Art vs. Commerce, The Questions Lingers

I was recently doing an interview when the reporter asked me a question from his editor. The question was “Why do you include those classical adaptations on your CDs?” Hmmm. He must be talking about the Big Phat Band’s versions of the “Bach 2 Part Invention in Dm” and “Mozart’s 40th Symphony in Gm.” Setting aside that imbedded in this question is the editor’s apparent dislike of jazz versions of classical music, (or at least my attempts at them) my response was something along the lines of “I include them because they sound good to me.” And, after all, isn’t that the only appropriate answer? If you are being honest as an artist, that is the only reason to write, perform and record music. You may have other reasons, like “I put that rap song (although I’m not sure if rap “song” a very good description of that genre, to me songs have melodies and bridges and stuff) on the CD so I can sell a lot of units and make money.” I cannot question anybody’s desire to make money. I like money, who doesn’t? But many of us get our financial and artistic concerns all mixed up, so that it’s hard to tell which is motivating us. It’s hard not to be enthusiastic about something that could lead us to material rewards. In my professional activities, I get to hang around and work with some of the best musicians in the world. I see these great musicians routinely sight read very difficult music, and elevate it to great heights. In many cases, greater heights than it may deserve! Sometimes they have to play some really lame, poorly written music! Hey, sometimes I am asked to write incredibly lame and, in my opinion, stupid music. But our job is to make it the best it can be, without complaint. We are well paid to do this, and we deserve every penny, because often, our job description is to play (or write) the music to perfection, and then to schmooze the powers that be and assure them that everything was just so incredible, and the movie, or television show, or the record, will be the BEST EVER! I have seen many musicians, however well paid they are, burn out from the grind, and I have seen some of them lose track of their musical soul –of the reason they started playing in the first place. Conversely, I have observed purist jazz musicians become bitter and frustrated from a long career of trying to practice their art in the face of an indifferent or hostile pop culture. They get tired of having no money, of scraping together every gig, and getting paid a pittance for an art form that has taken a lifetime to master.

It seems to me that the answer lies in balancing your musical life. You must possess a good business sense and pursue opportunities to make a good living, but also carve out and commit a percentage of your time playing music that you believe in. It’s not easy, and there will be many times when the two sides of your musical life will clash. But, things tend to even out in the end, and, in the best of circumstances, you will find yourself playing music that satisfies both masters. Good music and good bucks to boot!

There are many jazz musicians who scoff at any attempt to commercialize their art, and are roundly critical at those musicians that do. The Big Phat Band has its critics who think we are overly accessible, and nobody would mistake our music for Kenny G’s. But I can assure you that every note you hear us play, live and on our recordings, is honest, non-contrived, and heart-felt. We work hard to perform to the highest level we can, and we are gratified when people respond to it. And, if you don’t like the legit stuff, the next tune will likely be quite different!

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