Civility In An Age Of Disorder

I wrote this as a response to behavior in an FaceBook discussion group:

There’s been a lot of discussion lately of “pro” in this group, and what that means vis a vis the beginning and intermediate members (and pros I suppose) regarding questions being asked and the apparent snarkiness of replies in the threads. I’ll say off the bat that one of the reasons I rarely participate here is exactly that – the propensity of a minority to hijack discussions and spout off their rhetoric and angry hyperbole whether they have a clue or not about the subject.
I’d like to relate a couple of stories…

When I was a kid, 13 or 14 years old, I was already deep in the learning of this instrument and trying to figure out how to make it my life’s work. This was back in the dark ages, before YouTube, iTunes, and the availability of super cheap or free learning (on any subject you care to list). I also lived in a place decidedly NOT New York or LA, Chicago or Miami – where music education, as good as it was, was limited to marching and concert band in school (and how thankful for that, I now am!). So, the only way to sate a curious mind was to ask questions of those better than you who had already figured some of it out. I was fortunate to have a friend that would take me to clubs in my hometown to listen and occasionally sit in and play. There was this one saxophone player – don’t remember a name – that I just thought was awesome. I’m sure in retrospect he was struggling with his mountain just like the rest of us struggle with ours. Anyway, one night after his set, I approached him to ask a question. His immediate response was, and I quote: “Go away kid. You’re buggin me.” In response to one simple question, that I asked him just one time…

Now I know what it’s like to come off stage and be bombarded by people and questions. It sucks. When all you want to do is catch your breath and maybe a quick drink of water (or bourbon… yeah, definitely bourbon.) But there’s also a time to realize that you’re not a product of just yourself. There’s an entire lineage of people behind where you stand, from your parents who bought you that first horn, to your teachers along the way, to the heroes you idolize to this day as the pinnacle of the art, that you stole that awesome lick from. And every one of them generously gave of their time and knowledge to you, freely. (Yes, you may have paid for lessons, school, etc. but there’s no way – if you actually paid attention – that the knowledge gained wasn’t waaay more valuable than the $$ paid).

My point is I remember very clearly saying to myself, that if I was ever in that cat’s position, I’d NEVER Turn away someone who really wanted to genuinely learn something from me. And to this day, I never have. There are limits to my patience as there are to all our various sufferings of others, fools and otherwise. But if you really want to know something that I do, and you’re genuine about it, I’m happy to help you. For every asswipe jerkoff I’ve encountered (a whole lot – more on that in a moment) there have been a generous few who have really opened themselves to my curiosity and helped me immeasurably in my career, my music and my life. There is also a responsibility on the seeker’s shoulders, to explore what’s already here and available before posting yet one more question about “how do I sound like so-and-so”, or “what reed is the best for such-and-such?” If you’re a working pro, and many of us here are, time is a vanishing commodity, and if we take time to participate, we’re literally adding value to this forum, because time we spend here is time we don’t spend getting paid elsewhere for what we know and do. Sarcasm and snarkiness are the domain of the ignorant and scared, the lowest form of humor. It’s not humor to belittle someone’s opinion or desires, even when they’re misguided. It’s not strength to tear someone down for the sake of your own ego. That’s playground politics and the height of childishness. There is no place for that among so called professionals and adults. And I’ll tell ya what, the last person who’s ever getting a call from me for a gig, is that guy, the snarky, cynical jerk.

My second story relates to the above. A couple of years after my run-in with the above mentioned saxophone player, I wound up with a three night a week gig at the same club, playing with my own trio. I sucked. (I shudder to think how bad I actually sounded). Bravery favors fools, I guess! Soon after that I wound up – at 17 – touring the southeast dong one nighter’s with a chitlin’ circuit soul/beach band. At 18, I moved to NYC with a saxophone, a duffel bag and $300, to pursue a dream that had been planted in me a few years before by one of my teachers. I’m still here, 30 years later. I’ve made my living almost exclusively in that time as a musician.

At that time, NY was still the place to go to really learn and figure out your truth as a musician. The learning opportunities just weren’t as open and widespread as they are now. The internet age hadn’t dawned yet. (Yeah I know, the dark ages…)

When I got to NY (to go to school) I had already had a couple of years of success as a working musician. Didn’t mean I had a clue about what it really meant, but I had had some success. NY was a harsh wake up call of what I didn’t know, how poorly I actually played the instrument and how little I really knew about what all this means. But the most astounding thing to me was how truly UNWELCOMING the jazz community was to a kid from NC who was really trying to learn something new. Granted, I didn’t play the music well and I was socially way in over my head: think small town boy, VERY small town boy, showing up in a city of 7 million. Overwhelmed? Ha! But I was appalled at how closed that door was to those of us without the “jazz pedigree”.

But, I also quickly figured something else out. The guys on the soul, R&B, blues, pop/rock scene were incredibly welcoming and open. The commercial music guys always had room for me on their stage and their sessions. There were harsh lessons learned there too, please understand. But, for the most part, they were delivered without malice or snark.

In all those years since, I’ve watched the same dynamic. The jazz guys look down on the commercial music guys. The commercial music guys happily just go on and get paid to create music. Music, if it’s popular, must be crap, and the only “real” music is jazz. Specifically jazz before 1958. Or is it 1967? No? Maybe 1973? You get my point, I’m sure. I’m fairly certain that it’s because since there are no real broad opportunities to make a living playing jazz, everyone has to prove how great they are by how much they know instead of how great they play. The commercial guys get paid to do what they do. With a few notable exceptions, the jazz guys get paid to TALK about what they do. Just look at the propensity of YouTube videos of fantastic technicians, playing amazing licks over classic tunes, all without an iota of soul or individuality. Way too many experts and not enough practitioners. And ya know what, there’s very little work now for ANY of us. 200+ gigs a year was pretty standard in the late 90’s early ’00’s. Now that’s just a wishful dream. Astoundingly enough, the same dynamic seems to prevail. Why? My guess is a feeling of snide superiority and no place to exercise it.

Please don’t misconstrue what I’m saying. I LOVE JAZZ! I enjoy playing it on the rare occasions I get to, and I love listening to it. It’s also the cornerstone of my practice and musicianship. But it is my experience that when opportunity forsakes your chosen vehicle of expression, anger, sadness and aggression begin to creep in. (I know this from firsthand experience) And when those things begin to seep into the cracks in our souls, then they work themselves out in our interactions with the world and other people. It’s very easy to bring yourself up at the expense of someone else. But what do we really accomplish with this other than showing the world how truly afraid and immature WE are when we do so? We ALL should be humble in the face of music. Not THE music, but just music. There is no one real music. It ALL deserves our respect and if we’re not serving it, then we have no business calling ourselves musicians. There is ALWAYS something to be learned if you’re willing to admit your ignorance and exert a desire to acquire the knowledge. This applies to ALL of us, pro or otherwise.

It is our duty – those of us who are pros and theoretically know that of which we speak – to show the next generation the way forward while being conscious of and respectful to the past. That’s the way it’s always been, and how it always should be. Turn down the rhetoric and turn up the knowledge. Lose the snark and gain some perspective. While we’re at it, let’s practice some civility toward each other and lift ourselves up, not tear it all down.
Time ta go practice…

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