necessary; that's why it's precious.
The trouble with many professed admirers of the arts is that they spend too much time
talking about them and not enough time appreciating and being nurtured by and learning
from them. The trouble with many artists is that they are so busy producing art that they
lose perspective on the value of their productions.
Both flaws have a tendency to cheapen art.
I'm not writing of judgments about quality here. The point is much more important than
that. It is, rather, to do with the proper position of the arts in our increasingly busy
A young artist of my acquaintance is a hair's breadth from militancy on the subject.
Because she is so talented, and because she is so inflamed with the creativity that
defines both her work and her personality, it is difficult for her to understand why roses
aren't strewn in her path as she does the mundane things that occupy the rest of us:
buying groceries, doing laundry, changing the oil in the car.
On the other hand, I know a man in his sixth decade of life who loves nothing more than to
proclaim his love of all things "artistic" (what he means by this is beyond his
power to explain, so the meaning has never been clear to me), and then to launch into a
bafflingly esoteric and ultimately eaningless discussion of why Grandma Moses was
important but Norman Rockwell was not.
Jazz fans continually fall into this trap when they congregate. Count the number of times
you've gathered with one or two other lovers of our music to listen to a new recording or
to spend an evening in communion with the jazz greats. Then count the number of times
you've come away from the experience with a head full of theory about the music, but
without a memory of the music you've heard. The numbers will be the same.
The truth is that music, as any of the arts, is not essential, though it is precious. And
here is why:
Consumers set the value of the product. If Vincent van Gogh had been able to control a
market for his work as his make-art descendant, Andy Warhol, was able to do, Vincent would
have died with both his ears, and his heart, intact. Despite the fact that van Gogh was
powerless in the economics of producing art, he produced it, passionately, and died in
poverty. His suffering nurtures my spiritual richness, in satisfaction of an eternal and
mysterious debt levied upon a particular generation to enrich future generations, a debt
borne by artists of all types throughout human history.
Now, if we take it as given that the only requirements for living are the spartan
conditions of getting food, clothing and shelter, one may say, "Well, that's living,
but it isn't LIVING." True enough. So we follow the natural human impulse and give
gifts to ourselves, gifts to provide spiritual sustenance that food cannot supply, gifts
that can feed our nobler impulses, gifts upon which each individual places a personal
value that may or may not comport with the value placed upon them by the mass of men and
women who share an enthusiasm for the gifts.
It is natural that, over time, we have come to expect that music -- indeed, all the arts,
of which music is the greatest -- will lift us out of the spiritual doldrums we all
encounter, just as it is natural that a kind of global service industry that provides
soulful sustenance has grown to prosperity over the long course of human history.
But we have a tendency -- both as artists and as consumers of the arts -- to forget that
the emergence of rhythm and melody and harmony and timbre had roles that could never be
characterized as necessities in the grand scheme of perpetuating the species. The cave
paintings we regard now with such awe as pieces of our prehistoric heritage were done
quite outside the context of hunting and gathering -- that is, not for gain, but to
satisfy the need for expression that afflicts us as a species.
I think about the arts in these terms, and about jazz in particular, because I can't
imagine how different the quality of my daily life would be without the haunting strains
of "'Round Midnight," or "Lush Life," or sans the adventurism of Duke
Ellington or Charlie Parker.
Jazz is precious to us precisely because it is not required for our existence. It does
something more important than keep us alive: it sweetens the experience of life and gives
expression to our passions in such a way that beauty occurs.
That expression is the heaviest of artistic fuel, the fuel that drove John Coltrane and
Jimi Hendrix to fall asleep with their instruments across their chests, that kept van
Gogh's paint-laden brush against the canvas despite his anguish, and that drove that
long-ago cave man to scratch the picture of an animal into the stone wall of his primitive
These acts were not required to live, were not performed for gain, but are far more
precious than gold, and they rise, therefore, far beyond the level of mere recreation and
into the realm of beauty and, therefore, truth.