One jazz hand
in high art, one in the wood chips
One of the attractive aspects of going out to clubs to hear live music has always been,
for me, a matter of watching craftsmen at work -- en passant. Anyone who ever has toured a
historical site knows the fondness tour guides have for displaying the daily routines of
life in, say, the 16th century, and showing the tourists what it meant, for example, to
thatch a roof. The tourist can watch the work go wrong and
observe how the craftsman approaches the immediate problem of production.
By the same token, all the music lovers I know prefer live music to florid recorded
performances. Ask anyone old enough to know, and he'll tell you how even a drug- and
alcohol-addled Charlie Parker could mesmerize an audience even on a bad night. That same
old-timer also will excoriate the recordings of Parker with strings, a syndrome that, in
my experience, always has been totally predictable.
The level of criticism of recordings that are too slick is most stinging among musicians
themselves, who, paradoxically, can forgive the clinkers they hear in a live setting while
looking deeper into a performance for its aesthetic soul. The sensibility that musicians
bring to live performance is grounded somewhere in their own understanding of how the
performing artist -- constrained as he is by the necessity of making his art on the spot
-- can turn a mistake into an opportunity.
And how is this done? In the woodshed, my friends.
People like me, who are cursed with a dual loyalty to words and music and who make their
livings with words, are often fascinated by the special vocabulary that attends any of the
arts. And here I do not mean jargon, but, rather, slang.
A word of explanation: I worked through college, where I studied English literature, as a
musician and, as a corn-fed Midwestern boy of the U.S.A., was fascinated by the lingo I
encountered among the musicians of Boston, where I attended school. It was a natural fit,
and fond memories of the discoveries of the working musician's culture persist.
One of the enduring impressions is of the identification of indigenous American music --
jazz, folk, even rock 'n' roll -- with the acts of production, if my readers will forgive
so odious a term applied to art. I came to understand the artistic production that
requires labor; production that requires creative thinking; production that requires the
skills to act immediately.
And one of the most fascinating discoveries a word man can make is how closely identified
with good, honest physical labor is jazz.
Let us take, for example, the closest association a musician can have: the one with his
instrument. And how does the jazz musician refer to this constant companion? He calls it
his "axe." Despite the fact that his instrument is more than a mere tool, it is
still utilitarian. A simple "axe."
And what does the musician perfect after he masters his axe? His "chops,"
naturally. And where does he do this? In the "woodshed."
I've long been fascinated by this identification of producing art with the basic chopping
metaphors that are woven throughout musicians' slang. The image of a master musician on
the order of John Coltrane taking his "axe" to the "woodshed" to hone
his "chops" is so familiar that I wonder how it grew.
I like to think it has to do with native, rather than formally trained, talent. Music is
man's gift to himself. And it is appropriate that the casual attention we pay to it is
grounded in the labors of getting, consuming and keeping our families comfortable, quite
beyond the boundaries of mere enjoyment or recreation.
All working musicians I know have played many a gig when the spotlight just wasn't enough,
when the baby had pneumonia, when the wolfish landlord was slavering at the door for the
overdue rent on an apartment wherein the cupboard was bare. But his hands -- reminiscent
of the rough hands of the roof-thatcher or the truck farmer or the delicate ones of Red
Garland or Count Basie -- produced for him, yet again, the means to both pay the rent and
exult in beauty. There the beleaguered musician stands, wood chips all over his trousers,
triumphant in his creation.
That's about the best gig a human can have.