Saturday, March 30, 2013

St. Edith Stein on Art

It can be frustrating for practicing artists to read philosophies of art, for a reason not always obvious to non-artists. The problem is subtle: quite often philosophers get caught up discussing not art itself, but the effects of art upon the audience, or the place art holds in society. Thinking they are really talking about art, when in fact they are talking about the effects or surroundings of art, they lose the subject itself. So instead of reading about art, and what it might potentially mean from the inside of creative activity, we are stuck with yet another discussion of mere political or sociological philosophy.

Reading St. Edith Stein's commentary on St. John of the Cross, however, I was startled and deeply gratified to find a philosopher who, in a few paragraphs, illuminated the reality of art itself--not only what painters or poets do, but what creative musicians do as well--and what great responsibility such a creative gift brings when exercised.

Holy Saturday seems a particularly good time to quote from the Introduction to St. Edith Stein's The Science of the Cross:

In the confident strength of his impressionability the artist is akin to the child and the saint.


It is the characteristic of the artist to transform into image anything that causes an interior stirring and demands to be expressed exteriorly. Image here is not to be restricted to the visual arts; it must be understood to refer to any artistic expression, including the poetic and musical. It is simultaneously image in which something is presented and structure as something formed into a complete and all-encompassing little world of its own. Every genuine work of art is in addition a symbol whether or not this is its creator's intention, be he naturalist or symbolist.

It is a symbol: that is, it comes from that infinite fullness of meaning into which every bit of human knowledge is projected to grasp something positive and speak of it. It does so in such a manner, in fact, that it mysteriously suggests the whole fullness of meaning which for all human knowledge is inexhaustible. Understood in this way, all genuine art is revelation and all artistic creation is sacred service. 

Despite this, it is clear that there is a danger in an artistic inclination and not only when the artist lacks an understanding of the sacredness of his task. The danger lies in the possibility that in constructing the image, the artist proceeds as though there were no further responsibility than producing it. What is meant here can be demonstrated most clearly by the example of the images of the cross. There will scarcely be a believing artist who has not felt compelled to portray Christ on the cross or carrying the cross.

But the Crucified One demands from the artist more than a mere portrayal of the image. He demands the artist, just as every other person, follow him: that he both make himself and allow himself to be made into an image of the one who carries the cross and is crucified. 

Expressing the image externally can be a hindrance to doing so internally, but by no means must this be so; actually, it can serve the process of interior transformation because only with the production of the external expression will the inner image be fully formed and interiorly adopted. In this manner, when no obstacle is placed in its path, it becomes an interior representation that urges the artist to effectively reproduce it in action, that is, by way of imitation, externally. 

The implications of this passage are immense, yet for a publication focused on Jazz Clarinet, the passage has some immediate applications. Anyone who plays jazz clarinet, dedicating countless hours to the art can wonder what the ultimate value of the discipline might possibly be, especially when considering there are really no commercial rewards for most of us in the end.

But anyone who has truly played a blues, truly opened up and sung through the horn that magnificent combination of suffering, redemption, and supernatural joy, knows that the act of creating that art is also, somehow, potentially transformative--not only for an audience, but for ourselves. Personally, I would have to play the blues if no one was listening but God. I need to play the blues, for myself--because it is both who I am, and because it also continuously shapes my own soul properly. Many of my jazz musician friends have expressed similar things, as have many artists who are not even musicians, when discussing their art. Money and fame, as Artie Shaw so emphatically put it, have nothing to do with the real issue. 

Keep swinging, folks. And remember there is importance to what you do, unmeasurable by worldly standards.  

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Mary * Take 6 * 1988

From the outset, this highly intricate spiritual operates on multiple poetic levels.

Shouting Oh Mary don't you weep! we're immediately placed with St John at the foot of the Cross on Good Friday, comforting the Mother of God, before the lyric suddenly expands unexpectedly:

Tell Martha not to moan! Now we're at the grave of Lazarus, comforting his sisters Mary and Martha: have no fear, the One is coming who will raise your brother from the dead--and to prove why we're so sure of this, we sing:

'cuz Pharaoh's army's been drown in the sea!

Now we're back with Moses, witnessing God rescue his people from their captors--a meaning which has been realized in this song as beyond political implication: a symbol of God defeating death itself.

All of these things are happening at once in the tune: a blinding flash of poetry, theology, history, and musical praise. Without once saying the name of Jesus, the spiritual is all about Him: the entire history of salvation as demonstrated on the national, personal, and existential level.

My favorite studio version is the one recorded by Take 6 back in 1988.

They've done countless great live versions too: here's one from 1990 (check out the extended modulating coda).

God Bless you all this Holy Week.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Wynton Marsalis * The Majesty of the Blues * 1989

For those of us following Wynton Marsalis's career, The Majesty of the Blues seemed an abrupt change of direction when it was first released in 1989. The two albums leading up to it were Marsalis Standard Time, Volume 1, and Live at Blues Alley, both of which were virtuosic neo-bop quartet recordings. To suddenly jump back to New Orleans style, timbre and ensemble seemed a drastic shift. In retrospect, however, The Majesty of the Blues was a natural development. The return to New Orleans, musically, was already hinted at in the liner notes to Marsalis Standard Time, Volume 1as evidenced by Wynton's unique application New Orleans jazz principals to bop. I've always felt the brilliance of that classic quartet was explained best by the trumpeter himself in the following quote:

“Every instrument,” says Marsalis, “is allowed the freedom to interpret the form from a different metric vantage point. This frees Marcus, Bob, and Jeff from having to keep a strict basic time, but gives them the responsibility of resolving superimposed meters correctly in the original form. Though we are approaching the form with rhythmic and metric freedom, everyone has to work within the flow of the improvisation. The last thing I’m interested in is freedom that can only justify itself by its existence. I’m interested in freedom that encompasses the fundamentals of music, allowing for inspiration rather than desperation.”

This concept was pushed to further extremes on Live at Blues Alley, and those of us who ran out to purchase The Majesty of the Blues expected something more obviously in the same vein. But instead of linear development of these ideas, we heard Wynton playing with New Orleans street beats, instrumentation, and subject matter (the New Orleans funeral). Of particular interest to jazz clarinetists, we also heard a clarinet style not often experienced outside of the Crescent City in those days: the tradition-steeped sound of Dr. Michael White.

Dr. Michael White's clarinet approach is directly descended from the New Orleans style which stretches back through George Lewis, Johnny Dodds, and Sidney Bechet, among others. His playing tends to overturn the paradigm that jazz styles are merely links in an evolutionary chain: that one stage of development "surpasses" or "replaces" another. Instead, he inspires us to listen seriously to players such as George Lewis, Johnny Dodds, Pee Wee Russell, and Raymond Burke. We've seen in previous posts that not every jazz clarinetist has appreciated all of these players (Barney Bigard and Buddy DeFranco were particularly dismissive of some of them). But Dr. White's playing is in many ways a call to reevaluate what others haven't fully appreciated, and to re-focus on the roots of jazz. While other subsequent recordings show a greater range of his artistry, his presence on The Majesty of the Blues is therefore of particular importance.

Beyond the music itself are Stanley Crouch's liner notes, which contain one of Wynton's most important summaries of the blues. And it's this that I really want to emphasize in this post. Three successive paragraphs are of particular importance.

The first deals with the expansive brilliance of the blues as a musical system:    

“The blues addresses the central chords of Western harmony, the I, the IV, and the V chords. Its central progression is the I, IV, I, or ‘amen’ cadence in Western religious music. It’s also a style and a form that gives you access to all 12 notes at any given time because the notes that are not in the key are non-harmonic tones, and those non-harmonic tones are blues notes. If you are in the key of C major, C, D, E, F, G, a, and B are the seven primary notes. B flat, the flat seventh, is a blues note; A flat, the flat sixth, is a blues note; G flat, the flat five, is a blues note; E flat, the flat third, is a blues note; D flat, the note Dizzy Gillespie uses on his blues Wheatleigh Hall, is the minor second. So, there’s all 12 notes of the chromatic scale right there.

The second reenforces what all great jazz musicians have known: that sound and timbral language are paramount to expression (not merely grafted on, but substantial to the musical meaning): 

“Though you have all 12 notes right there, the essence of the blues is a sound. There are notes within that sound which are not heard in the tempered scale, Negroidal timbral essences which are heard in the blues signers and in the band of Duke Ellington. Ellington would arrange music so that these tones would come out, tones that are not in the Western scale. By a sophisticated and successful combination of notes, the chords and the harmony would bend. In this way, the blues is a whole form and an innovation in the history of Western and African music simultaneously. When you add to that the percussive elements that have to be refined and dealt with that also come out of the American experience, the Negroization of the melodic properties of American music through the unique use of the major sixth interval, there is much to be done, all of which demands a specific kind of technical skill.

The third discusses the necessity of applying this to instruments--an African-American timbral language and unique musical system derived from multi-racial sources, applied in new ways to old instruments: 

“That’s why all of the great jazz musicians have been strong technicians on some level. But techniques vary. Take a titan like Thelonious Monk; he invented an entire technique for the piano because the European approach was not sufficient for what he wanted to do. Monk was focused on the sound that has its basis in the blues, and everything he did took direction from that. Coltrane, who had the kind of velocity technique people recognize, was always coming from the blues sound, as was Bird. Ornette Coleman’s whole conception is based in the harmonic freedom implied by the meaning of the blues note in and out of the scale.”

Wynton's observations concerning Thelonious Monk have particular significance. Had he wanted to, he might have said the same of Louis Armstrong, Artie Shaw, or Coleman Hawkins: each of them invented new ways of playing their instruments, because "the European approach was not sufficient for what [they] wanted to do."

I've lived with these three paragraphs for over twenty years now, and they seem to me an essential orientation if one really wants to be a jazz musician, as opposed to  being a musician who dabbles in jazz as though it was a "style." Too often, players mistake the Blues--which is foundational for any understanding of jazz--as mere effects to be grafted onto their playing, when in fact the Blues is a musical system of expression that must be lived consistently and allowed to transform both the player's technique and their fundamental musical outlook. It's my opinion that no jazz clarinetist can avoid these points--and that a willingness to investigate them opens a world of creative potential.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Barney Bigard on Everyone

Few jazz clarinetists have amassed a comparable resume to that of Barney Bigard, whose career stretched from the 1920s through the 1970s. Born and raised in New Orleans during the crucial transition to the recorded era, and a student of the legendary Lorenzo Tio, Bigard went on to work in what many consider to be the most important of the Chicago-based New Orleans bands (King Oliver), moving to arguably the most creative big band ever assembled (Duke Ellington), before rounding out his triptych with Louis Armstrong's All-Stars.

Fortunately for us, beyond his formidable discography with each of those legendary ensembles (and his own as a leader), Bigard left us some important interviews and a slender, yet informative autobiography. His opinions on early New Orleans clarinetists and everyone else are presented in a clear, concise manner, without frills or subterfuge, and make for an interesting perspective. Many other clarinetists have weighed in on opposite sides of the opinions presented here (Goodman disagreed with Bigard about Frank Teschemacher, for instance), but these thoughts are worth remembering, if only to prevent jazz clarinetists from falling into a rigid orthodoxy of opinion.

All page numbers are from With Louis and the Duke, Oxford University Press, 1986, unless otherwise noted.

on Alphonse Picou:

I was really disappointed with Picou and in later years I found out that he became famous just for that little part in High Society, and in fact he got that from one of Sousa's marches. That was all that made him famous. [13]

on Lorenzo Tio:

On the other hand, the first time that I heard Lorenzo Tio I was not disappointed at all. I heard him on a parade playing his A clarinet. He knocked me out right from the very start. My uncle promised me that he would take me to his house, as he knew him, and ask him to give me lessons. [13]

I started to watch for Tio, where he would play and all. I followed him all over the city of New Orleans. Anytime he would play a parade I would be right there listening to what he was making on that clarinet. Wherever he played I'd go and stand around the bandstand and all my listening was to the clarinet. I didn't care about the rest of it. If I heard a riff of something else that I liked , then I would hum it in my head, and keep humming it. I'd leave the dance and keep humming it until I got home and no matter what time it was when I got home I would get out the horn and try to pick out the notes. I would keep on until I got it down right.

Tio was at that time the best damned clarinet player in the city... [15]

I found out that Albert Nicholas had been taking lessons from Tio before me. Albert was really far advanced and a fine clarinetist. Funny, although we both had the same tutor, we don't have the same style at all. He was also teaching Omer Simeon, and there's one of the real unsung clarinet players.  [16]

[Tio] was a great reader [of written music], even by today's standards. He had real fast execution and he could improvise--play jazz in other words--on top of all the rest. He would even make his own reeds out of some kind of old cane. Yes, Lorenzo Tio was the man in those days in the city of New Orleans. [17]

on Johnny Dodds:

I know for a fact that [Kid] Ory could never read, and Johnny Dodds couldn't tell the truth, when I heard him he never did impress me much. [11]

He was a little what you might call "limited." But what he played was good. He by no means ever impressed me like Jimmie Noone did. [38]

on Jimmie Noone:

I really like his style. In fact, I stole a whole lot from Jimmie. While he was playing with Charlie Cooke he mostly played harmony parts or whatever they had written on paper for him, but after at The Nest he played mostly lead all night because the band was so small.  

on Pee Wee Russell, Frank Teschemacher, and jazz critics:

I used to buy DownBeat magazine all the time but once I read that Pee Wee Russell had won a DownBeat poll. That did it. I never read that magazine again. Guys like him and Frank Teschemacher aren't clarinet players to me. But then I suppose even in those days critics were just as ignorant as they are today. I never, ever, played to please the critics. Not once. I never really cared about them at all. Even today I still don't. I mean you can pick up a music paper and read them knocking all of the old-style New Orleans musicians that are currently out there doing their thing. [126] 

on Edmond Hall:

Edmond was a real fine clarinet player, and in fact was a more forceful player than I was. We were buddies because I had met him years ago in New York, but without a doubt he was the "cheapest" man I knew. He used to live in a place where he had to walk up so many flights of stairs to get up there, just to save rent. When Edmond got into the band [Louis Armstrong's All-Stars] they were going on a tour of France so I asked him to pick me up a couple of boxes of reeds that they make over there. He said that he would, and so when the band came back they played out here in California and I went to see them. Edmond said, "Man. I got your reeds." You know that he wouldn't turn loose that little box of twenty-five reeds until I had given him the money. He was like the duck's ass. Water tight. [124]

on New Orleans musicians:

To me it was just beautiful to see those old guys, at their age, coming out on stage and doing a lot of things the youngsters can't do. Most people forget that those guys are the foundation of jazz music. They started it, but naturally everything progresses as it goes along. It's like the Wright brothers' plane. Now you could throw a rock  and knock it out of the sky, but...give them credit for building the first. [125-26]

A lot of those old characters from New Orleans think that anything they do is alright just because they're from New Orleans. They think they can walk on your head if they want to, but it just isn't that way. [88]

on George Lewis:

[In the old days] I never heard of George Lewis. I heard him play once at the Beverly Cavern and once again when Louis Armstrong and I went to see him in New York. This time in New York he was so sick he couldn't play at all. I heard he was a nice enough guy but as to being a legend that people built him into? Willie Humphrey was more of a legend than George Lewis. [88-89]

on Musical Style:

The only thing I say is to play your own self. Don't be copying someone else. Try to create a style of your own and then stick to it. Any of the big names have their own style. You can always tell a Louis Armstrong or a Teagarden or a Hodges, but when you get down amongst the lesser ones it's hard to tell them apart. I tell all the young guys I meet, "It's good to take influence from someone, but don't play note for note like them. You'll never make it in this racket. Play your own way." [126]

on being a Jazz Clarinetist:

I never figured myself as being a "temperamental" musician. I put myself down as easy going and I think that helped my career a lot. I was never one to care about who had top billing, or who played the last act. Some guys, that was all they thought about. I just wanted to be good at what I did. I wanted to get jobs that were in my category. I didn't want to be no symphony man. If I had devoted all my time to that I wouldn't have been a jazz clarinetist. I did want to be a good clarinetist though. Just to read enough music to get me by. That's the way I always felt. I never thought of myself as an artist, or anything like that. Just as a good jazz player that always tried to do his best. Of course I try to live up to my own standards of playing. Sometimes it materializes, sometimes it doesn't, but I keep trying anyway. I would hate to say I was all set on the horn. There is always something more to learn. And you can't stay away from music for long--at least I couldn't.  [126-27]

on Artie Shaw:

What Shaw did to begin with was to make the clarinet sound unusually beautiful in the upper register. He wasn't a low-register guy, but he was more creative than Benny Goodman. Benny did all the popular tunes and standards, but Shaw made up his own and played them so well. The guy could execute like mad. Benny could also execute, and had much more drive than Artie, but I like Artie for the things that are almost impossible to do on the clarinet. [from Stanley Dance's The World of Duke Ellington. p.88]

To me the greatest player that ever lived was Artie Shaw. [quoted in Gene Lees notes to Artie Shaw: A Legacy, p. 5]

on Benny Goodman, Buster Bailey, and Jimmy Hamilton:

Benny is a hell of a clarinetist, really great, but he's not the easiest guy to get along with. [111]

I thought Buster Bailey was one of the fastest clarinetists there ever was. He had his own style, and I could always tell his playing. He was a good musician with good execution, but he didn't have the jazz drive or the soul in there like Goodman and some other guys. In other words it didn't have the oomph to it. Where Buster was great was in a studio or a show. That's the same way I figure with Jimmy Hamilton. He's a terrific clarinetist, but he doesn't have that soul to go with what he's doing. He should have been in classical music. He's got that studio tone to begin with, and he plays straight and fluent, but it's not jazz. [Dance, 89]

on Omer Simeon:

Omer Simeon was a fine musician, an unsung hero, and a great clarinet player. [Dance, 89]

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Edmond Hall Live at Club Hangover * 1954

Like 1938, the year of Benny Goodman's Carnegie Hall triumph and Artie Shaw's ascendancy to national prominence, the year 1954  is a major benchmark for jazz clarinet. Shaw's massive final recordings project took place during the first half of that year, ultimately overshadowing all other performances. But tucked away in that history, on August 7th and 14th, recordings were made of broadcasts from Club Hangover in San Francisco of the Ralph Sutton Quintet, with Edmond Hall on clarinet.

The recordings aren't ideal--neither the microphone placements nor the acoustics of the club are particularly inspiring, especially when compared to some of the great live jazz recordings from that era in venues such as the Village Vanguard or the Blue Note. But they are clean, and obviously of equal or better quality as the earlier swing era live checks from the Madhattan Room and elsewhere.

Considering those Edmond Hall served with as a sideman (he was Louis Armstrong's go-to clarinetist for years) and the pianists he'd recorded with (Teddy Wilson and Eddie Heywood among others), this group is much more humble. Ralph Sutton was a solid jazz pianist of the old stride school, and Clyde Hurley a very good trumpet man--all the players on these dates were the "real deal" among musicians--but it would have been impossible for even excellent players to rival the legends on Hall's resume.

Having said this, jazz is not like classical music. The best recordings are not invariably done by the top technical players, and the music, being an exercise in active, communal creativity rather than primarily concerned with reproducing someone else's musical thought, cannot always be well judged by personnel. Armstrong himself often worked with inferior sidemen, as did Sidney Bechet. Shaw and Goodman's recordings are filled with performances by sidemen who never sounded as good afterwards--they were often lifted to greatness by those around them. Duke Ellington's band, despite having brilliant players like Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, and many others, was always more than the sum of it's parts technically.

Like great basketball players, jazz musicians are often best judged by how they improve the players around them. That this recording provides such a good example makes it indispensable. In many ways, it strikes the listener as an average professional jazz gig from 1954--and therefore a valuable contrast to the pellucid masterpieces of the Shaw Gramercy 5 recorded only months earlier. The gigs contain a laundry list of war horses still on bandstands today: 'St Louis Blues', ' I Got Rhythm', 'Honeysuckle Rose', 'Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea', and more. The style is a loose, natural fusion of swing, New Orleans, and boogie woogie--a type of lingua franca, catch all "jazz" style for that era (soon, this style would be considered 'traditional', as bop and other aspects of modern jazz entered the mainstream). Edmond Hall is such a powerful presence on these numbers that he seems the musical leader of the group, though because of his firm New Orleans roots, is so committed to ensemble that he stays within the groups parameters, lifting the level of inspired play for all. Clyde Hurley's trumpet solo on 'Black and Blue', for instance, delivers such powerful soul tonally, that the listener doesn't care who is playing or where: we're just grateful.

Edmond's sound is not well captured here. There are many potential reasons for this, ranging from poor microphone placement to a bad reed. But it doesn't matter. In fact, it's probably better that he doesn't sound anywhere near his best self on this recording: we get to hear what a musician like Hall can accomplish in less than perfect conditions.

This recording is one of my personal favorites. The sound isn't great, but in some ways it's more honest than studio recordings are--and getting to that level of reality can become addictive in it's own way. In fact, it was because of recordings like this that I decided to release our 'Bootlegs from the Bop Stop' CD last year, so you could say that this album had a permanent impact not only on my playing, but my conception of what makes a great album.

Replace this image Ed Hall Solo 1956.jpg
Edmond Hall
Image Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Friday, March 8, 2013

Bogus Artie Shaw Downloads?

I've learned a lot over the years by comparing alternate and rejected 'takes' done by great jazz musicians. One of my favorite sets of Edmond Hall recordings, for instance, was issued on an LP entitled "Rompin' in '44", with alternate takes of many of his best recordings. So when I ran across an intriguing series of downloads offered on Amazon--advertised as alternate takes of Artie Shaw and his Orchestra--I jumped at the chance to hear them.

Unfortunately, I jumped too soon. I should have double checked Vladamir Simosko's exhaustive discography first. In it, he points out that Artie Shaw's version of 'Temptation' was recorded in one take in September of 1940--not ten takes, as on my download.

Even without knowledge of the original 'Temptation' session from 1940, listening betrays this as a karaoke job immediately. The clarinetist on these recordings misses the glissando at the end of every take, and his phrasing doesn't follow Shaw's on the opening theme. I've never heard a recording where Shaw missed a glissando--even in live versions of 'Temptation' and the Concerto for Clarinet he nails them. Moreover there is a certain technique Shaw used to gliss, which would prevent him from missing in the manner of this clarinetist. In other words, if Shaw was to miss the gliss at the end of 'Temptation', he'd have missed it in different way.

These recordings are simply not Artie Shaw. 

There are several sets of these downloads offered: I only bought one (and am sorry enough). Another, found here, suggests more possible information. If the numbers 2-26-59 refer to the date of the session, we know that Artie Shaw had already retired. It is possible that these might be rejected takes from Dave Pell's cover band recordings from around that time. If so, it might be Ed Rosa on clarinet. But the one Pell album I have doesn't include 'Temptation.'

It is further suspicious that these recordings popped onto the market just two years after Shaw's death in 2004.

I think these should be investigated, and unless clarified as a cover band of some sort, removed.

If anyone has more information on this and can shine some light on the problem, I encourage them to do so.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Wynton Marsalis on Benny Goodman's 1938 Carnegie Hall Concert

On page 86 of the current issue  of DownBeat [April 2013], there is a half page report on a Wynton Marsalis master class held in New Orleans last October at Loyola University. Most of it is a fairly usual summary of Marsalis's expertise--the Tomasi Concerto, "Take the 'A' Train", and a brief comment on the New Orleans funeral all make their appropriate appearances. But lodged within these is an important paragraph. Jennifer O'Dell writes:

Marsalis pointed repeatedly to Benny Goodman's 1938 Carnegie Hall recording as being exemplary of jazz representing American society. "Notice what Goodman was saying about the United States of America when he played that concert," he said. "It had nothing to do with Twitter. It had to do with being human."
For the past three decades, Wynton has been a leading figure in defining the discussion of jazz, and for any jazz clarinetist, it is very good to hear such a seminal moment in our history pointed to so seriously. Last summer I made similar points about the Goodman Carnegie Hall concert--it was a transformative moment in the history of jazz, and symbolic of the very best aspects of our nation. That Wynton is emphasizing this is deeply gratifying on many levels. First, simply that it gives more exposure to that musical moment.  Perhaps more importantly, though, it encourages a reengagement with the music of that period, which is the closest in American musical history to a High Romantic Era.

Wynton has dedicated his career to revitalizing and continuing some of the greatest strains of our musical heritage. It's a good day for The Jazz Clarinet when he points out something so close to home.

So thanks, Wynton: it is much appreciated.


Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Jazz Clarinet on Twitter

Not sure what I'm going to do with it, folks, but I now have a twitter account. Those interested can follow or tweet me @Jazz_Clarinet

Friday, March 1, 2013

Artie Shaw on the Pitfalls of Academia

Those familiar with Artie Shaw's biography know that one of the defining characteristics of his career was a dissatisfaction with the life of a gigging musician. His various retirements from the music business have been well documented--usually explained within the framework of his literary goals. Less well known is that, when Shaw was still a young man making his way through the New York studio scene, he was deeply attracted to the notion of an academic career. He was dissuaded from doing so by an assistant professor of biology, who encouraged him to continue making a living in music.

[He] pointed out, in an academic career such as I had in mind, instead of achieving any real freedom from preoccupations with petty detail, I would only bog down in more petty details. "You'll find yourself, some twenty years from now, worrying about money, worrying about trying to meet your annual expenses on a salary no self respecting plumber would be willing to work for. On top of that you'll be all snarled up with campus and faculty politics, disillusioned with teaching, because for every one student who wants to learn anything you'll run up against five thousand who are only there for the sake of a degree by which they hope to better themselves financially, and in general you'll wind up a tired, cynical, disgusted old man, wondering why the devil you ever got yourself into such a cul-de-sac to begin with."

At first I tried to argue with him. "But it is a secure life, isn't it?" I insisted. "And in it a fellow can find time to write and think and work toward some constructive end, can't he?"

"Oh sure--I suppose it's secure enough, as far as lives go," he told me. "But it's kind of a living death, too. And as far as constructive ends are concerned, you're better off trying to earn some money in your own profession, where you've got a good chance of doing that, and then figuring out what you want to do about constructive ends. At least you'll have some freedom of choice that way, whereas once you get yourself involved in the life you'll have to live as a teacher, you'll soon find yourself so disillusioned you'll be glad to get away from anything connected with what you do for a living."

I still wasn't convinced, however. I went to his laboratory with him several times, and when he showed me some of the fascinating work he was doing I was more convinced than ever. Finally, though, he managed to show me graphically what he meant.

What he did was to take me to a faculty "tea." After that, I began to see the light. 

One other thing occurred at about this same time, which had it's effect on my ultimate decision.

I was taking a course in American history.  [...] [The] instructor was one of the most narrow-minded, dull-witted, unimaginative, uninspired, insensitive, and downright stupid hacks I have ever run into in my entire life--not only in "his" field, but in any field I have ever even brushed up against.

The blow-off came after I had taken my examination for this "course." He flunked me. It all resolved itself down to one question in the exam. [...] The exam had asked for "three causes of the War Between the States." Although the answers I had given were all correct enough...they were not the ones "in the book"--meaning the particular textbook used for that particular course. [...]

"But aren't there any other books you're willing to recognize as having any authority?" I demanded.

"I don't believe," he said primly, "it is the place of the student to inform his instructor as to which are or are not proper sources."

"That isn't what I was trying to do," I said. "I'm only saying that there ought to be some room for further or even other causes than those given in that one text we've been studying."

"I'm sorry," he replied, more primly than ever. "I'm afraid my decision must stand. Your answer may be correct according to other sources than the ones I accept. In that case, I can only suggest your taking this course with some other instructor."

I walked out of there, and out of the entire Academic Life as well...

Now, that one silly affair by itself would not have been enough to cause such a decision. I knew enough not to blame all instructors for my misfortune in getting tangled up with this one cretin. The point is, this came as the culmination of my gradually increasing discontent with a great many such people I had met during the past couple of years.

So that took care of that.

[ from The Trouble With Cinderella, pp.276-279]

What an irony: to think that we might not have some of the greatest jazz ever recorded, had Artie Shaw simply had a decent History prof ! As J.R.R. Tolkien (who spent his entire career in academic life) might point out, even Gollum has his role to play.