September 2010

Mr. P.C. By

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Dear Mr. P.C.:

In jazz music, much is spoken of the virtue of leaving space. If I don't, they'll say I'm too busy; if I do, I they'll say I can't play. Count Basie played sparsely, and I bet he didn't get the applause or the chicks; I bet they gave him a wide berth. But I bet Oscar Peterson scored.

Now these same experts, extollers of the leaving space virtue—when their fascinating pedagogical lecture is ended, then themselves proceed to play upwards of one million notes. Which is it? Are they trying to fool me? I can't win for losing. Or how do I obey the higher jazz principles and still get the chicks? I feel like I'm lost in space. Will Robinson

Dear Will:

"They'll say I'm too busy..." "They'll say I can't play..." Count Basie this, Oscar Peterson that! They, they, they! Danger, Will Robinson!

Is "their" gravitational force really so strong that you can only be a helplessly orbiting moon? Of course not! But when you live your life solely for the approval of others, your true identity becomes a mystery even to yourself. Lost in space, indeed!

What do Claude Debussy and Miles Davis have in common? They both purportedly said, "Music is the space between the notes." I'm confident that Miles diligently attributed it to Claude whenever he quoted it. In fact, people on the "inside" say that Miles went so far as to attribute it to Bill Evans, who was himself quoting Claude, and it was only due to Evans being self-effacing and Debussy being dead that Miles got all the credit, a true victim of circumstance.

I know what you're thinking: If the music is really in the space between the notes, then someone who plays just a few notes, with gaping holes between them, is actually the busiest player of all. After all, how much silence can any listener handle, when it's boiling over with music?

Fair enough, Will. But consider this: Whether you play a lot of notes or just a few, it's going to strike someone as busy; adherents of Miles, Claude and Bill on the one hand, everyone else on the other. And that renders your entire preoccupation with space a moot point; one that, frankly, does not compute.

Dear Mr. P.C.:

This pretty young thing was reading her Blackberry or iPhone or whatever is hip today at the bar and the light from the screen illuminated her face in the most beautiful way. I told her so and she just said, "Oh, you're very sweet!" then went back to her glowing digital device. Based on just this encounter I'm pretty sure I shouldn't pursue her because I'm most likely not going to get laid. What do you think?

BTW, I'm a drummer, fat, mid-50's, married. Elvin

Dear Elvin:

It's notes like yours that break my heart. Society's crazy values have really done a number on you, haven't they?

Because, somewhere along the line, your self-image really got battered. The good new is: I think I can help, if I might offer a little affirming advice. Instead of worrying about being middle-aged, fat, and—most distressingly—a drummer, why not focus on the positive? I'm referring, of course, to your time-tested marriage

That's where your hope lies, Elvin. Think about it: Would your wife have stood by your side all these years if you were really so undesirable? Of course not! She's able to look beyond your weight, age, and drumming to see the beauty within. And I don't see any reason a beautiful girl—especially one young enough not to have been brainwashed by our superficial culture—couldn't be drawn to the very same qualities that continue to attract your wife. It's at least worth a try.

Don't give up on love, Elvin.

Dear Mr. P.C.:

Five days a week, I play piano in the lobby of an office building. Pretty much everyone ignores me, and that's the good part. A lot of the businessmen actually get pissed off, giving me the evil eye because I'm interfering with their important cell phone calls. Not exactly the culmination of my musical dreams, and not exactly the reason I got a Masters degree in Jazz Performance, either. Plus, it's a hassle. Every day I have to get up early, shave and shower, put on nice clothes, and fight L.A. traffic twenty-five miles each way. But it's a big part of how I make my living, and after eleven years I've learned to accept the indignity of it.

So today while I'm in the middle of a tune (and this has happened before), a guy sitting on a couch near the piano yells out, "Do you get paid, or do you do this for free?" How could somebody possibly think that, and how am I supposed to answer? Marty, Los Angeles

Dear Marty:

Here's a failsafe plan for the next time he interrupts you. Just turn to him and say: "I can't talk and play at the same time." You may need to practice it quietly on the gig for a few days beforehand, because it's very difficult to say while you're playing. You can also silently rehearse it away from the piano, your hands and feet moving as if jamming, your lips moving as if talking. This will work just about anywhere— in the library, on a park bench, or even in bed before you drift off to sleep. Try wearing your gig clothes to make it more realistic.

If you can't pull it off when the time comes, it may be easier for you to sing the line, a slight blues inflection adding to the emotional impact. Either way, you'll need to follow it up with a long medley to be sure there are no gaps in your playing; no threat of further conversation. I'd suggest playing a little Sun Ra, some atonal free improv, and a few particularly inaccessible originals of your own. Your antagonist should lose any interest in hanging around, and you'll once again be safe from direct human interaction.

I'm curious: If annoying people like him were to stop asking you such ignorant questions, do you think you might feel like playing an extra hour or two just for fun?

Have a question for Mr. P.C.? Ask him.

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