I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings
Recently, I was browsing through the aisles of one of our local discount stores and found a CD put out under the name of tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon. As it was only a dollar, I bought it. I took it home, put it on - and was transported on a trip back in time....
...to a warm summer Sunday night at LA's Magic Mountain theme park. Magic Mountain wasn't then doing well financially, and would soon be swallowed whole by the Six Flags chain, but they were experimenting with different ideas intended to draw paying customers. One of these ideas caught me by the ear and held me captive for a while.
Over in one of the lesser-travelled areas of the park was a small platform on which four of LA's musicians were finishing up a set. I only got to hear a few seconds of their last song of that set, but being still fresh from the business myself, I heard enough to pique my interest. I waited for them to return for their final set of the night. When they returned, they opened with Blues for Gates, one of the songs on the Dexter Gordon CD I would buy twenty years later.
They played a tune by Charlie Parker, another by Thelonious Monk, following up with a song from Miles Davis' Blue period, and then introduced themselves.
I don't remember their names now, and I doubt few of you readers would ever have heard of them, but you have all heard the work of their day jobs. The keyboardist wrote the theme to a then-popular TV drama, and the saxophonist had been the featured soloist for another. The drummer and bassist were names I had heard of (then being fresh from the business myself), but they were no one outsiders would ever have known.
In a town which eats musicians for breakfast, these four had found some measure of success. They were able to make their living playing music in what is arguably the toughest town to be a working musician. No matter how good you are, someone new comes along who is just a tad better than you, and they get the calls that once reached out for you.
And yet, here they were, performing at a venue which the likes of me -talented but not top-tier- struggled to find. Why would such successful musicians do such a thing?
In every true musician there lies a masochist, one whose talents are not appreciated by the masses but who struggles on anyway, obsessed with the idea of reaching out and touching someone with one's music. There is no way to describe the experience of putting in the countless hours of practicing scales and learning the fingering, developing the embouchere and the ability to play altissimo, in order to be able to musically touch someone - only to have to go out into the market place to Play That Funky Music, White Boy.
There is nothing inherently wrong with playing pop music (I did it for several years and got paid fairly well), but for the musician who can play such songs in his sleep, it isn't very satisfying. It does make one question why one chose to be a musician in the first place when selling insurance is much more lucrative - and respected.
Thus it was with these four - and me, their rapt audience. I knew their pain, shared their torture of being able to perform music far more complex than the simplistic and popularly-styled songs they performed for television as I had in the night clubs; understood their need to stand almost unnoticed in an LA theme park and play some of the best music an afficionado could ask for.
I knew it wasn't for the money, for I knew such a gig might - MIGHT - pay $100 for the night. For the entire band.
I knew it wasn't for the popularity, for I counted all of thirteen people who even bothered to stop long enough to hear even one tune. (As four of those listening we me and my family, that should tell you how sparse was the attention they drew upon themselves.)
I knew it was for survival.
A musician's soul starves if one can't stretch one's abilities to learn something challenging and be able to perform it. Like anything else that starves one can't survive. Every day, another artist dies and becomes just another employee, plugging away at a thankless job in order to feed one's family. It happens to the best of them, and might have eventually happened to these four I heard perform at Magic Mountain if they weren't able to express themselves musically. So I knew that it didn't matter that the entire band would only split $100 for the night. I knew that it didn't matter that only thirteen people cared enough to stop to listen, even if only for a little while.
I knew that they were playing for themselves, to recharge their souls long enough to face yet another week in meetings debating whether the chord changes fit the action on the screen or having some producer denigrate them because they weren't playing amateurishly like a garage band would.
I know why the caged bird sings. It's the only way it can still be free.
I still remember the last song these four performed that night - John Coltrane's Jupiter. They played it like a lament, as if commemorating the passing of yet another reprieve from mediocrity on their journey through life, knowing that when it was done, they would detune their souls, put their hearts back in their cases, and prepare to again don the employee persona used to earn their daily bread.
Just as I already had.
No more would I experience the soaring thrills of perfoming music well, for I now had responsibilities which precluded their pursuit. I could only live them again vicariously through the desperation of musicians -whose talents dwarfed mine- who struggled to keep themselves alive by expressing themselves in a forgotten corner of a theme park, pouring out the best they could be to just maybe catch the dialed-in ear and the knowing mind.
That night, we were all lucky. I found them, and they touched me.
So from now on, now that I have both the opening and closing tunes of that final set on CD, the memories of that night can again caress me. A true musician can ask for no more success than that.