More Media Matters (Part 1)

I had planned to attend the benefit concert for percussionist-composer Warren Smith last Sunday (January 20) but ran into a snag when my car was rear-ended Saturday night while I was on my way to work. Instead of playing a short set at the Yale Club with pianist Dave Lopato, I wound up laying on a gurney at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital all night. After being X-rayed and CAT scanned and poked and wheeled around, they let me go home at 1:00 a.m. with a few prescriptions and directions to stay at home resting for a few days. I tried to ignore the doctors’ advice, but my body persuaded me to sleep through the whole thing.

Smith is a percussionist whose career cuts across stylistic boundaries like a hot knife through soft butter. He is a classically trained percussionist (he earned a master’s degree from the Manhattan School of Music in 1958) as well as an accomplished jazz player. In 1970, he and drummer Max Roach co-founded the group M’Boom, a percussion ensemble that included Roy Brooks, Joe Chambers, Omar Clay, Ray Mantilla, and Freddie Waits and other guest percussionists. They switched off playing on drum sets, timbales, orchestra bells, steel drums, congas, marimbas, vibraphones, xylophones, tympani, and smaller instruments (maracas, claves, whistles, vibraslap, etc.), but Smith was the principle timpanist for the group (the first piece in this clip, which features Smith on timpani, is mislabeled as a Max Roach composition, “Glorious Monster” (really), but is actually “Epistrophy” by Thelonious Monk. Joe Chambers takes the vibraphone solo and Roach is playing drums). Smith kept all of his gear in a room in the basement of the WestBeth government subsidized artist housing, which was flooded during Hurricane Sandy. Needless to say, he lost everything, so I hope that the concert was a success and he’ll be able to replace his instruments.

It probably isn’t news that a lot of people lost a lot during Hurricane Sandy. The boardwalks of the Jersey Shore and Long Island, meccas of teenage social life for generations past, are now a thing of the past…like beard trimmings and soap suds, washed away to sea. Over the years, I spent a lot of time in the basement studios at WestBeth. Guitarist Bruce Arnold and drummer Tony Moreno shared a space they turned into a mixed-use teaching and practice studio with a beautiful grand piano that could also make high-quality non-commercial recordings. Gone. Guitarist Steve Berger ran a well-respected repair shop in WestBeth’s basement. Also gone [1]. Flutist-composer Jamie Baum, saxophonist Chris Hunter, and drummer Nasheet Waits (who shared space with Smith) all had studio spaces there. All gone. There were more studios belonging to people whose names I don’t know; their rooms and, thus, their lives were also devastated by the flooding of lower Manhattan. Elsewhere, musicians who had managed to achieve enough of a modicum of success that they could raise families while pursuing music that satisfied their artistic integrity have been returned to something like “square one.” Drummer Art Lillard, possibly the king of the “two-figure gig” lost not only his car when his house was flooded, but most of the sheet music for his jazz combos as well as for his big band. I know I can’t mention them all and I hope that readers will add the names of musicians they know who are dealing with the aftermath of Sandy. It’s no secret that as the clock’s tick moves us ever farther away from the event (and ever closer to the next one), so also the relief that many are counting on moves farther away from them. Fortunately there are organizations which are helping musicians. The one that I’ve mentioned before is the Jazz Foundation of America. Another is MusiCares. If you want to include others, please feel free to add them in the comments section.

Of course, the GACM (Great American Culture Machine) doesn’t mention these organizations much, or the special plight of musicians. Many good musicians don’t earn incomes that meet the official poverty line, or do so sporadically. Many rely on the incomes and benefits of their spouses or remittances from their families to make ends meet. I recently received an email with the following quote:

Singers and Musicians are some of the most driven, courageous people on the face of the earth. They deal with more day-to-day rejection in one year than most people do in a lifetime. Every day, they face the financial challenge of living a freelance lifestyle, the disrespect of people who think they should get real jobs, and their own fear that they’ll never work again. Every day, they have to ignore the possibility that the vision they have dedicated their lives to is a pipe dream. With every note, they stretch themselves, emotionally and physically, risking criticism and judgment. With every passing year, many of them watch as the other people their age achieve the predictable milestones of normal life—the car, the family, the house, the nest egg. Why? Because musicians and singers are willing to give their entire lives to a moment—to that melody, that lyric, that chord, or that interpretation that will stir the audience’s soul. Singers and Musicians are beings who have tasted life’s nectar in that crystal moment when they poured out their creative spirit and touched another’s heart. In that instant, they were as close to magic, God, and perfection as anyone could ever be. And in their own hearts, they know that to dedicate oneself to that moment is worth a thousand lifetimes.

The sentiment is attributed to “David Ackert of the Los Angeles Times,” but, as of yet, I haven’t seen the quote in that publication with my own eyes. Still, the issue is important to examine, especially as times of austerity and economic disparity loom in inverse proportion to those of the hurricane relief mentioned previously.

Many are the gifted musical minds that have resigned themselves to the tenet that financial success follows a formula of inverted proportion to artistic integrity. And it would seem that the aesthetic of a successful wedding-band musician is somewhat jaded when compared to that of the avant-garde virtuoso plying his or her trade in a pass-the-hat venue. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve been told, “You sounded wonderful!” followed by, “And what do you do for a living?” It happens to this day, despite my wrinkles and grey hair (which I consider signs of success). What isn’t said is that fiscal responsibility swings independently of the artistic vision it’s attached to. There are plenty of brilliant musicians who refuse to change any of their “weird” notes who make plenty of money doing so. Miles Davis is an example. Ornette Coleman another. Joe Lovano and Fred Hersch come to mind. Conversely, there are plenty of lousy musicians who aren’t making a proverbial dime—but I’m not mentioning any names for this category.

In the final analysis, I believe that the guiding factor for these distinctions is the whim of reception. The rule of thumb for many entrepreneurial-minded music moguls is, “You want ‘em walkin’ out the door singing the music you just played.” Which can be translated into, “Play something your audience will remember.” Considering the amount of time that one’s “audience” will spend listening to one’s music (not very much), the challenge becomes to present something that is so simple that it can be easily memorized after one or two repetitions, but still so original that it doesn’t invite accusations of plagiarism. Why is this? It’s because so few people spend as much time playing music as they do listening to it (or, for far more people than I like to think about, merely attending a musical event). If a person spends ten hours a day (counting average commute time) at work, eight hours sleeping, and two-and-a-half hours eating, that leaves 41.5 hours per week for doing anything else. Very few people will dedicate the amount of time and attention needed to master an instrument or their voice beyond the easiest of musical challenges. So it’s no wonder that “Karma Chameleon” became a “classic hit” in 1983 while Miles Davis’s Decoy went largely unnoticed. It also becomes clear why the GACM can so easily push music that falls into the category “dreck” to an over-worked and culturally deprived American reception class.

In the New York Times Magazine of January 11, Steve Almond wrote about how a similar situation occurs in literature. His article, “Once Upon a Time, There Was a Person Who Said, ‘Once Upon a Time’,” describes how he was inspired to finally see the movie Momento by the papers his creative writing students were handing in that lacked formal and temporal coherency. It turns out that these students were trying to imitate the way that the movie unfolded (the story follows a man with amnesia who uses photographs and tattoos to remind himself of who he is and what he’s done). Almond considers this a trend towards the demise of a narrator in contemporary storytelling that is a result of television replacing a “concerted quest for meaning with a frantic pursuit of wonder.” I think that he could replace the word “wonder” with “intensity” without sacrificing any truth of the matter. The “wonder” of Lady Gaga is actually a reaction to her “intense” visual messaging, much like the case of Boy George twenty years earlier, and the intensity of Beethoven’s four-note adumbration harkens back to Haydn’s symphonic “surprise,” only Beethoven didn’t let them get to sleep first.

There is a chasm between the work-a-day world of the so-called “nine-to-fiver,” with a 41.5 hour-per-week allowance for exploring culture, and the world of the freelance, part-time, and unemployed work forces that have more time to listen to, or play—which translates into more time to learn—music. So, the question asked by the nine-to-fiver—What do you do for a living?—becomes a profound statement about class and status. But music didn’t start out as reliant on class distinction. It was something to be done in order to get results. We sang for rain, for peace, for success in battle, to cure disease. Tradition, rather than demographic analysis, determined what we sang. Jazz started out as a results-oriented music, but inside a caste-stratified society that couldn’t imagine life without servants. Now jazz, a music that the GAMC initially exploited as quaint and a novelty, is considered an essential part of that society’s national identity. And the GAMC is starting to acknowledge that jazz, which requires a high degree of creativity, isn’t as easy to master as the popular music it sells to the musically ignorant.

To be continued…

P.S. I apologize to anyone who might have misunderstood my feeble attempt at being glib last week. I believe that both counterpoint and harmony are pretty much exclusive to Western art music and the various styles that it heavily influences. My statement, “Pushing the practice of harmony—and ‘thus’ counterpoint…” might have appeared as if I was declaring the two as synonymous practices. My intent was to underscore how the article I was referring to had tacitly suggested that the development of harmony led to the development of counterpoint when, in fact, the situation is quite the opposite.

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1. A post in his website titled “A message from John,” guitar virtuoso John Scofield says of Berger: “Guitar Heads…I’d like to alert you to the formidable talents of guitar repair/mod man Steve Berger. I’ve been looking for a 50′s Gibson 175, like Jim Hall used to play, to use with acoustic bands/solo etc. Steve showed me his modified Howard Roberts model and in short, I had to have it. Only a few times have I fallen for an instrument so completely (but this love for the new guitar does not in any way diminish my commitment to my steady companion Ibanez AS200). You may know that 70′s Gibsons are not thought highly of but Steve works magic on guitars! He’s in NYC. His phone is 646.529.1128, email: steveberger @ nyc.rr.com. And he can really play too!” — JS

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