Monday, May 18, 2009

Life (and Racism) in Music- Takin' it to the Streets

A long time ago, in what, at this point, seems like another lifetime (it actually was), I was a street musician.

One of the best summers of my life.

I was 19 years old (with ways just like a baby child) and in college. I had no money. I had no real gig. I had no real experience. I was underage (although I'd been working the clubs since I was 18).

I wasn't really that good yet, either.

Just like everybody, in the beginning.

I knew this guy who was (is) a saxophone player. Beau Barry is (was) his name. We had a mutual friend who was a blues singer, L.C. Walker (RIP), and had done a few cheap-0 gigs together, as was the case most of the time in those days.

Meaning cheap-o gigs.

Beau supplemented his career (supported it, really) by performing on the street (sure beats selling drugs. Or junk bonds.) Or at Wrigley Field. Or in the subway on the platform. Essentially, he would go wherever there was likely to be large groups of people. That makes, uh, sense, right?

(It sure beats selling drugs. Or junk bonds.)

Large groups of people.

At some point in our relationship, he suggested I join him. He said that it was very good for your chops. Lot's of playing.

Pretty decent dough (you haven't lived till you've brought home $200 worth of quarters) too.

However, ahem ahem, it would take roughly 4-6 hours to make that kind of coin (get it? Coin? I slay me sometimes.) Also, it was a sax/drums duo, so it was very unusual. No bass. No chordal instruments. New territory for both of us, frankly.

In order to play for 4-6 hours, you need a lot of stamina, perseverance, and patience. You also need material. Any working musician knows that a large repertoire requires a lot of practicing and learning. Since we were playing 4-6 hours, and doing the cheap-o gigs, that didn't leave much time for practicing. Meaning on our own time in a room by ourselves. So where do you practice?

While you're on the street, working, of course.

Look, a street musician's audience is mostly transient. Kind of like a prostitute (but without the nasty diseases.) They walk up to you, they may or may not stop to listen, they may or may not drop a ducket in the bucket. Sometimes (and for Beau and me it was often, because we kicked ass, after a while) people would eagerly gather around and we'd have an actual crowd. That was always a ton of fun. People of all ages, races, religions, creeds, and colors. Exactly what you would expect in a major, supposedly international, city (that's really where this is going. Patience.)

The people, however, DO move on sooner, rather than later.

Even when they dig it.

The point is that there is a point where you run out of material. So what do you do? You play tunes many times a day. You play it over and over, tweaking and refining it. The musical freedom you are allowed on the street is like nowhere else. No band leader, no club owner, no booking agency to pay off, nothing like that. You're not even asked to draw your audience.

The ultimate DIY (read: the American Way.)

And it's music, the one true international language. If people like it, they pay. Or not. It's not a requirement. If people don't like it, they don't pay. Or maybe they do anyways (like I said, the American Way.)

We kept playing our limited-yet-growing material over and over. We're better off for having done that.

We were also required, as street performers still are, to purchase a license (the city ALWAYS gets her cut). So the city, one would assume, considers this a legitimate line of work, right?

Yeah, right.

In the Sun-Times last week, Chicago Alderman Brendan Reilly (42nd) introduced an ordinance in the City Council to curtail the already very-limited freedom of street musicians. He's claimed that, "Street performer noise comes up at literally every condo association I address."

"Imagine a boom-boom-boom for six hours outside your window. If you're trying to work, it sounds as if they're playing their instruments in your office. And it's tremendously disruptive . . . on residents."

Condo associations.

Trust fund babies.

Credit card hippies.

Investment bankers.

Chicago is allegedly an international city. So they say, anyways. The Mayor has been selling us out to obtain the 2016 Olympics to solidify that fact (we'll be right up there with Lillehammer, Norway, no doubt.)

One of the things that defines an international city is a fairly large population. Meaning a lot of people.

Meaning a lot of noise.

If you want peace and quiet and space and alienation from the rest of society, then you move to the country.

Or the suburbs.

You DON'T move into a downtown condo on Michigan Ave. That makes you just as annoying as the people who move next door to the airport and then complain that there is too much air traffic.

The good Alderman also cites the "criminal element" of street performers, particularly and specifically, the "bucket boys."

You know who they are. The kids who play drums on plastic buckets. Kind of like a drum corps for a college football team. Just less formal. They're (for the most part, anyways) pretty good, too. Believe it or not, it is a talent and a skill to play the same rhythms with the same stick patterns (including the twirling of the sticks and other show-biz tricks) among a group of people.

Besides, with the domination of American Idol, and things like that in our society, how can any form of musical entertainment not be considered legit?

"There is a criminal element. Some crews use their performance merely as a distraction to lure unsuspecting tourists. And there are people in those crews who are tasked with reaching into people's shopping bags, purses or wallets to make off with their valuables," Reilly said, noting some drummers have "lengthy criminal records."

Ok, point taken. Sometimes the (often quality) performance is a ruse in order to accomplish a bigger scam.

Are you listening AIG? Or Enron? Or the Investment Banking Industry? Or Bernie Madoff? Or George W. Bush?

Or Mayor "I razed Meigs Field in the middle of night under the cover of darkness with no witnesses or the press. So what?" Daley and the rest of the Chicago City Council?

Did I mention that the Bucket Boys are generally young black kids?

So it goes...

photo credit: Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times

1 comment:

  1. what idiocy. this is what makes cities alive. this is what makes cities exciting. this is what tourists come to see -- life in the streets. i've lived in new york and in paris, among other places. street music is a huge draw. people love it. people photograph it. people hang around in huge crowds to watch/hear it. anyone can get scammed/robbed anywhere, in any city, in a restaurant, in a bar, on a bus... etc. why single out the street musicians? do we want moribund, totally controlled and locked down cities? is that what we really want? do we want to lose those things that are at the heart of what our cities really are? places where people do interesting things and try to make money doing them? do we want to lose all our artists, musicians, writers, all our creative people? do we want our cities to die? in paris, the city is full of street musicians, street performers, sword swallowers, fire spitters, jugglers, musicians musicians musicians. there's a festival every year called fete de la musique, where music is all over the city, in the streets, the bars, the parks, everywhere, all night long in some parts. people love it. it's creativity. it's exciting. it's freedom. do we really want to lose that? do we want to be the city where the music died?