This is such a long post because as I wrote it I realized it was about something more than I thought it was. It comes out to be the longest on the blog and is more of a conclusion then the conclusion I imagine I will write. It began with evolutions in my thoughts on race in music and then developed into a rough outline of my priorities and career motivation for the next year or so. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned this year is that without a carefully conceived idea of what I want and why, I can’t even get started working on it. Although this is long, I’ve actually done still more work on what I imagine my ideal working circumstances to look like. I haven’t included that here because what I think this essay is about is the meaning and logic behind those ideals. Even though it’s really long I think this will be a reference for me about my intentions if (when?) things get dark and confused next year. It needs to be this long so that I really cover the thinking that I’ve done. I felt the motivation to spend so many hours on this post because I had a strong feeling and was compelled to reverse engineer the logic behind it. I think this was really productive for me to write and I say some stuff that I feel deeply, but also have doubts about, so I hope we can talk about it in the future if you choose to struggle through this. There are two parts, which can be read separately or together, although I think they inform each other a great deal. If you are a musician I think the thoughts in the second section are very relevant to you and often not addressed specifically enough. No pressure to read any of this though, it’s definitely a whole lot of Max time that you don’t really need.
What is your earliest memory? I have a few from the age of three or four but they’re mostly stories that I have heard about my childhood so many times that I have begun to think that I can really remember them. I don’t trust that these memories are my own. Until this week I thought that our memories are so fallible that this question is a little bit silly.
The first memory that I really believe in came back to me vividly but without much emotion when I was putting on sunscreen this Sunday. It’s from when I was maybe five or six and I was putting on sunscreen to go outside and play. I noticed that a part of my arm was a different color than the rest of it. I asked my mom if this was a problem and she kindly explained that it was not and that this was only a birthmark. I was pretty interested because at the time this birthmark covered a substantial portion of my forearm. I can also count on one hand the times that I have thought about this birth mark since then: I remember thinking about it later that summer when my skin was wet from the pool. I thought about it when I was 12 or 13 and I fell off my bike. The scar I got was the only other noticeable mark on me at that time and it reminded me of the birthmark. I remember being bored in high school and looking at the birthmark. I remember the second and last conversation I had about the birthmark where I argued unsuccessfully about what it resembles: From the first moment I was aware of this mark (with my extremely limited knowledge of geography at the time), the shape has always reminded me of the continent of Africa…
Part 1: “Black music”
After applying the sunscreen I made a ten-minute walk to Callejon De Hamel where I enjoyed an amazing Rhumba concert. It was on the level of all the best shows that I’ve seen in my life. This one amplified voices and drums and this acoustic choice combined with incredible execution, dance, audience participation, and my increased comprehension of the music led to a profound listening experience. As has happened several times this year I was emotionally moved to consider on an abstract level my place on this planet and in the world of music. Yet as I started to lose myself completely in the performance, one nagging thought stopped me from total immersion. This thought is one that I have always had and that I have understood with greater clarity as I mature, especially this year: “But you can’t really be a part of this. This is black music. It’s not yours.”
As the music reached a feverish pitch I felt something push this feeling aside in a way that has certainly not happened before. It felt kind of like my heart jumped into a Jacuzzi with the jets on, or made a sharp turn in a white-water raft. I was so engaged that I didn’t think much besides how much I completely dug what was happening. But once the song ended I started thinking. A few tunes later the set ended and I started walking home still mulling over a complicated mixture of issues that this feeling had unearthed.
I will first quote a large portion from Sherrie Tucker’s essay “Big Ears: Listening for Gender in Jazz Studies” which gave me insight into lots of intersectional issues in music. It summarizes my current feelings on race very well and I highly recommend reading the whole thing. Tucker’s article is probably my favorite thing I’ve cited on this blog all year:
“Critical race theorists, such as Kimberle Crenshaw, reject not only the essentialist view that race guarantees particular aptitudes, but also its "vulgar anti-essentialist" flip-side that concludes that, since race isn't a biological fact, it must be irrelevant. In jazz writing, this often manifests in the rhetoric of jazz as a color-blind, utopian, race-free space, a sonic realm of transsocial pure aesthetics that somehow matter without signifying. Instead, critical race theorists work from an assumption that race is both "not real" and "real"; real "in the sense that there is a material dimension and weight to the experience of being 'raced' in American society, a materiality that in significant ways has been produced and sustained by law (Crenshaw 1995:xxvi). Such an approach renders insufficient debates about which race plays jazz best, as well as analyses that dismiss race as a red herring that detracts from the real story (of sound, of genius, of individuals). Instead, it leads jazz researchers to explore the production, consumption, functions, representations, and meanings of jazz and race as they inform each other in a vast range of social and historical contexts.”
I think most of the loose conglomeration of musicians that find themselves under the label “jazz” resent it. For example, my teacher Gary Bartz found no use for labels of any kind in his music, John Coltrane said that to him “the word has no meaning” and Miles Davis said he preferred to call it “Black music.”
Yet at the same time Gary recognizes that the music he plays is distinct from say, the music that the L.A. Philharmonic plays. I don’t want to put words in his mouth but my interpretation is that he mainly doesn’t want genre labels to limit his creativity. And that he (rightly) sees the word “jazz” as vague, racist, and part of a broader structure of social inequity which he rejects but sees as too encompassing to focus too much of his energy on.
But in my opinion, like some other loosely delineated categories—for example, race, gender, sexuality, and religious denomination—musical genre is worth thinking about because it is a label that we use every day. Even though each of these categories carries with it some reprehensible baggage of oppression and misuse, they are here nonetheless. Our work to minimize their negative impact has to happen within the frameworks that they helped create, and actively acknowledging those murky boundaries gives us more tools for understanding what is really going on. Even if you choose not to conform to genre’s boundaries, as a responsible artist you should consider how you want to relate to it, at least because almost everyone else will.
I think I’m a classical musician. I went to school for four years to study music. I know how to read notes on paper. And I’m currently writing a pages long article on the socio-cultural significance of my artistic output. My music is meant to be appreciated for the abstract quality of the sound and not to be participated in, (danced to, sung along with etc.) even if my music often references those participatory qualities. My music is born out of the privilege of extended personal practice time and not the practical necessity of creating functional sound under time pressure.
I think my generation of college-educated jazz musicians is currently writing the history on America’s classical music. A form of Western concert music that is nonetheless significantly distinct from the European classical tradition. A genuinely international hybridized musical language that draws from the musical vocabulary of all the New World. A style that is evolving from folk to classical music so fast that only the i-phone could make it happen. I think that’s very exciting.
And I think that this American classical style is unequivocally Black music. Are there non-Black jazz/American classical musicians? Sure there are. Are there great ones? Definitely. But their legacy doesn’t change my assuredness that this is Black music. I’ll use a story about Benney Goodman as an example to combat some common counterarguments:
Benney Goodman was undoubtedly one of the best Clarinetists of the 20th century. He proved himself in jazz, and European Classical settings to have incredible command of the instrument, a variety of repertoire, and an amazing feel. He was also a huge commercial success. Ninth in a family of 12 boys in a poor Jewish neighborhood in Chicago he created the most financially successful big band of the era, and won a myriad of awards.
He also had an impressive record of racial integration. In 1936, Eleven years before Jackie Robinson played in the major leagues, Goodman hired Teddy Wilson as the pianist in his trio. A little over a year later Lionel Hampton and Charlie Christian were playing in Goodman’s predominantly white big band. After these musicians joined the band Goodman continued to perform for audiences who sometimes violently disapproved of this decision (Although there are conflicting stories on this point, some say it was widely accepted but I’m inclined to believe the former option). When New York law prohibited integrated bands, Goodman refused to play in the Big Apple for over a year resulting in a personal loss of around $1,000,000 in 1930’s money. The public outcry for Goodman’s band resulted in a relaxation of this Jim Crowe policy and increased opportunities for Black musicians.
For a while I was enamored with this story because it gave me the sense that the music I play has a history of helping improve race relations, which is a story that I want to believe. But that conclusion is like saying that NASA helped improve race relations. It was the first Federal government office to de-segregate, and the relative level of common purpose, modernity, and intelligence in the group might have played a role, but NASA is just a good thing that has also slowly gotten a little less racist. In the same way the jazz label—a framework designed by white critics to describe Black music—has claimed a wide variety of individuals whose work occurred in the context of evolving race relations and some of whom took an active part in integration.
Some might cite this example as evidence that jazz is a uniquely American art form that bears all the beauties and blemishes of our national history (another argument that I made for quite some time). But this argument gives too much credit to a country that has routinely denied opportunities to African Americans at large and the Black musicians who deserve the credit for inventing jazz. If jazz were so American why would those musicians need to fight so hard just to perform in an integrated band in the first place? If it were so American why would so many jazz musicians move to Europe in the 60s? If it is so American then why does every major city in the US have a state-sponsored concert hall for European Classical music and only Lincoln Center programs jazz? For a supposedly native art form we certainly aren’t unified in our support of it. I think this lack of support coupled with the current and past marginalization of Black Americans suggests a consistent appropriative American approach to Black contribution of all types, which in turn strengthens the argument for jazz as Black American music.
So maybe this story tells us that the practice of playing music makes individuals sensitive to merit alone regardless of the musicians background (yet another point I often made)? Obviously not, because there were no women in the band! The problem persists today; Lincoln Center has never even auditioned a female applicant and I personally know plenty of female musicians who could play very effectively with that group. The people who make the meretricious argument are often the same ones who say that jazz is Black music in another context. My sense is that they are usually making this contrary argument to combat the perception that Black achievement is racially determined. That’s an argument no one should need to make but it is still a pretty good way to do it despite the slight contradiction. As if we needed proof that your color doesn’t guarantee you abilities look to the example: Goodman didn’t suddenly decide to forego a million dollars for the cause of de-segregation. If he had wanted to do that he could have donated the money and written it off on his taxes! He was a savvy musician and businessperson and he knew that the addition of Wilson, Christian and Hampton was well worth the temporary loss. Wilson, Christian and Hampton like scores of other African American musicians made their mark on history through exceptional merit and effort not through blind luck and natural talent.
For the simplest explanation of why Benney’s music is Black music focus on the music! He’s using big band instrumentation, walking bass line, jabs and stabs in the horns, blues forms, chorus-based improvisation, Tin Pan Alley repertoire as a platform… need I go on? Every one of these jazz tropes was conceived by a Black musician before Goodman ever had the idea. And at his most famous concert in Carnegie Hall 1938 he chose to include members of the Duke Ellington orchestra because otherwise he couldn’t get the “classic… mellow” sound he needed to represent what he called “A History of Jazz.” And I’m sorry but when he plays “Honeysuckle Rose” with the guys from the Basie band that is wen the concert really heats up without that and “Blue Reverie” it would have not been nearly the success it was.
Here I should note that calling jazz, or anything for that matter, “Black” risks homogenizing the Black experience, which is as diverse and multi-faceted as the people who comprise it. Back to this idea of being “raced.” Even though different people have completely different ideas about what their heritage means to them, we live in a culture that labels people in large part by their appearances. By definition, the arts are the objects of our subjective perceptions. Such a pervasive perception as race has a “material” weight in criticism, consumption, and performance of music. This weight is worth acknowledging to better understand some of the common implications for those musicians who are or were regularly identified as “Black.” Even though naming the music “Black” risks homogenizing some of these effects it’s still worth doing because ignoring the categorization is an even greater and more costly simplification.
So what about people like Lennie Tristano, Tito Puente, and John Zorn? Non-Black musicians throughout the timeline of jazz who have made meaningful innovations. Doesn’t their presence muddy the argument that this music is the creation of Black Americans? Not for me.
Each of these men brought their own personal history and musical interests to bear on a tradition that began as Black Music. They did it in different ways; Tristano with European Classical ideas about harmony and rhythmic asymmetry, Puente with the folklore of his homeland, and Zorn with a kind of Klezmer/neoclassical fusion of both approaches. While the artistry of these men changed the way that other people played jazz after them, their careful study of the Black music that came before them gave them the foundation to make that contribution. The discourse isn’t limited to Black Americans, but the conversation will always be in that language. Some of the things that make Tristano’s music sound like jazz are the instrumentation, format of improvisation, and the homage it pays to Lester Young & Co. Again, early jazz tropes. The other influences I mentioned are what make his music unique.
So then what about The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Anthony Braxton, and The World Saxophone Quartet? Black musicians who are or were meaningfully innovating, playing music that I would call jazz, and intentionally avoiding most of the elements that I have used thus far as jazz signifiers. Is it jazz or non-jazz? Black music or avant-garde? This brings us to the minutia of defining what “jazz” is which is impossible. Jazz and all genres for that matter mean different things at different times to different people. So much so that it is humorous, for example, “Take the hypothetical simultaneity of beliefs that jazz stimulates interracial harmony, national love, subculture formation, black pride, bohemian ennui, spirituality, sexual prowess, democracy, chaos, and sales of luxury cars.”
Despite all the ambiguity, I still believe that most American’s share a very general notion of what “jazz” is. It’s safe to say that if you played someone the music of Braxton or others to most people in the US that they would probably call it “jazz” even if none of us could tell you exactly why. I also think that this general idea of “jazz” is the main benefit of keeping the word around. By choosing to align or conflict with this label you can conjure up a somewhat consistent image for whomever you wish to communicate with little effort. The flip side of our strengths are always are weaknesses though, so needing acknowledge the boundaries of genre can certainly have an adverse impact on your creativity and is primarily good for selling music not for creating it. But frankly if you have a saxophone in your hand, you have no choice but to deal with the jazz image.
People like Rashaan Roland Kirk and Nicholas Payton eschew(ed) the word “jazz” and look(ed) for other words to try to capture the meaningful distinction between the music they play and other music. They do/did this because the word is often used as a weapon by people in the culture industry to hurt artists by virtue of their inclusion/exclusion in a good/bad category. I’m not interested in trying to draw a line in the sand where one side is jazz and the other non-jazz or one piece Black music and the other not. If this discussion proves anything, it’s that thinking about race and lines can take us down a never-ending rabbit hole of contradiction and nuance. For me the reason to think of the general notion of jazz as “Black music” is to properly attribute the legacy of African-American achievement in a society that often forgets or obscures it.
Most Americans think of Elvis Presley before they think of Chuck Berry, remember Amy Winehouse before Aretha Franklin and celebrate Donald Fagan before Sly Stone. For us to remember imitators as innovators is to accept a lie about our history. Of course everyone I just mentioned made a positive impact on the world of music, but the white people didn’t have the idea first. Their color and the structure of the industry gave them outsize acclaim for their contribution. In brief: Why is Benney the King of Swing and Basie just the Count? Racism. Plain and simple.
One of the things that makes art so meaningful is the way that it mediates between social structures (like race), and social subjects (like you and me). Contemplating our place in the larger social fabric can help make the personal universal and vice versa. This isn’t a pointless mental exercise; it’s an examination of why sound says something instead of just making our ears smile. It’s a way to decide what your best options are based on history and facts.
I don’t think that any of those white musicians set out to steal from their Black counterparts. I think that they were using the tools at their disposal to communicate their thoughts as well as they could within the framework that they knew best. I am certain that every one of those people got into music because of how much they loved music… because there aren’t any other reasons to do it! If the main thing those musicians wanted was to get one over on Black people, there were and are a whole lot of easier ways for them to do it with a much greater payoff. Case in point: None of those musicians were making even a tenth what the record company was. The situation with Spotify is even worse.
But at the same time they were benefitting from Black exploitation. Just because they were benefitting less from it than other people doesn’t mean that they weren’t doing better because of it. Each of them must have made their own personal calculation about what that meant to them based on their own personal history and their own beliefs about the work that they were doing. In my mind there just isn’t any way around it: Jazz, Rock & Roll, Hip-Hop, R&B, Bluegrass, Country Western, Rumba, Merengue, Samba, Cha-Cha-Cha, Bolero, Bossa-Nova… If you want to play the music of the Americas, it’s all Black music.
So this means that I’m fated to be an exploiter? Now my brain goes running for the exits! “I don’t play Black music I play the music of Max!” “Plenty of white people made contributions, they can’t have been exploiting if they innovated!” “Jazz isn’t even the same music anymore! Now that the music is in schools it has fundamentally changed its character!”
And all of these arguments have a grain of truth in them. But none of them overcome the overriding message that I owe my artistic concept to the musicians I imitate and most of these people are or were black.
When I participated in an Ewe libation ceremony two men spent around fifteen minutes kneeling on the ground naming their ancestors and asking for their permission to teach me. When a name was forgotten someone in the small crowd assembled would shout it out. In addition to pouring the traditional hard liquor Akpateshi on the ground, these men poured out orange Fanta because that was their grandfather’s favorite drink. I saw the roots of my teachers’ obsession with the jazz tradition. While I sometimes find the parade of jazz birthdays, fashion choices, and precise recording dates a little wearisome in light of broader history I understand their importance better now: In a culture that has not the words for the scope musical achievement, nor the kinship relationships to protect the memory of great forgotten artists, our sole alternative is to pay tribute to our chosen musical ancestors. The way we remember them best is as complete individuals with personalities outside their music. Godwin Agbelli loved orange Fanta and we want to remember him as the man and not just the drummer because the artist was in both.
Even if you want to dispute my argument that jazz is Black music, I would say that regardless of any labels my music is based in Black music because that is the music that I connect with, listen to, and study the most. Sure, I could have been raised on a weird, restricted jazz diet of the first Bill Evans Trio, The Woody Herman Orchetra, and Bix Biederbecke but I wasn’t. My heroes are Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Lester Young, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughn, Gary Bartz, Billy Hart, Ron Carter, Roy Hargrove, Art Tatum, Max Roach, Keith Jarrett, Elvin Jones and Wayne Shorter among many others. And while the color of these people’s skin doesn’t necessarily mean that their music is “Black” most of them are on record saying that their racial identity is at the very least a significant part of their work, and at most the unifying characteristic of their whole artistic output. And their aesthetic decisions—at least to me—clearly reflect this notion.
So after all of this reading you can see why Gary and many others would get tired of thinking about genre and race! All this work for no tangible musical payoff, or satisfying conclusion would encourage you to take the quickest rout out and say that race and genre are all a fiction and therefore aren’t worth thinking about. But doing that is a little intellectually lazy for me. After all, this is my life’s work. If I’m going to do it, I want to have a clear idea of what it is even if the boundaries of language, history, and social structure make it difficult to understand.
So what do I do with all of this? Many theorists have said everything I’ve said here much more succinctly and accurately than I have. The purpose of me writing this out is so that I can understand these ideas on my own terms and then form a good plan of action for myself. The most important thing I’ve said so far as it relates to my own behavior is this “exploiter” idea and I’ll get to that after I broaden the discussion to encompass all the things that would stop me from playing music.
Part 2: My Music
The pursuit of musical performance has unequivocally been the central part of my life for at least five years. Second only to my closest personal relationships (and I think that this particular priority only shifted this December) working on music has been the force that most informs all my decisions. It is the thing that makes me feel excited for each day. It is an unwavering source of joy and meaning. It is the best and sort of the only way I know how to make friends. I’m tearing up as I write this, because music is just so obviously the brightest light in my life.
But my relationship with music is about to change whether I want it to or not. For the past five years (really thirteen) I have moved along a path from student to professional and while I still have a lot to learn about the vocation, I know already that music as a job and as a study are totally different things. Over the past weeks and months I have achieved a feeling of preparation that I did not have when I left Oberlin, or even when I left India. I feel so excited at the prospect of making music that I have difficulty imagining what would make me stop. But I see so many of my peers from school going into other fields or treading water in some sort of vocational liminal space. The two things that I see as real possibilities for stopping me from performing are lifestyle desires, and beliefs about the merit of my labor.
I am not going to talk too much about the first of these two. While I think it is the more likely problem that would stop me from playing, I don’t think there’s much value in thinking more about it right now. This is a little naive, simplistic, and unrealistic—but I basically feel that I have the ability to achieve anything that I really set my mind on. As long as I am certain that playing music is what I want, then I will find a way to make it work financially. I think the risk that is worth addressing right now is that I will conflate these economic pressures—which stem from a buyers market of musicians and a culture of exploitation—with my beliefs about the value of my work as a musician. The best way to combat this problem is by clearly defining these qualms now before the money sets in to make all this into a big murky ball.
When I had my first lesson with Gary Bartz he asked me why I wanted to study saxophone with him. I told him that I wanted to be a great musician. He replied, “You’re never going to be great. Because the people who are really great, were already good by the time they were you’re age, and you’re not good yet… But you can be a good musician so let’s get started.” This blunt statement probably would have made me feel pretty sad if he had given me any time to think about it. But he went right into quizzing me on the circle of fifths.
And he’s probably right. While I will always strive to be the best musician I can be I will probably never be on the level of the heroes I mentioned above. I came to terms with this a while ago as it related to my personal happiness in studying music. My catchphrase was that “as long as I can play, teach, and always improve I will be happy.” And I still believe that for my personal life, but I’m a little uncertain about how that perspective should change as it relates to music as a career. Being so-so at sax is fine for the basement, but if I’m going to spend my life on something, I’d like it to be of significant impact.
So could I conceivably be great at something else? My gut inclination is no, but why? I think there are two major factors in greatness: Passion and discipline. Steve Jobs told us “The only way to do great work is to love what you do.” But passion alone often leads us to work that is unfocused, inconsistent, or simply short-lived. So discipline harnesses those passions and moves our minds and bodies to work smart and hard every day. And discipline is a character trait that I believe holds true, to somewhat varying degrees, for all aspects of our lives. I have proven to myself that I have the discipline to accomplish fairly large tasks. Discipline earned me an A in a challenging computer science class, helped me complete a job at the Public Defender’s office, and help bring my High School Constitutional Law program to Capitol Hill. Hell, it got me a whole other college degree besides music! And I had a degree of passion for all of these things, but the main driving force behind them was discipline.
I remember very clearly a particular 2-day stretch working on a problem set for this Comp Sci class during which I did not play music. The only musical activity that I completed was teaching a volunteer lesson at the Middle School which I did a couple times a week. And just that feeling of being around music was so mentally and even physically relieving that it was obvious to me that I will always be happiest when I am working to serve music, even if this involvement is indirect like teaching. These experiences, combined with the thousands of hours I have spent practicing, rehearsing, and performing music also prove to me that I have a greater passion for music than I have for anything else.
KSS talked to me once about his son’s choice to go into computer programming instead of music. Music in India tends to run in families and KSS tried to encourage his son to play but was unsuccessful. He said that he had some difficulty accepting his son’s choice because he felt he had not seen the full depth of music: “Once you have truly known music. It is almost impossible to do anything else.”
So then the next question is what am I looking for in my pursuit of music? Should I teach, work in instrument repair, arts management, audio engineering, music law…? There are so many things that go into making music actually happen and I have skills that could make me effective in any of these positions. But I’ve done at least a little bit of work in every field I mentioned and while they are all rewarding in their own way, I find none of them as satisfying as performing which is the end result, broader service, and (hopefully) the ultimate goal of all of these professions.
But just because something is satisfying to me doesn’t mean that it is a good for others and it’s not enough for me to do something just because I like it. I need to have a feeling that my work is appreciated and that my efforts are reciprocated—even if that reciprocation is only abstract. I’ve watched my parents derive much of the pleasure of their work from a service mindset: While they could make more money and do easier work in other specialties or private practice they choose to apply their talents to Veterans and those less fortunate in demanding fields with comparatively less payoff. And for most people the actual labor that they do is not fun, and the principal rewards are money and this type of altruistic fulfillment. While I don’t need my career to look like everybody else’s, I need these qualities to feel satisfaction in my work. If my work is not valued by anyone and I am not making my income from performing then I won’t pursue performance because I won’t be getting enough back from it to justify the effort I’m putting in.
Before I move on I’ll just state the obvious: Music is valuable. People appreciate it. This year I have found in a wide variety of settings all over the world that my musical abilities win me a place in people’s hearts that no words, money, or gifts do. The confusing part is that although they rely on it, many people don’t think about where music comes from, or demonstrate their appreciation with money. But firefighters, teachers, and social workers also do immensely valuable work and are not appropriately compensated financially. Money just doesn’t follow real contribution.
The thing that would give me doubts is whether my music is valuable. There are usually two extremes on this point: “Nobody is better than anybody else in art so my music is valuable” and “The good musicians (like me) can’t get work because of all these bad musicians taking the money!” Often the same people argue these ideas in different circumstances.
The first dissatisfying to me because it risks de-valuing true greatness. A part of what makes somebody great is not only the high quality of their work but the fact that that it is exceptional. Of course there is room for debate in matters of aesthetics but there is also a fact of the matter about artistry, craft, and intention. For instance, I don’t think anyone can argue that “Headquarters” by the Monkees is as good as “Sgt. Pepper’s” by The Beatles. They were going for the same thing at the same time and one is an icon and the other has fallen into well-deserved obscurity. At the extreme these arguments become about definitions of music as a whole: “Is hail falling on a tin roof better than Mahler V???” I think these questions arise because music is so ingrained in our lives that it can be hard to distinguish what it actually is. For me, music is sound that somebody believes is an improvement upon silence… but that’s too big a topic for this post.
There are a ton of really good saxophone players and a few great ones alive today. A lot of musicians are fond of saying that “the world doesn’t need one more _________ player” and then saying why they are different. When I try to justify my contribution in the face of this statement my brain first goes to the “too many musicians and not enough artists” idea. But this quote is an artificial way for me to try to separate myself from others in the face of a premise that isn’t very precise. While it’s true that thinking of myself as an artist is a more effective way for me to make good music, I can’t simply dismiss my peers for being “musicians” and not “artists” because I’m afraid of being worse than them. Diminishing other people’s success is a sure fire way to know that you failing, and walking around trying to convince myself that I am the greatest sax player alive makes me jealous of others and keeps me from improving as fast as possible.
Most people who make this claim are speaking out of a sense that music is a buyer’s market and that it’s not possible for most people to make a living performing. They are trying to find a way to compete in a discipline that fundamentally does not adhere to free market competition and using this phrase to set people apart in a field that is too complicated to accurately describe succinctly. Once again, money doesn’t follow real contribution; therefore your ability to make art doesn’t correspond to the opportunities you get. But that doesn’t mean that bad musicians are “taking” the work from good ones. A complicated structure that has little to do with music determines who gets to play and who doesn’t. Sometimes it rewards musicianship and sometimes it doesn’t.
And that means that performance opportunities are worth pursuing! I used to get hung up on the idea that by performing I would be taking already scarce opportunities from somebody else. But while that is true, I see no evidence that the other person who would be on the gig is more likely to be better qualified. “Who gets what” in music is all chaos. And when you’re dealing with chaos you can only trust yourself to make good things happen, which is all the more reason to try to make good things happen.
Whether I am great or not shouldn’t deter me for this reason most of all: We need good musicians and not just great ones. Somebody has to play the other six nights after Ernie Watts comes to Denver. Most people can’t tell the difference between a good musician and a great musician anyway. What matters as much as your place in the greater picture of music is your ability to connect with people and provide a service on the tangible plane of your own life. We love to watch fame and fortune, but music is valuable with or without these badges of success.
And then I just have this feeling that I have to at least try to perform. While I’ve dabbled in all those other music-related fields, my primary focus has been on playing music. And if I never tried because I was scared it wasn’t going to work out then I’d never forgive myself.
And that is a big commitment. To really try this I need to give it a lot of time and stick it out when things get tough. I’d say my minimum is about two years. If I do any less than that with a performance goal in mind then I’d be quitting without enough information. It takes a really long time to build a career as a performer and there is no defined path to follow. If I quit within a year or two, I will be quitting based on circumstances that are likely to change with some time, work, and patience on my part. Or I’d be quitting based on hearsay that is grounded in some of the cloudy thinking and imprecise rhetoric that I’ve quoted so far. That’s a only rough time estimate though and a lot remains to be seen…
…which is mostly bad but a little good. Because… Who knows what will happen!?! I don’t need to be in history books but I would like to have the experience of regularly playing music on a high level in a professional setting. A part of what made the greats great was the confidence to perform under circumstances of real importance. It’s not out of the question that I will have those experiences. Were I to have those experiences regularly I might even become some sort of “great” musician. And I want to play with amazing people even just for my personal fulfillment. These are experiences that I have worked hard for and I think that I can bring something to the table when/if I get the chance.
The last nagging thing that would stop me is this idea that no matter what I do, it’s just not going to work out because I’m not “that guy” who was made to play music on the highest level. Perhaps the reason it took me so long to unwrap all these uncertainties from my concerns about race is that I am preoccupied with this idea of predestination. While a person’s color conveys zero verifiable information, many of us sometimes (much more often that we’d like to admit) use it as mental shorthand for their genetics and an approximation of their upbringing. So when contemplating my destiny I got a little tied up in my color. But I’d say my race is one part of a larger category of what the ol’ Bill of Rights would call my “immutable characteristics.” the other major ones for this discussion are my early childhood and my natural aptitude for music. At times, each of these traits makes me feel that I wasn’t made to play music.
So now we’ve more or less arrived back at the “exploiter” idea again. Unfortunately based on the structure of American life as it stands and the privileges I’ve already enjoyed for the past twenty years, I have already taken scores of opportunities that I did not earn and that are denied to people of color in the US. But this would be true in any field I worked in, and it would be worse in many besides music. So would it be best for me to dedicate my life to greater racial equality? That is a noble goal and we need people to work on that, but I have to strike a balance between what is best for me and what is best for other people. I can do things to make our country more equitable in all kinds of ways outside of my work including my votes, my spending habits, and my social life.
Whenever I take an opportunity, it is theoretically a space that could be filled by a Black person. But as I said before, my absence on a gig does not guarantee a more qualified presence. And a person’s color does not necessarily make them are a better musician than me. The scarcity of opportunities and the inclusion of music in a capitalist framework makes it feel like fellow musicians are competitors. But the compensation for music has always been primarily in the quality of the art itself and more musicians only makes the quality better. The small amount of money that one of us may lose to another is just a distraction from our common purpose. We are all employees for music; which is far more important than us as individuals, not-for-profit, and has no owner.
I think the main reason that racial inequality makes me feel so strongly as it relates to my work is that music gives us a feeling of intense intimacy with the musician. So much so that playing someone’s music feels like we are taking a piece of his or her soul. But if the Black American legacy proves anything, it is that the human soul cannot be stolen. It can only magnify its presence through its sheer tenacity, emotion, and luminousness. I do my utmost to demonstrate the deep respect that I feel for my Black peers and musical ancestors and nothing has given me greater sensitivity to race relations in the US than my study of Black music. While I perceive and lament the ways in which my work is complicit in exploitation, I don’t think the solution is for me to stop pursuing art. Just the opposite. My choice to play music, primarily Black music, for a living is the most efficient and personally satisfying way for me to contribute to my community based on my personality and preferences. And that is the best I can do for the people around me regardless of their color.
The pursuit of music encourages me to ask these difficult questions of myself every day. My feelings will evolve and change because—much as I would like to put race away and not think about it—it’s here, and the more we deal with it, the better chance we have to minimize it’s negative impact.
Nothing has made me surer than my experiences this year that I love the music of the Black American continuum more than any other music on earth. But my travels have also made me all the more convinced that it is the most compelling for the audience to hear a person perform music rooted firmly in their personal and cultural history.
So does that mean that I am fated to never be who I want to be? To be a pale imitator of the music I love? No! As I’ve already said, plenty of non-Black people made a huge positive impact on Black music. Benney Goodman was definitely awesome and I never meant to dispute that. My music cannot reflect the Black experience because that is not an experience that I share. But I will use the musical devices that I know best to communicate my heart and mind and I will use them with the same degree of authenticity and ownership that my predecessors did. Because one thing is for sure: They wouldn’t want me to get up and play sad shit in their name.
Ok… let’s put that one away for now.
The other immutable characteristics I mentioned have a big impact too. The life that we lead in our formative years leaves indelible marks on our character and music. I loved my childhood because it taught me to work hard, take care of myself, and feel happy. These are lessons that matter more than my profession… but mine is definitely not a life story fit for Downbeat Magazine.
When I told Billy Hart that I am from Denver—perhaps with some (and therefore too much) pride in my voice—he said:
“Denver? There’s no jazz in Denver.”
When I said that I worked in Boulder for the summer Gary asked, “Do you ski?”
I said, “Yeah, do you?”
“I’m Black. I don’t ski.”
And my experiences in church were just about as far from Black gospel music as you can get…
There is also the trait of innate musicality: I don’t have perfect pitch, I don’t have synesthesia, and I couldn’t tell the difference between an augmented and a diminished chord when I took the AP Music theory exam. I was a repeated alternate for statewide jazz band and in 2012 the extracurricular jazz program I participated in produced an album with all the senior sax players… except for me.
But these things are impossible to change and therefore not worth thinking about. What matters much more than what I did ten years ago is what I am doing now. Music gives us such an impression of intimacy that it is natural to feel that the greatest musicians must have been this way since birth. We feel that their whole lives and deepest selves are on display through the music, so the music must have been around for their whole lives intertwined their deepest selves. But lots and lots of very good musicians learned slowly and started late. Not only are these facts about me outdated, they can be argued with an equally compelling set of facts:
Every Sunday afternoon since before I could talk my father would play music with his closest friends in the basement of our house. I don’t have clear memories of these days, but I have a foggy sense of colors, friends, food, games, and good sounds. I sang in the choir from age 8, at age 10 I started playing saxophone and practiced every single day. At 16 I recorded in the studio with the rock band The Fray. Even though these traits don’t pin me as a stereotypical jazz musician, they don’t disqualify my music as second-rate. They just tell a different story.
Throughout this year I have been praised for my innate musicality and fast pace of learning, neither of which are traits that I would have attributed to myself before. But they were compliments granted by knowledgeable people who either did not fully comprehend or care about my musical background. Compared to a tourist with no experience I am innately musical and quick to learn. This got me thinking about what I could do if I had so-called natural ability.
While I went through a period of convincing myself that I have always been good at music this was more like blind self-acceptance rather than targeted appraisal of my strengths and weaknesses. Believing in my natural gifts merely requires a change of mindset in which I focus on the things that I have actually done well for a long time. Not only this but believing in my so-called natural ability means playing in a way that celebrates my unique personality, and intuitive strengths rather than relying on an exhibition of my work ethic and newfound techniques.
Suddenly a whole world of meaningful musical opportunities opens: I have the right to sing on a melody and not play in a brainy way to prove how much I’m working. I have the right to play a lick I’ve played a thousand times with some serious feel, undeniable tone, and without being embarrassed about it because that’s my fucking sound. I have the right to express a little dance and some muscle because, hey, it’s who I’ve always been.
I used to dance in a self-depreciating way when I heard music with a strong groove. I used to strive for more “chops” in a vague semi-European Classical way instead of really engaging in aesthetically motivated practice—a concept that now drives my every practice decision. I used to listen for certain musical signposts like motivic development, adherence to “the jazz tradition” (or coveted non-adherence) and instrumental virtuosity instead of just loving the music that sound the best to me without being so rigid. I presented myself the way that I saw myself, which was as a student and lover of music who wasn’t entitled to play it well. But after feeling the feeling I began this essay with, and thinking extensively about my role in the musical world at large I’ve redefined myself as someone with a birthright to play, which is by far the best mindset for me to express the depth of my feeling uninhibited and really make an impact.
This is the reason that I started the essay with the bit about my birthmark. I believe that humans naturally carry very strong and equally illogical emotions about our skin. People have often exploited this tendency as justification for unjustifiable acts of racism. But why has this justification held sway in so many different cultures in so many circumstances? There must be something innate in us that believes that our skin meaningfully distinguishes ourselves from others. Why is this? Why does it matter?
Why are we (especially people my age) so obsessed with tattoos? I think it’s because they signify such a strong endorsement of whatever message the tattoo conveys. If you believe in something strongly enough to have it Tattooed on your skin! Then it must be really important to you. That’s interesting. That’s what prompts small talk question #3: “what does that tattoo mean?” But unfortunately this rarely sparks much meaningful discussion...
We also have a taboo fascination with tattoos because on some level it feels like thwarting nature, or the divine. We were born with our skin but we can flaunt our autonomy, and demonstrate our maturation since birth by adding something more to it. The idea of modifying one’s body to represent your own choices and preferences often bears more emotional significance than simply stating those things. But why is this? A picture on your arm doesn’t achieve a fraction of the labor of your hands or the words from your lips.
My best guess is that skin is something tangible that we can point to to represent the aspects of our identity that we were either born with, or that we have maintained so consistently that they are perceivable to all who meet us.
When you read my first paragraph your initial reaction was probably some anger or confusion because it felt like I was claiming my innate right to something vaguely African. I did that partially as a way to get you to read this, and partially as a way to express the duality of my feelings about my birthmark. On one level I know that it is a random occurrence of pigment that has no significance. On the other I feel like it is too clear to be an accident. I feel like it must be there to tell me something. On the one hand I’m a white dude who geeks out over Bird. On the other hand I’m a hard-working individual who has dedicated years of his life and gallons of his soul to the African American cultural legacy. I’ve done a lot of work and thought hard about my place in the legacy of Black music, but I often experience doubts. I have made the choice to embrace the second definition of myself. When I have those doubts it’s nice to feel that right there on my arm is a reminder that I’m connected to the source, however distantly or abstractly.
It means more to me because I’ve had this mark for my whole life. Like it was just sitting there waiting for me to notice it. It makes me feel in some roundabout way that I have always been built to play the music I play. Of course, the memory of this birthmark could certainly be re-constructed or even entirely made up. The resemblance of the mark to Africa is even subject to debate. But I don’t believe these things. I have to believe that in a meaningful way I was made to do music. I have to believe that my commitment to music is something so central to my identity that it is literally branded on my skin. I have to believe that this is my music. I have to believe that this was a message that was meant for me and that I was meant to see it now. I have to believe that on my right arm I have a little tattoo from God that has always been there and always will. Just like the content of my heart and just like my music.