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You Need a Craft

This might be one of my favorite essays from 2002 . . . a massive hat tip to two great musicians, one a gifted teacher, the other the man behind the trumpet in the genre defining band, Tower of Power.  Written in 2002

The little town I live in, Lafayette California, is goofy for band music. We’re blessed with a middle school music teacher that is sort of like Mr. Holland of Mr. Holland’s Opus fame, except I don’t remember that Mr. Holland much liked teaching kids music, whereas our guy, Bob Athayde, does. He really does.

For something like fifteen years (maybe more for all I know), Bob has been teaching band music to growing numbers of kids in our town. Today, half the middle school is in the music program. Every year, some four hundred and fifty kids show up for school every day to learn to play and love a musical instrument.

But it’s not just band music, it’s improvisational jazz as well. That’s the kind where the band (could be four or five musicians, could be a big band) plays the first part of the piece together (called the head), and then the different musicians take turns improvising a solo. That means standing up there and making up your own tune that somehow works with what the rest of the band is playing.

This is not easy stuff. For the musician, it means mastering scales and music theory. For beginning musicians, it’s learning a couple of scales and knowing how to play through the chord changes. For an accomplished musician, it’s all that and more because all the scales come in all sorts of variations, and most “real jazz” is barely written down. The few chicken scratches that pass for a “chart” are enough to get you started and stopped. The rest of it is up to the musicians to improvise on the spot. That takes more than an artistic urge or intent, it also takes craft, a point I’ll return to presently.

The fact that so many of our middle school kids play outstanding jazz music—and it is outstanding—begins and ends with Bob Athayde. He loves improvisational jazz and that’s why our middle school has three jazz bands, one of which shows up an hour before school starts to play.

But it goes way beyond that. Bob’s love of improvisational jazz has infected the community. A bunch of the music dads (kind of like soccer moms, only different) started hanging around on Wednesday mornings to help out when Bob had to go to teacher meetings. This led to the creation of a band called the Jazz Dads. Now they play at the local concerts as well.

The local retirement community has always had its share of skilled musicians and they got up a jazz big band a few years ago. Some of the young musicians sit in with them, and it’s not unusual for a Rossmoor Big Band concert to feature musicians ages 13 to 83 and sometimes older.

In some ways, the center piece of the local jazz scene is the high school jazz ensemble. These are 17 of the finest musicians around, many children of professionals, and they are simply outstanding.

A couple of years ago, some of us got together to put together a summer jazz camp. Someone pointed out that Mr. Athayde spent most of his summer trudging from music camp to music camp teaching for peanuts . . . and we in the community were sending our kids to these same camps. Something about that just didn’t make sense. Why not just create a camp here in town? So we did. Today it is one of the hot jazz camps, staffed with professional musicians, many of whom are also recording artists. It’s a big thrill for the kids and something the musicians look forward to doing.

That led to the creation of a foundation called Generations in Jazz that sponsors our local Lafayette Jazz festival featuring all the bands mentioned above. We also record a CD every year. There’s more but you get the idea. There is a lot of jazz played in our little town, and lots of people involved in making it happen.

Enter Mic

Somewhere along the way, someone said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could get some of the guys from Tower of Power to come teach our kids”? For those who don’t remember or don’t know, Tower of Power was one of the great bands to come out of the Bay area in the early seventies. Their distinctive sound was (still is) a melding of jazz, funk, rock and soul that is hard to describe but unmistakable and unforgettable once you’ve heard it.

One of the founding members of Tower of Power was a guy named Mic Gillette. His dad was a legendary trombonist and Mic inherited some measure of his skill and love of horns, which is a round about way of saying he is to my ears an absolutely awesome trumpet and trombone player.

As it turns out, Mic still lives here in the Bay area [he passed in 2016]. Someone tracked him down, one thing led to another, and Mic started coming around to help the kids learn how to play a proper grade of “fonk” as Mic would have it known. If there’s a pied piper, it’s him. The kids light up when he comes around—I say kids, that would include everyone up to and including the ages of 10 to 90—and he does the same. And you should hear them play.

A couple of months ago we hosted our annual jazz festival in our little local repertory theater building. It’s a cozy spot and we jam in there Thursday, Friday, and Saturday to hear two bands per night. My favorite night is Friday. That’s the session that begins with the middle school—with Mic standing in back with the other twelve year olds—and concludes with the mellifluous sounds of the high school band which is anchored—and here I won’t even feign modesty—by my son the tenor sax player. There isn’t a prouder father than me and I’m the first to admit it.

It would be difficult to describe the effect of all this musical magic. And it is magical. Starting with the middle school, the choruses were tight and energetic, and the solos heroic. The horns in back were pumping and driving and it wasn’t just Mic, it was everyone else wanting to show Mic, their parents, and the world, that they were for real. And they were for real. The high school band came next and they were out the top, mixing heart wrenching ballads, with straight ahead jazz and funk.

Don’t Quit Your Day Job

All of this caused me to contemplate two different but related questions. They both are anchored in a quote from Mic Gillette that everyone loves to tell and tell again. He says:

Remember three things. First, God gave you a talent, a musical instrument. Never put it down. Second, don’t quit your day job. Third, live a clean life. The bands in prison aren’t nearly as good as the bands out here.

Everyone laughs uproariously at this. The part about prison tickles your funny bone. Being the responsible adults we are, we nod approvingly about the wisdom of having steady work. Meanwhile, everyone feels this nagging sensation deep inside. Did God give me a talent? Did I put it down?

The answer to the first question is a resounding yes. Gifts in full, overflowing measure. Power beyond your wildest imagination. The trouble is, most of us never bothered to figure out what it was and how to use it. Or if we did, we forgot.

When you sit and listen to these bright shiny musicians, you can’t help but think that they have this wonderful thing called music and each of them has his or her entire life ahead of them. Their stories are unwritten and so full of promise. They can take these wonderful life lessons they’re learning from Bob and Mic and go be musicians, doctors, lawyers, teachers, politicians, clergy, or bums on the street. It’s all there for the doing.

Funny. That was true of each of us. In fact, it still is true. We just don’t think that way anymore. Go back and read the previous paragraph. You too still have your life ahead of you. It may be a day, it may be ten thousand days, but it’s still out there left to live. The book isn’t written until you write it. The gifts you have, however alive or dormant, are still waiting to be explored and used.

Which brings me to the second question? “Did I put my gift down?” That’s the one that makes you squirm. If you’re like most of us, the answer is yes, which leads to a whole host of uncomfortable follow ups. Where in there did you lose your sense of wonder? When did you start feeling like you had to put aside your craft, your love, your passion, and get serious? When did you decide you needed to grow up? When did you decide that living life required a three bedroom house, two cars, three televisions, two game consoles, a new DVD player, and a garage full of stuff you haven’t looked at in three years? When did you start being afraid?

Those aren’t comfortable questions. I’ve given them a lot of thought lately and I still don’t know the answer. But I do know they’re the right questions because I know how keenly I feel the weight of living a responsible adult life that seems all too free of art and all too full of blah, blah, blah.

The Measure of Greatness

Some years ago I wrote a program on sales coaching that I and others delivered to about a thousand bank branch managers. One of the questions we asked early on was, “who was the best manager or coach you’ve met and why?” That’s a pretty open question. I’m not sure what I expected—probably a lot about athletic coaches. The mind opener was that about half listed their middle school or high school music teacher. Hmmm.

Mic is an interesting object lesson in the concept of greatness. So is Bob for that matter.

In the case of Mic, there was a time when you could rightly say that he was a member of one of the greatest bands around. I didn’t know him then, but you can imagine what it must have been like to be Mic in the 1970s. A great player in a great band. It must have been a great time being so great.

Today, he occupies himself doing other things. He no longer tours with the band. One of the things he now does is teach middle school and high school students something about music, something about a craft, and something about themselves. Is he now somehow less great? I would argue that what he is and is now doing is infinitely greater, is of infinitely greater consequence than his rip and roar through his early years of popular notoriety.

It’s surely the same with Bob Athayde. I’ve never asked him directly, but I’m sure that like most musicians, he had—or may still have—dreams of greatness in the sense that playing to a packed house of adoring fans, hanging another platinum album on the wall, and driving one of your nineteen cars can be considered great. The thousands of lives touched because of Bob’s craft and Bob’s love of music and teaching music are eloquent testimony to a greatness built on something that seems to be to be far more durable and substantial. Whether or not he wakes up any happier than you or I, or is one iota more conscious of the infinity of divinity is not mine to know or judge. That he lives a life of service to his love and his craft is our blessing.

You Need a Craft

The great mythologist, Joseph Campbell, says that “the way of the mystic and the way of the artist are related, except that the mystic doesn’t have a craft.”

Music is a lot of things, but beneath it lays craft. That is not to say that craft is art. I can think of any number of paintings, sculpture, pieces of music, and works of literature or poetry that are technically excellent, but completely lacking in the organization, harmony, and transcendence that characterize my sense of art.

The converse is also true: you can make pleasing art without craft, without technique. As my friend Steve Foster says,

Find what speaks to you. Don’t try too hard to analyze it because it will quit speaking to you and you will have to find another muse or seek another vision . . .  Good art comes from the gut and you can’t quite explain why or how it works.

Having said that, I can’t think of an artist that didn’t or doesn’t have “craft.” The concept behind having a “craft” is to bring a discipline and love to what you do. It’s the thousands of hours of practicing your musical instrument so that when it comes time, you can just play. It’s writing every day until you break through to something sublime. It could be making pots, writing poetry, learning martial arts, or being a transcendent manager or leader. It’s wax on, wax off.

In its largest sense, a craft could be anything. It’s any activity that you finally stop viewing as mindless and make it something else. It’s doing something so well, so beautifully, that just doing it is its own reward. It’s being completely present and accounted for. Then it’s a craft. Then it’s art. Then it’s a meditation. Then it’s a door into something else.

My sister, a very accomplished artist says that “we suffer from lack of craft and lack of art.” A lack of focus and discipline cripples our sense of mastery and our ability to self discover and discover self. We learn something about ourselves when we pursue a craft, when we pursue an excellence in doing something just for the sake of being excellent at doing it.

Whatever it is you do on a daily basis can become a craft, can become a meditation, can be something that deepens your sense of self and touches the people around you simply because they’re in the presence of an artist. Artist as painter, artist as sales person, artist as manager, artist as janitor, artist as whatever it is you do.

Having said that let me also encourage you to take the idea of developing your craft literally. What artistic gift did you put in that long bag you’re dragging around behind you . . . the one filled with forgotten dreams and the pieces of yourself you’ve put aside all these years?

It wasn’t written that Bob Athayde would touch all those lives until he wrote it. Same with Mic Gillette. More to the point, same with all those parents who found a bit of music in their own soul, the kind that caused them to start a camp, join a band, start a band, or just sit and listen to a bunch of kids play improvisational jazz.

Call me a Pollyanna, but I am convinced that the world would be a better place if we all wrote more poetry, played more music, did more art, spent more time in the garden, or did something to focus some of our energies on recapturing those lost bits of ourselves that we can only find when we regularly put away the mindless cares of the day and work our craft. That there would be more art would be a blessing. That there would be more craft in what we all do would be that and more.

I can hear it now. “You can’t be serious. You mean to say that if we all wrote poems . . .” You can fill in the rest yourself. And my answer is “yes”. Your world, the one that you make for yourself every day, will be better for it, and that’s a good place to start. Do it enough and pretty soon you’ll feel compelled to share whatever it is you do. And now you may actually do something great. Just like Bob and Mic.