Ultimate Liberty, Ultimate Fun

Later this month I will pay a visit to Chicago’s Harold Washington Library. It holds nine floors of books, with one whole floor devoted to literature. I’ll have to restrain myself from adding thousands of titles to my to-read list. This confronts me with something that faces every art aficionado eventually: Art takes more time than I have. I will never read all these books, and it’s the same with my own writing–the projects in my head vastly outnumber the actual hours I can spend on them.

The sentiment is an old one. Hippocrates said, “Ars longa, vita brevis.” Longfellow translated this, “Art is long, time is fleeting.” Some artists, like Grace Paley in a Paris Review interview, take this to mean that art is not the only thing they want to give their time to. Others take it to mean “life is short, but art endures.” Taking the translations together, a quandary arises: Art’s endurance makes it seem worthy of life’s time, but life is short and life is more than art.

Photo: David B. Thomas

Ron Thomas has been producing and recording original jazz and classical music since the 60s.  This enables him to look back over a strong musical legacy and forward to work ahead, and to comment on the relationship between art and time.

In terms of work already accomplished, Thomas has released eleven albums. If you begin to talk shop with him, you’ll discover he knew John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen. In 1964, when Stockhausen was Visiting Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Thomas studied with him (or, as he puts it, “became glue on Stockhausen”).  Thomas teaches piano and composition with “a full, full heart,” he says. “It’s full-throated teaching.” He writes essays on aesthetics, musical theory, teaching, and more. If you visit him, I promise you won’t leave without a new book or photocopy in hand, fodder for new art.

His music is at once ethereal and comforting.  It delves into imaginative, cerebral themes—Blues for Zarathustra is the title of his 2008 collaboration with Paul Klinefelter, and 2003’s Scenes from a Voyage to Arcturus explores David Lindsay’s novel A Voyage to Arcturus.

In thinking of work ahead, Bartόk’s life and music have been on Thomas’s mind, and he hopes this will inspire new music drawn from the new experiences this stage in his life is presenting.

Pacing and Discipline

Working with an art form for several decades has given him a good sense of pacing. “I’ve never thought of composing as something I have to do every day,” he tells me over one of his four or five cups of coffee for the day. Instead, he laughs, “My craft is all designed for this total freedom that I seem to need.”

He doesn’t force himself to compose for long swaths of time every day, nor even necessarily every day. His creative routine is much more exuberant than that.  He believes that even though it may often make the artist sweat, his artistic process needs to bend away from “negative stress” and instead capture “ultimate liberty and ultimate fun.”

The one rule he does set for himself is not to end a work session with something questionable.  He has to reach the point where he can pick up from where he left off.  When he writes something good, though, he says to himself, “That’s it for the day,” and then, he says, “I go and jump around the room.  There’s only so much creativity I have in me. I don’t want to drain it dry.”

In writing classes, my professors always told aspiring writers, “Write every day.”   They advised this, I’m sure, because once we’d left the rigor of academic deadlines, who knows what non-artistic deadlines would swallow our days whole?

“But do you want to write every day?” Thomas asks me.  He has a good ear for artistic anxiety.

“Partly,” I say, “I enjoy giving myself this gift of time, and partly, I feel like I have to do this if I want to be a good writer.”

“I would drop the one that says ‘I must do this every day if I am going to be a good writer.’”

Photo: David B. Thomas

When it comes to being disciplined as an artist, Ron Thomas remembers that “it’s a discipline of the imagination,” and he leaves room for discovery.  His musical craft is “all about spontaneity. I want my music to be totally fresh. Maybe ‘alive’ is a better word.”

He believes that work born of surprise and joy is the ars longa, the work that endures.

Time and Detachment

This kind of art may be spontaneous, but it takes a great deal of freedom and space to cultivate, so that even when an artist is not making art, art might still be in the making. “You need to digest things,” says Thomas. Whenever he says “you need to,” his tone holds recommendation, more like let yourself do this.

Taking time to digest life and to let other art forms sink in means cultivating some detachment from the artistic work.  Feeling time pressure can push artists to compose too frequently, at a faster pace than new inspiration actually comes.  Thomas relates the story of painter Joan Mirό standing in front of his canvas for hours on end as idea after idea would come.  Mirό would stand and the ideas would flow, but he would not paint. When he’d accrued several really good ideas, then he would begin to paint them. “You should reject some things,” Thomas advises.

Similarly, Picasso’s pattern, says Thomas, “if a painting resisted completion because of some undetectable formal flaw, was to find the wonderful thing in that work and then destroy it.”  This would yield a breakthrough, “and the final form would come successfully: the one wonderful thing to which he was too emotionally attached” was setting the whole piece off balance.   People asked Picasso, “But what happens to the wonderful thing?” And Picasso would answer, “It comes back.”  Thomas  repeats, “It comes back.”

This holds true for Thomas’s own work. He has stumbled across fragmentary work he’d composed and abandoned fifteen years ago and been able to incorporate it. This perspective frees him to compose and reject, knowing that his process is fluid.

Competition and Hurry

His process not only banishes critics but also takes a gracious and realistic approach to competitors. Competition can easily add a sense of hurry and negative stress to the artistic process. He remembers his father saying that an artist’s only competition is with himself or herself.

“If I thought too much about Stravinsky and Miles Davis, I wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning. How could you possibly be in competition with them? It’s ridiculous!”

As a teacher, too, he dismisses thoughts of competition, favoring instead the saying, “Poor is the pupil who does not surpass his master.”

The Sound of Time and the Voice of the Artist

Even as he discusses his process, Thomas keeps perspective: what works for him won’t work for everyone. The discipline of art, he says, is not universal.  “Unilateral rules are counter-productive.  I have tricks to keep myself from thinking too much about the seriousness of what I’m doing so I don’t get too nervous about it, but you have to select and reject the tricks you will use. As long as it’s legal, and as long as it works for you.”

Thomas urges artists to find their own voices among the clamor of critics and voices that tell them what they “have” to do as artists.  What works for one may not work for another.  It’s true, too, that the voices that remind artists about time and tasks to be accomplished can become part of the chorus of critics.  They smack of the practical yet disciplinary reminders “Be back by midnight” or “Hurry up, you’ll be late.”  Hippocrates himself can thus become no more than a disgruntled adult, saying, “Kid, you haven’t got all day.”

So, if it helps you, listen to the tock of clock-hands or the screech of clockwork gears.  From this sound, find focus.  Hear, too, the tumble of future piano keys.  Trust that even though life is fleeting, the days allotted are enough, and in them, find space to enjoy the freedom and fun of the art that has been given to you.

Classical What?!

Hello, I’m Kevin. It’s a pleasure to meet you.

I’m sorry, it’s loud in here, you asked what I do? I’m a saxophonist.

Excuse me? Oh, uh, I play some jazz. But probably not well enough to go toe-to-toe with the heavyweights that play here in New York. I did my master’s degree in classical saxophone, at KU.

No, no, not Kentucky – Kansas.As in 2008 NCAA Basketball Championship winning Jayhawks. . . Anyway, I trained to play classical saxophone, primarily.

Don’t apologize, most people don’t know some saxophonists play classical music.

Do I play with the symphony? No, no. We are rarely welcome on the symphonic stage, except for every orchestra’s annual Gershwin concert. Even then, some bass clarinetist will usually pick up his old saxophone and hack through the chart. Most classical saxophone performances are soloists with piano, or often saxophone quartets. Sometimes composers will “spice up” a new piece with a dash of classical sax.But really there aren’t too many opportunities for the performance of classical saxophone music.

I still love to play classical saxophone.

Which really means that I sit in my Jersey City apartment every day and practice music so alien to nearly everyone Ithat I’ve had that conversation more times than I’ve actually performed the music about which I mumbled.It means I’ve rehearsed innumerable hours in an unknown, unheralded saxophone quartet, with three other young saxophiles just like me whohave just as much trouble describing our colossal anonymity, only to end up disbanding.

Clarinetists, trumpeters, pianists, guitarists, conductors, bassoonists, percussionists: the whole lot of you don’t know how easy you have it.

True, the competition for an orchestra job has gotten such that if your shoelace hits the floor during an audition, you’re immediately hired so they can fire you right there on the spot;but, at least you were standing in a line waiting to get hired/fired from a job that involves playing the instrument you laboriously slaved over while chain smoking your social skills into the ground in an asbestos-walled practice room during college.We wait in line to get hired bagging groceries, because if we get asked to “play Kenny G” at another wedding, there’s a real sh**storm coming.

I can understand why so many classical musicians don’t have much respect for or awareness of the existence of classical saxophonists. We don’t gush over their artistic genius and weep with them when they have to play Beethoven’s Ninth again. I don’t feel bad for anyone who can say “I’m a violinist,” and be met with “oh, that’s lovely,” instead of, “do you play hardcore death violin?” Playing violin needs no clarification, no drawn out analogies to the vacant stares of strangers.

I can think of only a few other fields where confusion ensues upon statement of profession: philosopher, geneticist, human rights advocate. Fortunately for those highly educated individuals who are also asked to explain their day-to-day dealings, they have either mental superiority or moral uprightness on their side. In other words, the befuddled acquaintance is either intimidated by their sheer genius, or ashamed that they could really give little more than a crap about anyone else in the world.

Classical saxophonists lose on both counts.We can’t intimidate by either intelligence or shame, and so we are left with the soulless embodiment of our culture’s interest in what we do standing there, wondering why we continue to be allowed to use up valuable oxygen. And with all hot air we blow . . . I can see why.

Let me help you take a few steps into the world of classical saxophone:

The Devil’s Horn
For half of a century, hundreds of saxophonists pursuing their doctoral degrees have composed hundreds of obligatory dissertations on the history of the saxophone. You can imagine the arid reading.
The Devil’s Horn: The Story of the Saxophone, from Noisy Novelty to King of Cool
by Michael Segell stands in pleasurable contrast. Segell’s journalistic writing is crisp and insightful. Its relatively short and yet tumultuous history makes the saxophone one of the most interesting instruments about which to read. Segell distills the most compelling and bizarre narratives about the saxophone’s invention and rise in popularity to the king of instruments in the mid-twentieth century. Plus, he tells the whole tale, including great tidbits about the saxophone’s classical heritage. A great read. (You can hear Segell interviewed on NPR here.)

Branford Marsalis might be the biggest name in classical saxophone – even though he’s a jazz player. Marsalis has twice made good classical saxophone recordings. They are not great, but they are good.He has developed a deep respect for the tradition and difficulty of playing classical saxophone.Branford, who has already risen to the top of the jazz/pop saxophone world, recently started studying with classical saxophone giant and professor at the University of Texas at Austin, Harvey Pittel, in order to better approach and perform the classical repertory.

His first classical record, Romances for Saxophone, was released in 1986 and is a little schmaltzy and hyper-romantic, but a pleasant listen. Only in his twenties when he recorded this record, his youth and inexperience with the genre shows in the style of his playing, but is one of the few recordings of classical saxophone that has even one toe in the mainstream.

The second record, Creation, has been keeping Marsalis busy since its release in 2001.He performs some of the great pieces in the classical saxophone repertory and does so with a maturity not present in his earlier work.However, it was the live performances of this CD, recorded with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, that spurred him to accept Pittel’s invitation to study the classical side of the instrument.This a great recording, and perhaps the classical saxophone’s only other foray out of the institution and into culture.

Purists, and others interested in delving into the mysterious world of the classical saxophone, should try exploring Marcel Mule, Joe Allard, Eugene Rousseau, Donald Sinta, Harvey Pittel, Vince Gnojek, Sigurd Rascher, Jean-Marie Londeix, Claude Delangle, Nobuya Sugawa, and Timothy McCallister.

Now I would like to officially welcome you to the world of classical saxophone. We the musicians thank you for taking the time to get to know us, and hope that you’ll come back soon.

And best part is that next time you meet one of us, you can impress us by asking if we play jazz or classical.

I promise we’ll appreciate it.

Boffo Socko Jaco

Let’s start like this. Can you name any professional bass guitarists?


And, how many recordings made by those bass guitarists do you have?

Good. Good.

If you could name one or two bassists, you have every musician’s respect and appreciation. If you could name a few, and own some of their recordings, you have our most sincere admiration. If you could name more than a handful and own their recordings, you should write the remainder of this column.Because in all likelihood you already own – and dig heavily – the record that sets my fingers to these keys.

Album available on Amazon.com.

I don’t know many musicians, if any, who do not recall with jaw-slacking stupor the first time they heard Jaco Pastorius play his Fender Jazz Bass (which he painstakingly customized by removing its frets, wood-filling the subsequent gashes, and applying coat upon coat of epoxy).

He played like no other had played before him. He changed a generation of players. He played jazz, funk, pop. He played with Joni Mitchell, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, David Sanborn; he was a pioneer of electric bass playing. So much could – and deserves – to be said about this complicated man, this artist. Yet, it’s impossible for me to summarize here the complex and tragic life that was Jaco’s. And not just because his wiki entry has more potholes than the 405. (Actually, I have no idea if the 405 has potholes or not. I’ve never even been to L.A.The 405 is in L.A., right? Well, whatever. I think you’ll still hang with the analogy.)

The words that describe his life form a perfect stereotype of “artist”: genius, friend, husband, alcohol, drugs, anger, bipolar, human, loving son, early death.There swirl around his greatness many stories of dubious authenticity. So, it’s hard to say what can really be said about him. Even his biography is considered a sham by some, and I’m not sure that that accusation is all that accurate, either.

What I can write about Jaco is really something that, well, was written by the great Pat Metheny. (And, in case you don’t know who that is-he’s really important.)

From the liner notes for the reissue of Jaco’s debut album:

Jaco Pastorius may well have been the last jazz musician of the 20th century to have made a major impact on the musical world at large. Everywhere you go, sometimes it seems like a dozen times a day, in the most unlikely places you hear Jaco’s sound; from the latest TV commercial to bass players of all stripes copping his licks on recordings of all styles, from news broadcasts to famous rock and roll bands, from hip hop samples to personal tribute records, you hear the echoes of that unmistakable sound everywhere. –Pat Metheny

As with all really great artists though, getting to know him is really a matter of getting know his art. It is a matter of hearing him speak to us and tell us his story in every note and every gesture that emanates from the instrument that became a part of him. That is one way the truly great ones emerge from a crowd of excellent peers. The don’t simply wear their axe. They don’t just put it on and take it off. They are one with their instrument. There isn’t a point at which the man stops and his instrument begins. This was Jaco.

Album available on Amazon.com.

Like all greats, he raised the bar – both of the possibilities of the instrument, but also of the music itself and those that played with him. He made other players better players by his presence. And when on those rare occasions greats come together, each in their prime, something magical happens. Jaco’s album The Birthday Concert stands out as one of those special moments in music history.

In the winter of 1981, Jaco threw a surprise birthday concert for himself, gathering a superstar-studded cast of musicians for a performance that, praise God, was recorded. Here’s the a short list of behemoths that shared the stage that night: Bob Mintzer, Michael Brecker, Don Alias, Peter Erskine,Othello Molineaux, and others. I realize that unless you’re a jazz aficionado, you might not know many of these names, but it’s like saying that Kurt Cobain, Bono, Madonna, The Boss, and Eric Clapton played a concert for and with Stevie Wonder. And, since Jaco, Michael Brecker, and Don Alias are all no longer with us, the magnitude of this night looms.

The evening begins with the palpable anticipation of an audience that knows what is about to come. Before a note is played, we hear Jaco address the audience: “Good evening everybody. I’d like to say hello to my mother.” Ten seconds later the count begins. “One, two, three. Two, two” CRACK . . . and Soul Intro blasts off. Think Saturday Night Live, minus everyone save the band – to the tenth power. Mintzer squeals and screams and squeezes more funk from his tenor saxophone than one thought possible, until finally Jaco fully takes the reigns with a bass line so hair-raising it makes Rogaine look like a Flintstones vitamin. At this point we are fully into The Chicken, a tune with whaling solos by two saxophoning giants and a groove so fat it should have its own zip code.It’s the kind of tune that sends you into a funky stride embodiment of 70s John Travolta no matter where you are.(Save maybe funerals. And why are you listening to soul/funk/jazz during a funeral anyway.Have some decency.)

Check out this YouTube video of Soul Intro/The Chicken (from 1982).

After listening to The Chicken anywhere from two to ten times, we move on to hear the essence of Jaco’s playing in the floating and mysterious, Continuum. Harmonics, chords and strong melodic movement don’t usually characterize bass playing, but Jaco derives much of his distinctive style from them. This cut also brings an opportunity to soak in the sound of Jaco’s axe and his unique array of equipment. His tone is unmistakable and here we really get to know it best.

Every track brings gem after gem; from the lilting waltz Three Views from a Secret, to the exotic Reva, to the Stan Kentonesque Domingo. From start to finish, this record delivers. I’ve often heard a complaint about instrumental music; that it’s monotonous without lyrics, that eventually it gets boring and backgroundish. This album offers a rebuttal fit for John Grisham; a vibrant diversity of musical elements that appeals even to those who aren’t drawn to “jazz.” It’s a piece of history; a glimpse into the heart and soul of one man’s passion and genius – of his love for music.

So, whether or not you end up grabbing this disc from your local record shop, the big chain store putting your local shop out of business, or an online megastore putting both of them six feet under, you can at least name one more bass guitarist than when we began.Unless of course, you were already savvy to Jaco and own this record – in which case, be glad I reminded you to blow the dust off that old CD, load it onto your MP3 player of choice and strut your funky stuff.