Culture Counter Culture


The Rake’s Progress: In the Madhouse (1735) by William Hogarth

I’ve often lamented becoming a professional musician, but not because of the poor pay or the way that one is perceived by those who “don’t get it,” but rather because I seldom get to go hear music or attend events that I’d like to because of work. Of course, a higher tax bracket might be nice. (It might even help me pay off the student loans.) But that’s not why I got into music in the first place, and it’s certainly not going to be the reason I quit, if I quit, which I have no plans to do at this time, anyway. Besides, music is something that humans do independently of the money stream. In fact, it’s something we’ve done long before money was part of our consciousness. But, please, until we have a different way of negotiating our ever globalized culture, don’t take this to mean that I’m offering to work for free; let it not be said that Ratzo B. Harris can’t be bought! At least for the time being. But I also say this because today’s world of music, while filled with heartfelt respect and affection, is also filled with contradictions and subterfuge that can lead many to psychic states ranging from hilarious disbelief to despondent bitterness. I myself have personally heard stories and seen examples of aspiring music students who were told by their composition teachers that certain techniques or combinations of instruments in the student’s homework cannot work, only to find the discarded lessons’ failings featured large in their professors’ next masterpieces. And it was Igor Stravinsky who was supposed to have said, “Good composers borrow, great composers steal,” an adage he apparently borrowed as a misquoting of T. S. Eliot. (Maybe he was mitigating his signature “Petrushka chord.”)

This sour-ish sounding theme was inspired by several things that have transpired in the last week, not the least of which were the controversial resignations of two prestigious members of the Minnesota Orchestra and the impending bankruptcy of the New York City Opera. While music will go on somewhere and somehow, the loss of the latter will probably go unnoticed among the majority of New York City residents, much as the falling from grace and potential demise of the former will not be considered important by most the minions of Minneapolis. On the national scene, the issue is hardly an issue at all. To most Americans, New York music is about Broadway shows and male vocalists in front of big bands, while Minneapolis is about an artist known as Prince. Never mind that the labor dispute of the Minneapolis Orchestra is a microcosmic mirror of the nation’s economic woes, or that the New York City Opera illustrates how musicians’ giving of their talents so that all can hear great music will not go unpunished. Our culture is far too saturated with music. Americans don’t need to think too hard—or too long—about what they hear to be able to hum an almost reasonable facsimile of it while going about their daily activities. It’s a case of not enough people knowing why (or even how) to give a damn to make a difference in the outcomes of these two institutions. Now if Sir Paul initiated a Kickstarter campaign to fund his next orchestral work, that would be a worthy cause!

It’s no wonder that—after years of practice, study, networking, brainstorming, and mostly thankless hard work—many musicians toss in the towel and take up “real” careers, such as selling real estate or teaching. But, as William Shakespeare once pointed out, a “musician’s melancholy is fantastical,” and many musicians, whether or not they give up the ghost, become depressed about the state of the art. After all, it’s a very competitive business that often demands that a process of mental and emotional compartmentalization take place to cope with the stress of getting, and keeping, work. This was driven home to me when I found out that a younger musician I know has been hospitalized for mental trauma associated with trying to negotiate the music scene. While I’m not privy to all of the details, I am reminded of great musicians of the past who befell similar situations: Robert Schumann, Hugo Wolf, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, and Charles Mingus were all institutionalized for being “touched by the gods.” The fact is that most musicians are intelligent and sensitive individuals who can easily be shaken to the core, especially when the “real world” delivers one of its brutal and devastating blows. The case of Butch Warren, whose career is marked with bouts of depression is an example. Another important figure is bassist James Jamerson, the only musician on Motown Record’s roster kept on a retainer. He felt that his true talent was as an acoustic bassist, but because almost all of his recording work was done on the electric bass guitar, he felt artistically stifled and eventually drank himself to death. I know, though, that one can break through the feelings of despair and hopelessness and will work and pray for my colleague’s imminent recovery.

One of the most iconic sagas of a musician caught between the rock-and-hard-place of art and life is that of Billie Holiday. (Whatever you do, don’t believe the story presented in the movie Lady Sings the Blues. In a class about her that was taught by Dr. Lewis Porter, it was proven that the only two things accurately represented in it were: 1) there was a person who called herself Billie Holiday and 2) she could sing. Instead read the book Billie Holiday: Wishing On the Moon, by Donald Clarke. Even though his writing is more than a bit judgmental, he sticks a little closer to the truth than the movie or Holiday’s autobiography, from which the aforementioned movie took its name.) She was invoked in a comment from last week as the first African American vocalist to be featured in a band led by a white musician, Artie Shaw. I would qualify the statement by pointing out the fact that it was a big band that Shaw led. Holiday had already recorded with Benny Goodman in smaller ensembles as early as 1933. (Holiday joined Shaw’s organization in 1938, after an unsatisfying stint with Count Basie’s orchestra. Her associations with Goodman and Basie were brokered by John Hammond, who was Holiday’s manager at the time.) Her life and career traveled a tightrope of drug and alcohol addiction, coupled with abusive relationships that devastated her body and voice. Still, she was an outspoken critic of racism both on and off the bandstand.

The commenter also brought his own college-days experience of studying with one of Artie Shaw’s alto saxophonists, Hank Freeman. Freeman also played in bands led by Glenn Miller and Bunny Berigan and recorded extensively. The irony of that commenter’s being “ignorantly unimpressed” with Freeman’s credentials was what struck me the most. I, too, have been guilty of being ignorant of the stature of many of the musicians I’ve worked with and for. Being primarily a free-lance musician, I tend to walk into situations cold and learn about the people I’m hired to work with as the job goes along. The idea of the importance to American music of a large group of relatively unknown sidemen as being at least as equal to the “name” they’re supporting is one that should be looked at more closely. In the next several upcoming posts I plan to compare and contrast several.

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8 thoughts on “Culture Counter Culture

  1. Paul

    You underestimate the importance of the orchestra. Thiere is a lot of civic pride here, and even those who have no particular interest in orchestral music feel a sense of general loss and disappointment.

    1. Ratzo B. Harris

      Thanks for your valuable comment. It’s very true that community-based music programs, which include orchestras, are of profound importance to socio-cultural cohesion and civic pride. But I hope I wasn’t misunderstood: I believe that orchestras, no matter how socio-economically divisive they are (high ticket costs that literally stratify their audiences by seating and dress), should be available in great number throughout every city, town, and municipality. I think that every elementary and secondary school should have at least one orchestra, concert band, choir, marching band, jazz, rock, funk, hip-hop, and Latin band class to play for school functions and double as a place for students to have their homework from their theory classes performed. Sadly, the thrust of education and cultural development is towards other fields and music programs of every type are, through defunding, made “trivial” to the higher pursuits of hegemonic interests that see music as part of a larger field of interest called “entertainment.” My apologies if this was lost by the use of rhetorical irony in my post.

  2. Paul H. Muller

    Almost every one of the musicians I know who make their living through music are under stress – opportunities to perform are fewer and the pay is less than in previous times. Even our academic friends are facing pressure from budget reductions and a preference by administrations for using adjunct faculty instead of providing tenured positions. Combine that with our capitalist culture and how we tend to judge ourselves by consumer values – and you have a toxic recipe for low self esteem. And yet, paradoxically, I’ve seen arguments made that the state of the art is higher than ever: more orchestras, better players, etc. And now the Internet that allows unprecedented control by the composer of creation, distribution and promotion of musical works.

    I think the answer lies in finding community – in person or on-line. Become part of a group where you can share your art and where it will be heard and appreciated – or perhaps criticized – but in any case taken seriously. Some sort of emotional support system should be a priority for every artist. The paradigm is changing – evolve and survive…

    1. Ratzo B. Harris

      Here, here! But the 800 lb. gorilla in the room is how the financial security being felt by musicians is a trend that is becoming ubiquitous, and has so over the last fifty years. Of course, there are many musicians who would argue that this has always been the case for their ilk. I agree that it’s about establishing networks for making music happen. I hope to piggy back on this in the next post. Thanks.

  3. Catharine Buchanan

    After college, the same year I moved into Manhattan, my girlfriend introduced me to a close friend of hers from high school in Georgetown: Catharine Buchanan, who she knew as “Amy” before she changed her name to “Catharine” after high school. By any name, Buchanan was startling beautiful, sensitive, and friendly.

    The previous year, pianist Don Shirley had commented to me that people who were uncommonly attractive in a physical sense frequently faced a daedalean quandary because an unintentional and unconscious sexual allure and/or ocular intimidation often overshadowed that person’s inner self and merit. To my bewilderment, Shirley then included myself in this category. Concurrently, while working together at the Patelson Music House, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Vlahos (now a stage director), also startled me by enthusing that I was substantially more handsome than most classical musicians. Like many of us entering middle age, I suppose, I used to be better looking than now.

    Back to the introduction: After dinner and drinks, including Catharine ordering champagne that I really couldn’t afford, we went back to Buchanan’s lower East Side apartment because she was excited about showing her music studio to a composer.

    To this day, when I remove the Indonesian batiked sarongs covering the equipment in my studio, the memory of Catharine explaining how she used the richly colored and patterned cloths to protect against dust washes over me unpredictably. Using the sarongs is an aesthetically pleasing and practically useful custom I learned from Buchanan that evening in New York City.

    You see, together with reading about travails musicians face in Culture Counter Culture, horrific traumas from Madonna Ciccone’s past were in the news today, and the combination conjured the memory of Catharine. At the time we met, she had recorded a song composed by Ciccone, and produced by Jellybean Benitez: Sidewalk Talk. Catharine is the lead vocalist, and Madonna sings important accompanying vocals, together with some of the lead. The song reached number one on the dance charts in 1984, and number eighteen on the pop charts in 1985. Listening to her rhythmically charged, natural sounding singing on the song, it is evident that Buchanan was on the threshold of a promising career. (Several YouTube entries for Sidewalk Talk fail to mention Catharine Buchanan, whose first name is frequently misspelled elsewhere.)

    Some time after meeting her, Catharine moved to London, and we fell out of touch. When the news filtered in that Buchanan had succumbed to cancer in 2001, it was incomprehensibly tragic. Today, I learned online that Catharine had become a florist at Claridge’s, and I wonder what events led to her apparently leaving music because the only other recording that seems to exist is Love Is, a single from 1988 released in Europe on Arista. Perhaps there are more recordings somewhere, together with songs she may have composed.

    I never did have a chance to thank Catharine for the elegantly soothing and preservative decorative element that enhances my studio, and I wonder how she navigated the challenging circumstances described by Don Shirley in her brief life. That night in New York City, Catharine was an inspired and ambitious artist in her twenties swimming upstream against a world that tended not to take her seriously because she was not only too physically attractive in general, but also because she was an extremely attractive woman, where the discrimination Shirley believed in is much stronger than that for men. I wish she was still here making music, afterwards draping a varicolored batiked sarong over the new keyboard she once excitedly showed me.

    1. Ratzo B. Harris

      Thank you for championing the memory of Catherine Buchanan. Her talent was obviously not lost on the music industry, although the music industry seems to have been lost on her. I will look for more of her work.

  4. AGM

    From what I know of the Minneapolis Orchestra (not enough probably) dispute, the aspect that caught my notice was that even as the corporate suits that run the orchestra were finishing an enormously expensive glitzy orchestral hall (the analogue to all those fabulously costly football and baseball stadiums being built), it was attempting to cut down on the pay and benefits of the musicians who actually make the music. This is a common story in Corporate America these days. It is this aspect of the situation that I think goes to the heart of your post. Personally, I would prefer a stellar orchestra in a middlin’ hall, to a middlin’ orchestra in a stellar hall.

  5. Beth Buchanan

    I’m Catharine Buchanan’s cousin Beth. I question my own mortality knowing that she died at the same age I am now, 43. We were close until she moved to London and I have a CD with some of her music. Her mother also has some of her recordings. Feel free to contact me for more info. I miss her. I always looked up to her.


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