(That Family Just Gives and Gives and Gives …)
by Chris Kelsey
May 20, 2010
Philip Roth’s novel I Married a Communist is the tale of Ira Ringold, a left-wing radio personality active during the HUAC/McCarthy inquisition of the late ‘40s/early 1950s, and his protégé Nathan Zuckerman, a teenage writer aspiring to career as a radio dramatist along the lines of such esteemed politically-progressive writer/producers as Norman Corwin and Norman Corwin. Roth’s masterful portrait of the troubled Ringold is at the book’s center, yet just as compelling is his account of Nathan’s growth, as he recognizes and eventually chafes under the limitations that come from using one’s art primarily as a political tool.
“Who taught you art is slogans?” asks Leo Glucksman, the college instructor who incites Nathan’s shift. “Who taught you art is in the service of ‘the people?’ Art is in the service of art?—?otherwise there is no art worthy of anyone’s attention.”
“What is the motive for writing serious literature, Mr. Zuckerman?” Glucksman continues, before answering himself: “The motive for writing serious literature is to write serious literature.”
It is serendipitous that I read the above passage the day after having seen this video … brought to my attention, as so many interesting things are these days, by Peter Hum at Jazzblog.ca:
Of course, I’m tempted to rend The Littlest Marsalis without mercy (for instance: How ironic is it to hear someone who presents himself like Steve Urkel on prom night call someone else a nerd? Elaine to George: “You’re bald!”). Childish simplifications and generalizations abound, yet rather than deconstruct every line, let’s instead address Jason’s overarching theme, in which he presumes to understand, then dismiss, something that apparently eludes him, to wit: The overriding motivation to create serious art is the compulsion (need, desire, obsession) to create serious art. Entertaining people; perpetuating and nurturing a folk tradition; making a living?—?these are worthy goals, yet have as much to do with creating serious art as the ability to wiggle one’s ears.
The not so subtle subtext in Jason’s message is that a willingness to conform is the most important trait a jazz musician can possess. Every jazz musician must play “standard songs … that hundreds upon hundreds of people (have) sung along and learned …,” or he’s a pretentious nerd. And the audience is equally culpable, affecting a liking for something they can’t possibly understand … since, according to Jason, the musician doesn’t understand it himself.
Jason comes off as the leader of some high school clique intent on enforcing the shallow behavioral norms of adolescence (woe to the kid who wears the wrong brand of sneakers). Like any teenager who knows it all by age 16, Jason assumes he can divine the motivations of people whose experiences are in fact totally alien to him. In fact?–?and this I wish could go without saying, although it obviously cannot?–?no one can truly know the motivations (to say nothing of the likes and dislikes) of a fellow human being. It is certain that not everyone is suited to flow with the mainstream. Of course, some members of that mainstream presume that because they do not understand something, it is beyond understanding and therefore ripe for mockery.
The funny thing is, I have no doubt (though I can’t know, wink-wink) that Jason makes music for essentially the same reason that I do?—?because he must. He has the need/desire/obsession to play what he plays. Jason wants to communicate with an audience, and he feels it important to respect his elders and the jazz tradition. So do I, but none of those factors are anywhere near the primary reason I make music. I suspect they’re not the main reason Jason Marsalis does, either, even if he doesn’t know it himself. Any serious artist does what he does the way he does because he’s hard-wired to do it. Some of us like to color outside the lines, others don’t, but we’re all as serious as your life.
[A followup: It’s been pointed out that Jason’s rant was in part an attempt at humor. That fact was not lost on me, yet in the writing I considered it hardly relevant. Granted, I may be only a poor, comedy-illiterate free jazz musician, yet as I understand the concept as taught to me by Commander Data of the U.S.S. Enterprise, humor’s most crucial element is to be funny or at least witty, and Jason’s little stand-up routine falls way short.]