artistic unknowns by Chris Matarazzo

Lounge lizards, literati and napkin scrawlers: The irrelevance of artistic venue

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Once, I had a music teacher.  I will not name him, but, let it suffice to say that he disliked me. There are a few good reasons for this. The first is that when he came, during my eighth grade year, to “recruit” me to play trumpet in the high school band, I asked if I could just be in the “stage band” instead of marching. He said no; so, so did I, informing him that I refused to walk around wearing those ridiculous outfits.  Then, when I had him as a teacher in high school in music theory, I would often enrage him by changing his questions which, in my teenaged opinion, often amounted to strictly academic musical possibilities, not ones which would appear in “real” music.

In short, it is probably easy to see why this teacher disliked me. But there was a tug of war going on in my head, based on ideas my father, a lifelong full-time musician, had given me: that music teachers became teachers because they couldn’t hack being full-time musicians (Those who can, do . . .). I bought this, hook, line and sinker. So, I immediately pre-judged anyone who taught music.  And, you know, sometimes I believe it is true, especially in the arts. I have worked with some awful musicians who teach music. I have also worked with some great ones and I happen to study with a teacher who is a fine player.  Later, as an adult, when I looked over history, it occurred to me: most of the greats did teach on the side.  The old theory just doesn’t hold up, in the end — not for everyone.

Regardless, the confrontation continued, with this teacher. I was carrying a “D” in music theory, mostly as a result of rebellion and laziness. I deserved what I was getting. But the confrontation wasn’t all one-sided. The teacher had his prejudices, too.

One day, he heard me talking before class —  bragging about my father in some musical capacity. The teacher, who often referred to my father derisively as “a lounge musician,” said, “Is your dad still schlepping in lounges?”

I said nothing but went on to mention the Pennsylvania Ballet to my friend.

“Ah, the ballet,” the teacher said, butting in flamboyantly. “I haven’t played the ballet in years.”

“Well,” I said, “I was just telling Dave here how my dad just orchestrated a Gershwin show for the Pennsylvania Ballet and that Ira Gershwin said it was the finest orchestrations of his brother’s work he had ever heard. In fact,” I continued, “I have a copy of Vincent Canby’s stellar review in my book bag . . .”

The teacher remained silent and organized his class notes.  He didn’t read the review. But he did pick me to go first, and longest, at solfeggio that day.

Why the hell do we compete, we artists?

I remember seeing Simon Cowell telling an American Idol contestant that she sounded like a singer in a bar band, as if that is worse than being a singer on American Idol. I play in bars and I have heard bands — and I hope I am in one of these bands — play the hell out of some of the best music of all time.

I think we artists often put each other through a wringer that time will completely forget. Who am I, for instance? I write novels that no one has read yet because I tend to finish them and put them down and move on to the next creative project. I play drums in a bar band. I study classical guitar and play for no one but my family. I make my own music in my own little studio. I write on blogs. No one knows who I am.

Guys my age are writing for The New Yorker. They are playing drums behind John Mayer. They are winning Pulitzers. They’re playing to stadium crowds and giving book-signings at colleges to lines of hopeful admirers.

Does that put me on the low rung of the artistic ladder? How about you? Do you have PhD in music? Does that make you a better songwriter or composer than me? Do my years behind the drum kit automatically make me a better player than you who have studied and studied and haven’t had much of a chance to play with other musicians?

Who is a better novelist, Chris Matarazzo or Michael Chabon? How do you know?

In the end, who gives a shit?

As I have said before, you never know if, one-hundred years from now, I (or Ricky Sprague or Frank Wilson or Scott Stein or Scott Warnock or . . .  Neil Gaiman) will be featured prominently in The Norton Anthology as one of the “Bloggers of the Early 21st Century” or if my old music teacher will become famous for having written a brilliant concerto for clarinet.

Maybe I am an ass. (How’s that for setting myself up?) Maybe there are a lot of asses like me out there who could have done more to achieve the heights in their arts. But we really ought to, it seems to me, stop being snooty about things. Picasso would have been Picasso with a ballpoint and a dinner napkin. There are probably several Grapes of Wrath quality novels snoozing in desk drawers across the world, too.

I’m not romanticizing “art for art’s sake” here. I’m just trying to say that the venue doesn’t determine the quality of the artist any more than the medium does. We all do the best we can and even if our best is the best ever, there is no guarantee it winds up behind museum glass.

Chris Matarazzo’s ARTISTIC UNKNOWNS appears every Tuesday.

Chris Matarazzo is a writer, composer, musician and teacher of literature and writing on the college and high school levels. His music can be heard on his recent release, Hats and Rabbits, which is currently available. Chris is also the composer of the score to the off-beat independent film Surrender Dorothy and he performs in the Philadelphia area with the King Richard Band. He's also a relatively prolific novelist, even if no one seems to care yet. His blog, also called Hats and Rabbits, is nice, too, if you get a chance...
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2 Responses to “Lounge lizards, literati and napkin scrawlers: The irrelevance of artistic venue”

  1. Chris … WOW, what a blast from the past your post was for me – a trumpet-player who butted heads with his junior high band director in 8th grade, and was booted out. My story, like yours, turned out just fine, thanks in a BIG way to another music teacher/band director in the school system.

    Good story, but long … I’ll save it for a post of my own.

    A couple of points about your post …

    One, it’s not uncommon for the ‘big stars’ to just show up at a bar/lounge unannounced, make their way to the microphone, and break out their guitars.

    Two, I rather think Frank Wilson WILL be featured prominently in that Norton anthology :-)

  2. Jeff — thanks for the comments. It’s true — the big stars do seem to miss something about the dives. In that sense, maybe they are the better venues, after all.

    Agreed, on Frank!

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