It’s only through deeper contemplation that the sometimes surreal experiences of life in New York City can take on meaning – the random events that transpire over a typical day can feel like you fell through the looking glass. That’s where those of us who choose to live here either get that blasé nothing-can-faze-me look in our eye, or we allow ourselves to become fazed, and wrestle with deeper resonances of life lived in such close proximity to others, and ultimately ourselves.
The other night I was going home, exhausted, from the ‘night job’ – via the Union Square subway. A young man was crouched and shrouded, performing some kind of puppetry. I saw enough peripherally to see some strings, and the many folds of brown material that covered his entire body, save his eyes. I fumbled in my pocket thinking this was interesting enough to tithe – I’d drop whatever I had in his hat and watch from a vantage point that would allow me to hear the subway’s arrival, and see what he was up to – and perhaps give more, who knows?
I dropped what change there was in my pocket in his hat, beside which was a cardboard sign that read “nothing” in quotation marks. There were a few dollar bills in the hat – and one ripped into pieces. After my coins hit the bills, I heard his voice, my stride yet unbroken:
“You gave me a penny?”
Startled, I turned – now knowing I wouldn’t watch whatever the performance was – and with a smile threw back:
“I gave you a dime, too!” with a laugh.
I turned and saw only his eyes, unblinking, his tone admonishing.
I tossed off a chuckling, offhand compliment to end the exchange and went downstairs to wait for my train, a little entertained, and a little unsettled. It wasn’t a minute or two of assembling my thoughts when I heard a voice at the top of the stairs:
“You can just have it!”
And coins tinkled and fell down the stairs, having been thrown back at me waiting at the bottom.
I was flabbergasted . Not that I thought my paltry change was so generous, but that it was met with such vitriol and offense. The rest of my evening I tried to make sense of this exchange and reconcile my feelings of embarrassment at my lack of generosity, and indignation at his refusal.
The point, however, is the conversation, and I thank him for this (perhaps this was the intention all along?) I have more question than answers about this encounter – I’m interested in your thoughts.
Firstly, can beggars be choosers? In this case the question is literal. But, it bears asking – can artists, whose work is really an offering, choose to refuse any money or opportunity? I think the answer to be yes, but at what point is choosing appropriate?
How much is meaningful? My first thought once I reached the bottom of the stairs was that thirteen cents is more than most artists get for a track play on Spotify. Does that make it okay to give artists less? An internet guru I like once said she had two tiers of payment – free and premium. Is it better to give nothing than something if the something is small?
When, if ever, does patronage become insulting? Is attention more valuable than currency?
The day after this incident, I had to email a lovely club a refusal for a gig – although my calendar isn’t full, I had to politely refuse an offer because it wasn’t fiscally sustainable. I more gracious than usual, as I thought about the sound of pennies hitting tile beside me the night before…
Perhaps all of us at times must refuse something for whatever reason, but it might be better done in the spirit of accepting something else, rather than outright negation.
Please do comment, I’d love to know your musings on this.
Sometimes, music sounds so good you can’t help but make the same appreciative sounds you would had you just eaten a delicious piece of BBQ, or tasted a fine wine. Every Thanksgiving, I try to elicit both responses to both music and wine paired to match one another. Last year, I paired Pinot Noirs of the world with great female jazz vocalists. This year, I’m pairing great saxophonists with Bordeaux varietals. I hope you enjoy what you hear (listen to the entire playlist on Spotify here), and hopefully what you taste (most wines below can be found at Oak & Steel for all you New Yorkers). Special thanks goes to Ted Nash for the consult on all things sax (who better?) And to all the winemakers for making such exemplary juice (especially Russian River Vineyards for the amazing Cab).
Enjoy the pairings!
Cabernet Sauvignon & Charlie Parker – the greats
In the world of wine, Cabernet is seminal grape of some of the worlds greatest wines – the first growths of Bordeaux and all the favorites from Napa. Simply put, some of the finest wines in the world from Chateau Margaux to Harlan would not be here without this grape and its extraordinary ageworthy quality.
Bird’s sound isn’t just ageworthy, it’s immortal. He’s the father of bebop along with Dizzy Gillespie, and his innovations in harmonic improvisation created the vocabulary for all jazz that was to follow. As impossible as it is to imagine the world of wine without the first growths of Bordeaux, it is equally impossible to conceive of jazz as we know it today without Bird.
One thing Cabernet is known for is structure – the thick skins and the large pips (seeds) of the grape make it very tannic, or dry. The impressive full body and presence of these elements help give it it’s longevity. Charlie Parker changed the structure of how jazz musicians improvise – bebop was more than just an innovative way of using harmony to invent a new sound, but a revolution in how jazz evolved from the swing of the dance floor to a serious music of smaller clubs, only executable with those who had a deep understanding of harmony.
Wine: Russian River Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County 2012
Merlot & Stan Getz – fine and mellow
Rounded tones, longer lines, easy on the palate and the ears. Whereas Cabernet gives you edges, Merlot smooths them over. Stan Getz has a sound which embodies all these qualities – relaxed, caressing and gentle.
One thing Getz has in common with Merlot is his loveability, but also the downside of popularity – falling out of fashion despite one’s unmistakable talents. In the late 60’s early 70’s, free jazz and rock edged out the smoother sound of Getz for a time, much like the film Sideways sparked a Merlot backlash in the states. But folks wise up – Merlot is still one of the most widely planted varietals, and Getz/Gilberto still one of the favorite records of all time.
Wine: Gundlach Bundshu Merlot, Sonoma Valley 2012
Cabernet Franc & Coleman Hawkins – down and dirty
Earthy and distinctive, Coleman Hawkins is the father of the tenor saxophone. He emerges with a sense of place, and the blues are ever present in his playing; much like the herbaceous forest floor earthiness is embodied in Cab Franc’s profile and nose.
The word terroir is used in the wine world, and could also be applied to musicians that have a style that reveals where they are from. Just as you could tell at one time the difference between a West Coast or East Coast player, or from a Kansas City sound to a Chicago sound, so wine reveals itself in its place of origin. In the Loire Valley, Cab Franc is found as a solo varietal which exposes all of its aromatic distinction.
Wine: Olga Raffault Chinon “les picasses” 2010 (Loire Valley France)
Petit Verdot & Sonny Rollins absence makes the heart…
Intense and invaluable, Petit Verdot is an important blending varietal in Bordeaux style wines. Seldom seen as a standalone varietal, the grape contributes color, tannin and fruit to any blend. It’s rarity made me think of Sonny Rollins and the many sabbaticals he’s taken throughout his career (from a year spent practicing under a bridge to a stay at an ashram), always emerging anew with fresh ideas and more developed character in his sound. Although I didn’t include a wine in this one (they’re hard to find, as I mentioned) you can’t have a conversation about Bordeaux’s grapes, or jazz’s great saxophonists, without including these two.
Malbec & John Coltrane – questing
Malbec, which was a great blending grape much like Petit Verdot, emerged in the last two decades as an important soloist. John Coltrane was part of the greatest collaborations in jazz history (with Miles Davis in the Kind of Blue era, with Sonny Rollins on Tenor Madness) but came forward as a soloist of distinction, popularity and versatility.
Malbec is a powerful grape that blends in smaller percentages in the great wines of Bordeaux, but has found it’s home, and a place in spotlight in Argentina and increasingly in other new world zones. Trane lives on as a searching, seeking artist whose relentless quest for new frontiers in music and spirituality led his music in ever new directions. His bold sound and force of vision are well suited to a wine that is forward, unabashed and unafraid to journey.
Wine: Catena Malbec “High Mountain Vines” 2013 Mendoza, Argentina
Sauvignon Blanc & Cannonball Adderley – a smiling swing
Sauvignon Blanc is a beloved white grape. No matter where it’s from, it’s classic bright acidity, direct line and zingy citrus fruit make it unmistakable.
Bright, pointed and bouncing, Cannonball Adderley’s playing is simply joyous and swingin. He’s irresistable. The clarity in his tone, the beauty of a deft touch – any wine would be lucky to dance on the palate the way Canonball’s music does. A listen and a taste makes this pairing on that’s almost a matter of course.
Wine: Chateau La Rame Bordeaux Blanc 2014
Semillon & Johnny Hodges – How Sweet it is
Often times people forget you can be sweet and serious at the same time. Sauternes (made mostly from Semillon, which can also be vinified dry) is one of the greatest wines in the world, and is viscous, sweet, and sophisticated. Johnny Hodges’ playing is romantic without being cloying.
A frequent collaborator with Duke Ellington, Hodges’ sound is nothing sort of luscious. Far from being easy, the kind of concentration and economy require to play simply and sweetly takes a great deal of hard work. Sauternes is much like this: it’s hard to believe something so lovely comes from grapes that are left to hang on the vine and catch a particular kind of rot that saps out the water from the fruit and concentrates it. Both wine and music are not difficult to enjoy – perhaps more so for knowing how hard it is to be easy.
Wine: Chateau Sigalas Rabaud Sauternes premier cru classe 2005 Bordeaux, France
That about sums it up – and for those of you wine geeks, or jazz aficionados, I know there’s some omissions (Lester Young! Muscadelle!) but that’s all to keep things simple and fun. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!
I’m so glad I took a friend’s advice and saw Barb Jungr perform her show “Hard Rain” at Joe’s Pub last week – seeing such a fearless and all-out performer bring herself to the songs of Bob Dylan & Leonard Cohen was not just a great night out, it was rather cathartic.
The observation I thought I’d share was one I had after she performed her encore, a stirring rendition of “Blowin’ in the Wind”. My memories of that song mostly involve my parents getting teary watching Peter, Paul & Mary perform it live on TV – and by that I remember a 14 year old me rolling her eyes at them doing so. Because of Ms. Jungr’s performance (and thankfully being a bit more mature), I encountered these songs afresh and was moved by their earnestness, their poetry, but also the political passion in many of the lyrics.
How many of us, raised by baby boomers, in some way rejected the archetype of the earnest revolutionary that was so much a part of the 60’s? How many of us, brought on by the ennui of education, the over-saturation of 24 hour news cycle media or the omnipresence of violent images became comfortably ironic and aloof as teenagers – and perhaps enjoyed the emotional immunity that provided well into adulthood?
It’s interesting to think that our political voices today frequently are those of comedians – nowadays in the West, we can’t take our protests without a little arch of the eyebrow. The bitter pills of prison system injustice, labor abuses and poverty are made a little sweeter by the likes of Steven Colbert and John Oliver (who I watch every week). I think we do live in times of revolution today all the same – we need only think of the Marriage Equality Act’s passing, or the Pope’s words in Latin America last week to know big changes are happening.
Hearing the songs Jungr chose to sing reminded me that it is imperative that some artists to not to succumb to parody, but dive into the outrage, grief and even joy that is part of the human experience. That courage is what brought tears to my eyes when I heard her version of these songs. and demanded more of me as a listener, and artist and citizen. I thank her for that.
So just about a year ago I recorded an album – it was one of the best days of my life, all told. Four hours of a studio session with an amazing team both in the band and in the engineer’s booth, where my only job was to show up and sing. All the planning and rehearsing had been done, and I was able to dive into the music fully without any other distractions. I was immersed and happy as clams are, I was.
I’ve been busy since then, but I can count on one hand – maybe two fingers, how many times I’ve just been a singer on a gig since.
The performer’s landscape today is filled with all sorts of opportunities, and responsibilities that go well beyond just singing or playing an instrument. The other week I did my first streaming gig, and found myself lugging bottles of sparkling wine and d’oeuvres down to the studio, where I assembled the technology, got the band together, did a soundcheck, and enlisted the help of unwitting audience members to coordinate the room and get things settled. Only after all that was it time to make some music, which of course was the centerpiece of the evening. As I trudged down the street in heels, bottles clanking away in my overstuffed bag and warming up a bit as I walked, I wondered if all this entrepreneurial work – the flyer making, the Facebook posting, the making sure the band meal at a gig doesn’t have any shellfish because your drummer is allergic – if all of this makes us more complete artists and people, or if we’ve lost something in the multi-tasking.
The truth is, musicians have always had responsibilities well past simply arriving. Band leadership has always meant more than just making music – it has to do with people, logistics and communication. I think there can be a lot of illusions about what artists do – and fairy tales artists tell themselves about how someone else (a version of the knight in shining armor) will arrive, and they will never have to do anything besides practice and perform. One of the things I love about jazz especially is that one day you might just be the bon-bon eating, late sleeping diva who just has to choose a dress and a tune before going onstage; and the next you’re attempting to be an amateur sound engineer and fixing some failing PA system at a bar you’re playing.
So if a career in the arts were a fairy tale, which could it be? I’ll say Cinderella, but in a version where she gets to go to the balls, wear the dresses and have the carriage, but still has to work as a maid daytimes. A lot more interesting, and a little less linear, and not likely to entice people into the business. But for some of us, the shoe fits.:)
Sometimes it can be difficult to remember that we all have our own personal seasons when it comes to creativity. On social media, all we see is the spring: shows opened, albums released, books finished, awards received, all seemingly out of the blue. Far less often do we see the period of necessary work, reflection and germination that make those moments possible. The winter of slogging through, of grit without inspiration, of doubt – in film this gets a five minute montage with some thumping background music, and soon the reward is at hand: the hero emerges ready for battle, the masterpiece is composed, the magnum opus is written. In real life, the process of progress can lose it’s luster (especially if “Eye of the Tiger” doesn’t constantly pipe through your home sound system).
It’s helpful for me to remember that stillness has it’s place, and sometimes surrendering to hibernation, percolation, steeping, if you will, is part of being creative and productive. A bursting forth can’t occur if a little energy isn’t kept, held, even trapped for a time. Spring will come, impossible as it is to believe literally this year, and the blooms of art will be as sweet as the tulips soon to start sprouting. To continue with the floral metaphor – it’s as important that bulbs stay dormant, underground and tended to as it is to celebrate the bursting forth of color and petals, when it’s their time.
Thoughts? I’d love to hear them, please do comment freely.
Lately I’ve been giving more thought to the word “jazz”, and what it means to categorize any art. Study any of the greats in this music, and you’ll find a very uneasy relationship between the its greatest practitioners and the word that supposedly describes the music they make. A long list of jazz legends loathed the term: Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus – and the list goes on. Their reasons were artistic, cultural and political – here, I’m interested in the artistic toll categorization takes on something creative.
I recently watched Mel Torme on his episode of “Jazz Casual” (my new YouTube obsession). The host always asks his interviewees questions such as “what is Jazz?” When questioned about jazz singing, Mr. Torme went down a list of singers he felt were jazz singers and ones that weren’t (if you’re wondering, Mark Murphy and Frank Sinatra weren’t, and he quipped that Billy Holiday was like spinach: “you may not like it but it’s good for you.”) This interview did little to endear me to Mr. Torme, but it did make me think about the dangers of categorization and any art form, but especially one that’s constantly evolving like this music is.
In the wine world, there are two ways of tasting: you could be told what sort of wine is in front of you, and then ascertain whether or not it is successful. This is how most people order and consume wine – there’s a producer, grape or style that you go by, and then the wine is judged by how it corresponds to your ideas about what a, say, California Zinfandel or a German Riesling are supposed to be.
The other way to taste is to do so blind – no label or introduction, simply wine in a glass. Then, using only the tools of your palate and perception, you discover what the wine is from it’s flavor profile to it’s overall quality. Words, labels and categories come after the encounter with what the wine actually is. (For those of you who are also philosophy major dropouts, this is the musical/wino version of Existentialism.)
I think if we are to have an art form as vital, dynamic and changing as this music is, we’d best be tasting blind, so to speak, as listeners and artists. Let’s allow the music to evolve, explore and develop – to define a term and then always measure what’s before you in relation to that criteria is to do a disservice to the art before you, and deprive yourself of a more full experience and certainly more expansive creativity.
Ultimately, Ellington puts it best. He acknowledged the best musicians of his day, like the late great Clark Terry, as “beyond category”. To defy category is to truly be creative, and free – which is, after all, what this thing called ‘jazz’ is really about.
Honoré de Balzac is one of my absolute favorite writers. His work, his scope, his humanity – I’m a little fanatic about it. If you’re looking for writing that deals with urban life, love, striving and art making, he’s your guy (and may I humbly suggest starting with Lost Illusions – I did and was hooked.)
This is all said to precede a quote I want to share with you from Cousin Bette that inspires me regularly – to work harder and to revere the pursuit of artistic creation. I hope it does the same for you – it’s not brief, but it is well worth the read.
“Mental work, labor in the higher regions of the mind, is one of the most strenuous kinds of human effort. The quality that above all deserves the greatest glory in art – and by that word we must include all creations of the mind – is courage; courage of a kind of which common minds have no conception, and which perhaps is here described for the first time…To plan, dream, and imagine fine works is a pleasant occupation to be sure. It is like smoking magic cigars, like leading the life of a courtesan who pleases only herself. The work is then envisaged in all the grace of infancy, in the wild delight of conception, in fragrant flowerlike beauty, with the ripe juices of the fruit savored in anticipation. Such are the pleasures of invention in the imagination. The man who can explain his design in words passes for an extraordinary man. All artists and writers possess this faculty. But to produce, to bring to birth, to bring up the infant work with labor, to put it to bed full-fed with milk, to take it up again every morning with inexhaustible maternal love, to lick it clean to dress it a hundred times in lovely garment that it tears up again and again; never to be discouraged by the convulsions of this mad life, and to make of it a living masterpiece that speaks to all eyes in sculpture, or to all minds in literature, to all memories in painting , to all hearts in music – that is the task of execution. The hand must be ready at every instant to obey the mind. And the creative moment of the mind do not come to order. These, like the moments of love, are discontinuous.
This creative habit, the indefatigable maternal love that make a mother (the natural masterpiece that Raphael so well understood) – in short, this intellectual maternal faculty that is so difficult to acquire, may easily be lost. Inspiration gives genius its opportunity. She runs, not on a razors’ edge, but in the air itself, and flits away with all the suspicious wildness of a crow; she wears no scarf by which the poet may catch hold of her, her hair is flame, she is as elusive as those lovely rose and white flamingos that are the despair of sportsmen. And work is a weary struggle at once dreaded and loved by those fine and powerful natures who are often broken under the strain of it. A great contemporary poet has said, speaking of this appalling labor, “I begin it with despair, but I leave it with regret.” Let the ignorant take note! If the artist does not throw himself into his work like Curtius in to the gulf, like a soldier into the breach, unreflectingly; and if, in that crater, he does not dig like a miner buried under a fall of rock; if, in fact, he thinks about the difficulties instead of overcoming them one by one, like those mortals favored by the fairies, who, in order to win their princesses, fight a whole series of combats against successive enchantments, the work will never be completed; it will perish in the studio, where production becomes impossible, and the artist look on at the suicide of his own talent. Rossini, whose talent was in an order comparable with that of Raphael, provides a striking example of this, with his youthful days of poverty, contrasting with the wealth and success of his riper years. And it is for that reason that the same reward, the same triumph, the same laurels, are accorded to the great poets as to the great generals.”
What’s your favorite inspiring quote or passage? I’d love to know…leave a comment!:)
We all have awakenings to things or people we’ve taken for granted – perhaps it’s the happiness of a homecoming to a town you always knew, or seeing your long-time spouse across the room at a party suddenly refreshing you as to why you fell in love with them in the first place. Or, sometimes, it’s the music you’ve always heard that can seem the most alive and fresh when you open your ears a little more.
It’s so easy to take these “standards” for granted – go to a party, a jam, everyone knows them, everybody’s playing them, from the half hearted brunch background combo to pop stars trying to revive their flagging careers. It takes a new understanding of one of these tunes to wake us up sometimes to how great they are.
When my study of the music became much deeper, I was stunned at how little I knew these songs that I would have said were my mainstays. I was shocked at the nuances I’d missed, the carelessness with which I treated them. Familiarity does breed a false sense of knowing – and they are not the same thing.
This is not to mistake respect for this material as nostalgia, far from it. But until you can find the magic and charisma in one of the classic jazz tunes, something’s missing. The enchantment in spells woven by bewitched hearts, moonlight romance, and that feeling that makes you go “ding dong ding dong ding” – the music and lyrics that unabashedly embraced romance and joy and heartache with abandon, these are as fundamental to jazz’s expression as the quest for what’s new and never-spoken.
So, I now believe when I think I know something, I had best think again. There is no “mission accomplished” in art (or for that matter, anything else) – and although some compositions may have been completed for decades, they are far from finished. I can think of no greater reverence for hallowed repertoire than to visit it as if it’s never been heard before.
(So without further ado…Joe Williams with the standard “Alone Together”, and the not-so-standard “The Great City”)
Only with a knowing could he streak and scribble like that
Perfect squares – beautifully blighted by clouds of color
These aren’t the spatters and chaos of accident
But a sage lover’s improvisations
Spectral waves in vibrant intimacy
rubbed squiggled and smudged
Creation’s joy is in the making
Formless hue that vibrates and sings
Sherbet, jade, marigold, deepening royal and fuzzy minor lavender
There is rhythm in this frenzy
A meter, sure
But barlines were made to be broken
And joy, like pink, can be found in chancing splotches.