Meet me at the intersection of Commerce and Art
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.