrong.”

The same can be said, it would seem, of Weiss’ life. He’s been true to his own talents, and what’s wrong with that? “If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that everyone’s a teacher,” he says reflectively. “You cannot not be one. You can basically be a teacher for love or a teacher for fear. That’s really the only choice you have in life. Everything else is an outcome of that choice.”

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