Sunday, January 6, 2013

The usefulness of uselessness


"All art is quite useless." 
Oscar Wilde 

In the late eighties and early nineties I was a student at La Guardia High School of the Arts. My life was devoted to music. Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins and Lester Young were my idols. At eighteen I began gigging with my quintet in small venues in New York City. I wrote music and played tenor saxophone with a passion; I would end a gig or practice session in physical pain and emotional exhaustion.

Jazz clubs were dropping like flies. Swing and bebop had been a vital aspect of American culture. Yet the glory years of the thirties, forties and fifties, with places like NYC's 52nd street, didn't exist anymore. The music I was playing was disconnected from the times I was living in; I was rehashing a music that had died decades before. I was tired of pouring my heart into something that felt useless. I stopped playing.

At twenty I began working at my father's illustration and animation studio, Slim Films. There I learned that illustration and information graphics serve a specific purpose and have a defined goal. It was a revelation to be doing something concretely useful. After a couple of years working as a freelance illustrator I took a job as an assistant art director at Scientific American magazine. The editors worked with a passion that was eye-opening—even as they were writing about the most obscure subjects, like a particle physics theory that had no perceived relevance in our daily lives. It was as if I were surrounded by artists and musicians.

This reignited my desire to make music. I decided to leave Scientific American and go back to Manhattan School of Music, the conservatory I had dropped out of a few years earlier. I quickly learned that I didn't have what it would take to make it as a professional musician. It seemed as if the pinnacle of success was getting into the pit band of a Broadway show. The prospect of playing the same music day in and day out was a nightmare. At the time I was earning, and enjoying, a decent living as a freelance illustrator. Once again I stopped playing.

Over the years I became relatively successful as an illustrator. Five years ago I began to hire people and transition from a freelance illustrator to the creative director of my own studio. Two and a half years ago we moved the studio from Maplewood, N.J., to New York City.

I reentered the world of the useless; I decided to devote a significant part of my time and energy to creating fine art. Creating something that is of no use is an exercise in frustration. The other day I was complaining to an artist friend about this. Shaking his head he said, "People have no idea how hard this is. It's awful. Just awful."

And then, a couple of weeks ago I downloaded an album from iTunes of Barry Harris and Charles Davis, two of the teachers I studied with years ago. At the first notes my knees buckled. Time stopped and joy welled in my heart. It didn't matter what year it was. It didn't matter that what I defined as jazz had died years ago. What mattered was that for this brief time it was alive and well in my studio as I listened and danced.

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