What I Forgot about Open Mics

Last night I went to an open mic for the first time in many years. A friend of mine started one not far from where I live a few weeks ago and I had planned on supporting her effort. Unfortunately I just joined a new band that rehearses Monday nights, at the same time the open mic runs. Last night we took the night off and two of us made our way over to Hamburger Mary’s in Oak Park, IL where Kat Fitzgerald was running the event. There weren’t many folks there, but those of us who were put on a nice In the Round type of event, eschewing the stage in favor of a more intimate close in feel.

I was feeling somewhat stressed due to just having confirmed that we were due for some probably costly home repairs, and had a pretty good crank going, which seemed to be the prevailing emotional state of the entire household as well. I was at the point where I really just wanted to veg in front of Netflix for a few hours, put life on hold and maybe sip some scotch in the process, something I don’t frequently do due to possible interactions with my prescribed meds. Also, I must admit that there was a period where I was a regular at many open mics searching for work with bands. I found myself weary of the open mic scene and the mixed success I was finding there, especially after discovering that most of the people at them were there for a temporary escape rather than recruiting. I was basically burned out on the whole open mic thing. Instead of giving in to the voices in my head, after I finished my dinner I grabbed one of my Godin nylon string guitars, made sure the gig bag had everything I needed and headed out the door.

I hadn’t seen Kat to speak to in several years. We’d been in touch over facebook, but I hadn’t actually talked to her since she moved back to the Chicago area from San Francisco. It was great to see her, meet some new people and make some music with them all. Another person was there whom I hadn’t seen in years, Debbie Mac, and it was nice to actually talk to her as well after not running into her since I’d left a band some four or five years before.

When it was my turn to play I ran through some fingerstyle pieces, Rikki Don’t Lose That Number by Steely Dan, Linus and Lucy, and a couple of Stevie Wonder tunes before closing out my part of the set with a spontaneous jazzy blues jam with my friend Bill Kavanagh on bass, and Kat playing Cajon. All in all it felt good, was low stress and I forgot about my issues for a while. I also accompanied a couple other folks as we went the rounds before we closed up shop just a little bit before ten o’clock.

All in all it felt more like a casual gathering of friends who all just wanted to spend a bit of time making music together. Sometimes at open mics I’ve been to there has been a bit of a competitive edge present, not quite the head cutting of some of the old jazz sessions, but there was an element of that present. Not at all last night, which was nice. No one was there to prove anything, just that they were capable of having a nice night out making music strictly for the fun of it, talking shop and getting to know some new folks. I’d forgotten about that aspect in my many years away from it. Here’s to a pleasant sense of community!

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Challenges and Excitement: Finding a Project that Moves Me

Sometimes you really need to take a break, and the more complete the break is, the better. A break can serve as a vacation from the daily grind, but can also serve as a time for reflection and upon occasion that reflection can possibly lead to an epiphany of sorts. I have found that on the occasions where I have taken a break from playing I often come to a realization about the direction I am heading in, particularly when I’ve had a pervading sense of dissatisfaction. I find that during these breaks I’m more likely to listen to music and find sources of inspiration that I hadn’t either permitted myself to think about or encounter. These are mostly small realizations that might spark a subtle shift in direction. Other times they might lead to a larger train of thought. Once in a long time there is that moment, the moment when the lights turn of and I become aware of something that really needs to change, something that simply can’t keep going the way it has been and I’m not certain how I’ve permitted the situation to get to where it is.

I have a full plate right now insofar as musical projects since I’m currently committed to four projects. In order to get a somewhat reasonable performance schedule, mostly motivated by making money I am working with three groups as a bass player and one as a guitarist. Two of these are blues rock and the other two are more classic rock and a variety of other things. None of these projects is really making me stretch as a musician. I get the chord charts together, do a minimal amount of woodshedding and hit the rehearsals, then the gigs, then do it over again. Occasionally there will be a gig that comes up that is something that I look forward to, once in a long while one that I’m excited about, but more often than not I’m not too excited about any of it.

What this tells me is that I need to find/create a project that does excite me and that provides a fairly frequent challenging aspect to it as well. This is usually what I can recognize. The real difficulty is identifying exactly what the project should be. I like performing in groups more than I like performing solo, but I’m beginning to think that I might need to take a better look at solo work. Over this break I heard an interesting live album by Ferenc Snetberger, a European guitarist who kind of falls between the cracks when it comes to classification. Snetberger was performing for a quite large audience on the recording, playing solo classical guitar. There was a series of eight pieces titled Budapest, and then a really nice arrangement of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” that was quite interesting. The recording was such that I wasn’t exactly certain if everything was written, or if he was improvising sections quite masterfully.

I think that I’m going to explore this type of approach and see what I can do with it. I am drawn to fingerstyle guitar anyway, have a background in classical music, albeit some time ago, and am also drawn to improvisational music. This would definitely provide a challenge, and could possibly include some ensemble work that could be quite interesting as well. I’m really a between the cracks kind of guy myself when it comes to my guitar playing at least, so in many ways, the more I think about it the more it makes sense to start moving in this direction. I don’t necessarily need to quit anything that I’m doing at this point in order to start moving forward with it, but I will need to budget my time very carefully, particularly now that I’m also committed to teaching a couple of English composition courses this Spring.

Still, I find the prospect of doing this to be somewhat stimulating, but once again I am not getting a burst of excitement in anticipation of starting to move in this direction so perhaps I need to consider my options some more. Then again, I don’t really get excited about much in life when it comes down to it. I don’t know if this is directly related to my depressive disorder, the medicinal treatment for it, or simply part of my personality, which would actually be a bit on the sad side of things. It does feel like a somewhat comfortable approach, which might indicate that it may be a bit difficult for me to really dig into and get going. Perhaps the ensemble approach should come first. At least I have an idea this time, so I’m one step further into the game.

Making a Life in the Arts: Make the Commitment, Do the Work; Expect Payment.

A life in the arts provides its inherent challenges, not the least of which is making a living within your art. Some folks go to school, graduate, then go on to graduate school, finally landing a job teaching in their field at the college level. While this might seem like an undesirable compromise to some altruists out there, the reality is these folks are lucky. They have found a way to make a decent living in their field, have the opportunity to continue pursuing their art, and are the ones who actually stand a chance of building a retirement fund in the process, all the while having access to other benefits like health care.   Some take the route of teaching in their field in elementary, middle and high schools. For those who land full time work there, it can be a reasonable living; however, in today’s public schools the arts are one of the first fields to be cut when funding crises occur. There are other ways to make your way in your field, but they are not for the uncommitted. If you can’t commit to doing everything it takes to make a living in your particular field, then you really need to face the fact that the only way you’re going to make it is with a day job.

The lady who owns the dance studio my daughter goes to studied dance through the college level, danced professionally for years, and is a certified dance teacher, licensed to teach in public schools as well as privately. She is currently in her middle years and still dances as the opportunity presents itself, but most of her professional life at this point is directly linked to her school here in Oak Park, IL. She has two studios, one in Oak Park and the other in Forest Park, which is a neighboring suburb. She has a cadre of instructors who are all excellent, and she still is very active teaching. I am amazed at the amount of work she puts into the studios, with dance concerts several times a year involving full productions on excellent stages in the area. She’s a dynamo who is also currently starting a dance company as well, featuring students and local professionals, and giving the ability to experience a full on professional production for the members. She spends enormous amounts of time teaching dance and choreography, producing the shows, choreographing dances and all the while maintains a positive attitude regardless of how stressed she might be. If you’re curious about her, her name is Diane VanDerhei, and her studio is Intuit Dance Studio in Oak Park, IL.

Diane is an example of the level of commitment necessary to be successful in the often cut-throat world of the arts. Most musicians that I know who aren’t teaching in colleges full time, either don’t make a living as a musician, relying on day jobs to pay the bills, or cobble together an income from a variety of sources, usually a combination of gigging, teaching private lessons, and working in a music store, or some combination thereof. I have a friend, Erik Truelove, in Tucson, AZ who is one of the best drummers I’ve ever worked with and a wonderful gentleman to boot. Erik has always been something of an entrepreneur and has worked as a contractor doing construction as well as having his own businesses over the years. Erik started a music school in Tucson called Drum and Drummer. Originally it was started to teach percussion, both group sessions and private one on one lessons. He also sells percussion instruments through his school. He has been successful, marketing his skills very well and has been expanding the school to include guitar, piano and bass lessons as well. This is in addition to working as a drummer on a fairly regular basis. He has a cadre of instructors as well as other staff who man the desk and take care of various aspects of business. This being said, the reason the place is running so well is that Erik committed to the project and didn’t go in part way. He had a plan, worked the plan and is getting solid results.

Often people go into the arts and have a somewhat flaky assumption that inspiration is something that cannot be rushed, you just have to wait for the moment and it’ll come. Most of those folks are still waiting. In order to be successful in the arts, whether it is dance, art, writing, music, or whatever, work must be done and it must be done on a regular basis. The people who are out there on the local level and making a living at it are all committed to doing the work it takes in order to reap the rewards. It’s also important to have a concrete understanding of what you need in order to make a decent living. What is a decent living must be ascertained otherwise it is simply a vague concept. Determining what you need to make also has a hand in determining what you need to do in order to hit that target. If you’re not willing to do that, then it’s definitely time to look for a different stream of income.

Too many people approach a life in the arts with the romantic notion that artists are dreamers who keep their own schedules and can’t be troubled with worrying about money. And far too many adopt an attitude that they’re selling out if they start thinking about the money aspect, looking upon those who expect to make money with sneers of disdain. The fact is people need to eat. They need a safe place to sleep and they need to be able to take care of themselves. Expecting to be paid for your art is simply the difference between a professional and an amateur. And if you have any hopes at all of making a life for yourself in the arts, you really need to focus on both your art, and how you can make a living with it. That is actually one of the key factors in succeeding. The other two are total commitment and tons of hard dedicated work.

Finding A Space: Is it Really a Challenge?

Finding a space to write that works often depends on who you are. I find that as a somewhat introverted person with ADD, I need a place where I won’t be distracted. If there are people around me talking, I’ll end up listening to them talk even if I have no interest in what they’re talking about. Most of the time I can’t listen to music while writing either for much the same reason, I’ll focus on the music rather than what I’m trying to do with the written word. One exception to this is when I’m writing about the recording I’m listening to or the genre in general because then the split focus serves the purpose of the written piece. Ironically enough noise in and of itself doesn’t necessarily distract my thought process.

For the past three months the street that runs past the front of our house has been under construction with all sorts of heavy digging equipment creating a cacophony that has even shaken the house from the impacts of some of the equipment. Despite this I’ve been able to focus on my work. Granted, some of the repetitive noises, like the jackhammer, do disrupt my train of thought but for the most part I’ve been able to ignore those sounds and maintain my focus. I think part of this is due to the lack of language, whether it is actual human language, musical or otherwise. My optimal environment for writing, however, is a quiet house when I am alone. This permits me to maintain my focus and get things rolling.

As my readers know, I periodically do self-challenges where I set a daily word count target and commit to writing every day for a set number of days. In the past this has been in one-month blocks. Currently I am working through a two-month block. When I’ve done these challenges I have ended up learning and expanding upon what I find possible. For instance I never thought that I’d be able to write essays as a passenger in a car during a road trip, particularly with a kid in the car as well, however I found out that I can two years ago when we traveled from Illinois to the Black Hills of South Dakota by car when I did my first month long writing challenge. During that trip I also learned that my assumptions about my prime writing times, mornings, was really a myth; I could write just as well in the afternoons. I’d always thought that by the afternoon my ideas and thought process were too polluted by my day to be productive, but I was wrong. I also learned that I could write in the evenings as well, but there fatigue definitely plays a role that makes it much more difficult for me.

Overall I’ve found that the most difficult thing about writing is actually sitting down and doing it. Once I’m in the chair and I have committed to focusing on the task at hand I’m good. Even on a bad day I can fill the page with something that might be of use at some other time as long as I actually get myself into the chair in front of the computer and start setting my brain free. Most of the time I do fart around a bit before I get down to the nuts and bolts of it. I’ll look over my social media account, check my email, run through a mahjong board or two and then get to it. Sometimes things I see on social media boards will influence me to write something that has a definite political slant but I’ve found that doing a puzzle or two clears my head and then I can get moving with my actual purpose in sitting down to begin with.

Currently I’m sitting on a folding chair, feet propped up on another to support my laptop, in a shaded portion of the front driveway of my in-laws’ place in Palm Beach Gardens. The rest of the extended family is inside or outback, talking, eating breakfast, playing games, and catching up with each other. There was absolutely too much going on for me to focus on what I needed to do, so I had to find my “room with a view.” Who would have thought it would be tucked in a shady spot under the live oaks and palms between a big old Mercury Grand Marquis and the garage? Finding that space is something that we all do when we sit down to write and what might be distracting for me might be fertile ground for another. Some folks go to coffee shops to find their muse. It all comes down to where we can be productive.

Cross Pollenization in Music: Enrichment in Action

This morning as I perused my Facebook feed I saw that a steel guitar player, Mike Neer, just released an album called “Steelonius.” It appeared on my feed because a gentleman who plays slide, Rob Anderlick, who is a Facebook friend, liked it and exposure to things such as this are one of the things that ensure that I continue as a Facebook user. Neer has done an entire album of T. Monk tunes and evidently done them true justice. The article I read about it mentioned a new John Scofield album, “Country for Old Men,” which appears to be a play upon the book “No Country for Old Men,” by Cormac McCarthy. On this album Sco, along with Steve Swallow and a couple of other heavy hitters does a bunch of real country tunes, but does their thing with them. It’s currently on in the background as I’m writing and they’re killing it, in the best way possible.

I find this type of cross-genre pollenization to be incredibly vibrant and alluring and have been a fan of it for years. I also firmly believe that it’s something that needs to happen in order to save some types of music from stagnation. I love jazz, have studied it, but really don’t play it. For one thing, the old jazz standard catalogue doesn’t really speak to me as a performer. Despite hearing tons of it as I was growing up due to my father’s love of it, the catalogue of standards doesn’t resonate, but the conceptual aspect of it does very deeply, particularly the part about taking an existing tune and creating something from it. This is very appealing to me on so many levels.

If we really take a look at many of the jazz standards, they were the popular music of the day. Many were show tunes from musicals that became the starting point for the players. Granted, they do tend have more complex harmonic content than most current popular music, but then they’ve also been the core repertoire of the jazz idiom for sixty years in some cases, if not more. Many jazz musicians have added to the repertoire along the way, but there is still a reliance upon these standards that has a tendency to wear on many listeners, particularly the younger ones.

There are players out there who are crossing the boundaries and in the process creating their own idioms and genres. Bela Fleck has been doing this for years in his work with The Flecktones. The blended music his group presents could very easily be presented argumentatively as a form of jazz. He’s been a pioneer in boundary pushing and expanding into other areas for years, even pairing Bach with banjo. Other players like Jimmy Herring of The Aquarium Rescue Unit and Jazz is Dead have also been moving rock idioms closer to a jazz train of thought, or an application of a jazz approach to rock to create something that has more punch than a stereotypical “jam band.”

Even with the jam band genre there has been an uprising of cross genre creativity with folks like The String Cheese Incident bringing together elements of folk, country, rock, and jazz into a glorious creative expression. The Dave Matthews Band has performed in a similar manner, as has Bruce Hornsby in his many explorations and cross genre quests. Hornsby has worked jazz, rock, bluegrass and whatever he can get his hands on into his own genre that at times seems to defy categorization. This type of hopping around, mixing, and assimilating brings a fresh perspective to the old while bringing in the new as well. It also forces musical growth in ways that repetitively working within the same framework doesn’t.

I once saw an instructional video where the focus was John Scofield’s guitar style. The interviewer asked Scofield to show the audience some of his licks. His response was that he didn’t use licks, and if he found himself creating one he’d write it into the head of a tune so he couldn’t use it. I think this was in “John Scofield Jazz and Funk Guitar.” While learning the solos of greats that have preceded us is a valid and very useful way to learn how to speak the language, I really appreciate his perspective because he is forcing himself to constantly create something new each time he approaches a piece of music, which is the very soul of jazz and most forms of improvisational music.

Scofield has been doing his thing in the background throughout this reflection and opinion piece, so if you want a soundtrack for the essay go ahead and hit him up for it. What he has done with this recording is clearly jazz, because first and foremost he is a jazz player. It undeniably and unapologetically uses classic country tunes and at least one modern country tune for material. And it shouldn’t be apologetic. Miles Davis once said, “It’s all blues.” I’m not going to argue with the master on that one, but I think that when we get down to all really good improvised music, it might be all jazz.

Creative Music: Making the Old New

Last night at rehearsal, the newest group I’m with started working on a new tune. We decided to do The Beatles’ tune “Taxman” but wanted to come up with our own version that presented a different take on it. We’d talked about Stevie Ray Vaughn’s version, as well as shooting our own recorded ideas back and forth through the modern marvel known as the internet before actually meeting up for rehearsal and working out an entirely different take. What we eventually went with was copping the feel of another tune from the same era but a different group, mashing it together over a fairly simple I IV V blues progression, while essentially maintaining the melody line pretty close to intact. Voila, we had our own version of a “cover” tune that we’re pretty pleased with and that really works within the stylistic palette the band is attempting to focus on, a funky blues-rock combination.

Working with covers is the meat and potatoes of most bar band combos, as well as wedding bands and various other local professional groups. All too often if you want to make money playing on the local circuit these tunes are what is needed for repertoire in order to get the gigs and build a following. It has also come to be a major source of contention between musicians, dividing them into two primary camps and spawning endless debates over originals vs. covers. Many of the cover bands do their best to make a product that is as close to the original version of the chosen piece of music as possible, becoming essentially live juke boxes that copy solos and approach the music in pretty much the same manner as a traditional classical musician does. A smaller number of the bands deal with covers but deal with them as standards, in the same manner that jazz musicians have for decades. Yes, it’s a cover but they make it their own through their own solos and small deviations from the recorded versions. Then there are the covers that border on originals, which might seem like an odd thing to say.

Often the groups or individuals who break down and rebuild covers are also heavily vested in their own originals. They straddle the original vs. cover band divide by doing some altered covers, some originals and maybe some close to straight covers. These folks love their craft/art, and don’t sneer at the concept of getting paid at the end of the night for their work; they expect to be paid. They also tend to step outside of the debate between the integrity of doing either or. Interestingly enough, if we really dig in and take a look at what bands that “made it” have done, we’ll often see that they got their start working with covers, then gradually came up with their own material to work with. There are even many high profile folks out there who have recorded hit records using other peoples’ materials, either as is or creating their own version, as the Atlanta Rhythm Section did with “Spooky.”

Personally I really enjoy the process of rebuilding a cover, particularly in a collaborative situation such as last night’s, and last night’s was a true collaborative effort the whole way around. The guitarist kicked out an idea early in the week. I’m playing bass in the band, but sent out my own recorded idea on guitar. The drummer tossed out a suggestion at rehearsal, which really kicked us into a solid direction in terms of a feel that was different from the guitarist’s and mine. No egos got in the way; we simply ran with it, creating the progression quickly along with guitar and bass parts. The melody just synced right in with it all. We spent close to two hours on the process, locking things in and getting it squared in our memories as well as doing some on the fly recordings to help keep the concept intact. All in all, it was a very satisfying creative experience for all four of us before we went on to work on a few closer to the original version covers.

Making music should always be a creative venture, regardless of the format, genre or process. Whether you’re writing your own pieces, performing ones created by others or revamping an existing arrangement, there is always going to be a creative spark present, and when that spark is missing the music dies. Sometimes the creativity rests in the presentation of a pre-existing line, the interpretation of the feel, phrasing, or purely emotional content. Other times it is creating the actual line itself, writing the piece, and making it make sense to the listener as well as the musician. Regardless of the approach you choose to take, remember to do more than just play the notes.

Sources of Inspiration for Creative Lives

On a trip during the summer of 2015 to South Dakota I visited the Crazy Horse Memorial, which has been under construction since 1948 and Mt. Rushmore National Monument. Gutzon Borglum’s Mt. Rushmore was financed by the Federal Government and thus had sufficient monetary backing to progress rather quickly with a large staff of workers and ample equipment to work with. Crazy Horse was commissioned by the Sioux Nations for all Native Americans, but was privately funded and still is. Work on the monument was initially started with a crew of one, the sculptor himself, Korczak Ziolkowski. The projected size of this monument dwarfs Rushmore which could fit itself in the space occupied by Crazy Horse’s head alone. Construction is ongoing and the monument, now about 70 years from its beginning, is far from finished. Crazy Horse’s face was unveiled and dedicated in 1998, fifty years after construction commenced and about 16 years after the sculptor died. Construction continues, carried out by his sons and daughters who are as dedicated to the project as their father and mother were.

Neither of these monuments has anything small about them, nor were the men behind them. The sculptors both spent their lives dedicated to their projects and neither was without an ego nor lacked self-confidence. This is the work of large egos and supreme self-confidence. It is also the work of passion and dreams. Neither of these monuments would have started without these aspects, and while they are indeed monuments to the heroes they depict, they are also monuments to dreams and the creative human spirit. They are monuments to the long game that encompasses human existence and indomitable spirit and will. The men who envisioned and then created these immense sculptures were not afraid to attempt the impossible, nor were they willing to entertain the possibility of defeat or failure. They took on the projects and gave everything of themselves to see them through. As an individual who has been involved in the creative arts through writing and music through much of my life, I find these monuments and the men behind them to be points for self-reflection and self-evaluation, as well as definitive sources for inspiration.

Most people would view an undertaking such as the one that Korczak Ziolkowski started when he commenced work on Crazy Horse as one of insanity, particularly when noting the size of what was planned and the fact that he was initially the only crew member at the start of the project. The amount of hope and self confidence this presents truly boggles my mind, but I am convinced that he wasn’t a madman, nor a megalomaniac. He was a man with vision who was fully committed to his art and his means of creative expression. He believed in dreaming and pursuing his dreams as a life long process, not simply for the short term. He was also dedicated to encouraging others to follow their dreams as well, and the bigger the dream, the better. One could find ample inspiration in Borglum’s Rushmore, but Ziolkowski went bigger and further, pushing through self-reliance into an even larger than life existence.

When I am confronted with a creative human being such as Ziolkowski, and the obstacles he faced, and his work still faces long after his death, I must take stock of my own day-to-day existence in regards to my creative work. I feel small in comparison, because in comparison it’s as if I fear dreaming, and fear pursuing the small dreams that I do latch onto. I think most of us start out our existences with huge dreams, and welcome these huge dreams. Somewhere along the way we allow these dreams to be beaten down or simply leave them along the road of our existence, losing our vision of large lives and instead opting for the lower arc for whatever reason. I know that I for one miss the passion of my younger days and dreaming on the large scale. At that point life seemed an endless source of possibilities that were only limited by how far I chose to reach. Our lives come with individual issues, roadblocks, distractions and dead ends. Mine certainly has, and I have often permitted these to derail my own personal visions for my life and in particular my creative pursuits.

The truth of the matter is that it is never too late in our creative lives to ignite passions until we have passed out of existence. Until that point we should dedicate ourselves to kindling our passions, whether they are part of our creative lives or any other aspects of our lives. We must find our purposes, our whys for existing, and dedicate ourselves to nurturing them and pursuing them to the best of our abilities. This is our responsibility and creative duty as occupants of time and space. Not all of us were meant to blast 450,000 tons of rock off the face of a mountain in search of the Presidents’ faces lurking within, but all of us were meant to do something and to dedicate ourselves to the creation and pursuit of our own particular passionate creative dreams. Individuals such as Gutzon Borglum and Korczak Ziolkowski should serve as reminders that while there are obstacles in our creative paths, as well as in every aspect of our lives, none should stop us from achieving our creative goals, and the path in pursuit of these goals is as worthy as the goal in and of itself.