Saturday, November 15, 2014

Help Is On The Way

Image courtesy of This is one of the many movie posters made for the 1965 Richard Lester film with the Beatles called Help! To a practiced eye, there are significant differences between this poster and the Capitol Records soundtrack album cover, e.g., the exclamation point has been removed from the film's title and added to the tagline. The greatest difference is in the sequence of the Beatles positions atop the letters--which would be a big goof if their semaphore signal poses were intended to spell out "H-E-L-P," as is commonly believed. But it turns out the photographer, Robert Freeman, decided the positions for the letters "N-U-J-V" made a better design than the semaphore poses for "H-E-L-P." The artwork for the American Capitol Records LP switched the positions of the Liverpool Lads again from Freeman's original concept to now spell "N-V-U-J." There, don't you feel better knowing that?

I have a personal confession to make. Seriously.  If confessions make you laugh uncomfortably, that’s okay. This one makes me laugh sometimes, too—whenever it isn’t making me weep for joy.

I’m a writer. Not a blogger. Not a music journalist. Not a jazz advocate. Not a social crusader. Not a champion of the arts.

It is true that as a writer, I assume all those guises at different times because of the very fact that what I love to do most is write about what I care about. When musicians hire me to write liner notes or others hire me to write for projects for them, I try to choose things I care about (or want to learn to care about), because I know these are opportunities for me to do good work.  When I care very much about current world events, I enjoy writing about them in my blog. I also care very much about music and the positive effect it has on the world—as a teenager I seriously considered studying classical music theory and performance and making it my life’s work… which conflicted with my ongoing years spent in pursuing the visual arts. I wanted to do big things. My later activities as a champion of the arts, social reformer, journalist, and editor for the world’s biggest online jazz publication, all eventually led me to the conclusion that the way to best accomplish every one of them was through doing what I liked best, writing.

My Great American Novel

Here is the heart of my confession. Late last year I discovered that what I like to write most is several hundred words a day on a project that no one has yet had a chance to read. What I like—love—to write most, is the next page or two of a novel I began working on a few years ago. From time to time over the last few years, I would go back to it and work away feverishly, only to be distracted by any and all of life’s myriad concerns. But a funny thing happened. I reached a tipping point, a stage in the story’s development at which my fictional characters started talking to me. My characters were collaborating with me. If I made one of them say something that he would never say, or do something he would never do, he’d object. Suddenly, everything I care most about was given a loud voice and a place to say it. Everything.

So when I take the time to work on anything else, whether for a client who is paying me for my time, for a magazine article, or for my blog Jazz (Jazzers Jazzing), I try to make it count. Because whether it is helping me to pay the bills or not, it means spending time away from the work I am itching to get back to.

It also means that, while I once used Jazz (Jazzers Jazzing) exclusively as a place to talk about—and solicit opinions about—jazz, and “Directions in Music” as Miles Davis described his revolutionary work on Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970), I have recently been using it as an outlet for talking about other things that concern me. And beginning soon, any day now, another significant change is coming to Jazz (Jazzers Jazzing)

Love Is All You Need

My second-most favorite thing to do in life is to read. Everything from Shakespeare’s plays to Ray Bradbury’s poetry to Bruce Fergusson’s fiction to William Strunk/E.B. White’s sage advice on the craft of writing. But when it comes to reading other people’s commentaries about music, not so much.

Somehow, the bulk of music writing has become irrelevant. And unread. A typical review is a humorless porridge of hyperbole, filled with shopworn adjectives and tortured metaphors. Why waste your time reading it when you could be doing something useful, like making a sandwich? The state of music journalism could easily be ascribed to the utter irrelevance of much of the music being produced, but that is an excuse, and a poor one. There is still a lot of good music to write about. The seven billion unpaid (mostly) reviewers working for Amazon, or elsewhere in the trenches of Web 2.0, have certainly diluted the writing pool, but even the bulk of the stuff on professional sites lacks that mysterious element that keeps you turning the page, or clicking the “Next” button at the bottom of the screen. It’s dull reading.

Back in the heyday of music journalism, writers like Ralph Gleason and Leonard Feather and Nat Hentoff, et al., set a truly high standard for jazz criticism. Cameron Crowe, P.J. O’Rourke and Lester Bangs did the same for rock and roll. But the standard they set isn’t an unattainable standard at all. What has changed is that a great number of people writing about music now aren’t really writers. Worse than that, the people minding the store don’t seem to include any of the editors needed by these wannabe writers to fix them up. What’s left is an island populated with a cadre of good writers who do a decent job of self-editing… and from island’s shore to the horizon it’s a veritable sea of crap.

Whilst contemplating my role in all this—my own personal responsibility for how the world of music journalism has turned to shit—it occurred to me that I had recently read insightful, well-written music commentary from some writers I know, people with track records of style, humor, and a developed sense of journalistic professionalism. Not coincidentally, all are personal friends. It’s a funny thing with writers. Incompetent boobs who are in competition with you and making more money, or getting more work published, are objects of scorn. But damn, when you meet someone who can write his or her ass off, it’s love.

One thing led to another. Mutual admiration. A love of music (all kinds). A desire to write something so damn good that it makes your eyes water. Boredom with the same old crap. I extended the invitation to them and they all RSVP’d.

Meet the new Jazz (Jazzers Jazzing).

The writers who are going to start contributing to this blog will be introduced as is useful and appropriate. Their names will appear in their individual bylines, of course. We can work on a short one- or two-line bio for each, but they will likely want to simply be known by their work. I am really looking forward to introducing you to these writers, and the others who will follow.

Our first motto: Music is music. Jazz, blues, rock, pop, classical, avant-garde, klezmer, comb, “other”, all of them count!

Our second motto: No more dull music writing!

Our third motto: Reading about music is fun!

Our fourth motto: Anything you can do in connection with music—reading, writing, cooking and eating food, quaffing craft beer or sipping California wine, playing sports, falling in love, having sex—all are potential topics for music writing!

Our fifth motto: The more mottos, the better!

Well, Love Is Almost All You Need

One last thing, another confession: I lied earlier. I am certainly a writer, but I am also a blogger. And a music journalist. And a jazz advocate, a social crusader, and as it happens, a very pissed-off champion of the arts. If you are a writer about music and haven’t been out of the house lately (it happens all the time), the worlds of music recording and performance, and particularly songwriting, are in serious trouble. There will be much more to report on this in coming weeks and months, but if the decline in CD sales and rapid consumer movement to streaming services continues at the rate it has been, without some adjustment of current royalty schedules with ASCAP and BMI, Don McLean is going to have to write American Pie, Vol. II, including a new version of “Vincent” for all the songwriters who decide jumping off a bridge is preferable to living through the day the music actually dies for good.  
Spotify and Pandora are the new faces of Napster. Theft is theft. Whether there are laws sanctioning or preventing it is irrelevant. These services have managed to convince themselves that their business models can operate without the messy problem of paying the songwriters who create the music they are flogging. Taken to its logical conclusion, their plundering approach will at some point very soon—if it hasn’t already—deprive all the affected songwriters of any substantial royalties, and eventually starve them out of existence. At which point, all these pathetic vultures will have to offer is old music written by people who have died or moved on.

For you students of Twentieth Century music, remember the Beatles and their historical Magical Mystery tour of 1960-1970? Amongst musicians, jazzers and otherwise, it is widely understood that the era of the Beatles is what changed everything. Certainly there were many, many other musicians who had an enormous impact on the world around them. But not like the Beatles. I can remember where I was the first time I heard Abbey Road, but the thing that makes my memory so significant is that Béla Fleck can remember where he was when he heard it for the first time, too. So can Stanley Clarke. So can George Benson. So can John (and Bucky) Pizzarelli. So can you.

For anyone who was around to see it happen (or anyone who can see or hear adequately right now) the impact on this civilization of the Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show is right in there with NASA landing a man on the moon.

Now consider what life in the second half of the Twentieth Century would have been like if the John Lennon and Paul McCartney hadn’t come along—it’s like imagining what life would have been like if Mozart hadn’t come along, only worse (I’m kidding) (sort of). Can you imagine it? Really? Because I can’t.

If you haven’t read Fahrenheit 451 or watched It’s A Wonderful Life recently, now would be a good time. Our actions and inactions have an impact on all that follows in our wake. Even a brief study of history reveals that all the different conditions in the world are the result of an endless series of causes and effects. One thing leads to the next in a chain of events. Nothing you see today was pre-determined, but in many ways it could have been predicted. If, due to music licensing laws and regulations, Lennon and McCartney had been unable to make enough in songwriting royalties to keep the Beatles fed and clothed, it is unlikely the famous London club scene of the 1960s would have flourished to the extent that Dave Holland ended up playing a regular gig at Ronnie Scott’s club, where Miles Davis saw him and extended the invitation to come to New York when Bitches Brew was recorded. Without Holland’s startling transformation in moving from acoustic bass to electric, Miles might not have felt the need to hire the brilliant electric guitarist John McLaughlin for the session, and McLaughlin might never have gone on to make Birds of Fire (Columbia, 1973).

A couple weeks ago, Taylor Swift announced she was pulling all her music from Spotify. To a cynical jazz fan, a spoiled millionaire pop star making a public statement might seem like gratuitous grandstanding.  But three days ago, as Google was preparing to launch its own YouTube monster death star subscription service, Music Key, to compete with Spotify and Pandora in the music streaming racket, industry titan Irving Azoff announced that he was poised to take the libraries of 42 of his clients out of the running—artists such as John Lennon, Pharrell Williams, the Eagles, Smokey Robinson, George and Ira Gershwin—unless Google ignores the ASCAP/BMI model and renegotiates higher songwriting royalty rates for his clients.

There’s hope. Maybe we could make it cool to buy CDs or LPs or downloads again, instead of stealing them like abandoned shopping carts to support our humble lifestyles.

 Let’s keep the music alive.

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