Us and Them
Our music columnist Jeremy Walker reflects on impetus of the Occupy Wall Street protests and others like it around the country, the tension between striving and protecting, and the small but potent political power of simply making good work.
YEARS AGO, I HAD A SO-CALLED “LEGIT” JOB. I wrote about business for my dad’s company. I didn’t know anything about the subject at the time, and I learned very little while writing about it. At least, I learned very little about “business” as our technocratic, bureaucratic, corporatized culture would define it.
A few years later, while in a deposition over Brilliant Corners (my late club), I was asked one of the most stupid questions ever posed to me, and by someone who was supposed to be a member of the elite knowledge-worker class. Mr. Junior Lawyer looked at me and asked, “Didn’t Brilliant Corners go out of business because you are not a good businessman? I mean, do you know how to file a corporate tax return?” Unwisely, I laughed out loud. My lawyer meanwhile advised me to answer the question by kneeing me under the table. I responded by explaining that my club had to close because my landlord had not installed adequate heat (something obviously crucial to survival in Minnesota), despite a contract we agreed upon which stated that he would. We were able to prove that the heat was indeed not installed, and we established that it had indeed gutted my clientele (something we could bear out with actual bank records. I guess paperwork isn’t the thing). Regardless, we didn’t win the lawsuit. And part of it was because the judge agreed with Mr. Junior Lawyer: In his eyes, the fact that I wasn’t the sort who knew how to file a corporate tax return made me unfit to run a jazz club.
Stupid is…, right?
The thing is: I didn’t think then — nor will I ever — that being conversant with a particular kind of paperwork has a damn thing to do with whether a business is viable and significant, any more than I’d believe writing a good grant inevitably leads to great art. Somehow, we have gotten lost in the paperwork. The work, the craft thing is now too often overshadowed by the bureaucratic thing.
There’s this tension that exists between the individual and the organizational. The artist, craftsman, or entrepreneur does work that only he or she could do. Our cultural flattening (to coin a term?), by definition, seeks to constrain, define, and exploit (if not necessarily in a negative sense of the word). A tax return, a diploma, a union card, certificate, permit — these are the kinds of things organizations gather to smooth out the rough edges, to distill individual quirks down to statistics easily captured and sorted in databases. The artist, on the other hand, deals in uncertainty. He or she raises a question, creates a value that can’t be readily quantified and is at home with unruly categories of neither this nor that. This isn’t some conspiracy of the powerful or anything. It is just the nature of the tension between two fundamentally different urges and objectives.
I don’t think it’s about politics either; Republican vs. Democrat has nothing to do with anything here. Or, maybe I am just not party oriented. It seems to me that both parties, for all their fussing with each other, essentially sniff over the same small plot of ground anyway — namely, money: who has it and who wants it. Naturally, those who have it want to keep it; those who don’t, want some; and everybody wants more than they have. But money is inherently conservative: it inspires uncertainty and fear, jealousy and suspicion. It doesn’t make us creative, or expansive. I wish this weren’t true, but I can’t think of a time when human ingenuity has had its root in material abundance. If we have everything we need, and all is comfortable, what is the point of striving to invent, to do better?
But money is inevitable, too. Anytime something is exchanged or agreed upon — that is a form of currency. Whether you give me a chicken, some vegetables, a check, a dollar bill, or a poem – there’s still a transaction between us, and assignments of relative value. I mean, I would play a song for the right chicken; if you give me ten dollars I might just go buy a chicken anyway. Douglas Adams has a great passage on the symbolic nature of currency in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy: a group of people decide to make leaves their currency; naturally, deforestation and stratospheric inflation result.
So, this is the dichotomy we have to deal with. Money may be one of the basic communications of a culture, but it shouldn’t be the point of those communications. We are always navigating our own misunderstandings. As an example, we have all heard people quote from the Bible saying, “Money is the root of all evil.” But that is not how the text really reads. The passage (1Timothy, chapter 6, verse 10) actually says: “The love of money is the root of all sorts of evil.” Misreadings of that verse have been the cause of all sorts of trouble. The fact is we have been tripping on this kind of thing for a long time. Greed, jealousy, envy, miscommunication — man, it goes around and around. And it is not a question of some special dispensation of wisdom you get for being poor either. Myopia is an equal opportunity affliction that doesn’t discriminate between wealth and poverty. Character and compassion also don’t care about party, class, or economic lines. I just don’t believe peace and freedom would necessarily break out in the unlikely event everybody becomes equally poor anymore than they would if everyone were equally rich.
Myopia is an equal opportunity affliction that doesn’t discriminate between wealth and poverty. Character and compassion don’t care about party, class, or economic lines.
THAT SAID, I AM ALL FOR PROTESTS AND DISSENT. And I support the “occupiers” down on Wall Street, at least in part. Despite the fact that the whole Wall Street vs. Main Street is a massive oversimplification, wherein parties on both sides are misrepresented, I am all for making things uncomfortable for certain Wall Streeters (even though, I must say, they usually work in Midtown). Generally speaking, I can get behind most any dissent leveled at those with position and power, whether it’s the Senate or the Board of Directors. But I am uncomfortable with the whole center of the debate these days, which seems to boil down to: Wall Street (as if a street is a person) has money, and we want it. And once people have that money, what – they stop protesting? It feels kind of like the way each new immigrant group wants to close the borders once they get across. First nobody wanted the Irish, then the Irish didn’t want the Germans and Italians, and so on. See what I mean? Once a person gains position, they usually move from being a radical to a conservative, no matter how they vote. They go from striving to protecting.
I am not utopian, libertarian, socialist, populist, or know-nothing (well, maybe that last). Sometimes my brother claims to be a constitutional-monarchist, which at least feels good to say and raises eyebrows. My interest is in work. Work is an individual and community act. It would be my hope that hard work of high quality would be rewarded adequately. It rarely is, but that doesn’t remove the responsibility..
It is my wish that those who play pianos or build beautiful cabinetry would ride in Bentleys and live in well-appointed residences, and that those who push paper around (on proverbial Wall Street or East Capital Street) would be the ones to live in government tract housing and eat fish sticks off steel trays. But if I think that way, I have joined short-sightedness of the prevailing culture – I’m thinking only in terms of money.
As an aside but still on point, I want to mention a few things. I used to be a bike mechanic; it was one of the best jobs I have ever had. Around that time, I started reading a blog, Bike Snob NYC. It covers far more than just bikes; the blogger’s frequent target is the sorry, shallow state of our culture. I rarely disagree. So, to quote the bike snob regarding a think piece on black metal in the New Yorker:
This, then, is the spirit of the times. Formulaic music from the 1980s evokes not rage but comparisons to exhibitions at MOMA. Mayonnaise is sold in boutiques. Pretty much everything qualifies as a “culture,” and the members of a “culture” celebrate when someone appropriates their “culture” and sells it back to them. We live in a strange age of intellectual political correctness, where everything is brilliant and nothing is crap, and all creative expression no matter how derivative warrants the same degree of sycophantic fawning.
This is what I am getting at, I think. If we all lived under a real oligarchy, I would at least have something specific to protest. Instead, we live under a big, wet blanket of risk aversion, where everything can be marketed and groups of people wearing identical clothing can talk about individual expression with straight faces. We willingly live, if not willfully so, in a culture that charges us for market testing and then sells the watered down product that results back to us (e.g. American Idol et al.) It is pretty damned hard to opt out. It’s not really tyranny, so we can refuse to buy what they’re selling, but the alternative to this bland cultural consensus is … uncertainty.
Every conversation I have with fellow musicians seems to end up circling around the topic of what has happened to our industry: How can we make a living? Does anyone care to listen? Are the best days behind us?
Fortunately, musicians are used to answering difficult questions with soul, so we usually stop talking and start playing. We’d rather work. With that in mind, I want to mention the work Tanner Taylor and Jazz Central are doing. For over a year now, they have been playing, whether people are listening or not. Tanner is a pianist of wit and swing, and rather than waiting for gigs that aren’t there to find him, he made a situation on his own, where he and his constituents can play for those who want to hear.
These are hard times for many of us in this country. Insecurity is showing up where we least expect it. No one and no industry is safe from the corrosive effects of mediocrity and recession. We should respond with an assertion, not questions. For musicians, that means we play no matter what. It amounts to an article of belief: If we play, it will all come out okay, somehow.
Inventing, creating, expressing, refining — these are all radical acts in their way. And they must be done in love, or else, like anything, they can be destructive. The best of human ingenuity can be corrupted — that is in our nature, too. Emmanuel Kant was right about that, and so was Joseph Conrad. And there is a place for conservatism, for protecting. There is a time to circle the wagons and hunker down, but it’s not now. Not when we are navigating such stormy waters.
On an individual level, there’s no doubt I have the seeds of a conservative in me. I have been dogged by substantial financial problems since that dodgy landlord killed Brilliant Corners. It has been ten years, at least, since I have had an “asset” — but I am warm and fed and free. I hope that when I do have things to protect, I will remember that there are those who don’t, and that I won’t let my things become barriers.
The truth is the waters are always stormy somewhere. Freedom is a battle where our labors can be both weapon and armor. Let’s go about our work in rebellion and with compassion, so that it can be both a war cry and a lullaby.
About the author: Jeremy Walker is a composer/pianist based in New York. He has performed with Matt Wilson, Vincent Gardner, Wessell Anderson, Marcus Printup, Ted Nash, Anthony Cox and other notable musicians. He was the owner of the now defunct club, Brilliant Corners and co-founder of Jazz is NOW! in Minneapolis. In April 2011, Walker stepped down as Artistic Director of Jazz is NOW! to focus Small City Trio in Minneapolis and BOXCAR, a new band with Wessell “Warmdaddy” Anderson, Anthony Cox, JT Bates. Boxcar is on tour this fall with dates in Kansas City, Denver, and The Dakota on December 13th.
 I have to mention that my thoughts on the broad subject of this essay were in large part formed while working at my old legit job. I worked for my dad, who is constantly asserting the possibility of individual action. He has written a book on the subject called A Thirty Years’ War: A Study of and Remedy for the Decline of the American Entrepreneur. It is available here.