Life as contest

Currents + | -



I told a friend the other day that now, nearing my sixth decade, I couldn't make my body do what my spirit had never much liked doing all along. He had asked me to record a certain tune for him, and offered to pay me well to do it.

Truthfully, it would have taken about an hour to learn it and record it.

It was a pop tune, and it was not something I particularly liked. It wasn't awful; it just wasn't me. And since we artists and musicians must make a living, we get tempted all the time to just do what ever job comes our way and not think about it. Get that money.

I refused the offer politely and then tried to explain why I couldn't do it. I wound up sounding a bit sanctimonious (to my ears) but it was true: I simply couldn't bring my fingers to play what my heart wouldn't participate in.

I can't speak to what he felt or didn't feel; but I got the feeling that he was a little surprised that I would turn down a good amount of money for what seemed to be such a routine task for a talented musician.

It got me to thinking about the music business and the way that it's perceived by those not in it. A lot of silly misconceptions exist, like famous musicians all live in castles with moats and have boyfriends or girlfriends in every room and eat pheasant under glass and drive fancy sports cars and just hang out with their friends and party all night.

And it seems pretty simple.

You get out on stage, play a few tunes, everybody loves it, and you leave with your $100,000 check and party all night. Or you get driven around in your town car for a while and then you party all night. Or you go to the all-night supermarket and get your favorite junk food and then you party all night.

Now, most people know that most of that is pure myth. But the truth is a bit more egregious.

The truth is that most musicians who work in nightclubs and bars average considerably less than $100 a night for a full 5 hours of music (from 9pm to 2am). The bartender, waiters, and waitresses make more, much more. My gardener makes three times that much (and deserves it). This wage has changed not at all in 25 years.

Some musicians make $50 a night, and most make $75. Those musicians lucky enough to land a steady hotel job in a rich area (such as Monterey, CA) may make $200 per night. That's unusual, and considered excellent pay.

Sorry, folks. The truth is out there (as Agent Mulder was fond of saying) and sometimes it hurts.

And it hurts me too. Don't get the idea that I'm casting any aspersions here. I admire the musicians who work for little or no compensation 'in the trenches'. At least they're making music and turning a few people on to jazz.

I can't cut the wages, the environment, and the attitudes. I get sick and depressed in that 'scene'. That's my problem. But I do admire those musicians.


Many people also believe that no discrimination of any kind exists in the arts, and that Music in particular is dominated by totally evolved, open-minded people.

Some people have the strangest notions.

One man (a retired doctor) recently said to me 'well, all the big shots in the music business are queer, right?'

I said no they weren't, and then I told him I found the 'q' word offensive. Some folks think the word is pretty cool; they say it's 'owning their heritage and taking the power out of the word'... Lenny Bruce did that for years, by the way , using every ethnic slur he could think of to take the power out of this word or that word, going to jail almost every night in San Francisco when he worked at the Purple Onion.

And those same evil words still have the same evil power.

I said that the 'q' word was a little like the 'n' word to me. I said I felt it was degrading, dehumanizing, and archaic. I said that GLBT people (at least the ones that I knew) were people who mainly worried about things like the gas bill and the rent or the mortgage payments, and that they didn't spend their lives in sweaty nightclubs dancing to disco music and going to hot parties like they do on some TV shows.

Once you've been with a partner for 15 or 20 years, you watch DVD's, walk the dog, eat dinner together, do the dishes together, and enjoy each other's company. As you grow old together, you wonder what the fuss is all about, and how your life could be adversely affecting the life of Jack and Jane down the street, who just recently burned a cross on your lawn and blew up your mailbox with a pipe bomb. (Being Black or Jewish or Asian can cause this sort of mild reaction, too.)

I can tell you from experience that most people are pretty decent at the base (if they weren't we all wouldn't be here) but there are institutionalized prejudices that won't go away in our lifetimes, even if we live to be older than Methuselah.


And yes, it's true, regardless of what you've heard; being a woman jazz musician is not easy. A European agent wanted me to play in 'his' country until he found out that I was white and Jewish.

It's always something, as the saying goes.

Ageism is also rampant in the performing arts, and for women it's twice as difficult. Once you hit forty, start thinking 'facelift'.

We are programmed to think in certain ways, and to expect things to look a certain way. We don't expect to see a white Jewish woman playing jazz piano. And if she plays trumpet or drums, she's in for even more trouble!

We are all programmed, and our job is to de-program ourselves until our mind and our heart is as clear as the starry summer sky.

(In South Korea, I boarded a plane piloted by a female captain. She had boarded an hour earlier, because, as was later explained to me by a flight attendant, had she been seen by the passengers, some of them might have objected and refused to board the aircraft. It had become policy for her to board early.)

In music, one would expect a broader mind-set to apply. Not so. Women are expected to 'play the game' a certain way, and board early if necessary.

But when you can't or won't 'play the game'... when you can't get all made up like a cheap painted lady of the night and sing a siren song to the boys in the bar (not because you're not nice looking... it's just that you look cooler at this age dressed like Sigourney Weaver in Alien), when you can't play 'Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head' (not because it's difficult, but because it causes your psoriasis to flare up), when you can't 'hang with the cats' until 6 am (not because they're bad cats, but because you're a recovered alcoholic and you have emphysema from smoking and you don't do any drugs and you're tired, you want to go to bed) and when you can't schmooze with the hot- shot agents (not that you don't know how... you could give schmooze lessons and have offices on Park Avenue, but it seems so... well... so meaningless); when you can't 'play that game', your ability to hustle up work is seriously curtailed.

'Hustle' is such a wicked word.

And 'competition' is right up there with it.

There are those of us who are characterologically incapable of breaking our own (admittedly silly and expensive) rules. We get blamed for being intransigent, stubborn, and self- destructive... and we probably deserve the castigation. Howard Roark was lauded for his intransigence, but that was a book ('The Fountainhead' by musty old Ayn Rand). In life, we're rewarded for being 'producers'...

How much do we own? How many cars and houses do we have? How did we get them? What are we willing to do to buy into the American Dream? Are we willing to give up our beliefs and our core sense of fairness to 'get ahead'? Obviously, for most of us, the answer is yes.

The American Dream doesn't mean much to me anymore. I couldn't play that pop song for my friend, and I can't play in 'joints' anymore. I can't schmooze or kiss butt or 'be what a man wants me to be' anymore. I'm self-defined. I'm me. This is the way it is, and the Music I play now is mine.

Every single note means something to me and I can't play a note that isn't in my heart.

I know that this somewhat limits my prospects for a future in the music business, and I've accepted that.

I like puppies and computers and web design and writing and poetry and friends and truth and natural beauty and freedom and enjoying life without cell-phones.

I enjoy not playing dumb pop songs.

I really love NOT playing 'Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head'. It's one of the tunes that I enjoy NOT playing the most.

Just thinking about NOT playing it is enough to make me smile.


I know a lady, she's my age, and she still 'plays the game' because she's scared that if she stops she'll wind up destitute. She still spends hours getting ready for a performance, fixing her hair, putting her makeup on with a trowel, wearing feather boas... you know the routine.

It's like that scene in 'Whatever Happened to Baby Jane' where you see a close-up of Bette Davis and her face looks like the surface of Mars.

It's just not us, all that war paint. We get old, and our age makes us beautiful if we let it.

There sure are things I do NOT like about getting old, but most of it is an increase in freedom and a decrease in time spent looking 'right'. Once I forgot to put on my shoes for a performance at the Kennedy Center, and found myself on-stage in my bedroom slippers. Someone remarked in amazement, 'are they bedroom slippers?!' and I looked down and darned if he wasn't right. They were bedroom slippers, no doubt about it. And without missing a beat I said 'next year it's the bathrobe, too.'

That's pretty much how I feel now about competition. I have a lot of thoughts going on right now (and probably a lot of rage, at least enough to keep several psychologists in bagels for years) and one thought is that competition is killing us. It's turning us into mean little critters. It's about power. Better than. More than. Much more than. Lots lots more than. Bigger than. Richer than. Faster than holier than prettier than nicer than meaner than ...eeeeeee!

Then I think about leaving the Music behind.

And, wouldn't you know it, I see a frazzled woman in a deli or a restaurant somewhere and she's dripping with jewelry and she's precariously balanced on 4-inch heels and she's got a cell-phone stuck to her ear while she's trying to eat a sandwich without getting mayo on her tight little gray suit (tailored, of course, nothing off the rack) and she has this voice, it's a shrill, plaintive, almost hysterical cry and yet it has a drone-like quality, it's like a poorly-played sitar; she's selling or buying another house, she's closing, she's dripping mayo, her battery is low, she's breaking up (her phone and her self), she's got that lean, hungry look of desperation that one gets just before the other shoe drops, just before the dam breaks. The market could crash, the hubbie could run off with the secretary, or those tech stocks could go broke. The bubble could burst. Alan Greenspan isn't terribly reassuring; he said on CNN that the bubble was sprouting little bubbles, like foam; that this wasn't a good sign, and he'd do what he could to patch up the bubble and make it all bouncy again, but he didn't look too confident, and he didn't look too healthy, either...

Her movements are jerky, uneven. She's been the top producer in her department for seven years running now and she has to make this one number eight. Her BP is 180 over 110. She smokes alone in her BMW. She's 36 but looks 48.

She's wired, like she's been speed-balling.

She's a producer.


She might be on oxycontin. She might drink herself to sleep. She might not sleep much at all. Those myriad houses take up all of her time. If she goes to the beach, she takes her cell and her laptop with her and she doesn't really enjoy it anymore anyway (the beach)...

And I feel bad for her, and I feel like maybe my life, with all of its insecurity, is really quite a feat of engineering. Having one person love me so much, having a puppy and a kitty and a place to live (for the moment) and a few memories, the waves and the sand and the sky, just a few memories, but that's all we get, isn't it?

I'm not better than that lady in the deli.

I just lucked out.

So, no 'Raindrops'.