Up Against the Ceiling

Up Against the Ceiling

Pursuing music as a vocation in America requires a sense of dedication and commitment that defies what most reasonable people would consider sound decision-making. The average veterinarian in 2010 was paid $82,000 per year; in 2011 the average mail sorter earned $48,400. Musicians average around $34,000.

Written By

Ratzo B Harris

It’s a fact that to pursue music as a vocation in America requires a sense of dedication and commitment that defies what most reasonable people would consider sound decision-making. It is common knowledge that the opportunities for gainful employment as a musician are scarce, making it an all too commonplace occurrence for an artist to be asked, “What do you do for a living?” by a member of his or her audience. I believe that this is a result of Western civilization’s need to fragment its over-populated societal units into specialized castes that barely understand how the others perform their function to the world’s greater good.

What does the average mail delivery person know of the diagnostic procedures practiced by the veterinarian reading the latest issue of The Veterinary Journal. And what would that veterinarian know of the sorting system required to get that publication to his or her office (or home). It takes quite a bit of training and research to master the techniques of sorting mail or identifying a heartworm infection, but one is treated as if it is more important to society than the other in terms of monetary compensation. According to one source, the average veterinarian in 2010 was paid $82,000 per year, but only the highest paid postmaster or mail superintendent earned that much. (in 2011 the average mail sorter earned $48,400). Musicians, though, average around $34,000. (Of course, stellar performers like Madonna or Bruce Springsteen demand much more for their services, but whether or not what they do is more about musicianship or showmanship is debatable.)

I was inspired to do this humbling research after reading Isaac Schankler’s excellent post, “A Wholly Factual Account of a Failed Attempt to Transcend Gender Through Electroacoustic Music,” in which he describes how replacing (out of necessity) the head of a mannequin with a human being as the stage prop for his off-stage electronically altered singing infused an element of gender specificity into his—and possibly his audience’s—reception of his Concerto for Mannequin Head. The shift transformed the ideas of “identity and technology” addressed through the music into ones concerning “power and control.” In this situation, the substitute for the non-human “performer” was gender specifically female. I wonder if a male performer would have countered Schankler’s “Pygmalionesque” perception of the transformation. Another scenario would be created if Schankler were female; would the perception still hold, or would it have become something quite different? I find Schankler’s observation of gender specificity being valuable to music performance rather important, especially in improvised American music. [1]

Because Schankler’s contribution was inspired by Alex Temple’s “I’m a Trans Composer. What the Hell Does That Mean?,” which describes how one deals with the feelings of exclusion that come with presenting oneself to society in a manner that falls outside what are accepted as its overarching “norms,” I was reminded of Joanne Brackeen, a virtuoso pianist, composer, and improviser, who calls her BMI publishing entity New True Illusion. During the time she took to help me to be included in the jazz scene when I first arrived in New York City, she described how she went largely ignored when she started playing music. She and her husband, saxophonist Charles Brackeen, raised four children and managed a building on the city’s Lower East Side during the 1960s. The building was home to many up-and-coming avant-garde musicians (such as Larry Coryell, Jim Pepper, and Bob Moses) who were experimenting with alternative lifestyle issues, especially drugs and promiscuous sex. Although an insider amongst the tenants of the building, being a high-energy improvising pianist in a racially mixed marriage made her an outsider in the music world. (Perhaps being six-feet tall was also a factor.) It took her until the mid-1970s to finally begin getting the critical recognition her formidable piano playing deserves. Another thing she told me was that nothing in the business of music is what it seems. While I was revisiting these memories, I remembered another post, Frank J. Oteri’s “Associations are Inevitable but Sometimes Misconstrued,” which recounted his experience of “being fooled” by a CD he purchased in Chile by a group named Los 4 Ases. He assumed he was listening to a group of Chilean singers with excellent English diction until he realized it was the Philadelphia-based singing group, The Four Aces.

I was fooled recently by a recording that I was hired to transcribe. The job was not horribly involved: supply a piano/voice lead sheet of two songs recorded by Diana Gitesha Hernandez for her gig at the Westbeth Community Room tonight at 7:30 p.m. Hernandez is a poet who has been active with the Nuyorican Poets since 1977. She relocated to the Pacific Northwest and Alaska during the 1980s while on a spiritual quest and took on the name Gitesha. She discovered that she has a strong affinity for improvised music, possibly a result of her early exposure to jazz through her parents (her father was a working musician and her mother a dancer until they gave up performing to raise a family) and tap dance classes. When she returned to New York City in 1986, she took regular classes with pianist-educator Barry Harris and worked hard to support her singing. She ran a jazz singing workshop at the University of the Streets in 1989 but had to withdraw to work in public education. She is now “retired” from her job and dedicates her time to music, painting, and writing. She will be on a bill that includes singers Mary Lovelace and Joanne Genomie accompanied by pianist Lee Tomboulian, drummer Walter Williams, bassist Lorenzo Sandi, and melodicaist Santiago. In 2011 she recorded a set of music in a home studio belonging to singer-pianist-flutist Sarah James. Gitesha says that she likes what came out of the sessions and wants to recreate her improvisations.

I wound up transcribing some of the music when Tomboulian found himself too busy while in the process of moving into a new abode in New Jersey to finish six songs in two days. The first piece I transcribed was her version of “Alone Together” that incorporates an original poem, “Inside the Moon.” I was happy that her version used only two chords and to hear how good her singing is. Her improvisations aren’t the bebop scat of Anita O’Day fame, but rather highly lyrical—long phrases, reminiscent of Miles Davis’s trumpet extemporizations, that operate in parallel meters and come to rest on “weak” beats. Thinking that Hernandez will most likely be using the transcriptions as a guide for her improvising, I tried to be as accurate as possible in the writing of the rhythms, something that can be difficult to do in jazz improvisation. I am admitting that I can see why she is fond of the recording. Even though it isn’t very “jazzy,” it’s a fantastic performance. I was not only impressed with her singing, but amazed at how well the drummer on the date followed her phrasing while keeping the pulse underneath. But that’s where I was fooled: the pulse was supplied by a drum machine and the part that was reacting so well with her was actually her playing drums! I was surprised to find, when I delivered the chart, that there were only three musicians playing: Hernandez, Sarah James, and Nick Spadelleto, who was the engineer and guitarist. With her permission I include the track.

Brackeen’s being an outsider made it necessary for her to work twice as hard as she thought a man with similar musical abilities would to achieve similar financial rewards. It was something that my mother described to me as she struggled to raise two children as a disabled single parent. Although “glass ceiling” was a term yet to be coined (Gay Bryant first introduced it in 1984), I was painfully aware of how the concept of gender-based inequality in the workplace, especially regarding income, negatively impacted more than half of the world’s population. As a result, I am deeply impressed by—and have great respect for—the resolve it takes to follow one’s inner voices and make a potentially socially downward transition from male to female. I am equally impressed (although with very little respect) by how the Great American Culture Machine continues to be ruthlessly male dominant. I feel that it allows too much leeway for incompetence and mediocrity to replace the higher standards that should still dictate how we, as a species, conduct our affairs. So I am always heartened to hear about great things being done by great women and the men who work with and for them; it gives me hope for us all. Artists like Brackeen, Gitesha, and Sarah James should be heard more often and given the same opportunities as guys like me. Brackeen has achieved enough recognition that she has a teaching post at the Berklee College in Boston, but so many others are struggling to be heard. I hope that changes.

1) I’m not trying to replace the term “jazz” with “improvised American music,” but rather indicate a larger scope of American music genres that are primarily improvised.