Monday, February 18, 2008

Two Degrees of Separation, Greg Osby and Me

Sometimes the idea of ‘the public’ isn’t so nebulous. And with the issue of Chet Baker on Youtube, the public is showing a stand for principle, and even courage. They are well aware of the Chet purge, and have decided to dare Toronto into spending every minute of every business day trying to stop what only promises to be a deluge of Chet appearances on Youtube. There is wisdom in their conviction, that Youtube will only shut down sites, which will reappear under different names, and people will see Chet Baker. It will dawn on Chet Baker Toronto that they are spending all day stopping people who want to hear Chet Baker from hearing Chet Baker. Precious neurons in the collective Toronto Chet Brains will pop.

But this expression of will by the public, the refusal to be intimidated the Chet Baker Foundation of Toronto, this is what will take us to the next level—which I will describe below.

And so the public is showing what Billy Wilder described as a collective intelligence. He quoted Lubitsch, that individually the public may not be so smart, but collectively they are indeed smart. Odd thing. But judging from Wilder’s and Lubitsch’s movies, they do know something.

Many large corporations don’t see it that way, preferring to go with the line attributed to P.T. Barnum, no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. And so record companies, publishing companies, movie companies, television networks, all tend to feed us watered down books, over produced recordings of people without talent, and lame-brained shows, about which many folks simply do not care.

Many artists make the same mistake, exploring their art in a disconnected way, not tapping into the collective wisdom and beauty within us, but choosing to create things which do not move us, do not touch us in any way. The artist simply interprets this as their art being too advanced for the public.

This brings me to two interviews I read and listened to this week. One with Barney Kessel, recorded in the sixties, one more recent, with saxophonist Greg Osby, who is from what will always be my hometown of St. Louis.

Kessel stressed, over and over, that the artist must go to great lengths to connect with the audience. The situation with Osby is more complex, that ended nevertheless, in abandoning the effort to make the connection, choosing instead to see the audience as not able to grasp what he is playing. In other words, an uncompromising P.T. Barnum.

As I said, the Osby situation is more complex. I spoke this week with former employers, who said only the kindest words about him. I remember playing in clubs when, during breaks between sets, we would talk about Osby, that he learned to play before he went to school, and that seems to be the way to beat the assembly line aspect of music schools, to learn to play before you go. That’s affected the way I raise my children, to prepare them before school can slow them down. And so without ever having met him, his influence is felt in my home, felt by my children who’ve never even heard of Greg Osby, who always traveled in pathways outside of established institutions, because those institutions simply could not meet his needs—to help him to grow at the pace he preferred.

This still leaves us with the question that every artist must answer, who is the public? Osby spoke of not being able to get gigs, and that, without the support of his producer, he would have no outlet whatsoever—his music, in other words, would fall in the woods with no one to hear the sounds. And so once again, without having met Greg Osby, he has taught me a valuable lesson about life, one I will certainly teach to my children, that one must work on the assumptions of Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder, and Barney Kessel, and that we can see to be demonstrated by the public’s determination to hear and see Chet Baker, despite the institutions that are trying to stop this from occurring.

And now for the unveiling of what I promised. It's not really an unveiling, since I'm actually behind the curve. Our present technology is suggesting the possibilities, which are being worked on as I write this. It is a new economy, no longer dependent on large institutions, but eventually returning to the cottage industries, where individual artists can produce their own work, can use file sharing and streaming video to promote their work, and where artists and the folks who purchase the art, will think nothing of using Paypal, or it’s next incarnation, to allow the musicians and writers and artists to display what is in their hearts, and where folks will think nothing of supporting them with one, five, or ten dollars. It seems as if everyone knows this, and it appears as though this hard to define notion of public is working towards this. Hardly a mystery, hardly needs any unveiling. But the faster this becomes reality, the better it will be.

It is not unlike the invention of the car, where the possibilities presented themselves immediately, except that there were no roads. Eventually, the idea of getting in the car, of everyone even having a car, to travel the roads to get our basic needs met, this is now common sense. It happened once, I suspect it will happen again. But right now, the idea of the internet being completely free, an obstacle. I think we’ll get over it. It will be a good day when it does. It is always a good day when people can express their inner beauty.

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