This post grew out of an online conversation with my friend Julio Schwarz Andrade, a fine young musician currently exploring the music of short-lived trumpeter Tony Fruscella. Julio said he found Fruscella both moving and inconsistent, and asked my opinion. I said that Fruscella was one of those musicians elevated to mythic status not only because he could play beautifully (hear his I’LL BE SEEING YOU) but because the jazz audience seems eager to create a posthumous mythography, celebrating behavior they themselves don’t indulge in.
“Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse,” is the philosophy of Studs Lonigan in James T. Farrell’s fiction.
I think it ironic that men and women who pay their bills, have two beers on a Friday night and then stop, wear their seat belts — people who not only espouse all the bourgeois middle-class virtues but live them — are secretly entranced by those who do not or cannot: the OUTLAW, the SUPERNOVA, the ECCENTRIC.
Were I asked by a young jazz musician how to ensure posthumous fame, one answer would be “Practice your instrument so that you play brilliantly, memorably. Learn from those who have gone before you and listen closely on the bandstand.”
But that isn’t always enough to merit a place in the great jazz mythography. So my advice (delivered ironically) might sound like this: “Want to make sure that your life in jazz will be chronicled long after your death? Take heroin; you’re much more interesting if you’re tortured. Die young. Break the law. Be dramatically inconsistent, so that someone narrating the arc of your career can chart your “early beginnings,” “meteoric rise,” “sad end.” Behave in an apparently erratic fashion. Steal someone’s horn; give up hygiene. Cultivate intellectual arrogance; antagonize your fellow players. Avoid the ordinary, the conventional, give up all attempts at social awareness.”
Of course, the musicians and singers I know view these personality traits — echoes of a presumed hipster way of life — with pained skepticism at best. They may see themselves as outsiders, but they prize bourgeois virtues: showing up early for the gig, ready to play, one’s clothes clean, being a professional, knowing the key. They like to work alongside reliable individuals, not those too stoned to play.
But these habits don’t make for dramatic mythography, so they don’t get celebrated.
Although the players and singers who outlived the most famous self-destructive figures in jazz speak with reverence and affection of the dead, it can’t have been easy to deal with these “jazz titans” on the stand. In retrospect, they describe how A stole someone’s horn, how B didn’t bathe, how C broke the plate-glass window; how D nodded off while the band was playing, how E apparently committed suicide through excess of food or drink. Great stories after the fact, but not easy to tolerate in real life. In this century, nonconformity seems expected, and Thoreau still has validity, but is it essential to creative improvisation?
The voyeuristic fascination with the painful details of the lives of some musicians puzzles me. I wonder how many people who see Billie Holiday as an iconic victim have heard more than a few of her performances.
Do some people secretly envy the outlaw his or her defiance, self-destructive boldness? Are prudent listeners enthralled by myths of people who defied everything that was “good” for them because the short lives of their musical heroes make them feel comfortable and secure? Or are others so entranced by the Jazz Martyr, whose life is so deeply focused on the music that all else becomes unimportant?
In a world where people — kindly and sometimes officiously — tell us what to do (get that taillight fixed, lose fifteen pounds, be on time for work) I wonder if some well-behaved people find stories of disobedience vicariously gratifying?
Could we make a case that (for one example) Fats Waller had to behave the way he did — or thought he did — to create the music that lives on after him? EARLY TO BED was the name of his last musical show . . . but a way of life he chose to reject.
Speculating on the inner lives of the people we admire must always be both intriguing and futile: they take their secrets with them. Who among us fully understands what motivates his or her behavior?
I don’t see the doomed-artist mythography diminishing any time soon, as long as readers want to immerse themselves in tales of Outsider rule-breaking. But I wish we could simply listen to the music without getting distracted by the figures we have invented.
Perhaps we could also honor a Barry Harris, a Buck Clayton, an Ed Hall, a Benny Morton, a Joe Wilder, an Eddie Higgins, a Milt Hinton. These players — and so many others — show that one can be a middle-class citizen and a creative improviser. But the bad boys and girls get all the press.
P.S. As a real-life postscript. Last night (Feb. 21, 2012) I went to a new room where a fine jazz trio was playing. Behind me were two “jazz fans,” talking throughout the music about their favorites and when they had discovered each musician. At one point, the conversation about pianists took this turn: “I can’t think of the name of that druggie jazz pianist. Very famous,” (presumably Bill Evans?) and a few songs later, one fan opined to the other, “I liked Chet Baker. But he wasn’t a very nice person. And, you know, he took drugs.”