Walking the Walk

I spent the latter half of last week in Hollywood, California, for the ASCAP “I Create Music” Expo, an event which inspires my once-a-year trek there each April. This annual coming together of music-makers from all points along the stylistic continuum is always a mind opener and this year was no exception. The biggest thrill for me this time was chatting briefly at a reception with Jeff Lynne (of ELO and Traveling Wilburys fame). I tried to convince him that there has been “listenable” classical music since Tchaikovsky, whom he acknowledged as one of his idols in a one-on-one interview earlier in the day.

“I love classical music because I’m really into melody,” Lynne exclaimed to me during our two-minute conversation. “But I can’t stand all that atonal breaking glass which is what all that modern classical music is… I guess I said the wrong thing to you.” I gave him my business card with the hope that he’ll explore AMC’s various websites and find something to listen to that changes his mind.

It was also fascinating to learn that the father of Christopher “Drumma Boy” Gholson, who has been a leading producer in the Atlanta hip-hop scene, has been the first chair clarinetist in the National Symphony and that Gholson was also active as a clarinetist growing up and played in his school’s wind band. But perhaps the most insightful comments about the malleability of music came from country music legend Ricky Skaggs who in recent years has also been an ardent campaigner for conservative political candidates. Someone in the audience claimed it was difficult to reconcile his love for bluegrass with his own liberal leanings, to which Skaggs replied that music should be “one of those things where we can lay our differences down.” Perhaps even more poignant was Skaggs’s explanation of how he balances his devout Christian faith with his own mostly secular music-making:

I do music and I’m a Christian. But there’s no Christian basketball and no Christian football, so I don’t do Christian music.

All in all it was quite an exciting three days to which I tacked on a Sunday of wandering around Hollywood Boulevard and soaking in the Walk of Fame, a tourist mecca which honors celebrities for their contributions to film, television, live theater, radio, and recordings. Focusing on music, inevitably, it was instructive for me to see who was there and who wasn’t. As you probably already know—and might imagine even if you don’t—the musicians represented on the walk mostly come from the various realms of popular music: e.g. from Frank Sinatra and Gladys Knight to Ozzy Osbourne and Britney Spears. But it’s by no means exclusively pop oriented. A wide array of celebrated classical performers are there (from Jascha Heifetz and Arturo Toscanini to Maria Callas and Placido Domingo) and even a few composers, most of whom admittedly had double lives as performers (e.g. Leonard Bernstein). But it was nice to stumble across Igor Stravinsky, even though the absence of Aaron Copland seemed surprising—after all, he actually won an Oscar for a film score at some point. A broad range of jazzers also made the grade, including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Bennie Goodman, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, and even Thelonious Monk and Herbie Hancock. But once again, some omissions seemed odd—there’s no star for Charlie Parker or John Coltrane even though there’s one for Kenny G. Then again there’s a star for Andrew Lloyd Webber but nothing for Richard Rodgers which seems the most egregious sin of omission of all considering Rodgers’s impact on all five of the categories acknowledged on the walk.

Perhaps most disconcerting for me, though, was that even though some of the aforementioned names had avant-garde inclinations, no one thoroughly immersed in such activity has yet been immortalized on Hollywood Boulevard. Arguably this makes sense considering that dedication to experimentation is fundamentally in opposition to popular taste. But still, it made me wonder: Wouldn’t be cool if John Cage, Harry Partch, Bebe Barron or Mildred Cooper Couper showed up on the Walk? I can think of countless others I’d want to see there, but I singled out those four because each had a direct connection to the Los Angeles area. Of course, you have to be alive to get a star (someone needs to pay that $25,000 maintenance fee), so why not give one to Morton Subotick, Ornette Coleman, or Daniel Lentz, all of whom contributed greatly to the L.A. music scene? Or what about John Corigliano and Tan Dun, both Oscar winners? And, if local Tinseltown cred isn’t necessary, why not Elliott Carter? It would be a nice way to celebrate his 101st birthday. And imagine Jeff Lynne stumbling upon such a star.

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