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Jazz Cannot Live By Bread Alone

Ever wonder why that Ron Carter solo album you bought for 50 cents at a garage sale sounds like the leader just swallowed a fistful of Nytol? Well, maybe he got a free sample when he did the company's TV commercial. Carter is famous for being one of the busiest session bassists in New York, which means that he's probably spent much more studio time recording jingles than playing jazz. It tells. As a practicing full-time jazz musician in the '60s, Carter was one of the music's most justly celebrated bassists. As his career developed, however, and he (presumably) acquired a taste for the finer things in life, Carter's creative self shriveled to an almost imperceptible nub, in favor of the Have Bass Will Travel who's given us such epic "jazz" albums as the recent lamentable Brandenburg Concerto. Apparently, the money to be made from playing jazz wasn't enough for Carter; he needed to be more comfortable. So he became a mercenary, and his music essentially died.

Of course, Carter's not alone. Chances are excellent that if a jazz musician is making a living playing music, he or she isn't doing it by playing anything the least bit hip. With some it's session work; with others it's dance or show gigs. There's simply not enough jazz out there to pay the bills, so any musician disinclined to work a day job must by necessity play commercial music. And if you think that playing commercial music for a living doesn't affect the way an otherwise superb musician plays jazz, then you're either naïve or stupid or you can't hear. Let me tell you a story... a true story (only the names and personas have been changed to protect me from lawsuits).

Once upon a time there was a jazz pianist. Lets call him Barkly. Barkly was a little famous, but not very famous, and he had little money to finance his various projects. Barkly was extremely dedicated to his music—so dedicated that he did nothing else. He worked a crummy day gig to pay the bills, since he long ago determined that playing crummy non-jazz gigs was detrimental to his emotional as well as musical well-being.

One day, Barkly was looking for a horn player (no specific instrument, just someone who could both improvise and read well) for a quartet project he had in mind. A good musician friend of Barkly's played him a CD of some new music he'd just recorded. The album featured a very fine horn player—let's call him Myron—who not only could improvise very well, but could also read down the friend's rather difficult tunes without a hitch. Just the kinda guy Barkly wanted for his project. Barkly gave Myron a call, presented to him his proposal—there's no money in it, I'm going to shop the master to the record labels, blah, blah, blah. Myron tells Barkly, yeah, great, that's just the sort of thing he'd be interested in doing. It seems that Myron makes his bread by playing commercial gigs, but He Really Wants To Cut Back On Those And Play More Creative Stuff. Even if it doesn't pay much. Well, alright then, let's do it, says Barkly.

So the new group goes into rehearsal. Right off the bat, Myron reads the stuff down pretty well; some things he can't handle, but he assures Barkly that he'll practice them before they meet again. Which is not right away, since scheduling rehearsals around Myron's jammed calendar of mambo gigs and weddings makes it hard to nail down a time for the band to get together. They do eventually rehearse a second time. Myron plays somewhat better, but he still doesn't get everything. There's a passage in one of the tunes that he consistently "ghosts". Barkly asks him if he wouldn't mind playing what he wrote, and Myron fairly explodes, "Man, do you know how hard it is to play that on this (his instrument)?" "Well, no, I don't," says Barkly, "but as Monk once told Coltrane, 'The notes are on the horn.'" (Barkly doesn't say this last bit, for diplomacy's sake.) Barkly's still got time to get the music in shape before the session, so he lets Myron's clams and outburst slide. There's another problem, though, which Barkly finds more irritating, if not downright ominous. It seems that Myron can't play all-out this day, because he's subbing on Broadway that night and he doesn't want to wear himself out before the gig.

Now, any musician will tell you that you can't just expect things to come together on the bandstand. If you can't nail the music in rehearsals, then the odds are great that you're not going to do it on the gig. And if a musician consistently holds back during rehearsal, there's no way in hell you can know what the music's going to sound like when the game's on the line. Barkly thinks about this as he listens to Myron take things down an octave and play everything in a near subtone. The rehearsal is a near total loss. The tunes are marginally tighter, but the energy is terrible and Barkly leaves the rehearsal feeling pessimistic.

The day of the session comes. There are problems from the beginning. The engineer Barkly had originally hired has to leave town at the last minute. He sends his assistant, with the promise that the engineer himself would mix the session when he gets back to town. The assistant is a nice guy, but it's obvious he hasn't recorded much jazz. It takes the band three hours just to get set up, which is twice as long as it should take. They're left with a mere three hours to get all the music on tape, which is hardly enough. The musicians are pretty cool about everything, except Myron. He's muttering under his breath about the assistant's incompetence, and generally helping to make a bad situation worse. Apparently Myron's used to a higher standard of professionalism than can be found in a little $60 per hour jazz studio. Hell, Barkly's used to a higher standard, but he's got to make the best of it, because even though the session's only costing 300 bucks, it's his 300 bucks, and there isn't another 300 bucks in his wallet to pay for another session in case this one is a disaster. So Barkly tries to calm Myron down as best as he can.

They began laying down the music. They're multi-tracking, but the performance is live in real-time; Barkly wants to avoid overdubbing if possible. They play the first tune. The time for Myron's solo comes… and he sucks. Literally. On what is supposed to be a balls-to-the-wall, high-energy free-blow, Myron sounds like he's slurping lemons through his horn. Incredibly, Barkly realizes that Myron's holding back. They take a break between takes and Barkly casually asks Myron if he's got a gig that night, which of course he has. Just before they start the next tune, Barkly mentions to Myron just how rare an opportunity it is to go into the studio and make a record, and that whenever you get a chance to do it, you gotta go for it, just leave everything on the floor. What Barkly doesn't say is this: "This baby's going down on tape, and people very well might be listening to it AFTER YOU'RE DEAD—unlike the stupid little cha-cha gig you're playing tonight, when nobody will even give a shit if it's you or Larry 'Bud' Melman up there on stage, they just want to get laid, and the insipid little background music you're playin' is going to help them do it. If the two hundred bucks you're gettin' paid for that is more important to you than making art, fine, but don't turn around and tell me how much you want to be an artist." Myron agrees with Barkly…at least he agrees with the part that Barkly actually says. The session continues. It's taken some verbal butt-kicking, but Myron throws off the straight-jacket and—upcoming gig or no—plays long and hard and well. When all is said and done, the session is a success.

A happy ending, right? Well, no. A couple of months later, after the record is mastered and in the stores, Barkly books a gig in a small New York club celebrating its release. The gig's on a Saturday night. For obvious reasons Barkly figures that Saturday's the best night to have a record release party. Barkly calls Myron for the gig. Myron says, in his inimitable neo-hipster-white-guy-attempting-to-be-cool-pseudo-jazzspeak, "Hey man, Saturday's the night I make my bread, man, I can't do a jazz gig on a Saturday. Maybe if it was during the week…" . He doesn't ask how much the gig would pay; he rightly assumes it won't be much (50 bucks). He didn't even have anything else booked. He simply turned the gig down because he didn't want to miss out on anything down the line that might pay better. So for all his talk (and that's just what it was: talk) when push comes to shove, Myron's a mercenary—a hack who for even one night refuses to turn away from the bigger bucks he makes playing bad music.

So what's the moral to this story? That Barkly's a great guy and Myron's a jerk? No, but Barkly is an artist. Myron is not. Unfortunately, Myron doesn't know this. Myron thinks that as long as he keeps his chops up, he can turn on the creative thing whenever he pleases. Only guess what: it doesn't work that way. You don't become a great player by doing it part-time. If you spend most of your time playing crap, it's going to have an effect on the way you play everything else. When you play just for a paycheck, you lay out emotional and creative capital that can't be spared if you want to be a great player. Name me a single great jazz musician—an innovator along the lines of Bird or Coltrane or Ornette—with a split commercial/creative personality, and I'll show you the exception that proves the rule. Sure, you hear stories about Bird playing casuals, but the very fact that Parker died penniless is proof enough that he would not—could not—play the commercial game. Maybe the exception is Roswell Rudd. Apparently, the father of free jazz trombone has spent a great deal of time over the last couple of decades playing dances at resort hotels in the Catskills. Yet even Rudd's example doesn't hold water, because during those years his creative output was almost nil. How many records did Rudd make between the early '70s and the late '90s? Not many. The physical and psychic energy it takes to do both is enormous, and if a giant like Roswell Rudd can't do it, then how can a relative mediocrity like Myron?

Of course even jazz musicians have to make a living, so what's the answer? Well, that's a good question and I'm sure I don't know. As for myself, I've sat on both sides of the fence, though as a mature musician I've worked only day gigs. Indeed, most of the free jazz musicians whose work you value and records you buy do the same. It's difficult to make a living playing free jazz to the point of being impossible. Very, very few can do it, and those who actually do live very modestly. The rest of us do what we can—they teach, or proofread legal documents, or work as clerks. Almost none of them make ends meet by playing commercial gigs.

In a creative situation, mercenaries like Myron bring too much explosive baggage to the bandstand. How many jazz records and performances are affected by brass players saving their chops for higher pay? How often does the cynicism born of playing Barry Manilow covers night after night poison the air at a recording session? Sure, a bad day gig sucks just as much if not more than a bad music gig, but a bad day gig doesn't make you want to throw your horn in the trash and take up handgun-swallowing. Sure, it would be nice if great musicians like Cecil Taylor and Joe McPhee were paid like pop stars, or even like members of successful cover bands. But they're not. And still they play great music. The first-rate artists among jazz musicians—especially free jazz musicians—are without exception the ones who've devoted their lives to their art. Completely. The passion and dedication required to play this music at the highest level makes it impossible to do otherwise. It pains me to say this, since by doing so I'm accepting my own economic marginality, but a serious musician who compromises himself by playing commercial music is dealing a death blow to his or her hopes of being a great artist. If you don't believe me, then you've probably never heard a Ron Carter solo album.