"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy
Sunday, July 24, 2016
One of the misguiding notions about being a free-lance jazz musician is that the actions which increase our financial capital also increases our artistic capital. In the short term they do compliment each other, however, in the long term they yield very different results.
First, let me differentiate between the two. Financial capital pertains to funds available to acquire things. Nurturing your financial capital results in having more money to go into your pocket. Whereas, artistic capital tends to mean richer music rather than a richer bank account.
One of the personal demons that I sometimes wrestle with are the inner struggles that surface when I do sideman gigs--particularly ones where I'm not presented as an equal collaborator nor am I hired to do what I do. You know, the kinds of gigs where your identity gets lost in non-inclusive band names such as the John Doe Quartet or the Jane Diaz Trio, and your name isn't John Doe or Jane Diaz.
Developing artistic capital can be a difficult course of action to be committed too, since it doesn't always translate into money, or at least as not as much money one can demand as a popular side person. And it’s no mystery that leaders often have to pay to have their music performed--particularly those who are taking the more difficult path of developing something original.
Personally speaking, I have the good fortune of having a full-time teaching gig, so my financial capital and artistic capital remain different entities. Typically I don't have to take gigs to pay the bills. Of course, every little bit helps. But, in general, I can afford to be more selective, and make sure that I'm constantly investing in my artistic capital and not skewing that with the financial.
I've seen numerous musicians who've tried to cash in some of their artistic capital, so to speak, only to realize that they've invested in it very little throughout their careers. And it's not even something you even notice until it's almost too late. You'll look back several years into your career and you've realized that neither your name nor your music has a brand. And why would it? A brand often requires us to project an image of very narrow confines. And many are not willing to make that kind of sacrifice. I’ve known a few musicians who’ve just decided one day that it’s time for them to get paid. For no other reason than they’ve been out here for a long time.
Often times what makes us employable does not lead us to invest in our artistic capital, which is where our branding is born. Being a sought after side person requires you to be musically adaptable, able and willing to play many styles and genres. And this is a good thing. However, in many cases, it's more of an investment in your financial capital than your artistic. Quite frankly, you're more likely helping someone invest in his or hers. Again, this is not a bad thing. In fact, it's admirable. I wish I were better at it. But my point is that we should have a clear understanding of how our time is really being spent. Investing in your musicianship does not always translate into investing in your artistic vision. They sometimes work against each other. If you're constantly preparing for someone else's music, that's time you're not investing in your own. In economics they call this opportunity costs. This is “a benefit, profit, or value of something that must be given up to acquire or achieve something else.”
My situation is more extreme than most. My creative efforts have been channeled towards solo saxophone performance. And it's not so much that I desire to play alone. The dynamic range, textural flexibility and sonic space that I'm afforded allows me to better negotiate the delicate set of nuances that are available to me when playing solo. Having the option to play at mezzo piano and pianissimo dynamic levels makes a huge difference in the kind of sonic language I can draw from.
Some of my favorite players are usually not the most versatile ones, but the ones who have a very singular vision. By them having a very narrow creative ambit, their artistic intent becomes clearer. I wouldn't want to hear Thelonious Monk play bossa novas and jazz rock. I only want to hear him play Monk. In other professions being a specialist is revered through peer and financial recognition. Most brain surgeons are better paid than the average family doctor. Brain surgeons are recognized for their expertise in a targeted area. They don't need to dabble in pediatrics or oncology. The world greatly benefits from their narrow focus.
And I'm not one of these musicians with an over-inflated sense of the importance of my work. What I do is important to me and maybe a handful of others, which is fine. The world is flooded with aesthetically neutral musical concepts targeted at the middle. If someone nurtures a concept that appeals to only a few otakus (obsessed fans) it would probably be a breath of fresh air. What most don't realize about these otaku-types who are on the creative fringes are actively seeking out sources of inspiration. They’re not most likely to find them on the covers of Downbeat and JazzTimes. Not unless they been on the fringes for so long that they've reached iconic status. I'm talking about the Cecil Taylors and Anthony Braxtons of the world.
I’m not advocating that we all stop playing with other people and that everyone should only play their own music. That would be insane. And boring. But we should realize how our time is actually being invested. Playing in someone’s band for five years is five years you’re not immersed in your own vision. And unfortunately, simply being immersed in ones vision cannot pay the bills. So as you can see, it’s a slippery slope. But I’ve learned over the years that if your artistic vision is important enough to you, you will invest in it. You’ll have no other choice. It would be a matter of spiritual survival.
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