Homer Sings The Blues

One of the most fascinating books I’ve read in recent years is Orality and Literacy by Walter J Ong, a study of purely oral cultures and the changes in consciousness and culture that occur with the advent of writing, and later print and electronic communication. At one point we are asked to imagine Homer, the ancient Greek blind itinerant poet and harp player, being called on at a gathering to recite the story of the Trojan war. Everyone has had a few glasses of wine. Homer doesn’t sing it the same way every time. He tailors the story for his audience. He starts in the middle, with an exciting scene to draw the audience in, and then flashes back to flesh out the narrative, giving the story an episodic quality. He draws on a vocabulary of stock phrases, altering them as needed to fit his purposes. The audience is enthralled. Reading about Homer and his fellow bards, it occurred to me that western culture was essentially founded by a bunch of touring musicians. The question remains however: did Homer sell merchandise? Since ancient concert tunics are unlikely to survive at archaeological sites, we can only speculate about this question.

Throughout most of human history, culture has been entirely oral. Writing is a fairly recent development, and most human languages that have existed have had no written form. Purely oral cultures operate quite differently than literate ones. Since the human mind is the only way information can be preserved, people in these societies develop tremendous powers of memory. People in oral cultures tend to be more socially oriented, concrete thinkers, averse to abstraction. They tend to use oral language in a creative, combative way, like a game. Because it aids memory, narrative is of crucial importance, as are the exploits of larger than life heroic figures. Other important information, like genealogies, gets embedded in these narratives. Think of the endless series of begats in the Old Testament. Not everyone thought that the invention of writing was a great idea, and the conversion to literacy in Greece took hundreds of years. One of the earliest criticisms of writing was that humans would lose their prodigious powers of memory, something that did in fact happen.

Music of course is a great aid to memory, so traveling musicians and storytellers become crucial repositories of cultural knowledge in oral cultures. Musicians had a role in oral societies that they mostly no longer have in modern societies, as preservers of cultural history and tradition, as teachers. This expanded social role does survive in some modern societies, among the griots of Mali, for example. In oral cultures certain formulaic lines get passed around the community of storytellers, with the creativity coming from how the individual weaves these standard lines into an original composition. Think of the delta blues, a modern form of music arising from a predominantly oral culture, where many lines appear in song after song, with the creativity arising from the original interpretation of these stock phrases by the singer. The idea of copyright, or ownership of a work, is completely foreign to oral cultures, indeed it appears only with the advent of print. In oral societies, all knowledge is communal.

I think it is unlikely that musicians will ever return to their role as repositories of cultural knowledge in our modern, electronic age. However despite the existence of recording, electronic music, and the internet, music still draws heavily on oral practices. There is still nothing like the excitement of a great live performance. When we gather around live musicians and truly listen to the stories that they tell, we are still in some way like those ancient people gathered around Homer, listening to him sing of great heroes and terrible battles. We are engaging in a tradition as old as humanity itself.

How to Make it in the Music Business

How do you make it in the music business? Practice of course! Seriously though, the real answer is keep your day job. Wait, wait, come back. Ok the real first step is to define what you mean by making it. Is it to be rich and famous? Sadly unless your name is Prince, and you are funky, you are probably not destined for superstardom. Also, as I’ve written before, fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. You might not even like it! Ok, well what about just getting rich without all the fame? This is certainly possible. The best way to do this is to be one of the absolute best in the world at your instrument, work unbelievably hard, be willing to move to another town, sacrifice family life or whatever else it takes, and get extremely lucky. Note that if fame and riches are your criteria, I have not come remotely close to making it in the music business and you should probably stop reading right now.

What about just making a living? That much I have done, so I can vouch that it is possible. In my own experience, and in conversation with friends who are working musicians, I have identified a few key elements that I think are helpful. The first is to be versatile. This can mean playing multiple instruments, like I do, but can also mean playing different styles of music. I’ve played in jazz, rock, country, Hawaiian, and African bands among others. I also sing and compose my own music.

Versatility also means using other talents that you may have, musical or otherwise, to make a living. I play gigs, book my own bands, teach privately and in the classroom. Another friend has a regular gig at a church to supplement his performance income. Others record music for licensing, do studio work, work as bookers for clubs, or repair instruments. I’ve also benefited from the computer and business knowledge I developed in my many years of, you guessed it, working a day job. There are a lot of skills that can help your career, not just music skills.

Another important element to success, that almost anyone can learn, is to be pleasant and professional. This means understanding your role in the group, being a team player, showing up on time, and focusing on the music when it’s showtime. Your reputation is your best friend in the music business. People will often hire a lesser player who is easier to get along with over a great player who is difficult.

Finally, you have to accept that music is a business. It is a beautiful art form, but it is also a business. You have to ask for what you’re worth. You have to be comfortable dealing with money, making deals, record-keeping, and all the other aspects of running a small business. You have to understand the market and try to find underserved niches like any good businessperson would. In the modern world, it helps to be able to use the internet and other technology. Speaking again of fame, musicians are often misled by the promise of fame into making bad business decisions like playing for exposure. Remember, musicians die of exposure! If we treated musicians as workers, they would be more able to make a living and that would result in more, not less, beautiful music.

So that’s how you make it in the music business! Seriously though, there’s nothing wrong with keeping your day job. A lot of the best players in town have day jobs. And practice. You really have to practice.


A musician friend of mine, who passed away recently, once told me that he had stopped listening to sad music entirely, and only wanted to hear happy music. He said that life was sad enough on it’s own and that the purpose of music was to alleviate that sadness, not add to it. Another musician friend once told me that sadness was a far deeper, more complex emotion than happiness, and that was why sad music was superior. He said that even in upbeat, major key songs, it’s the sad minor chords that get you right in the heart, that make you feel something deeply. I admit that I am sympathetic to both arguments. Ultimately however I feel that music, like all art, has to reflect the full range of human emotions.

They say that a man ain’t supposed to cry, but you would never know it from listening to popular music, where men are crying constantly, usually over a woman. Music is one of the few areas of life where male tears are acceptable, and in songs the tears flow freely. My favorite example of this is Roy Orbison’s song “Crying”, where he sings the title word over and over again, each time with greater desperation. The story goes that when they were recording the song he was singing the final high note in his falsetto voice, but he couldn’t be heard over the orchestra. On the final take, to everyone’s astonishment, he reared back and sang the high note in his regular voice. This last, wailing note brings the song to a cathartic climax of grief and loss. Self-pity is raised to the heights of poetic anguish.

The idea that people seek out what is pleasurable and avoid what is painful is the basis of western ethical philosophy ever since Aristotle. I believe that the existence of sad music demonstrates something quite different. People want to feel happy, but more than this they want to feel something, anything but indifference, numbness. Depression is often described by its sufferers not as sadness, but as the absence of all emotion, an emotional void. Strong feelings, even negative ones, remind us that we are alive. Of course one could argue that people are still seeking happiness even when they listen to sad music, because they are seeking compassion and empathy, which causes happiness. I think this is trying to be far too clever. I think people listen to sad music because they want to be sad. They listen to angry music because they want to be angry. Happy music to be happy. In order to be something you have to feel something. In order to live intensely you have to feel intensely, and music brings out our strongest feelings like nothing else in the world.

Music for Young and Old

In the past year I’ve been teaching a lot of ukulele classes in the Portland schools. I’ve also done a lot of shows at area retirement homes. I think that playing and teaching music with young and old has given me some insights into what music means to us at different times of life.

I’ve often said that kids are the best audience at shows, particularly when they are encountering live music for the first time. Adults are often a bit jaded about music. Young children however are often transfixed by what the musicians are doing, the beautiful instruments, the new and unfamiliar sounds.

Of course, my ukulele students aren’t always as enthusiastic about actually learning to play music as they are about just listening. Learning music is hard! Sometimes their hands are too small to press down the strings, or they just don’t have the small motor skills yet. Trained musicians make music look easy, which makes beginners frustrated when it’s not so easy after all. Many of them work very diligently though, and often really come through in the final concerts we do for the parents. Most of them like singing, and we do plenty of that. I don’t have kids of my own, so this is one of my only opportunities to interact with kids. I’m a strict teacher, because you have to be, but I make sure to enjoy the company of my students as well.

The seniors I play for at retirement homes, either with one of my bands or in a solo singalong situation, are in a variety of stages of aging. Some are still quite active, mentally sharp and very social. Others are in advanced stages of memory care. They all remember songs from their youth however, and this is usually what I play. Some are songs that I remember my grandparents singing. Sometimes we sing spirituals, visions of a better world that many believe awaits them. Like their very young counterparts, I’ve found that seniors are often very appreciative listeners, but they often respond to what touches their memories, and not to what is new and strange. I will often think a particular audience member is completely unresponsive, and then I will see them silently mouthing the words to the song. Musical memories are often among the last that remain.

Music plays many different roles throughout our lives. It is new and fascinating when we are little, hard work when we are trying to learn it, comforting when we are older. For some of us, it becomes a lifelong passion. It helps us fall in love, survive adversity, connect with our spiritual life, find peace in old age. Music is older than all of us and outlives all of us.

Music is Your Friend For Life

I often tell my young students “if you make friends with music now, music will be your friend for life”. At least in my own life, I have found this to be true. I have considered music to be my close friend for more than forty years now. Of course like any long friendship, it’s complicated. Music is very demanding! There are times when I think we are working beautifully together, and times when I wish music would just do what I want it to and stop complaining. Music is often elusive, difficult, temperamental. In the end we never truly know music any more than we truly know other people.

When you are first learning music you often feel inadequate. Music can seem tedious, moody, even cruel. You have to work hard to deepen this relationship. Eventually, it helps you to explore the inner structure of music. Then you may become so close that each of you knows what the other is thinking. In this way, you develop empathy with the music, with your fellow musicians, and your audience. In some strange way, music seems to have empathy with you. It has accepted you as a friend.

Like any long friendship, my friendship with music has gone through a number of distinct phases. Sometimes we have only seen each other rarely for long periods. Sometimes I wanted to spend more time with music than I was able to. Other times I felt like it was best for us to spend some time apart for a while. Then we would go through intense periods where we would see each other every day. At these times the relationship grew stronger and deeper. Even at the worst of times, we never lost touch.

Now that music is also my business partner again, after a long time off, the friendship is in yet another phase. The music business is even more difficult than music itself! Still, I’m happy to report that we are getting along better than ever. I feel that when I teach I am paying music back for everything it has given to me, by introducing it to young people, people who may find that they love it too.

We’re hanging out on Saturday night. You should stop by.

Thelonious Monk

The story of Thelonious Monk is a story of contradictions. A musical revolutionary who lived long enough to be considered old-fashioned. A man with a reputation for erratic behavior who was also a devoted husband and father. A piano player who’s seemingly primitive technique belied his true mastery of the instrument. A writer of songs that are often deceptively complex or else deceptively simple. Forever holding these contradictions in an uneasy balance was Monk himself, and his story is ultimately about his own persistence.

Robin Kelley’s definitive biography of Monk, a massive, incredibly researched labor of love, does a lot to puncture the mythology surrounding Monk’s life and work. In addition to Monk’s own internal contradictions, we see how his image and mythology conflicts with the reality of the man. Often described as lacking in formal musical training, he actually had a thorough and sophisticated musical education. Notorious for being unreliable and late to gigs, he was often very professional and hard-working. Mythologized as The High Priest of Bebop, he left that music’s scorching tempos behind in favor of his own medium tempo explorations. Monk’s music ultimately doesn’t sound like anyone else.

Contributing greatly to Monk’s difficulties was his mental illness, probably bipolar disorder, which was poorly understood and treated. People are fascinated by mental illness in artists, while tending not to give a damn about it in the general population. Certainly it is hard to separate Monk’s illness from his personality. However it is hard to argue that mental illness helped Monk’s music career. In fact, it severely hampered his ability to produce music, to maintain his grueling performance schedule, and handle his business.

The book also exposes the conflict between the artistic expectations of critics and the public, and the reality of life as a working musician. Sometimes appallingly misunderstood by critics early in his career, portrayed as atonal, unskilled, and inscrutable, ignored by the public, Monk lived long enough to be derided as predictable and nostalgic by the same critics, even as the public adored him. Later in his life, the jazz press wondered why he didn’t write more new songs, why he still played the same tunes all the time. But where was the time to compose or rehearse a band when Monk was the sole breadwinner for his family, constantly touring, hampered by physical and mental illness? In fact, even though Monk achieved every musician’s dream, traveling the world, making records, being recognized for his genius, he always struggled financially. Monk didn’t make a steady living until his forties, and never made enough to be truly secure.

Ultimately Monk never solved these contradictions, instead holding them in an uneasy balance seemingly through sheer force of will. The true unity that emerges from this story is that of Monk’s music itself. One thing everyone who played with Monk agreed on was that he was a great teacher, and that the lesson came not so much from what he said as from simply playing his music. Through these songs one becomes immersed in Monk’s unique concept. What seems strange and unpredictable suddenly reveals it’s irresistible internal logic. What initially sounds harsh and forbidding gradually opens to show an intense beauty within. Monk’s compositions are incredibly diverse, but they all sound unmistakably like their creator. In the end, it was Monk himself who held it all together.

The Jazz Loft Project

The Jazz Loft Project is a story told in fragments by disembodied voices. It is a successful work of art made from the ruins of a failed one, a complete work made from an intentionally incomplete one. It is the story of 2 equally obsessive men, photographer W. Eugene Smith, who made thousands of hours of reel-to-reel tapes at his New York City loft, including jam sessions with some of the greatest jazz artists, and Sam Stephenson, who discovered the archive decades later and produced the book and accompanying film (and website). Smith and Stephenson collaborated on the Jazz Loft Project, decades apart, without ever knowing each other. But this is a work with many authors, some of them unwitting. In addition to the tapes, Smith took thousands of photos of the goings-on in the street below in the flower district. These images together with the tapes create a portrait of a unique time and place in jazz history.

The jazz loft itself was the product of another failed obsession, Smith’s photo-essay of Pittsburgh. A famous photojournalist at Life magazine, severely wounded in WWII while working as a battlefield photographer, Smith quarreled with his superiors and eventually quit. Receiving a commission to create a portrait of Pittsburgh, he ended up taking thousands of photos, expanding the project far beyond it’s intended scope. Enthralled with the idea of creating a complete portrait of a city in pictures, Smith was attempting to do the impossible. Like Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, a similarly incomplete attempt to embody a city in words and images, the project eventually collapsed under it’s own weight and uncertain structure. Telling a coherent story from all of these disconnected fragments proved too difficult. Breaking down emotionally and financially, Smith abandoned the project (and his family), living illegally at the flower district loft, covering every available space with photographs, and wiring the entire place with microphones. He recorded everything, not just music but conversations, radio shows, television sound, the sound of his cat and the sound of the street.

Jazz musicians both famous and obscure came to the loft, sometimes even living there, jamming after hours until early morning. The personnel and the music were free-flowing, unpredictable. Smith recorded everything, with remarkable sound quality, while quietly capturing the scene on his camera from the background. Thelonious Monk rehearsed his Town Hall big band there, and the recordings of him working on the arrangements with Hall Overton is one of the highlights of the project. Even in the so-called golden age of jazz, many of these great artists were struggling. Substance abuse took a terrible toll. Pianist Sonny Clark overdoses at the loft in a particularly harrowing scene. The loft’s resident drummer Ronnie Free, rescued from obscurity by his inclusion on the tapes, became an addict and ended up in the mental hospital before leaving town for good.

Jazz itself is revealed as a music of deep obsession. It is a music of incredible freedom and incredible precision. Smith clearly admired and related to these qualities in the music because of the improvisational approach and meticulous attention to detail he displayed in his own art. An art form requiring incredible dedication, with limited popularity and financial reward, jazz is the story of people who are willing to take enormous risks for the life they choose. Jazz was created in the crucible of these endless jam sessions, these experiments in spontaneous collaboration. The Jazz Loft Project is a work of archaeology, of reconstruction from bits of disconnected evidence. Like jazz, it attempts to create something permanent out of these fleeting moments. Like jazz, it weaves all of its disparate, chaotic elements into something lasting and beautiful.

Artists as Workers

In 1935, with the country in the grips of depression, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Federal Music Project, part of Federal Project Number One, which included related programs for visual artists, writers, and the theater. Despite his patrician upbringing, FDR was not a great patron of the arts, and was only lukewarm about the program. His wife Eleanor, a culture enthusiast, was in fact the driving force behind it. However one thing FDR did recognize was that artists were unemployed and suffering just like everyone else, and deserved to participate in the benefits of the New Deal. In addition, he felt that the arts would help entertain and enrich the public, taking their minds away from their difficulties. In short, FDR decided to treat artists as workers.

Although many of the problems facing creative people today are related to the general plight of workers in our society, there are also cultural factors. Many of the problems faced by professional musicians and artists in general can be traced to the refusal of society to view what we do as real work. Some of this refusal in turn can be traced to certain myths about artists and their role in society. Unfortunately, as artists we often internalize and even perpetuate these myths. While there is a grain of truth to some of them, the overall effect is to make it hard to see ourselves as skilled workers, deserving of the same respect and compensation as any other profession.

One of these myths is the Artist as Mad Genius. In this conception, the artist is an isolated, vaguely disreputable figure, following his inspiration in private, unafraid to suffer, content to be remembered after his death. Those who simply get up, work hard and support their families without unnecessary drama aren’t real artists, or at least not as good.

A related myth is the Artist as Starving Bohemian. This person lives in poverty, but is happy because he can survive on the nourishment of his own genius. What reason is there to pay someone who is only in it for the art? Getting paid would only taint the purity of the accomplishment. The arch-enemy of the starving artist is the sellout. This is the traitor artist who is strangely immune to the charms of poverty and agrees to produce inferior art for money! At any rate, artists enjoy what they do, and real work is by definition unpleasant, so artists don’t deserve to get paid. Note that this principle does not to apply to people who enjoy being doctors, lawyers, or politicians.

Some artists achieve fame and fortune of course, but then the promise of fame is used to exploit others. Every musician is familiar with being asked to play “for the exposure” (“people die from exposure” is the proper response). The idea that you could hit it big is an enticing one, and it is used to get artists to do a lot of free labor. This makes creative work more like playing the lottery, and less like real work.

The Federal Music project produced thousands of concerts, provided free music lessons, and organized music festivals. Critically, its workers recorded thousands of hours of american folk and blues music, leading to the creation of the field of ethnomusicology. Together they preserved a precious cultural heritage that would have otherwise been lost. A popular target of budget cutters and red-baiters, the program eventually ended in 1943. In many ways, the idea of artists as everyday workers died as well. We would do well to revive it.

Charlie Parker

I’m not here today to talk about Charlie “Bird” Parker as a musical revolutionary. I’m not interested in discussing his troubled life and early death. I don’t want to debate whether he’s the man who destroyed jazz or the man who saved it. Instead I want to talk about his alto saxophone tone, because it is in listening to that tone that you hear the poetic soul at the center of Charlie Parker’s music.

Charlie Parker, and the music called Bebop that he helped to invent, has a reputation for angular, difficult melodies played at extremely fast tempos. Experimental, serious music that’s hard to sing along or dance to. Lighting-fast solos that are difficult to follow. But the sweet sound of Bird’s horn subverts this narrative, revealing bebop to be the romantic, passionate, risky, beautiful music that it is. This isn’t music meant to frighten people. This is music played for love.

Bird’s tone, so round, so warm and full of joy, is what drew me to his playing before I ever began to understand what he was doing harmonically or melodically. Together with his unerring sense of phrasing, his tone is the reason his version of a jazz melody is always my favorite version. Listen to the way he plays “Star Eyes”, “Lover Man”, “The Song is You”. He sings the melody with his horn like a great vocalist would.

Discussing Bebop, Bird once said: “It’s just music, It’s trying to play clean and looking for the pretty notes”. At first I thought he was being disingenuous here. But once I began to learn Bebop, and the way it uses the upper intervals of chords to form new melodies, I began to see the truth in what Bird said. He found pretty notes nobody had ever found before, and brought them to life with the sound of his horn.

As far as playing fast, it was once said of banjo great Earl Scruggs that no matter how fast he played, each note was always distinct, like pearls on a string. So it is with Charlie Parker. No matter how fast he played, if you listen carefully you can hear almost every note. Again it’s the ability to produce a consistently beautiful sound at any tempo that makes this possible, that makes it sound like music instead of just notes.

Listen to the Charlie Parker with Strings sessions, admittedly a fairly commercial venture, and you hear Bird’s tone used to maximum effect on a series of gorgeous jazz melodies and expressive solos. These sessions, coinciding with a brief period of commercial success and relative sobriety, reveal Bird’s poetic heart. Without Bird, this would be elevator music, cheesy and forgettable. With Bird, it is transformed into the epitome of romantic splendor.

Curtis Mayfield

I’m not sure why more people don’t dig Curtis Mayfield. Even a lot of musicians I’ve met don’t know much about his work, or aren’t into it, at least at first. Some find it overproduced, in that 1970s way when you could get an entire orchestra to play on your record. Others react negatively to the falsetto vocals. Personally, I find the vocals to be devastatingly beautiful. He often sounds like someone confessing a terrible secret. The arrangements are a bit more of an acquired taste, but after a while you begin to revel in the lushness of it all. Mayfield’s songs are as funky as James Brown’s, but more melodic and fully-formed. His vocal skill is the equal of Marvin Gaye or Al Green. Curtis Mayfield was the complete package: singer, songwriter, producer, guitarist, bandleader.

It’s not that he is completely unappreciated, especially in the black community and among soul music aficionados. His best known songs like It’s Alright or People Get Ready are recognized by many, and the Superfly soundtrack remains popular, but he is rarely mentioned with other giants like Brown or Green. Certainly his choice to strike out on his own early on, starting his own record label and running his own sessions, contributed to his obscurity even while giving him near total artistic freedom. By the time he was paralyzed from the neck down after a lighting rig fell on him during a performance, he had largely fallen out of the public eye. Ironically after the accident he gained quite a bit of attention, which ended up reviving his career. Before he eventually died from his injuries, he released several more albums with a slew of guest stars, albums that would have been remarkable coming from an able-bodied man. It turned out that Curtis was very much appreciated after all.

Curtis Mayfield’s songs are all fully realized expressions of an artistic idea, even when he was seeking a commercial goal. Take the Superfly soundtrack. The Blaxploitation films of the 70s spawned soundtracks that have long outlived most of the movies. For Superfly, Curtis wrote a song for every character in the film. The songs capture the characters better than the movie does! Unfortunately, the music wasn’t used that way in the film, but it shows his gift for writing a fully realized song on almost any subject.

Check out the gorgeous ballad The Makings of You. In addition to it’s unique chord structure and time changes, listen to the amazing number of positive words Curtis packs into the song: expression, happiness, roses, astound, joy, children, laughing, righteous. This song isn’t just about a lover, it’s about love itself, universal love, love for all mankind.

Or take the song Party Night from the Give, Get, Take, and Have album. A naked attempt to capitalize on the disco craze, it starts out in a typical disco groove, then suddenly turns into something quite different. Despite ridiculous lyrics like “Having cheese and wine, dancing all the time”, by the end it has turned into something beautiful and uplifting. Even when trying to be brazenly commercial, Curtis Mayfield couldn’t help but create great art.