Throw Down Your Hammer and Sing

Sep 16, 2014

My George Szells

Originally appeared as a part of ROVA:Arts Quarterly Newsletter 2014

This was an amazing piece of writing. Take my word for it. It was revelatory, profound, and the sentence structures alone would have changed the world. It was truly an essay of the first order; the kind that would make us all reconsider the direction of jazz and improvised music, not only in the 21st century, but expanding into the possible futures and misremembered pasts of music making itself. In it, I posited ideas that could only be comprehended by reconstructing and building a new semiotics to explain its advanced concepts. It was that good…seriously. After finishing and formatting, my computer literally creaked and strained under the weight of its ideas. Simple circuitry and digital doodaddery could not contain the power of human thought in this instance.

At this point, I had to make a humanitarian decision. Like Jodorowsky’s Dune, the world will never be ready for something so deeply ridiculous, so utterly shocking and mind-expanding. I simply couldn’t be responsible for the massive global uprising my words about jazz would surely cause, so I did the right thing and hit delete. You’re welcome, world.

And so, the rest of the words, from below this paragraph and conclusive of the final period, will be about my musical education. I suggest you get a beer. You’re going to need it.

I spent my post-gig hours last night watching an interview between Met conductor, James Levine, and Charlie Rose last night. Levine was talking about his early education, and I, being at the general level of cultural fluency commensurate with my position as a trumpet player, spent the hour trying to wade in the wine-dark sea of musical personalities I should know. I had heard of George Szell, and gathered from the other presences in the historical footage peppered throughout the interview, that these were people with true musical gravity. I was impressed.

The program made me think of my own musical upbringing. Certainly not to compare myself to Levine, musically or otherwise, but the mind wanders, doesn’t it? At least mine does. I certainly won’t ever be on national public television and my life is woefully low on historical footage thus far, so I hope you’ll forgive me for taking the opportunity, so graciously offered me by ROVA, to ruin your day by making George Szell’s out of a handful of Oregon Coast amateur musicians who remain my first and, in some ways, my finest teachers.

***

I began playing professionally at age 13 with an organization known as the North Coast Big Band. My father has, at various phases, played the bari and tenor sax chairs in this band, finally ending up as the lead alto; a role he maintains to this day. I have no delusions that my prowess as an improvising trumpet player got me a spot in the big band and often say a little thank you prayer to whomever it was that decided it was a good idea to have 5 instead of 4 trumpet players. I’m guessing it was Stan Kenton. Without him, I’d probably be working at the mill.

The NCBB rehearsed weekly in different halls in Astoria, Oregon. My favorite was the Elks Lodge and Suomi Hall: a grand ballroom above the Finnish steam baths on the main drag. It was consistently dark in this room, requiring us to use stand lights even in the middle of a summer day. The dark wood of the room, its looming great bar and the many ghosts of New Year’s Eve depravity provided me the feeling of subtle immorality that every hormonal 13 year-old mind craves. I was hooked.

There were a few people that consistently played, and provided me with my practical musical education. First, the leader: Terry Hahn. He was the lead trombonist, and this made his helmship of a band somehow preternatural to me. His leadership style was probably closest to that of the Henry Blake character in MASH. His primary concern, as far as I could tell at that age, was what color tie we should all wear. Sadly, he passed away in 2002 from cancer. I am still honored and proud that one of the last gigs he played was my wedding.

The trumpet section contained one of the two truly unique characters I have ever spent time with, Louie Spivacek. His legend was that he had played at one point with the Stan Kenton band, although I’ve never found proof to support this. He was a great solo chair player in that grand style of the wide hand vibrato and Harry James sound. He was my idol. His favorite joke was to hand me the roll of clear tape as we prepared our parts, exhorting me to see if it smelled like scotch. It remains one of the worst jokes I’ve ever heard, and it still makes me laugh. He disappeared one day, supposedly to Belize.

“Cap’n” Jack Chadsey is the second of the two truly unique characters I have spent time with. He played piano in the band until his recent retirement. He had some arthritis that caused his fingers to be limited in how far they could stretch. Since he played mostly locked hand solos, (the melody note in the pinkie of the right hand, the bass note in the same of the left and all the other fingers filling in the chord tones) it meant that eight of his fingers just fell where they could, regardless of the harmony of the song. To this day, he played some of the most beautiful, strange and wondrous voicings I’ve ever heard. Everything you said reminded him of a girl, prompting this response (or something like it), ”Your car broke down? Reminds me of a girl…Elizabeth Galatea was her name. The year was 1962 and I was quite a man.”…and so forth. The last time I saw him he told me that maybe I should think about quitting what I was doing and become a professional musician so I could be miserable. I followed his advice.

***

I spent almost every weekend of my youth playing weddings, Elks lodges, and outdoor “festivals” with these maniacs. They may seem like just a cast of made up characters to the outsider, but these gentlemen provided me with the roots of my music today. I learned empathy and love for my fellow musicians and the great power of people taking time off from their lives to come hear you play music from Terry Hahn. I learned to distill out all the bullshit in an eight bar solo to “make the girls notice” (as well as lining your pockets with Ziploc bags at wedding buffets so you can take home some meatballs for tomorrow…which I still do) from Louie Spivacek. And, from Cap’n Jack I learned the greatest lesson when he said this to me on a set break: “You know what? It’s just music. Why do we have to make it such a big deal?”

These were my George Szells. I love them dearly, and will hold them in my heart and my mind for the rest of my life. They shaped me, for better or worse. And, regardless of where I am and who is in the audience, I think I will always think of myself as the “kid” in the 5th trumpet chair at the end of the row….and be proud. Honestly, thinking back on that interview, I think Levine got the short end of the stick.

Nov 5, 2013

The Art of Grinding

A quick prologue: The below is intended as nothing more than an attempt to work out issues of my own. Anyone that knows me has a fairly good idea that I am far superior at articulating ideas, feelings, and arguments via the written word than I am in inner consideration or conversation. I recognize that a certain amount of this may trigger different feelings in the reader, including a desire to offer advice. I recognize that, by putting my thoughts down in a public forum, I forfeit the rights to my interest and, therefore, respect feedback, but the purpose of this writing is primarily to open discussion about the life cycle of creativity and how we choose to create our definitions of self. In a modern culture that breeds on drama, lightning quick characterizations, and a well-intentioned desire to "fix" each other, I hope this will simply be a few words about my experience, in hopes that it opens conversations with people with whom it resonates, nothing more.

*****

I'm not a particularly brilliant man.

I'm not filled with talent. I'm certainly no genius, nor have I been given a certain insight to music-making or life that separates me from anyone else. I've said this before and been accused of false modesty, an accusation I take very seriously, and so I hope I characterize these realizations of myself in a way that doesn't feel like fishing for contradictory compliments. These are simply the empirical facts born out of academic test scores, my relative speed at grasping concepts, and an objective comparison of my mastery of certain skills paramount to being a musician. These are my shortcomings, painted in strokes that are perhaps too broad, but hopefully in not too piteous a manner. This is my reality as I understand it, and I've tried to state it with the least amount of hyperbole possible because, while I have these certain weaknesses I have been lucky (like everyone) to have certain strengths on which I can attempt to build the life that I want, and that's the subject of this essay.

I'm a grinder.

I've been lucky to have been given an ability to push myself harder, more regularly, and for longer periods than some other people. I'm a draft-horse, and I treasure this trait. For years I have been jealous of people with innate creativity, talent, intellect. However, As I amass and process more experience over time, I realize that there is no such thing as transfer from objective quantitative ability to subjective qualitative outcome in a person's life. You have who you are and there is no person that has a better combination of your traits than you do.

In that vein, I admire people who possess qualities of grace and genius, but I do so from the alternate position of feeling lucky to have the power to get from where I am to that place, even by a different and longer road. I am proud to be a draft horse. I'm proud to be George Foreman. It doesn't make the beauty of an Arabian stallion or the grace of Muhammed Ali count for any less in my mind. On the contrary, I marvel at these gifts and feel a connection to those that understand and use them in the most efficient and personal ways.

******

I've been conscious of my ability and need to grind for twenty five years. It has served me well and, with the requisite luck, I find myself in a position of being able to play music for people with some of my heroes, articulate ideas in a way that is satisfying to me, and, in rare moments, be listened to. I recognize that it is a special place, to be happy and satisfied in what you are doing with your life. Many people get further than me, and without having to grind, but this is where I am, and this is how I've done it and it feels natural and correct for me.

However, I've been confronted recently with a simple idea that never occurred to me. Grinding is not a one way activity. All the years of putting my head down and working, using the friction of effort, sleeping less, working harder, trying more, was not just grinding down whatever imaginary monolith I felt like I needed to get through to come to different understandings of myself and music, but the simple act was having an equal effect on the body acting as the abrasive, mainly....me.

I have woken up early the past couple weeks and pushed myself to go out for a run. Running in the cold and the dark has been a great pleasure for me for a number of years now, as it was a way of feeling powerful, somehow. It confirms who I am and reminds me of my strengths. Recently, though, my legs have been stiff. I've had to stop, icing previously impervious legs, and take days off to rest. I possibly have a stress fracture, and am now questioning if this is the first sign that the endurance that I've been counting on to get me to the end is flagging.

I have been watching the people I've respected and identified as grinders get older around me. With the recent death of an older acquaintance of my wife's who I had lifted in my mind as the most elegant and graceful hard working men and musicians of all time, I am becoming fearful that I won't be able to maintain what strength of body and concentration and spirit I've been able to muster. I'm only 39, maybe half way through life and I'm not obsessing about my mortality. But already I feel the sap of mental power, and wonder if the understanding and ability I've gained will go away as the ability to practice pure endurance flags and disappears in the second half of my life. I'm frightened of not knowing what I can replace it with. There's no way to know if I had the proper foresight to build up enough skills to get me through as my body and mind age. What if the strength was all that I had and there is nothing behind it? Can I still develop and learn and be satisfied?

I have confidence in the music I make and my abilities as a thinker, an improviser, a trumpet technician, but I'm finding that confidence shaken today. I believe that everyone constructs their definitions of themselves, more or less honestly, and I am very conscious that mine is built on Work. What happens when the body and mind become less willing and able to do this work as I age? I'm fragile, just like anyone else. What I really fear is not the inevitable march of time, but having to confront the fluidity of my perception of myself. It's the one thing, at this point, that I'm sure about, and to have to confront my flaws in constructing it scares the shit out of me.

My only comfort is that maybe an increase in friction is life's response to the stasis of an increasing amount of self-satisfaction. I remember the story of Kenneth Gaburo moving percussion instruments further away for a solo performance of one of his works to achieve more difficulty and a more physically "human" performance (read: with mistakes). Maybe as we get older the true practice of embracing the strength of being who I am will become more about working with and around (physical, mental, aesthetic) failures rather than working through them. Maybe that's what the art of grinding actually is. I guess I need to be prepared to find out.



May 8, 2012

On Collecting: From Sound American Issue 2

“Littre’s dictionary defines ‘objet’ in one of its meanings as ‘anything which is the cause or subject of a passion; figuratively – and par excellence – the loved object’.

Let us grant that our everyday objects are in fact objects of a passion – the passion for private property, emotional investment in which is every bit as intense as investment in the ‘human’ passions.  Indeed, the everyday passion for private property is often stronger than all the others, and sometimes even reigns supreme, all other passions being absent.  It is a measured, diffuse, regulating passion whose fundamental role in the vital equilibrium of the subject or the group – in the very decision to live – we tend not to gauge very well.  Apart from the uses to which we put them at any particular moment, objects in this sense have another aspect which is intimately bound up with the subject: no longer simply material bodies offering a certain resistance, they become mental precincts over which I hold sway, they become things of which I am the meaning, they become my property and my passion.” 1

This is Jean Baudrillard’s opening to a brilliant chapter on the topic of collecting, and defining one’s self as a collector, in his book “The System of Objects.”  Admittedly, it’s a slightly heady entry for a journal striving to exculpate new music from a latent elitism and strip it of academic pretensions. It may seem even more out of place in an issue focused on vernacular music. But using Baudrillard’s ideas about our relationships to objects as an approach to Ben Hall’s Gospel Archive in DRAM is the kind of critical thinking—taking an idea, digging into it and finding out what is hidden behind it, who’s doing the talking, and what they’re trying to say—for which the forum of Sound American was created.

The music featured in this issue of SA comes from a collection of Gospel 45s and LPs amassed by Detroit based percussionist and visual artist Ben Hall called, ingeniously enough, the Ben Hall Gospel Archive in DRAM.  Novelist Rick Moody, who is our welcome guest this issue, writes about the music (and the man who brings it to us) so elegantly in his essay and interview of Ben that we are at a loss to add anything of substance to either topic.  And so, since Rick has been able to elucidate the first two terms in the title of Ben’s collection…Ben Hall and Gospel….it falls to me to dig into the term Archive, or to use a word much more comforting to most anyone that is passionate about music, the Collection.

“Every object thus has two functions – to be put to use and to be possessed.” 2

“….the pure object, devoid of any function or completely abstracted from its use, takes on a strictly subjective status: it becomes part of a collection.” 3

There are very few musicians and music lovers that you will meet that haven’t developed their own purely intuitive understanding of Baudrillard’s definitions of objects and collections.  All one has to do is remember back to their first trip to the record store or, maybe more to the point, their first trip home from the record store, to tap back into that rush of ownership and the discovery of the unknown.  All music freaks have developed their own version of the sacrament, as laid out in the definition of Collection above.  The use ritual is made up of the first consumption of the object—in this case a recording; and let’s put an even finer point on our example by talking about vinyl. Because what better consumable object of music is there than a large cardboard canvas for artwork and liner notes and the warm tangibility of an LP in your hand. You drop the needle and step back from the speakers to consume your object. A 20 minute chunk of organized sound, the delicate interruption of turning it over, the bittersweet knowledge that you’re already half way through the magic of the first listening.  This is the purest example of use possible in the world of music collecting: this initial consumption is the truest use, in Baudrillard’s terms, of the object. That first listen, that first read through the liner notes and scan of the cover art can never be repeated, even though the listener may have epiphanic spinnings long after the LP has gone from use to possession.

That shift from use to possession is what defines the collection and that’s the vital practice of the ritual.  If we maintain our example of the vinyl LP, this may include actions like the delicate return of the LP to the sleeve, perhaps a cleaning of the vinyl surface, perhaps the entombment in a mylar sleeve of the whole experience.  Then comes the cataloguing, the alphabetization, the home-grown Dewey decimal system to cross-reference sidemen, composers, labels, genres, and time periods, the memorization of the object and its place in the conglomeration of similar objects that make it a collection.  Once this shift has been made from use to possession as part of a collection that LP, no matter how many times you listen to it, will always be defined as a part of something larger than just vinyl and cardboard and it will also become infinitely harder to define. 

This process of ritualization, of course, is never conscious.  A subject doesn’t wake up one day and say “I’m going to collect records”.  Rather, he or she walks into their living room/dining room/bedroom/bathroom/kitchen at some point, sighs, and says “I have a record collection”.  They just look at the rows of spines, be they the cardboard of LP covers, the dull plastic of CDs, the boxy squatness of cassettes, or some version of all three, and acceptance permeates their being.  These people now fit an archetype….they are a MUSIC FANS.

“An object no longer specified by its function is defined by the subject, but in the passionate abstractness of possession all objects are equivalent.  And just one object no longer suffices: the fulfillment of the project of possession always means a succession or even a complete series of objects.  This is why owning absolutely any object is always so satisfying and so disappointing at the same time: a whole series lies behind any single object, and makes it into a source of anxiety.” 4

The collection allows us to give ourselves definition.  In referring to the rest of this issue, one could say that Ben Hall is partially defined as a gospel collector; an incredible simplification, as it would be for anyone.  To follow in this format, though, a person could conceivably define themselves as the jazz collector, delving as deeply as stacks of heavy 78s and bootlegs of off gigs of Eric Dolphy in Stockholm. Or the classical collector, complete with 19 versions of Schubert’s Trout Quintet and a definite, passionate opinion about the 50s and 80s Glenn Gould recordings of the Goldberg Variations.  However, the most common way that the music fan defines themselves is as the pure eclectic collector, proudly exemplified perhaps by the proximity on their shelves of the complete Decca recordings of Duke Ellington’s 30s band and Aloys Kontarsky performing all of Stockhausen’s Klavierstucke in the pristine vinyl box set.

The eclectic collector is collecting at its most deviant and conceptually pure.  It is also fertile soil for Baudrillard’s idea of collecting as a source of anxiety.  This attachment to the object is what is meant when a certain person’s wife (unnamed) uses the word “completist” with derision.  It is a part of the collector’s definition as a human being or as a music fan to be passionate not only about the music you own as  objects you utilize to possess that music, but also about possessing ALL of those objects in their individual series.  If a collector likes David Tudor’s Rainforest, then they will need to have every recording of every performance of the piece ever released, and something feels off if any representation in the sequence is missing.  It’s not just a hole in the record cabinet—it’s a hole in their definition of self.

“…through collecting, the passionate pursuit of possession finds fulfillment and the everyday prose of objects is transformed into poetry, into a triumphant unconscious discourse.” 5

“Passion for the object leads to its being looked upon as a thing made by God.  A collector of porcelain eggs is liable to believe that God never created a form more beautiful or more singular, and indeed that He devised this form solely for the greater delight of collectors.” 6

Admittedly, that last bit about the anxiety around collecting began to swerve into a dangerous and dark place: a vista from which we may be able to view ourselves, as music fans and collectors, as one copy of The Arista boxset of Anthony Braxton away from our very own episode of “Hoarders”, complete with teary eyed family members wondering why we won’t part with our copy of The Miles Davis/Gil Evans CD box, if we already own all the music on LP.  But, that would be going too far.  There is a profound distinction between amassing objects and collecting.  The difference is that the focus on collecting doesn’t remain simply on the commodification and disposable consumption of the recording.  To the true collector, the accrual of these specific objects is an expression of love and a definition of self.  Therefore, it can never be involved in the grubby, day-to-day machinations of capitalism that breeds the idea of “having stuff”.

And, there is one more primary element that makes the collector a redeemable character.  It can be summed up in this way: in my experience, I have never met a collector of music that is not interested in sharing their collection. It simply doesn’t happen.  Try to prove to me wrong…go ahead, it’s like walking slow while listening to Beat It…it simply can’t be done.  And it’s this desire to share that, on a broad scale, makes the obsession of collecting socially okay, maybe even morally imperative.  Even the collector at his or her most fastidious provides us with a positive social service.  Ultimately, the hours spent figuring out which should go first—Pollini or Serkin’s versions of Schoenberg—pay off in that someone is having the debate. Thinking about the differences in performance, making value judgments based on critical listening, appreciating the subtle shades between the two recordings. And then, talking to their friends about it. With true music collectors and fans, debating minute differences in performance practice isn’t about proving one’s self right; it’s a means of joining and then expanding the hermeneutic circle. A discussion of these two minute piano pieces might open up into an argument about writers, legendary sports figures, movies, (god forbid) politics, and end in a lofty discussion about broad abstract ideas, like what it means to collect.

In the last issue of SA, a certain manifesto was set out that our purpose was to save music from this perceived sense of elitist academicism, and to some this talk of collecting and the inclusion of Baudrillard may seem like we’ve jumped the rails already, but it’s the Schoenberg example above that allows us to believe that we’re still talking about the same basic values we set out at the beginning.   Thinking isn’t evil.  Thinking isn’t hard.  It’s actually pretty fun to talk to human beings and find their opinions are well considered and different from yours.  That’s called diversity.  It’s a word that gets used a lot, but very rarely does one experience it with any depth.  Collecting allows that to happen, it sets up a base component of comparison, of thought, of passionate obsession with something that is less micro-temporal than who won a Grammy this year.  As music fans and collectors, we choose to go through ritual of the transition from use to possession and, with that ritual there always seems to be a waste product of thought and consideration, and this is a good thing.

 

 

 

 

  1. 1.       Jean Baudrillard, The System of Objects (Verso…) p. 91
  2. 2.       Ibid. p. 92
  3. 3.       Ibid. p. 92
  4. 4.       Ibid. p. 92
  5. 5.       Ibid. p. 93
  6. 6.       Maurice Rheims, La vie estrange des objets (Paris: Plon, 1959), p. 28