As is my daily morning ritual, I was reading the New York Times today. I always begin with the business section (which is short, and of the least interest to me), then the sports section (of which I’m mostly interested in anything about baseball and tennis), then the main section (which takes the most time). I find that in general I’ve become more interested in national news than in local or international.
Today being Tuesday, I follow that with the science section. I’m not particularly interested in most scientific stuff (it’s usually too technical for my sort of brain), but I do like articles about health, how the body functions (and malfunctions), ecology, genetics, outer space,… Hmm…I guess I’m more interested in science than I thought.
I always save the dessert for last—the Arts (which includes the crossword puzzle and Ken-Ken puzzle—the cherry in my fruit salad). I like to keep up with what’s going on in film and Broadway and, of course, music. I don’t trust the critics over my own judgment. I’d like to believe them, but I’m always a bit suspicious. How could they really understand something that they are not great practitioners of? Here is a case in point.
Many years ago, I used to watch the 10 O’clock News on channel 5, which was a local New York station before Rupert Murdoch bought it and turned it into Fox. The anchor, John Roland, was a witty and affable fellow. The former sports guy was moved over to arts critic. Of course, I was initially skeptical, but Stewart Klein was fearless in his criticism and very intelligent, and we seemed to agree on every show and movie. He reviewed some jazz and did a great job—he loved Duke Ellington. Of the hundreds of his reviews that I read, I only remember two.
One was of a Broadway show. He began, “This play is about a young man away at college. He learns that his father has died and his mother has married his uncle. The whole thing appears suspicious, so he decides to go home and…” John Roland interrupts, “Wait a minute, Stew, that’s the plot of Hamlet.” To which Klein responds, “You don’t expect me to review this tripe, do you?” That was it. They moved on to sports. Amazing that he didn’t get fired.
The other review was of a British comedy. Stewart went on and on about how hysterical it was, and how it was the best picture of the year. Of course my wife and I went to see it the very next night and hated it. We didn’t laugh once. Sometime later I took my wife and kids to see Five Guys Named Moe. We were all big Louis Jordan fans and had a ball. As we were about to leave the theater, I spotted Stewart Klein walking up the aisle towards us. I told him how much I loved his reviews except for one. We had a good laugh together. He was the same funny, bright guy as he was on TV.
Back to this morning. I was reading the Arts section, and there was a review of the Alvin Ailey performance at City Center. 40 years ago I had the great fortune to transcribe a pile of Ellington pieces for Alvin and play in his orchestra for the next 5 years. Each year, we did a 3-week season in the spring and another 3-week season in December. This was my introduction to the world of dance. Nothing like starting at the top.
We had a 45-piece orchestra for Night Creatures, which was cut down to 15 for the other Ellington pieces. This is where I met Wynton Marsalis. He was my sub! Wilmer Wise played the solo trumpet in The Unanswered Question. For Revelations there was a wonderful group of singers led by Brother John Sellers.
I rarely missed an opportunity to sneak out into the audience to watch any of the pieces I didn’t play on. Revelations immediately became my favorite. I can’t tell you how many times I watched it, and listened to it. In my dictionary, under the word “soulful” is “Revelations.” Every one of those singers was expressive and heartbreaking. Alvin’s choreography perfectly captured the spirit of the music. His dancers, led by Judith Jamison and Dudley Williams, personified strength, vulnerability and dignity. I was spoiled.
As I read the review, I was deep in my memories of working with Alvin, when all of a sudden, I was catapulted back to the reality of today—the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater has no orchestra. The dancers perform to recorded music. I understand (actually, I don’t) that small dance companies can’t afford live musicians, but this is supposed to be one of the great institutions of dance.
When we toured Harlem Nutcracker 20 years ago, the producer explored recording the music and using the recordings for performances. Although this might have saved money in the long run, both Donald Byrd (the choreographer) and I were opposed to the idea for artistic reasons. We felt that the interaction of the musicians and dancers was at the core of the piece. Using recordings not only precluded the possibility of improvisation (both instrumental and dance), but the suspense of the high wire act would no longer exist for the music. The communal effect of art would be greatly diminished. What’s next, opera singers lip-synching?
Call me old fashioned, but I’m still with Mickey and Judy getting some kids together and putting on a show in the barn. Art is about human communication. I make some allowances for film and recorded music, but basically, I’m with Bill Dobbins, who said, “Listening to music on a record is like eating a picture of a steak.”
When I was in college, one afternoon I was listening to sides repeatedly with my buddy Joe Ficco. At one point he looked at me seriously and said, “That tenor player plays the same 2-bar break every time.” And there you have it—the element of surprise is taken out of the music. That is the trade-off for the luxury of being able to listen to music at home or now, with digital music, on our phones anywhere in the world. As convenient as this is, I can never accept it as the real thing.
Over the past 50 years, I’ve had the great experience of standing in front of bands and orchestras and hearing their music from the optimal acoustical spot in the room. Nothing can compare with that, except rehearsals.
At rehearsals, I get to break the orchestration down into one, two, three or as many instruments as I want, just to hear what that sub-grouping of instruments sounds like together. I break the piece down into its smallest elements and then one-by-one put them back together. In the process, everyone gets to understand the music and its potential better.
This is how I hear music when I write it. I can hear all the notes and rhythms in my head, and I can imagine how it might sound when the musicians play my notes. But when real musicians play my music, they breathe life (and their personal life) into my little black dots.
If you’ve never experienced this, imagine what sex would be like as compared with the actual experience. The magic of sex is the interaction with someone whose actions you can’t control, but who in the act of satisfying themselves, satisfies you. At its best each partner gets pleasure from the other’s pleasure. This, in a nutshell, is the pleasure of being a performing artist.
Call me old fashioned, but performing with machines, as sophisticated as they might be, lacks the spontaneity of live bodies. I know humans cost more, but isn’t it worth it? Think about that the next time you turn to your lover and wonder what sex would be like with a machine. Do you remember Woody Allen’s orgasmatron in Sleeper? You know what? I’m sticking with the human race.
After the rhythm, what drove me to my obsession with jazz is the relationship of control and freedom. This set of opposites is central to our everyday life, which is reflected in our art. As Americans, we choose democracy over other forms of more repressive government, but democracy must have its limits to flourish and protect all its citizens. Even at my somewhat advanced age, I am fascinated by my own need to control and my desire for the excitement of letting go.
For me, it’s a lot easier to give up control in music, where the consequences are not so dire. I won’t be jumping out of an airplane anytime soon, but there are other ways to let go and be surprised, both in and out of music. Do yourself a favor. Surprise someone with an act of kindness. It can be as little as a smile or a hug, but the rewards are priceless—especially if they didn’t see it coming.