Two scenes from contemporary life in and around jazz, April 9 and 10, 2010:
Last night I made a pilgrimage to the Knickerbocker Bar and Grill on University Place in New York City to hear the remarkable banjoist / singer Cynthia Sayer and the noble pianist Mark Shane. The two large rooms that house the Knickerbocker were crowded, although I found a table near the piano.
Cynthia and Mark played beautifully — mostly up-tempo romps: LINGER AWHILE, WOLVERINE BLUES, YOU ALWAYS HURT THE ONE YOU LOVE, CALIFORNIA HERE I COME, and a sweet stroll through APRIL SHOWERS and a funky boogie-inflected YELLOW DOG BLUES. Cynthia’s single notes hit like gunshots; she slid up and down the fingerboard in chordal glissandos; she kept the rhythm going. Mark, a peerless accompanist and soloist, evoked Wilson and Waller and Flanagan and Hines, all splendidly woven together into Shane.
The volume of conversation was so high that I had to strain to hear the music. At the end of the set, Cynthia said to me, “Gee, I had a hard time hearing myself!” and Mark noted, “The noise level in this room is worse for your ears than gunfire.” People walked so close to Cynthia while she was playing that she had to bend the neck of her banjo back to avoid getting knocked over. Someone accosted her while she was soloing to request a tune; she kept playing and spoke to the inquirer politely.
But it was apparent that almost no one was listening. Perhaps eight people applauded. Perhaps ninety-five percent of the diners didn’t keep quiet, didn’t know that there were live musicians (people!) creating music in front of them, or didn’t care.
I applaud the courage of Cynthia and Mark and their colleagues who keep creating in the face of indifference and noise. I couldn’t do it — when I’m teaching, I ask my students to stop talking and to pay attention. Jazz musicians, cast as “entertainers” at best or an odd version of a large iPod at worst, rarely say, “Would you all have the decency to keep it down a bit?” and I admire their heroism and restraint. I don’t expect a restaurant to become a concert hall, and I do think that people have a right to eat their dinner and talk to their friends. But I wonder who won or lost during that hour of combat between art versus loud self-absorbed talk at the Knickerbocker.
On a more personal note: a writer’s voice is much like his or her speaking voice — individualistic, perhaps idiosyncratic. I saw today’s batch of Google Alerts — one of them for Jo Jones — and began to read a memorial essay on Jake Hanna published on someone else’s blog (call it JAZZ IS FOREVER, not its name). I saw that someone I don’t know had “written” a piece on Jake Hanna, most of which was one I had written, word for word without credit.
I commented on this post politely, pointing out to the blog’s creator that it was not good manners to take someone else’s prose without crediting the writer. I appealed to his courtesy while being courteous; I signed my name, appended my blog information and email address. About eight hours later I returned to my computer and, out of curiosity, clicked on this site. Had the gentleman printed my comment? Had he ignored the whole thing? Had he credited me? None of the above: he had removed my words silently.
Did I win a victory for intellectual property, against online plagiarism, or did I lose the opportunity to have my thoughts on Jake Hanna spread to even more readers — without my name, which frankly means less than honoring Jake?
I know that it matters not if you win or lose; it’s how you play the game. But Cynthia, Mark, and I are trying to play by the rules. It’s not always easy. We keep trying.