Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Climbing Ladders

Before committing yourself to climbing a ladder, it's essential to evaluate the top rung with great clear-eyed care. But almost no one ever does. In fact, I had to be taught this lesson twice.

I just fell into being a musician. I'd always been singled out for my musical talent in school, and it's easy for a kid to find himself identifying with the activity which yields the greatest academic and social success. After graduation, sheer inertia propelled me into a musical career, and it went well. Yes, I never made a lot of money, but I'd learned the trick of low overhead. Yes, I found my colleagues two-faced and cutthroat, but I recognized that it's the same in any competitive milieu. And yes, I battled with bandleaders, club-owners, and other authority figures and gatekeepers, but I recognized that this is inevitable for anyone who's creative - who insists on unpredictability. Art, if you do it right, must involve coloring outside the lines. There was a lot to love: the travel, the cultural diversity, the non-monotony, and, most of all, the satisfaction of occsaionally letting loose with unexpected beauty.

But while I loved playing music, the fabric of my life as a musician felt deeply frustrating. Ten years into my career, a jolt of clarity revealed my situation in stark terms: I was spending all my time and energy trying to persuade clueless bandleaders to hire me to play unsatisfying music with their lousy bands for pathetic pay. And while such a scenario was tolerable for a 20 year old, at 30 it had begun to rankle. So I turned pragmatic, and tried to compile a list of bandleaders I respected, whose music would satisfy, and who'd pay decently. I could think of no one.

I'd spent the previous decade a hostage to the whims of my teenaged self*, never considering what success would constitute, and whether I'd want it if I found it. Soberly surveying my situation, it was clear there was nothing for me. At least, not in being a sideman - a hired gun. One alternative would have been to become a bandleader. The prospect of stardom might seem an alluring draw, but it's an abstract notion. Stardom is an outward projection, with little to do with one's personal feelings or the fabric of one'sf day-to-day life. When vetting a ladder's top rung, the searchlight needs to be tightly focused on one's self, rather than on gloriously overblown appearances.

So I vetted. I recalled having played the European jazz festival circuit with saxophonist Illinois Jacquet, where I ran into singer/pianist Mose Allison, a jazz star, in a hotel elevator. We chitchatted, I asked where he's from. Surprisingly, I discovered that he lived minutes away from me. So I asked why I never saw him out playing in local clubs. He replied that he gets paid a great sum of money to play in New York City precisely twice per year, and, as part of his contract, he's barred from diluting his scarcity by showing his face at other times. Same for San Francisco, London, and Tokyo. Like a shark, he must endlessly keep moving.

What's more, I knew that those big, spotlit performances were high-pressure, distraction-filled affairs - the antithesis of the intimate conditions in which jazz was born and in which it still flourishes. At the time, Illinois Jacquet was granting me exactly eight bars per night to improvise a solo - to play my heart out for about fifteen seconds. Even as a mere sideman, my impossibly focused window of opportunity showed me what pressure was like.

Factor in to that pressure the rigors of touring. We'd often return to hotels
too late to catch dinner, then travel at dawn, usually in cramped transportation, then linger forever at afternoon sound checks, and, finally, at the gig, our faceless audience would be a million miles away across a vast stage, and the musicians would be unable to hear each other (the soundman's invariably a whacked-out kid in a heavy metal t-shirt who knows nothing about jazz). I'd find myself in front of 3000 people in the open air in Stockholm or Nice, feeling sleepy, hungry, jet-lagged, and generally pissed off, and, hey, it's time for my little solo! My life is a numb blur, and I can barely hear the rhythm section. Am I going to dig down deep and play spontaneously - real improvisation, which involves risk-taking - or am I just going to play what I know "gets over"?

Well, ok. I took risks. Couldn't help it. But I can't say it was my best playing, or that I'd enjoyed it much, because those were not optimal conditions. They are what sidemen think of as money conditions. And money conditions are where you live once you've reached a high rung on the ladder. Plus, factor in all the bullshit and politics a bandleader must endure to score work at that rarified (financial) level. I hadn't even begun to taste any of that.

So what are optimal conditions? Playing late at night in a black bar in Jamaica Queens near the airport for fifty bucks with old guys who'd appeared on classic recordings but had faded from the scene yet still plied their trade masterfully in front of a rowdy, soulful little crowd whose attention wandered just enough to let you take crazy chances without being called out when risks didn't pan out. Mose Allison hadn't had such an experience in decades. He had "success" and "stardom", but he lived a life I'd never want. I saved myself another painful decade and chose not to become a bandleader.

So I moved more into writing. I'd been doing a column for a small newspaper with a big readership (NY Press, back when it was good), and contributing to some 'zines, and had a presence online back before there was a Web. Eventually, I was working freelance for shiny publications (Wine & Spirits, Time Out, etc), a column for Newsday, and finding that I was something of an up-and-comer on the food writing ladder. Finally, Daniel Young's Daily News restaurant review column (the "Under $25" equivalent) opened up, and I was invited to apply. I submitted samples, endured long meetings, and finally was summoned into the editor's office for the big news: "Congrats, you got the job!" The pay? "$250/week for two pieces, plus an occasional longer feature!" Expenses? "Take 'em out of the $250/week!"

Ah, the big time. Worst of all, I'd be hemmed in, forced to color very much within the lines, writing in short form for the most mainstream of mainstream publications, unable to presume any knowledge at all among my readers. I'd be forced to carefully define terms such as "ceviche" or "XO sauce" each time I used them...into perpetuity. Meddling, twitchy editors. Even well paid, a few years of this would wear me down.

I turned down the work (telling the editor I'd gone with a better offer, squeegeeing windows on the Bowery) and mostly withdrew from the freelance writing world (opting to reign in cyber-Hell rather than serve in mainstream media Heaven). I'd eked my way into the rarified heights, but didn't like the smell. For the second time, I'd climbed a ladder without considering whether the top rung was what I truly wanted.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with goalless horizontal movement through life, for those who lack the relentless ambition to climb ladders. In fact, for some people, including most artists, that works best! Ambition is slavery to an agenda. If you can be truly free and spontaneous, never looking before you leap, but diligent about lavishing care and love on all that you do (that's key!), the future will take care of itself...so long as you relinquish all preconceptions about that future. The problem is that Bohemianism can lose its appeal with age - externally as well as internally. While an unshaven nineteen-year-old with blazing eyes in a basement studio apartment comes off as a romantic firebrand, at age forty-five, the image is quite different indeed.

On the other hand, most of us are at least somewhat ambitious. Yet, amazingly, we rarely stop to consider whether the position we aspire to is what we truly want. Barack Obama
wept last week as he locked up his house in Chicago, and it wasn't mere sentimentality. He's not a sentimental dude.

Caveat: Equal peril lurks in over-thinking decisions and goals. There is, after all, no action that can't be ruled out via sufficient deliberation. In times of confusion or torpor, it's better to follow gut instincts rather than cool analysis, because even ill-considered action toward undesirable goals can be preferable to paralysis. But one does need to be careful about those multi-year slogs...


* - Kids ought to show at least some consideration for their elder selves, and not hostage them irretrievably to youthful ideals and aspirations. You can always remove a tattoo with lasers, but other marks are more enduringly etched. Bohemianism works best with a backup plan.

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