Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Expectation of Versatility

I ate lunch in a Guatemalan deli in the white-breaded/blue-blooded Hudson Valley yesterday. Nothing I was consuming would be recognizable to someone unfamiliar with Central American cuisine (shoot, one item mystified even me!).

Suddenly, an affluent-looking elderly couple wandered in, as if they'd bled through from an adjacent movie set. Were they searching for a bathroom? For lunch? I'm still not sure. They glanced around in slack-jawed bewilderment and hastily fled out the door. I considered offering to help/guide/translate, but it dawned on me that they wouldn't see me as a familiar face; a bridge across the cultural divide. I was inseparable from the alien tableau, myself more Guatemalan than grandee.

When I was a full-time musician, from the mid 80's into the early 00's, classical musicians were stiff-asses. They couldn't swing or improvise, and that seemed completely normal. There was a sharp border between styles. But after putting Chowhound behind me and shifting my attention back to that world, I learned that there'd been a profound shift. An old tubaist friend, who subs with the Philharmonic while also playing funky/jazzy gigs all over town, explained it to me one day.

He and I had been early chameleons, surfing between styles with fluent ease. But that was never the norm, and, in fact, we kept it on the down-low, knowing that versatility can make you seem unserious (to this day, food editors think of me as "that trombonist who writes about food", and musicians think of me as "that food critic trombonist"). But in the intervening years, not only had musicians come to appreciate versatility, they now insisted on it. If you can't improvise and swing convincingly, and get genuinely funky when called upon to do so, and tear through a Mozart concerto with starchy precision, you're not much of a musician.

It was strange hearing this, because that was always my secret suspicion anyway - that limited musicians are functionally disabled. The world had been so out of whack with my perspective that I figured it was just my own kookiness. Yet now it's caught up.

So what about that elderly couple? Will it always be perfectly understandable to be befuddled by cultural divides? Am I oddly pliant, sopping up curtido juice with my fluffy homemade tortillas and calling for quesadilla (the cheesey Central American pound cake, not the Mexican antojito) in comfortable Spanish? Or will there come a time when the lack of this facility will seem oddly - even sadly - deficient?

Two tales of my chameleon-like experience in the music business:
Thomas Chapin

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