F is for Pragmatism

| April 14, 2014

Please don't ask what year this is

In reading about “Aesthetic Education” in Bishop’s “Artificial Hells,” I started thinking back to my own arts education – the values of my teachers who encouraged and influenced me, and the values of the society that awaited me after the protective buffer of schooling eroded. In short: my expectations of my artistic life did not meet the exigencies of society, and so my expectations were forced to evolve. It’s a classic story to the point of cliché: small town kid wants to be an artist, goes to art school, moves to the big city, takes lots of bad jobs (in and out his milieu) to pay the rent, gets a dayjob, forgets what he loved about his craft and ‘moves on’ with his life.

What follows is not a criticism of my teachers or the structures of the educational system per se, but an (attempt at an objective) account of my systematic acculturation into capitalist society, a/k/a “growing up after art school”.

When I was but a wee lad in a suburban New Jersey middle school, I started to realize I excelled at and was deeply engaged by the study of the saxophone. I loved playing along with Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and Charlie Parker records from the time I was 14 or so. Aside from the purely internal satisfaction I derived from my study, there were external incentives as well. Amidst the adolescent purgatory of middle school, it was very grounding to have ‘a thing’, and my relationship with the saxophone became a foundation for my fledgling identity – an extension of my nascent and rapidly morphing idea of myself (classically: the ego). Outside of the band room, I did fine academically in high school, and found quite a few intellectual pursuits that interested me, but playing music was what most sustained and interested me.  Also, I saw it as a way out of the small town I lived in – a gateway to a bohemian life in the big city. My music teachers were my friends, they were younger teachers, in their late 20s, and they were obviously really excited to have a student that was so into it; someone who might just do something. I could feel a lot of their projected hopes on my shoulders, it was flattering. I wanted to please them, and their confidence inspired and motivated me. Come senior year, when it came time for us all to make hard decisions, there was nothing hard at all about my decisions: I had great grades, I was poor, and i could play saxophone quite well.  A lot of music programs extended scholarship offers to me, and I chose the University of Miami for a number of reasons: 1) it was quite far from my parents, and the stifling narrow-mindedness of my backwards suburban town, 2) the scholarship package made attending school there tenable, 3) it was a great music program with a long list of well-known alumni and a creative atmosphere, and 4) … Miami (duh).

Music school was a wonderful experience – my curriculum consisted of saxophone quartet, Concert Jazz Band practice, small group rehearsals, private lessons, piano class, ear training, music history, and jazz improvisation classes. What’s not to love?  This was the big leagues, and my classmates were all very talented comrades. This course of study felt like a shared mission: a calling for many of us. When we did think of the future it was in vague terms. We were mainly thinking “I’m gonna move to New York and ‘make it'”. Some of us would be bandleaders, some sidemen. Some would work with a single group, some would be journeymen. My main professor, Gary Keller, was a great teacher, I have to say. He always told us, as artists and crafttsmen, to either strive to be world-class at one ‘thing’ (specialization), or be really great at a lot of things (versatility). Gary was teaching us to be working musicians.

Phil Woods, a well-known bebop saxophone player and world-class curmudgeon, had some classic quotes about the proliferation of university jazz education programs, and the incongruence between these curricula and the ‘real life’ of a working musician.  Among them:

“It’s bad enough we’re graduating so many lawyers from colleges, now we’re graduating too many tenor players”

“If you really want an education about what the jazz business is, put the students on a bus and drive around the parking lot in a circle for ten hours. Get off the bus, set up the bandstand, put on your band uniform (ill-fitting gray suit). DON”T PLAY A NOTE. Take off the uniform, tear down the bandstand and load the gear back onto the bus. Get back on the bus, drive another ten to twelve hours and do it all again. Repeat that for six or eight months, and if you still want to play for a living, go ahead.”

Unsurprisingly, that’s just what I did after I graduated: I joined a touring big band, the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, one of the last touring big bands. The pay was laughable, and we spent a lot of time on the bus! Sometimes 16 hours at a stretch. I saw 46 of the contiguous 48 states through that bus window. We also went down to South America and the Caribbean a bit.  It was a great year and a perfect life experience for a 23 year with no responsibilities.  I remember it fondly, but at some point I wanted to have a fixed residence, a bed that was my own, and a kitchen where I could actually prepare my own meals(!). That was the big move to NYC in 2000.  It was after moving to New York that the same ‘wake up call’ that many artists face hit home with me. I found myself having to make hard decisions about what I wanted to do career-wise to get by.  Take an office job, teach more lessons to disinterested kids, take a wedding gig here and there.  I tried all these strategies in different balances, and found myself resenting my instrument more and more.  Meanwhile, I was becoming less motivated and depression set in once or twice. Sure, there was some solace in the actual creative gigs and recordings I was doing, and the solidarity of our extended circle of comrades-in-arms was helpful, but things weren’t adding up, and something had to give.  In discussing how much you could sacrifice to live as a creative musician in New York, a friend of mine coined the term ‘poverty tolerance’, and we laughed about it endlessly.  But it was a salient point: how much poverty can you tolerate to pursue your craft in the face of an apathetic listening public and suffocating financial constraints?

Soul searching ensued.

The rest of the story is pretty cliché.  I took a temp job at RCA Records as a lark, and before I knew it four years went by.  Enough gigs had lined up that I left that job and quickly realized living off of wedding gigs was a fate worse than death. I then explored working in tech, which led to a job at Apple, then a consulting company, and finally to Columbia, where I found a whole new world of academic fulfillments. Fast forward to now: I’m a doctoral student in Communications here at TC.

I’m still obviously kind of torn about the whole trajectory described above.  Should I not have listened to my teachers as a kid? Should somebody have explained to me what kind of life awaited me after music school?  I had this discussion with my high school teacher a couple years back, and he made the very shrewd point that if they made that argument, I never would’ve listened. A lot of my friends I came up with are still plugging away, with varying degrees of “success” (a wholly subjective concept which applies to each person differently, with unique criteria).

In the context of our shared conversations in class, I guess the question I’m left with is one of ethics in arts education… Is there any responsibility to level our advocacy for our student’s aesthetic inclinations/aspirations with a dose of “be careful, paying rent can be tricky”?  Or is this kind of concession to ‘pragmatism’ precisely the kind of insidious materialism for which arts education should serve as a balance for?

I imagine it’s all situational, and there are no easy answers. But we should all remember that each student who passes through our doors has a long, curvy road ahead of them, and what we want(ed) for ourselves is not necessarily what they will want for themselves. Ultimately, we each have to figure these things independently, over time, through trial and error.

In conclusion, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from another musician whose talent was dwarfed by his own misanthropy:

“New York is all right if you like saxophones.”
-Lou Reed

Portrait of the artist as a (naive, uncynical) young man. (First row, far right)

Living the dream! Playing an NYC jazz club: making $50 and paying back $20 of that for two beers.