Friday, June 22, 2007

Feudal monsters

Around 1992, I was playing in an 8-piece (5 rhythm, 3 horns) funk/R&B band while working my way (interminably) through graduate school. On the side, the trumpet player would lead Dixieland jazz gigs for extra cash.

"Dixie" (really, New Orleans-style jazz) was hugely popular in Indiana, going all the way back to Hoagie Carmichael and his contemporaries. On some of those gigs, I even got to play with elder musicians who had known Hoagie and played with him. When in doubt--and generically--event organizers would decide that, if their event needed music, a Dixie band would set up the right mood. There was a strong "bunting-and-boaters" vibe to those gigs, but it's where I learned to play the music. The tunes were just harmonically complex-enough to be interesting for improvisation, but the changes were sufficiently architectonic that you could hear them, and thus memorize them, without the intervention of charts. It was a great education in the fundamentals of jazz harmony, because those changes (reharmonized, but fundamentally the same) were the basis for swing and bebop tunes as well. So, while studying bebop, to go back to "Dixie" tunes was a way to learn the harmonic foundations of the later musics.

I also loved playing Dixie because it represented a wonderful meeting ground between the funk and the ears required by the blues (and the wonderful, "behind-the-behind-the-beat" time feel), and the harmonic and improvisational challenges of jazz.

But you'd wind up playing for a lot of people, and events, with which you might not otherwise have a lot in common. I don't know why the wealthy and powerful assume that musicians will just grin-and-bear-it, no matter the abuse the W&P dish out, but they do. I've never been treated better and more respectfully as a musician than at blue-collar Portuguese fishermen's weddings in Gloucester, Mass--and I've never been treated worse than by the jumped-up new-rich bowtie-wearing Ivy League assholes of my own ethnic background.

One time in 1992, I got a call from the trumpet player, to say that he'd been contacted by the re-election campaign of Daniel "potatoe" Quayle--prior to Darth Cheney, the greatest embarassment to the office of Vice President since Dick Nixon and Gerald Ford. Grant said the Indiana Re-elect Quayle committee had contacted him asking for a Dixie band to play at a campaign event, and Grant was calling around to find out who in the band would be willing to do the gig. I thought hard about saying "no," but decided I would rather Republican money was siphoned off to a radical Quayle-opponent than to some dickhead musician who would brag about having done the gig. So I said "yes."

Grant got back to me a few days later, to say that the gig was off. I was relieved, and asked why. He reported that he'd been speaking to the local events organizer, some Indiana Young Republican who was obviously all hot-and-sweaty about his future political career as a factotum for Little Danny, and had asked what the organizer was planning to pay the musicians for the gig. Young Republican said, "Oh, we weren't planning to pay the musicians for this...we just figured that they would be honored about the opportunity to play for the VICE PRESIDENT" (obviously, Why-Pee knew as little about musicians as human beings as most of his class). Grant demurred, saying, "Well, I don't think that's gonna work. Musicians are accustomed to being fairly paid for their services."

To which, Why-Pee replied, "Oh yeah, that's right. I forgot what kind of people you're dealing with."

It was worth having my head nearly explode at that story to have it confirmed for me why no musician, no one who cares about the arts, about quality of life, about democracy, should ever do their art for the feudal monsters in power.

I was reminded of this story, when the Commander-Guy hosted a bunch of New Orleans greats at a summer bash on the South Lawn. Here he is talking to bandleader Kermit Ruffins:

THE PRESIDENT: Kermit Ruffins and the Barbeque Swingers, right out of New Orleans, Louisiana. (Applause.)

MR. RUFFINS: Thank you. Thanks for having us. We're glad to be here.

THE PRESIDENT: Proud you're here. Thanks for coming. You all enjoy yourself. Make sure you pick up all the trash after it's over.


This from the sociopath-in-chief who is responsible for this:


These people are monsters. Anyone who votes for them, or plays music for them, who makes excuses for them, is enabling them. I regret that Kermit Ruffin and his comrades had to be subjected to such sociopathy.

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