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Ron McClure: Making Music

By Published: October 9, 2003

Imagine music advertisements of the future: "Buy my CD, his sucks!

Submitted on behalf of Ron McClure

Remembering one's self, or having an internal awareness file, with constant access capability, is a wonderful and necessary thing in the process of making music, since we all forget ourselves.

The term making music means different things to different people. In 1964, bassist Chuck Israels told me: "Whatever you do in your career, don't become competitive." I think I know what my wise friend meant, and have tried to put it into practice throughout my career in a very competitive environment.

The music business scares the hell out of me! I really don't spend very much of my time or energy worrying about what other people think of me. As former New York City Mayor Ed Koch always asked: "How am I doing?" I am happiest when I'm making music with other musicians, and not worried about how I am doing. "Live and learn", they say. My teacher, Joe Iadone, used to say: "Some of us learn in time; some of us learn too late; and some of us never learn at all." He taught me to focus on my own work instead of seeking other people's approval.

I was taught that an artist is an individual who spends lots of time, especially during the formative years, learning about the craft, studying the basics and working as an apprentice under older, more experienced artists while developing the

fundamentals of basic musicianship, and that specialized, personal concepts come later, if it is to be. Being a worker among workers, gaining the respect and trust of my fellow artists in the pursuit of making music was and still is of primary importance to me, more than making money, and achieving notoriety, which seems to be the primary focus in what they call the music business today. Just watch the Grammys for confirmation of that!

Some of what is loosely celebrated as music, made by so-called "Artists" is greatly dependent upon hype and marketing, just to sell product. Being an artist, in my way of thinking, requires something much deeper than focusing on public perception and acceptance. An artist has to decide what his art means to him. If his focus is on acceptance, rather than the integrity of the work, he might be compromising the quality of his work.

I attended a party thrown by a well-established "Studio Musician", I happened to overhear a conversation between the host and a well-known producer. What I learned in just a few minutes taught me that there is much more to the business of music than I had ever anticipated. The host successfully convinced the producer to hire him instead of another player who he had already contracted. I knew, from that point on, that I would have to do a lot more than just play well to get a gig in New York City.

In a conversation with my old friend, [drummer] Jack DeJohnette, I said that I was only doing some "dumb, little gigs, but nothing of importance." Jack's response was: "There is no such thing as little gigs; every gig is important." This was an important lesson about how he felt about making music. It isn't the perks!

We can choose not to identify with our fears, doubts, expectations and assumptions. The results of our efforts are not always up to us. Things happen the only way they can and for reasons that may not be important for us to understand. A door closing in one area might allow another to open. I try to do the next right thing and focus on things that I can change, while accepting the rest.

Having chosen the path of making music my livelihood, against staggering odds, I still have no regrets for having followed my heart. Yes, there were those who really didn't want me to do what they themselves could not find the courage to do with their own lives. Fortunately, I didn't listen to them, and I've spent 40 years as a professional musician. However, as a teacher, I never recommend that a student go into music unless they feel they have to!

Considering the job at hand, the bottom line, for me has always been the music. When I listen to today's jazz, I sometimes get the impression that some musicians are more into impressing people with their technical prowess, than making listenable music.

The music of John Coltrane or Bill Evans, to name two of my heroes, spoke for itself. When they did speak, they were calm, polite and articulate. Compare that to the political mudslinging that goes on in American politics. I think it is disgusting and sends a wrong signal to people. It says: "All is fair, as long as I get the job." Imagine music advertisements of the future: "Buy my CD, his sucks!"

In the book I am working on, I have a chapter called: "Art vs. Entertainment". I've never really thought of jazz as entertainment. I think of it more as an ongoing search, like science. The media glorifies and thrives on sensationalism. Consequently, many people see no intrinsic value in doing art. Music is often ignored if it isn't presented properly. Some players expect people to listen to them, just because they are playing, but rarely works that way, especially in clubs, for example. I've noticed that there seem to be more clubs where the music is not presented properly, and very few people listen as they once did.

In my years playing at Bradley's in NYC, I learned a lesson from a regular customer, the late Robert John, who lived upstairs from the club. While complaining about the noise at the Knickerbocker, another club down the street, he said: "It's not a concert!" At Bradley's, an announcement of their quiet policy preceded every set, and it worked. If people made as much noise in any other workplace, as they a do in clubs where music is being played they would be told to shut up or leave. In some situations, I would rather have the night off!

A musician who can find pleasure playing with anyone has to have a love of making music that outweighs his or her need for getting attention. Making music begins with doing your job. It's nice if you can be a hot soloist, but do your job first, and do it well. Many rhythm section players sound like they are not really a part of the music until it comes time for them to solo. They are missing an exciting and rewarding part of playing music. Working with my fellow rhythm section mates is every bit as important and fun as playing solos. I've learned to assume different roles in any given musical situation, and that is half the fun.

Trombonist Bob Brookmeyer wrote about people who had influenced him, expressing how important he was to THEM! When I first came to New York City in 1963, I was impressed at how some of the older musicians took an interest in ME. Guys that I had grown up listening to, like bassists Chuck Israels, Bob Cranshaw and Sonny Dallas, invited me to sit in on their gigs just so that they and others could hear me play the bass. The real players and writers are the ones who are always the most willing to share themselves, and the most eager to help you, because they love and want to continue the process of making music.


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