Mentors are key.

Categories:  Inspiration, Life, Music, Uncategorized, Writing

I’m having lunch with an old friend I haven’t seen in a while. When I was still just a late-blooming music student/apprentice with a very unclear future, he was one of the very first full-fledged professionals who encouraged me to stick with my ambitions. Later on I had the pleasure of hiring him for various recordings and performances.

To think of him now is to remember what a cultural shift it was for me, moving from writing to music as my primary creative outlet. I’d had writing teachers and magazine editors who were extremely supportive, and without their help and vision I would never had achieved the modest publication successes of my 20s and early 30s. But at the end of the day, writers are loners who want nothing more than to get back to their desks. One of the most powerful and accomplished novelists I knew was once kind enough to say to me, “I’m here for you.” And I think she truly meant to be of help to me. But then she never managed to return my phone calls when I needed actual advice.

In music it was immediately different, because musicians are collaborators. It’s not unusual for a highly experienced professional to promote a newbie by sending gigs her way or even sharing the bandstand with her. There’s often a pretty clear two-way street, too, in which the younger musician gains experience from the older, while the older musician gets a career shot-in-the-arm by being associated with a fresh face. Musicians in the jazz tradition, especially, often want to remain hooked into youth culture as badly as their young counterparts want to learn the music’s history. It took me a while to be comfortable with this more open, fluid, and democratic creative culture. For a long time I felt apologetic and sheepish when approaching much more skilled and experienced musicians to ask them to play on my gigs. Even if I was offering to pay them at market rate, it was hard not to feel as if they were doing me a favor by deigning to play music with me. (Of course, there are certain hierarchies that do need to be observed. Medeski Martin & Wood will probably not agree to be my backing band for a wedding gig any time soon, no matter how much money I offer them.)

After a while, it dawned on me that most musicians are pretty pure of heart. Yeah, they want to make a living and be treated with respect for their expertise and dedication. But at the end of the day there’s really only one motivation: to have fun making music with other good musicians. The friend I’ll see today is that sort of pure-hearted fellow, and I was extremely lucky to have his influence at an early stage of my development. Maybe I should pick up the lunch tab.

  • Nancy Havlik

    I have also found musicians to be pretty “pure of heart”.

    • Hi, Nancy! Isn’t it refreshing, compared with the ego-driven BS that’s such a temptation in the arts? I’ve learned a lot about being human from musicians.