Friday, October 24, 2008

pluses and minuses

My career as a trombonist was unexceptional. I started playing in high school in Brooklyn playing with local musicians, started to meet other musicians and branched out into the city. I caught some lucky breaks (a class-A show gig at 18, a funny story I will tell one day) a sub with Eddie Palmieri's band that led to lots of gigs on the exploding Latin dance band scene, got to play some decent jazz gigs, record dates, and quite a bit of arranging to augment my income. I was able to make a living and support my wife and kids, the essential musicians' definition of success. I lived off of the telephone, no self-promotion, just the steady climb through the ranks of musicians relying on word of mouth and personal contacts. My career as a jazz flute player couldn't be more different.

First of all I was playing flute. With all due respect to the few flute players who manage to survive playing jazz, flute is no way to make a living as a jazz musician. In fact after I quit the music business to become an academic I choose flute because I knew I wouldn't be tempted into being a professional musician again. Flute isn't a jazz instrument, it is a jazz double, a side-car attached to a saxophone. If you need a flute player, there are dozens of great sax players you can call. Hubert Laws played tenor with Mongo, Herbie Mann started on tenor, Joe Farrell who made all of those great flute records with Chick Corea was basically a tenor player and on and on.  So playing flute didn't give me the community of working musicians that I could draw upon for advancement. Second flute is a classical instrument and is gendered female. Most flute players are female, start playing in middle school and study with classical flutists who teach them the flute repertoire. Even jazz sax players who double on flute study with classical flutists. And I never played classical music, never developed the strengths and weaknesses of classical flutists who move into jazz. Instead I was a self-taught free improviser who played in parks and on beaches, on roof tops and under bridges. I had tremendous dexterity, a lousy sound and a totally personal approach to the instrument. Not a very good prognosis for a career as a professional musician.

Third, by the time I was ready to play jazz seriously, in the mid 1990's, the music business was sliding downhill faster and faster. My Uncle Irving predicted it in 1955. I was 15 and working a few gigs. Irving, a klezmer trumpet player from Poland and a Marxist said to me, 'So you want to be a musician, do you know the music was the first profession to be destroyed by technology?' I said, "What do you mean, records? He said, 'You're stupid.' I said, 'What do you mean, radio?' He said, 'You're stupid?' I said, 'OK, so teach me.' He said, 'When I came America (in 1919) if you could read and fake (play by ear) you could walk down any main street in any city or town and find a movie theatre that needed musicians to play in the pit along with the movie. Talking movies ruined the music business.' He was right, every technological advance from sound tracks to synthesizers has put ordinary musicians out of work. From radio to recordings, to DJ's at weddings every technological advance resulted in the replacement of average musician with canned perfection. Why hire a wedding band to play crappy covers of your favorite songs when a DJ will give you the real thing. In fact why listen to live music at all when you can construct your musical world to order and carry it around in an i-pod. The only musician who has a hope in Hell is a great musician and there are countless numbers of them, and more and more being trained by the only growth industry in jazz today, jazz education. Great jazz musicians are being turned out at an incredible rate as more and more jazz musicians become educators, helping aspiring musicians to master America's classical music. 

Fourth I was financially secure, a tenured full professor with a comfortable and reliable middle-class income. And so I wasn't hungry! I was desperate to succeed, but I wasn't driven by the most reliable motivator that musicians have, the need to eat. So, among other things, I didn't force myself to play charanga flute. Now don't get me wrong, I have nothing against charanga flute. I love the classic recordings of ArcaƱo and Sus Maravillas (if you don't know them check them out). It is the essence of Cuban glamor and up-scale romance and the flute melodies, played in the highest octave of the flute register are touching. But to me playing charanga on flute is like playing dixieland on trombone. It is harmonically uninteresting, has very stringent stylistic requirements and it is murder on your chops. I played dixieland on trombone when I had to, I even played the Red Onion, a chain of beer joints that used trombone, tuba and banjo trios cranking out old favorites for hours on end, when I had no other work. But with a check coming in twice a month I wasn't going to hustle the few charanga gigs there are for flute players. And that pretty much meant I couldn't work as a flute player in latin bands, and since I couldn't play with classical ensembles, I couldn't work very much at all. 

If I was 20 and playing flute and had to make a living. I'd get my classical chops up enough to be within striking distance of Broadway shows and record dates. I'd force myself to play latin gigs and most important I'd find a way to work. There is no doubt in my mind that with the harsh task master of necessity I would have figured out a way to make a living playing flute, hustling weddings, playing in restaurants, playing on the subway, giving lessons, anything to make a buck. And I'm sure that would have put me in touch with young musicians who would add a flute to their bands every now and then. I'm willing to bet there are young flute players out there making it somehow (or do they all end up playing saxophone?). But I had those checks coming in, I was in my mid-fifties and I had the money to subsidize records with some really great musicians. Every one of my flute records is with fine musicians, and hiring them to play small-time jazz gigs always ends up costing me a few hundred dollars. The alternative, playing little gigs with young cats so I wouldn't have to spend a fortune to work the gig was attractive to me from time to time, I did my fair share, but I didn't have the motivation to keep it going. And so I never really built a presence on the NY jazz scene as a live performer.

I have played the small Village jazz clubs for the 'door.' It is what jazz musicians are forced to do in NY. But even that is highly competitive in a way that I can't really compete. There are a half dozen jazz programs in the area. Every one of those young music students can play in a club and bring down a couple of dozen classmates hoping to sit in and willing to hang out. And besides for local clubs in my area where I can guilt-trip my friends and colleagues to come out and hear me (usually no more than a few times at most) I can't really guarantee a club owner nearly as many bodies in the room as any tenor player enrolled in the New School, or NYU or Manhattan or Juilliard. And since I don't teach music I can't get my students to come to my gigs without it bordering on harassment. Club owners know the deal and so are hesitant to hire me. I work now and then but basically my life as a flute player exists in the recording studio. And that creates problems.

I can afford to record with the best musicians. The rhythm sections on my records are world class and the guys on my records are working all of the time. They are top professionals and in the real sense of the word I am an amateur, I play for the love of music. I practice all the time, I play maybe a dozen gigs a year and twice a year I have to go into a studio and play as if I have no limits, play as if I just got off the plane from playing some major jazz festival and am one my way to do another. I have to play at the highest standard of those few master musicians who have managed to succeed as jazz musicians in the hardest competitive market imaginable. That is to say, I have to play my ass off, each and every time.

Nilson Matta (that's me and him mugging for the camera) is a great bass player, nobody plays in 2/4 like he does and he is one of the most  melodic bass soloists I have ever heard. Nilson needs to generate income as a musician and he knows how to hustle. I hadn't seen him since we recorded Tudo de Bom and he was playing with the Trio de Paz in town. I went down to hear the band and say hello. He said something to the effect that it was a shame we didn't get to stretch out when we recorded the album with Boukas and suggested that we make another record, a Brazilian jazz record which would really let me express myself as a soloist. I agreed on the condition that he could get guitarist Romero Lubambo to do the date. He set it up, calling Paulo Braga to play drums and Guilherme Franco to play percussion. Nilson and I got together in his house and picked tunes for the date include the Ary Barroso classic Bahia. We went over the tunes and Romero came by for about an hour and looked at the material including some originals by Nilson and myself. So much for rehearsals. The date was on! I was under a lot of pressure and suffering from tension headaches that I later found out were the result of serious glaucoma. I was determined that the date would go well, but I had agreed to play two choros, a style I barely knew, and I wasn't familiar with most of the material we had selected. 

We first tune of the date was Bahia. We recorded a first take. It went well, but the rhythm section was not really tight enough. We did another take and it sounded great. I played the melody and a decent enough solo, but I really wasn't comfortable with the tune. The harmonic rhythm of the tune builds from a beginning with very few chords until a climax with chords changing every beat. I got through the changes fine, but I hadn't really built a solo that was worthy of the harmonic structure, with growing intensity as the harmonies got denser. I needed another take, and Romero knew it. But the rest of the guys had played superbly and to do it again was to risk the very freedom that Nilson and I were trying to accomplish. I didn't know what to do. Romero walked up to my booth and opened the door, "Don't make me play that fucking song again," he said and walked back to his booth. I called the next tune. The die was cast. I had no choice, if I was to play up to the rhythm section I would have to overdub my solo. That had a strange effect on me. Pluses and minuses! I had done my share of overdubbing on earlier records, but always felt guilty about it. My model for a jazz musician came out of the 60's. You played at least 4 nights a week and a record date was just a high-stakes gig. You brought all of your experience from the bandstand into the studio and you played the date as it went down. Whenever I had overdubbed I felt like a failure, but I had to face facts. Since I hardly ever played except in the studio, if I was to play my best I had to bite the bullet and use the artistic freedom the modern technology provides. I had to be realistic about how to get the best performance, rather than live up to the standard of live recording that made sense in another era, but that made less and less sense as musicians performed less and less, with me at the furthest extreme of hardly ever performing. 

I played the rest of the date as well as I could, but I made up my mind. If I had to play Bahia again as an overdub I would utilize the technology to make up for my lack of a professional lifestyle. I would swallow my pride and overdub where needed and get the best performance possible, rather than rely on the magic of the moment. Instead of being a victim of technology I would use it to my advantage. Commercial records had been doing that for years, pop records are recorded in layers with dozens if not hundreds of takes and retakes until each part is as perfect as possible. I would give myself the same option. I would do what ever it took to make the best music possible. I took home a CD of the record date and played along with the tracks until I knew the tunes inside and out. I went into the studio and in a few takes had the performances that I needed. The rhythm section had been responding to the solos I played live, I would then go back and do them one better, responding to every one of there responses to my original solo with a perfect musical fit. The result, O Nosso Amor, was a much better record  than anything I had produced so far. The music was free and full of life and I was playing at my very best. But I was full of guilt, a nagging sense that I had sold my musical integrity in the name of making the very best music I could. Once I crossed that Rubicon I was in another place. I would work to record the very best rhythm tracks I could, never worrying about doing anything in the studio except driving the band with my solos, and then I would do what I had to do so that the results would be as perfect an example of what I was trying to accomplish as I was capable of. No regrets, each performance would be as good as it could be. With that change in perspective I decided to perfect my solos to my heart's content. It is a compromise, but it is a compromise that goes back to the choice I made when I first started to play flute and committed myself to finding the beauty in my music. I have to love what I play. I have to find the most beauty that my music can provide. And so I have to make records that are as perfect an expression of my playing as they can be, performances that honestly present my strivings to make beautiful music, no matter what it takes. I have to do what is necessary for the music and my ego be damned.