ausjazz

Pass Go, Collect $200, Go for Broke.

Start with two million…

I know, ancient, right?  But there is a reason the conventional wisdom is just that.

A while back, a friend told me he had been talking about me with his private students.  I assumed it was just another instance of someone offering me up as a cautionary tale, but no.  He was referring to me as somebody who had ‘made it’–in this case, playing jazz for a living as opposed to playing  Top 40 hits, or country, or anything else professional jazz musicians do instead of what they would rather be doing.

It is true.  I’m very fortunate to play jazz on the bulk of my gigs.  And the fact that most of them are played in front of children makes me take it even more seriously, because in a lot of cases, this is their first exposure.  We want it to be an authentic one.

No dumbing down, no LCD stuff.  Sure, we use humor and props, but that’s just to keep them involved.  As far as the music itself goes, we pull no punches.  We have thrown Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Billy Strayhorn, and Thelonious Monk at them.  Doesn’t faze them a bit.  In fact, they ate up Monk with a spoon.  Kids can handle a lot more than we give them credit for.

The best thing about playing for kids is their lack of sophistication.  Not because we want to pull the wool over their eyes, but because they don’t know how to be demanding.  Adult clients, on the other hand, know nothing else.

Weddings are a particular challenge, because there is such a large age range.  So we get hired on the basis of being a swing band, playing classy arrangements of Ellington, Basie, et al.  Then the crowd starts to get liquored up and a little loosy-goosey, and young people in clumps start asking for “Elvira” and “Mustang Sally”.  Fine, we can hang with that.  Then come the requests for George Strait, Kenny G, and Lady GagMe.  Sorry, we’re not going there.  Then the grandfather of the bride wanders over and wonders why we stopped playing Glenn Miller.  I look down the bandstand for the smallest musician I can pitch into the crowd, to slow them down enough to facilitate our hasty departure.

You know the expression, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing”?  That is never more true than in the case of being hired by a client who knows what they want, until they get it.  Then they change their mind.  So we give them something else close to it.  No, that’s not it either.  Go back to the first one, but add tapioca.  Hmm…maybe some vanilla extract…You know what?  Do you guys have an accordionist?

We do, it turns out, but he left his accordion at home when you said you wanted bebop.  Now you’re stuck with two horns and three rhythm.  It’s a little late to be asking for “Lady of Spain”.

But kids don’t want “Lady of Spain”, or Lady of Whatever Else.  They’ll take what you got, because anything is better than going back to Geography.  So we give them Louis Armstrong, Antonio Carlos Jobim, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, et cetera…

I wonder sometimes if anything sticks with them, and I finally decided it doesn’t matter.  Because years from now, they will run across this stuff out in the world, and it will register.  It’s the same principle at play when I hum a jingle that I heard a dozen times on TV when I was six years old, and never since.  Music is like that; it gets in the nooks and crannies of your brain and just lodges there.  It seems forgotten, then some random association calls it up and you’re humming it all over again.  And if the initial exposure to it was a positive one, then you’re much more receptive “when it comes around again on the geetar.”

And years later, when you are an adult, and you have hired us to play for you, remember:  Trust us.  We are the professionals.

 

 

 

Marty in the studio, with friend.

No, not the comedian and the saxophonist.  Those are two different fellows.

Marty Allen was a pianist and dear friend who moved to Austin from the Bay Area some seventeen years ago.  A remarkably gifted musician with a highly original approach, Marty worked with many people, and as a soloist, until he died unexpectedly of heart failure in February 2003.  He played four seasons with the AJW and recorded on three of our recordings.  He also played in my casual band, the Hepcats, and recorded on our Too Hep to Hop CD.  And he recorded his own trio album live at the Elephant Room, Jazz Time for Texas.  He had other sideman work, but I’m not sure how much he got to stretch.

Marty was one of the most ego-less musicians I have ever met.  Chick singers loved to use him, because when he went understated it was tasteful, forgiving, and not at all showy.  So the audience wouldn’t have to shift their attention away from the vocalist.  Chick singers hate it when that happens.

He held down a solo gig for a while at the Old San Francisco Steak House, way up north Austin.  This was a classic wallpaper gig, where the pianist worked unnoticed, upstaged by a woman on a swing over the diners’ heads.  The restaurant chain seemed to be going for an 1850’s California Gold Rush theme, where that sort of activity was apparently commonplace.

Anyway…a gig’s a gig, but I always wondered why Marty wasn’t being used more.  So I started using him.

Marty may have been understated in his playing and soft-spoken in demeanor, but that was misleading.  He wasn’t showy; he didn’t pound; he didn’t stretch out with excessively long solos.  His improvisations usually started out fairly conventionally, in a Bill Evans-influenced way.  But in that second or third chorus, it became Marty Unmoored–best summed up by trumpeter Jimmy Shortell on a school gig we played about ten years ago, when he leaned over at just such a point and said, “Marty is going away for a while…”

It was true.  Marty would play one or two choruses in an inside manner, and then he would head out…to Lands Unknown.  But the transition would not be jarring–more like he became untethered from the constraints of conventional harmony, and gently drifted…where?  Up?  Out?  In?  Truthfully, none of us knew where he was going or where this stuff came from.  And just when you thought he was gone for good–he was back.  ii, V, I, done.

I have never heard anyone else play in quite this manner.  The closest thing we had to it locally was the wonderful pianist Doug Hall, who also passed away way too soon.  But Marty’s voice was his own.

Lots of pianists can ‘take it outside’, but it often feels contrived or jarring.  With Marty, it was an organic part of what he did, and he succeeded in integrating it musically without altering the mood.  Quite a magic trick before seasoned musicians–a suspension of harmonic belief–but he pulled it off, some twenty times a night.  Much to the bewilderment of many a bassist.

After we had been working together for a while, I met Marty’s partner Bill.  In my East Texas country boy way, it hadn’t ever occurred to me that Marty was gay.  But he sho’ nuff was, turns out.

Bill was one of those gay men you might affectionately refer to as a ‘hoot’.  I first met him when Marty brought him to a gig we played in Taylor TX.  Since Marty was from Corpus originally, they were going to travel south after the gig to visit family.  By himself, Marty seemed straight enough–but one look at Bill was enough to remove any doubt.  Hearing him speak only sealed the deal.

Months later, bassist Jim Spector summed up the initial reaction I also felt.  “I thought–who’s that gay guy standing next to Marty?”

Bill was an artist as well–a painter of rich invention.  I’m looking at one of his works right now, because it hangs on the wall over my monitor.  Intriguingly, his visual sense reflects Marty’s aural one–an approach you might call “Pepperland on Acid”.

No, even more acid.

Bill used a lot of bright colors, and populated his canvases with fantastical creatures composed of very controlled elements.  Some are recognizable–shells are shell-shaped, bees are bee-shaped, etc.  But then there are fish shaped like haystacks, and bushes that resemble a nest of eyes, and fronds topped with variegated phallic stamens.  He eschewed shading, instead using dappling, dots & dashes, and repetition to give depth.

How did I acquire this painting, one of my most cherished possessions?  Bill was kind enough to give it to me–but not directly.  After Marty died so suddenly, Bill was devastated.  He began wasting away, which we attributed to a lack of appetite.  We kept cajoling him to eat.  Only months later did we find out it was cancer.  He joined Marty within a year.  In his will, he allowed each of his friends to choose a painting–a particularly touching gift.

He also willed $10,000 to the Austin Jazz Workshop.  It happened to coincide with a year that everyone took a large hit in their city funding.  So without ever knowing it, Bill kept this project going at a crisis point.

One time, Marty and I played a gig in Mexico and Bill tagged along for the ‘road trip’ adventure of it.  It was just over the border in Nuevo Laredo, at the home of a government official.  We knew it had to be a government official because of the obscene opulence hidden safely behind the 12-foot adobe walls.  That, and the fact that they were dropping about $10,000 on band and catering  to celebrate an infant’s christening.

So, we’re in a foreign country–a border town, no less–and Bill asks to be dropped off at a bar he remembered.  Our plan is to drop him off, play the gig, and come back and pick him up.  Bill, it should be said, is over six feet tall–but when you see him, he looks like a gay man carrying a purse.  Which is appropriate, since that is what he was.

This was not a gay bar.  But Marty and Bill seemed to think this plan was hunky-dory, so we dropped him off and disappeared down side streets and into the compound.

The gig was fine; they really liked us.  So much so, in fact, that when we finished our four hours, the caterer (who was also our shepherd over the border) came up and said they wanted a two-hour extension, and could we move into the library, where they were having port and cigars?

There are times when you can say no.  This was not one of those times.  So off we trundled to the library, to play for the party’s after-party.

By now, Marty was starting to get a little nervous.  We were drifting into that danger zone, the time period where gringos foolish enough to be out and about in border towns should be in groups.  And should probably not be openly gay males.

After six hours, our hosts had finally had enough.  We were paid royally and released.  Marty and I made a beeline back to the bar where we had dropped off Bill.

He wasn’t there.

OK, so.  Our exhausted caterer host, part of our little caravan, was wistfully eyeing the border back to Los Estados Unidos.  Maybe our friend had walked back across…?

No, decidedly not.  We began scouring the streets in the vicinity.  It was about 3:00 a.m., which is like noon in Nuevo Laredo.  We inched along, steering around inebriated pedestrians, broken bottles, and nursing dogs, straining for a view of a 6′ 4″ gay man.  After twenty agonizing minutes we spotted him, casually window-shopping.

“BILL!  Get in the car!” Marty called out in a mixture of relief and exasperation.  “What the hell were you doing out here?  Why didn’t you stay in the bar?”

“Oh, it started out fine but then a bunch of young people came in and it turned into a disco, so I left.”  Bill arched an eyebrow, in a what’s-the-big-deal manner.  At that point, Marty was too exhausted to throttle him.

I miss them both, and think of them often.  For a brief taste of Marty’s playing, click on Blue Monk to your right.  For a bigger taste, check out Jazz Time for Texas.  I still have a box of them; email me if you want a copy.

Plan B.

 

So I’m looking through my new issue of Austin Monthly, a must-have local publication (because it was offered on a Groupon), when I ran across a recipe by local celebrity chef Paul Qui.  Quickly realizing the opportunity to make a truly horrible headline pun, I decide to give it a whirl.  Like many professional musicians, I am also an accomplished chef.  <Translation: you cannot afford to eat out>

Sunchoke Dashi Soup, with Uni, Bottarga, Baby Carrots, and Zucchini Blossoms.  This should be a piece of cake!  <because then you might actually enjoy eating it>

Hush, Doubter!  The first order of business is to line up guests.  A meal this classy should not go unshared.  Quickly, I ring up Calvin Trillin, Lady Gaga, Rick Santorum, and Pope Benedict XVI.

Lucky break!  They’re all available and will be here at 8:00.  Now, to work.

Mix heavy cream and lemon juice in a stainless steel container, preferably a bain marie of deep one-sixth size pan.  Hmmm….OK, I’m in trouble already.  One-sixth of what?  And is there even such a thing as a bain marie?  Off to Wikipedia we go…

“A bain-marie (pronounced: [bɛ̃ maʁi]; also known as a water bath in English, Italian: bagno maria, [ˈbaɲːo maˈɾia], or Spanish: baño maría) is a French term for a piece of equipment used in science, industry, and cooking to heat materials gently and gradually to fixed temperatures, or to keep materials warm over a period of time.”

Gee, thanks for all that.  But from the picture, looks pretty much like your standard double-boiler.  Would that have been so hard to say?

Alright, onward.  Cover the top with cheese cloth and keep in a warm place, not to exceed 80 degrees F.  Let stand for up to 48 hours.

OK, Buttercup, I’m not sure where you’re writing this from, because “a warm place” and “not to exceed 80 degrees” does not match any location in Austin, TX.  Sounds like I’m going to have to babysit this thing for two days in the walk-in cooler.

Two days?!  I have to call everybody back and see if they can make it Saturday.  Dialing…

No problem, they’re all in.  And I can tell they’re getting as excited about this as I am.

OK, now the uni powder.  Put uni in a dehydrator or oven with only the pilot on, until completely dry.  This may take up to 48 hours.

First off.  What the hell is uni?  Wiki, you still there?

Hmmm…Wiki is stumped on this one, but thinks it might be a Japanese name for salt-pickled sea urchin roe.  Don’t think I have any of that in the house.  I’ll substitute cinnamon.  It’s already dry, and I think the Pope will get peeved if I have to delay this shindig any further.

Sunchoke puree: Sweat garlic and green onion bulbs in butter.  I’m sweating, I’m sweating.  Add sunchokes and sweat.  Now I’m really sweating, because I don’t know what sunchokes are.  Oh WIKIIIII……

“The Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus), also called the sunroot, sunchoke, earth apple or topinambour, is a species of sunflower native to eastern North America, and found from eastern Canada and Maine west to North Dakota, and south to northern Florida and Texas.[1] It is also cultivated widely across the temperate zone for its tuber, which is used as a root vegetable.[2]”

Well, that’s just dandy.  Isn’t anything called by its proper name anymore?  OK, out to the garden to pull up the ‘sunchokes’.  There goes the cat’s dinner.

Oh, now things are really getting busy.  Blanch…shock…pat dry..shock…mix…puree in a blender…

Wait a minute.  Did I just hear you say…puree in a blender?

Yes.

You’re joking, right?  I just slogged through Seven Rings of Hell, inconvenienced four dear friends, babysat a meringue for two days, ruined the cat’s dinner, and now you want me just to throw the whole mess in a blender and hit Liquefy?  You were just waiting to see if I would do all this, right?

Oh well.  In for a penny, in for a pound. BRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR

For the lemon salt…

Salty enough already.  Next!

For the vegetables: With a peeler, peel the length of the carrots and zucchini.  It should look like a paper-thin cross-section of the vegetable.  And I should look like George Clooney for serving this mess, but let’s not kid ourselves.  Roll them around a wooden chopstick and shock in ice water.  I’ll make you a deal.  I’m throwing them in vodka to soak.  Nobody will care if they’re not curling.

Slice the radish paper thin with a mandolin and cut into strips…

OK, now you’ve gone too far.  I draw the line at dubious string instruments.  Where am I going to find a mandolin, this side of a dulcimer festival?  And even I find one, I have my doubts as to what it’s likely to do to a radish.  Bad enough what it does to human hearing.

Is it supposed to look like this, or like the picture?  ‘Cause it doesn’t look like either one.

Maybe I should puree the mandolin, as long as the blender is out…

Hmm…maybe salvage it with some sour cream?…

“Rick, listen.  We decided to meet for wings downtown.  Yeah, Oil Can Harry’s.  Can’t miss it.”

 

 

It's only rock 'n' roll, but I like it.

In 1975 (a mere 37 years ago, but who’s counting), I was an undergraduate in the UT School of Communications, which had recently relocated to a monolithic rust-colored building at the corner of 26th and Guadalupe, where it remains today.  And considering the education I received there, rust is a particularly appropriate color choice.

At the time, though, we considered ourselves fortunate to be able to take a lab class in a real, live TV studio with cameras, lights, and an editing console.  It was a small but rough approximation of what was out there in the Land of Real Jobs–a quasi-mythical place few of us would ever encounter.

We were so excited back then, twiddling our little controls!  Superimposing our little captions!  By the standards of sound/image editing technology available today to your average enterprising 11-year old with a digital video camera and some decent software, we may as well have been smearing ourselves with dung and howling at the moon.

I should also mention that I took a Computer Science class at UT as well, because I had an ‘eye to the future’.  At that time, the computer language being taught at this very expensive, state-of-the-art university was…(wait for it)…

Yes.  (ANS) COBOL.  Stand back Future!  Here we come!  Hold on…is the moon full tonight?  <ARROOOOOOOOOOOO>

Not to worry.  I don’t recall a keystroke.  But it strikes me as humorous that virtually nothing I learned in my first foray into academia can be translated into anything useful in today’s job market.  I’m guessing this realization would not appear so humorous to my parents, who were footing the bill.

We used to say, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.”  Little did we know we were talking about ourselves and our antiquated job skills.

But fortunately, popular music is just the opposite.  The core structures that give it value, strength, and integrity are approaching 100 years old and still going strong.  Of course, if you were born after 1975, YMMV.  (And if you don’t know what that stands for, consider yourself lucky.)

I was reading a ‘book’–I know, a quaint notion these days, and this one was even made from real paper!–written (more likely dictated) by Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards.  Mostly rubbish, of course, but one thing did come through for me:  Keith’s lifelong devotion to folks like Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley.  Of course, all the lads had that in the beginning, but Keith never strayed.  Several times he huffs derisively about Mick coming into the studio in the 1980’s, wanting to put something new into the mix that he “heard last night in the disco”.  You can almost hear the rattling of gnashing teeth in his skeletal jawbone.

IMHO (again, consider yourself lucky), the reason the Stones still sell out stadiums 50 years on–besides the grim fascination with seeing rock performed by people whose hearts, by any reasonable measure, should have stopped beating long, long ago–is because audiences still respond on a visceral level to chunky guitars playing I-IV-V-I.  And ever they shall, because every shred of studio trickery invented since is auditory candy floss.

As for me–my career has not been based on anything so contemporary as Muddy Waters.  I’m playing tunes that are close to 100 years old now.  And people hear it, and dig it, and even dance to it.  This is music that never relied on mixing and overdubbing to make its point.  Even by the primitive recording standards enjoyed by the Rolling Stones in the 1960’s, it was hopelessly antiquated.  Charlie Parker started his career recording on 78-rpm vinyl, and never made a stereo recording.  Somehow, he still managed to invent modern jazz.

This is not intended in any way to denigrate the importance of a college education, which is a ‘must’ in today’s job market.  But it’s just a reminder that there are some things in the past that still resonate today, and resonate loudly enough to provide a career for Keith Richards and numerous others…all the way down to little old me.

Of course, YMMV.

Easier than saying Kaddish.

The short answer: don’t.

Really.  It’s a waste of breath.  It only confuses her further.  Who needs the stress?

She does, evidently.  She can’t grasp why there are copies of Endle St. Cloud’s Thank You All Very Much on the long-defunct International Artists label being sold on Amazon as CD’s and MP3’s.  Or what an MP3 is, or why anyone would name a business Amazon, but don’t get me started.

Endle St. Cloud, aka Alan Melinger, is her elder son, making him my elder brother.  He died in 1987, and this recording was produced nineteen years previously.  It was the last LP produced by International Artists, which folded in 1971.  Since then, IA’s catalog has been issued, re-issued, and sliced ‘n’ diced around the Internet for over forty years by rabid fanboys, many of them in Germany.  Go figure.

So now, she wants answers.  “How can they do that?  Who is doing it?”

I take a deep breath.  I guess I have no choice but to wade into this thing.  “Mother–”

“Aren’t they afraid of getting sued?”

“OK.  Mother.  Let me tell you what the Internet is not.  It isn’t a corporation, like Warner Brothers, with its own liabilities and legal department.”

“Well, what is it, then?”

Hoo boy.  This woman has never been online.  She was fifteen years old before she had indoor plumbing.  Twenty-one before having a phone in her home.  Thirty-two before owning a black & white television set.  This won’t be easy.  Perhaps an analogy…

“OK.  Think of the Internet as being one long piece of paper.  So long it stretches around the world.”

“Hmm….”

“OK, stay with me.  Anyone in the world can write on this piece of paper, whatever they want to write.  And once they do, it can never be erased, and everyone else in the world can read it, forever.”

“Oh, that’s just ridiculous.”  She thinks I’m making this up, like there is any earthly reason for me wanting to do so.  “But you can’t just write anything.  You would get sued.”

“Who would you sue?  How do you sue a piece of paper?”

“But how can they sell something they don’t own?  Surely they can get sued for that.”

I consider going into the economics of comparing the cost of litigation to the potential benefit of recovering a few pennies per unit, where 25 = the number of units sold worldwide over the last thirty years and zero=the amount the artist was legally entitled to in the first place, assuming the record company still exists, which it hasn’t for forty years.  Instead, I simply say “It’s not worth it.”

“It has to be worth it.”  She’s in this for the honor now.  “It’s not theirs.”

“Look, Mom.  There is no international cabal of sinister figures making millions off IA’s back catalog.  There’s just a handful of fanboys who were drawn in by bands like the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, bands with some notoriety, and then they got interested in the whole catalog because they are completists.  So now they must have everything IA ever produced.”

“Oh, I don’t believe that for a minute.”

Time to resort to desperate measures, or we’ll be here all night.  “OK Mom, I’m googling Endle St. Cloud.  There.  I got 24,000 hits.”  I can sense gears grinding across the phone line, because she hasn’t a clue as to what ‘google’ or ‘hits’ are.  But I press on.  “Now I’m on a YouTube search.  Here is a song from Thank You All Very Much called ‘Street Corner Preacher’.”  I click the link, and my dead brother’s voice wails across the room, a song we both know from 40 years ago.  “And there’s also ‘Jessica’ and ‘Badge’ and ‘Who Would You Like to Be Today’…”

“Well.”  Her voice is smaller now.  “I just don’t understand it.”

I don’t either, I want to tell her.  But the same digital fingers that now sift through her personal data, and mail her ads for retirement homes, the Democratic Party, and Depends,  are now helping themselves to her dead son’s music.  I have the same powerless feeling in the pit of my stomach that I had, ten years ago, when my six-year-old daughter’s beloved hamster died and she tearfully asked why.  Some things just happen.  Some things can’t be helped.

Then I remembered something she always told me.  “Mom, don’t the Jews believe that after you die, you live on in the memories of those whose lives you touched?”

“Yes, that’s what we believe.”

“Well then, this is a good thing.  People who never even met Alan are listening to his music today, maybe halfway around the world.  They are enjoying it and appreciating it in their daily lives.  So in that way, his memory is being honored and kept alive.”

“Do you think so?”

Yes.  I choose to think so.

 

 

 

Get along, little dogies.

Best thing about being leader of a professional jazz ensemble: the players are all accomplished enough to make their own musical decisions.

Worst thing about being the leader of a professional jazz ensemble:  same thing.

But if you’re an easygoing guy like me <hey, quitcher laughing over there>, that’s not the worst thing in the world.  I always appreciate playing with folks who know what they are doing.  And when I’m a sideman, I appreciate a leader who doesn’t try to micromanage my every move.  So I try not to be that person when the shoe is on the other foot.  Usually, it works.

But ever so often, I want to hear something a certain way, so I ask for it.  And being professionals, the sidemen always comply.  Until they think I have forgotten, when they go back to doing it the way they wanted originally.  <sigh>

Anyway, if it’s that challenging bringing together a mere handful of jazz musicians, imagine how hard it would be to bring together every jazz musician in town.  Believe it or not, that is the goal of the Austin Jazz Alliance.  And you can view their effort here: http://austinjazzalliance.org/

The brainchild of Fito Kahn, the AJA website started up once before, went away for a while, and now it’s back and better than ever.  I am impressed with the redesign, which features news, reviews, videos, classifieds, product sales, and a jazz calendar.  That’s a lot of balls to keep in the air at once, and I wish them all the success in the world keeping it going.

But of course, it takes more than wishing.  For something like this to really blossom, it takes participation from everyone.  That’s where the herding cats part comes in.  Because I have known jazz musicians for many years, and if there’s one thing they like to do besides practicing on or off a bandstand…well, I haven’t figured out what that is yet.

Not that they aren’t ambitious.  You can’t make it in this business without understanding how to package and promote yourself.  But many times, that just leads to insularity and tail-chasing with musicians bouncing off one another like frenzied bebop protons and electrons.  Fusion, when it occurs, is a rare and beautiful thing.  A rare and beautiful thing for twelve people to enjoy a couple of times at the Elephant Room, before it spins off into kinetic energy once again.  Or goes out on the road with Maynard, or Basie, or Ellington, or some other dead guy.

But I’m not on the road.  I Live Here!  I Give Here!  Wouldn’t it be cool if we could go to one website and catch up with everything jazz-related happening in and around Austin, Texas?  Wouldn’t that be cool?

Yes, it would.  So check it out, cats!

 

Hi there! I don’t exist, actually.

 

Back in June of last year, I was asked to attend a meeting in San Antonio at the office of Rep. Lamar Smith, the author of the infamous SOPA bill that he recently withdrew in a hailstorm of negative public opinion.  At the time, I was serving on the board of the Austin Federation of Musicians, and we were asked to send one of our representatives to the meeting.  I drew the short straw.

(Disclaimer:  I am not currently on the AFM board, and in any event, all views represented on this blog are obviously my own.  Who else would be crazy enough to claim them?)

Also in attendance at this meeting: Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel fame, San Antonio’s AFM Local President, and regional reps from AFTRA, SAG, and various other groups associated with the film and music industry.  We were there to exchange ideas on combating piracy on the Internet, a practice that costs these industries a lot of money each year.  And to provide buy-in for Rep. Smith’s bill, of course.

So, with the best of intentions, we attended.  And the meeting was positive, in that “at last somebody is doing something” way.  As far as I know, none of us had read the actual bill that was being proposed, and quite frankly–have you ever read a legislative bill?  Good luck with that.  You will need at least three attorneys to accomplish that little feat: one to translate it into plain English for you, one to refute the other’s opinion, and a third one (hopefully smaller in stature) that you can use to club the first two to death.

So I was completely at sea, my natural environment.  And from where I sat, it appeared that everyone’s earnest intention was to slow down Internet piracy.  Not stop it, of course.  May as well stand in the surf at Galveston with palm outstretched to the horizon, hollering “Stop!”  But at least to warn legitimate service providers (like PayPal) to avoid doing business on illegal sites.

That’s how it was explained, at least.  But as always, the devil is in the details.  And what has come to the surface, despite the somewhat hysterical backlash whipped up on the Internet, is that there was enough vagueness in the bill to keep a lot of devils busy for a long time.  And where there’s a buck at stake, there is never a shortage of devils.

Recording artists have always had a ticklish arrangement with industry executives.  We create the product, but invariably lose the rights to it.  So the big money generated by publishing rights and mechanical rights flows back to the label.  They, in turn, pay and promote the artists.  Right?  Right?

Well, it has worked for some.  There are plenty of sour grapes in an industry where the labels make so much more than the artists they promote.  BUT–and this is a big BUT–that doesn’t give every Joe Schmodem with a modem the right to my product, just because my record company gave me a lousy deal.

I have heard this rationalization so many times, and I’ve about had a bellyful.  “The labels are ripping off their artists.  Why should we reward them by not stealing their product?”

Hmmm…something seems a bit off with this reasoning.  If you are truly concerned about the plight of the poor artist, it seems like you would be supporting things like the Recording Artists Coalition, seeking to return song rights to the musicians after the majors have had their turn at the trough for 35 years.  Not by inflicting further damage on both the artist and the label.

Historically, it’s a bum deal.  We get that.  But it’s between us in the industry.  It doesn’t give you justification for walking off with the store.  ILLEGAL DOWNLOADING IS NOT HELPING.

I considered constructing a tortured analogy there, but decided the direct approach was better.  So once again–ILLEGAL DOWNLOADING IS NOT HELPING.  IT’S STEALING.

Stealing is still stealing, no matter how empowered it makes one feel.  Robin Hood was a myth.  It’s not glamorous to ‘stick it to the man’ while also sticking it to the artist.

Rep. Smith evidently does not need a Weatherman to know which way the wind blows.  He recently withdrew his bill.  But I hope that for the sake of all of us, an alternative bill is proposed without the thorny censorship issues, one that will finally protect the entertainment industry to a greater degree from piracy.

If we do nothing, this issue WILL go away by itself.  But not in a way that makes you want to celebrate.

 

A friend asked me recently, “Doesn’t it give you a lot of pleasure when you perform to look out and see everyone dancing and enjoying your music?”

Well, of course it does.  But it’s not the main motivator in doing what I do.

I guess people forget that this is a business.  Music is a competitive industry, and in order to stay afloat as a performer, one must master a number of popular styles.  Some of those styles may not be your favorite thing to play, but it pays the bills.

It’s very hard to express that to someone without appearing cynical.  Some years ago at a friend’s party, I was cornered at the canapes by a young singer-songwriter who was newly fascinated by my occupation.  “What kind of music do you play?” she gushed at me.

“Well, I really enjoy jazz, but I’ve worked in lots of different groups and I can pretty much put together anything the client wants.  We have done blues, Dixieland, zydeco, Motown, salsa…whatever they are buying.”

Before I was halfway through my sentence, her little eyes had begun to cloud over and recede back into their sockets.  Maybe it was the words “client” and “buying”.  She hurriedly excused herself and rejoined other, safer guests.

She was obviously distressed, but she needn’t have been.  This is our industry, I wanted to tell her.  Get over it.

Other professions don’t get this treatment.  If a plumber comes to my house, I don’t insist that he use only pipe wrenches and leave everything else in the truck.  No, I trust that he has a variety of tools for a reason, and he has the knowledge to choose whatever is necessary.

Why are musicians any different?

Working musicians understand this, but try explaining it to others.  And then there are people in the industry–very successful ones–who get stuck in the same trap, playing dumbed-down music because it sells, while their ‘cerebral’ early recordings gather dust on the shelves.  Some of them find a way to make it work for them; for others, it works on them–sometimes for many years.  It is a sad thing to witness.

So to come back to the first question: of course I enjoy playing music for people to dance to, because they are obviously enjoying themselves and there is a lot of energy coming off that floor.  But artistically, do I like to play Lady Gaga, Kanye West, or any other flavor of the month?  Of course not.  It’s manure.

For me, the real enjoyment comes from playing improvised jazz with musicians of equal or greater level.  And usually, nobody in the club is dancing.  Frequently, many are not even listening.

That may seem too insular and stereotypically ‘cool’ (in the Miles tradition) for some, but that’s just how it is.  The people with ears gravitate to the bandstand.  The people who want to converse move to the rear of the room.  The musicians commune onstage.  The room’s vibe shakes out naturally.  It’s all good.

But it doesn’t sell.  So you find a way to make it sell, or you play something that does.  In this regard, musicians are like actors.  And I didn’t feel let down by Anthony Hopkins when he failed to murder and consume people after the release of Silence of the Lambs.

Pretty disappointed in him after Hannibal, of course.  But it proves that even the great Sir Anthony can be consumed by his own success.

 

 

Your Lunch (in The Future)

Yesterday I attended an invite-only roundtable discussion on cultural economic development, featuring author and consultant Louise Stevens.  It was part of the ongoing dialogue on the arts in Austin hosted by the city’s Cultural Arts Division.

Ms. Stevens is from out of state, but has been studying the arts scene in Austin and other cities of comparable size.  She made some interesting observations, and her presentation was well-organized and thought-provoking.

That is not to say that I necessarily agreed with her vision for the future.  Of course, these people are paid to be visionaries.  When you take them to lunch, they don’t order what they want to eat today; they order what they think they will want in twenty-five years.  It gets annoying.

Anyway, at one point Ms. Stevens said that she was excited about the “tablet culture” and what that will mean for the arts.  She projected that patrons of the near future will pay for online content and even eventually “come to the shrine” to experience it firsthand.

I raised my hand, because that’s what I do at these things–I mouth off.  According to my friends, I put the ‘cur’ in ‘curmudgeon’.  (Just kidding!  I have no friends.)

“See, this is where we part company.  It’s easy for me to see a connection when I’m in front of an audience and we are interacting in a room together.  But the online culture is fickle, and people move through at the speed of a mouse click.  They will visit five sites in five seconds.  And they’re used to getting things for free.  I don’t see how that translates into bringing people to our venues.”

Louise took issue with the idea that people would not pay.  She envisioned (see?  she’s good, always with the vision this one) a time when one could be sitting in the string section of a (presumably virtual) major orchestra, right in the middle of the action.

At that point, I shut up.  Because good manners and social protocol reminded me that I was in a roomful of smart people, and there was no need to waste everyone’s time yammering on about a point already made.  (Hint, hint to some of my fellow attendees.  No, I shall take those names to the grave.)

But the great thing about blogging is that you don’t have to shut up.  So here is my response to her response.

Clearly, the internet is connecting people to art in exciting ways already.  I can go on the Smithsonian’s website and view all kinds of material all kinds of ways.  And perhaps in the not-too-distant future, that experience will be even more interactive–although I doubt clunky hand-held devices will get us there.  Probably at that point, a microchip implanted in the brain will be your ticket.

But even assuming that technology arrives–how does it benefit the arts scene in Austin, Texas?  Unless you live here or are planning a trip, you are unlikely to pay a virtual visit.  Because if I want to twirl through the air over fantastic sets, pulsating lights, and pounding music, all the while being surrounded by human beings with bodies much, much better than mine–well, I don’t know about you, but I’m heading over to Cirque de Soleil/The Beatles LOVE INTERACTIVE, now pulsating in frontal lobes across the planet.  As wonderful as Blue Lapis Light is, it’s not to that level in terms of sheer spectacle.  And what local arts group could hope to match that kind of budget?

If I want to run my hands over the bumps of thousand-year-old cowrie shells on an African tribal mask, without being pestered by officious noseypants in blue polyester blazers, it’s more likely that I’ll be doing it at the Virtual Metropolitan Art Museum overlooking Central Park, not the Austin Museum of Art overlooking a bus stop on Congress Avenue.

Not that we don’t have great art here–we do!  It’s fabulous!  But let’s face it–if the entire world is your banquet, you’re probably not going to start in Texas.

Assuming you start at all.  Those likeliest to embrace the new technology are young people in their 20’s and 30’s–not traditionally big supporters of the symphony and the opera.  And they may not have to worry about symphony orchestras and opera companies even being around in twenty years, at the rate they are folding.  Management has figured out that it’s cheaper to declare bankruptcy and get rid of all those costly union musicians in one fell swoop, and then rebuild with amateur and less-experienced players.  Pretty cool trick–now you can dust off that old violin from middle school and join a community orchestra, and really be part of the action!  But no more Mahler or Stravinsky, I’m afraid.  That’s probably beyond the ken of our freshly-minted artistes.

I doubt it’s a major concern, anyway.  Because given their virtual druthers, young people today are much more likely to be found in a Formula One Ferrari, or on court with the NBA, or in the nose of a Cruise missile heading straight into the sun.  Like my daddy used to say, “If you’re dreaming anyway…dream big!”

Of course, he ran a dress shop for a living.  And never touched a mouse of the non-fuzzy variety, much less stared into a computer screen.

At least he took me to the symphony.  A real, live one.

 

Special One-Night Engagement!

Years ago, in an early season of Saturday Night Live, there was a phony ad for a concert featuring Elvis Presley’s coat.  ‘The King’ himself had recently passed away, but the announcer cheerfully invited folks out to see the coat that started it all.  Like a lot of early SNL, it was irreverent, tasteless, and wicked fun.

I guess this is a sign of the times in the waning days of America, as pop culture eats itself–it’s no longer a gag.  Thousands of people each week are paying good money for acts starring dead people.

Like the other day at the Erwin Center–a sign for the Michael Jackson Immortal Tour.  I don’t care how good a dancer you were, once you’re dead it’s time to lay down and take five.

Now we have an upcoming show called “The Miles Davis Experience” coming to Bass Hall next week.  OK, I have to admit that this sticks in my craw on a number of levels, the most obvious of which is false advertising.  Only one person on the planet can provide an audience with the Miles Davis experience, and last call was over twenty years ago.

But let’s be charitable for a moment and say that if you shell out your money, you will get some approximation of the music of Miles Davis performed live.  Taking a closer look at the event, we see it is being sponsored by Blue Note Records.  And the time period being presented?  1949 to 1959, culminating in the recording of the historic “Kind of Blue” LP–the best-selling record in jazz history.

Now Blue Note has a right to do whatever they want, even though the time period being presented here saw Miles recording mostly on Prestige and Columbia <cough>.  But to call something “The Miles Davis Experience” and then cut it off before the Second Great Quintet–you remember, the one that featured Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams–the one that spawned a new and adventurous way of collective improvisation that provided the seeds of Weather Report, the Headhunters, and countless other bands?  Well, my ‘experience’ just got seriously limited.

And limited further by the exclusion of electric Miles, the Miles of Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way and Tutu and…well, pretty much everything he recorded after 1968.  Merely the halfway point of his 47-year career, but again–not part of our designated ‘experience’.

And it’s obvious why, for two big reasons.

One, nobody can replicate electric Miles with any degree of authenticity.  Without the man himself stalking the stage, directing the band, sending his vibe through the room–without Miles, it’s hollow at the center.

And two, many of Miles’ purported ‘fans’ like to pretend that his electric period didn’t happen.  Or it wasn’t ‘real Miles’ somehow.  Like they know.

News Flash for those who missed the last 43 years somehow: it did happen.  And because it did happen, so did acid jazz, and hip hop, and a half-dozen other movements in American pop since that time.  The rest of the world noticed, even if you stopped listening because it didn’t fit your preferred ‘experience’.  I guess it still stings that Miles Davis was too big to be captured within one genre.  And the jazz purists, led by a cocky young trumpeter named Wynton Marsalis, never forgave him for leaving the fold.

You remember that young Wynton, the one whose early albums Think of One and especially Black Codes (From The Underground) owed such a large debt to Miles Davis?  Yeah, me neither.  That was so long ago.  Such promise…<sigh>…but I digress.

A parting thought on the Miles Davis ‘Experience’:  trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire is no doubt a skilled performer with an affinity for the music of early Miles Davis, as any jazz trumpeter should have.  But he’s putting an awful lot of faith in the belief that there is no Afterlife.  For his sake, I hope he’s right.

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