“Music was hard work, sure, but it was also supposed to be fun. I developed this conviction early on. It has stood me in good stead ever since.”
“For six weeks I was committed to playing nightly until one in the morning—and then attending classes by day. . . . The money was barely adequate to justify such a senseless pattern, but I didn’t care. I was playing jazz with legends, and enjoying another form of education.”
“I didn’t hang out much with Pee Wee [Charles Russell], Maxie [Max Kaminsky], or Miff [Irving Mole] after the job; they were usually too tired or inebriated to go anywhere. I was shocked when I realized that these world-renowned jazz legends were forced to sleep in grungy third-class hotels. When the gig was over, they faced the prospect of an empty club, empty streets, empty bottles, an empty room. This was a continuous pattern for living.”
“These men had given up most everything that life could offer in order to make their music.”
Those lines are from George Wein in his autobiography, Myself Among Others: A Life in Music (DaCapo Press; $18.95), which he wrote with the help of Nate Chinen. Wein came to the conclusion that being a full-time jazz musician was not for him. But he went on to establish the Newport Jazz Festival, the Newport Folk Festival, and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, so his life has been enmeshed in music in a way that few others—outside of full-time musicians—experience.
To be sure, of all musical genres, jazz is among the most marginalized in American culture. Even classical music gets more exposure: every city of general name recognition has a symphony orchestra, yet jazz tends to be represented by a handful—at most—of clubs within most cities. The only “jazz” that tends to have any general audibility is that which is of the “smooth” variety, which must make actual jazz musicians somewhat more than nauseous (for those who aren’t familiar with Pat Metheny on Kenny G—as in, “but when kenny g decided that it was appropriate for him to defile the music of the man who is probably the greatest jazz musician that has ever lived by spewing his lame-ass, jive, pseudo bluesy, out-of-tune, noodling, wimped out, fucked up playing all over one of the great louis’s tracks (even one of his lesser ones), he did something that i would not have imagined possible. he, in one move, through his unbelievably pretentious and calloused musical decision to embark on this most cynical of musical paths, shit all over the graves of all the musicians past and present who have risked their lives by going out there on the road for years and years developing their own music inspired by the standards of grace that louis armstrong brought to every single note he played over an amazing lifetime as a musician”—check out the entire screed on All About Jazz for the full posting).
Although Wein was dealing with a time more than 50 years from today in those excerpted quotes, I would imagine that the times haven’t changed too much for jazz musicians.
What is often overlooked, I think, in the careers of people who choose to pursue music is the extent to which their extracurricular activities are often essential to keep body and soul together—to say nothing of rent payments made and food on the table. Too often it seems as though the awareness comes when the person is if not quite a star, then a comet streaking across the horizon, and it seems to us that the person has “made it” in some way. Which can be a mistake. Think only of the poignant scene—at least I perceive it to be so—in I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, when Jeff Tweedy has his family at a burger joint at a toll way rest stop and he’s scrounging to pull out enough money to take care of his family’s needs. The number of people who work day jobs so that they can perform at night is innumerable. These people are making tremendous sacrifices. Sure, they’ve chosen to do so; this is not something that they are being externally forced to do. But there is a certain drive, an internal flywheel that’s pushing them forward, despite the fact that it’s hard, very hard. The same sort of dedication and commitment that they are making, if applied toward more business-oriented ends, would result in the ability to buy more Happy Meals than an elementary school could consume in a month.
Ah, but there’s the brass ring, the possibility of a big payoff. There are the people who have become stars, who have the sweet rides and the shiny stuff, the people who are at the clubs making the scene—no, being the scene as they are seen—, the people for whom new instruments are no problem, the people who. . . Well, you know. That’s what it’s about, right? Grabbing that ring. Making that dough. Being in the spotlight. Maybe. But probably not for those who are truly dedicated to their art. Does that sound too idealistic in a world that is all about making it on a reality show, making it by grinding your well-heeled shoe (literally, as in The Apprentice or figuratively as in Survivor) into the faces of your opponents? Probably.
But how else to explain it? How do you calculate the odds of success in the music industry especially when the musical form you are pursuing, practicing, perfecting is one that is, by its very nature, something that is nothing more than a niche? Long, indeed. So there has to be more. Just as Pee Wee, Maxie and Miff got on stages night after night after night, hoping that they’d get paying gigs, knowing that it was the only thing between them and an empty stomach and a park bench as a bed, there are those among us now who are working their fingers to the bone in a manner that would make some evil capitalist from a Dickens novel smile with sickly glee—until they realized that all of toil was committed to making music, with making money being nothing more than a side effect. A useful side effect, of course, but not the main point of the endeavor.