Published on August 17th, 2006 | by Bill Perry Jr.0
The Modern-Day Musician – Part 1: Reason and Purpose
Not to say there’s not a great variety of good music today, which of course is a matter of taste and preference, but when you look at the state of popular music in this new millennium, the 21st century, it makes you wonder if this music now will be remembered and revered like Jazz, Blues, Rock, Country, and Hip-Hop were in the previous century.
Can we begin to compare, say, Tupac Shakur to Miles Davis? Will people speak of Tupac 50 years from now like we speak of him today? Will we discuss his body of work with the same reverence and respect we approach Miles’ work? Well, considering that there are college courses that teach about Tupac’s music and his life, I believe he will be remembered in such a fashion… but only time will truly tell!
Can we see traces of Billie Holliday in Erykah Badu or Jill Scott? Can our modern-day icons hold up to these legendary figures of music? I guess this is a matter of opinion and who you ask, but is there truly any “real” breakthroughs happening in music today, like when Be-Bop took over the Jazz scene in the 40’s and 50’s, or when Jimi Hendrix changed the way guitarists would approach that instrument after his avant-garde style? Well, if you’re an optimist like me, you would like to believe that there is indeed a “new movement” emerging in the shadows of clubs and home studios throughout the world, especially with the internet in existence, which creates the widest musical variety humans have ever known…and it’s steadily expanding!
I was having a casual conversation one evening with Dennis Herring, owner of the Sweet Tea studio and record label in Oxford, Miss., and I was rambling on about if we’ll ever see another major breakthrough in music anytime soon, considering everyone seems to sound alike in a lot of ways, and he said that there’s probably some kid somewhere in his or her room, rockin’ out to themselves creating in private what will be as significant a change in music as Charlie Parker or Jimi Hendrix were in their lifetimes. I liked Herring’s optimism about the whole thing, and his faith in musicians and their capabilities to expand and transcend beyond “the norm” and the ability to create something new… evolution is a fact in all things!
Getting back to the issue of popular music, during the times of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven, their music was considered very popular, in the mainstream sense of the word, but their music was also profound and very influential for future generations to grow from.
Can we truly grow from say, the lyrics of “Yeah” by Usher? Alright ladies, don’t hate me for that…I dig some of Usher’s music. And not to say every song should hold within it some deep and profound message or statement buried in the music, but is it wrong to ask for a little substance from our artists?
By now I’m probably coming across sounding like a “purist” like Pulitzer Prize winning Jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis is accused of being because of his views on keeping Jazz music “real,” but I’m trying to stress the importance of remembering the fact that music IS art first and foremost, and before you embark on any musical endeavors, you should always remember to maintain respect and humility for music… it’s the only way you can grow as an artist.
Music is Divine! And as for the musicians who the public entrust to produce new and enlightening music, they must realize the importance in always trying to reach beyond oneself artistically, so they can produce something new. And the only way to do that is to look deep within you, as well as going against the “norm” and going through, not around, the conventional, orthodox styles of today. In other words, we need a new musical revolution!
As my father Bill “Howl-N-Madd” Perry Sr. puts it, music has the power to change the world around it, even during turbulent times. Bob Marley’s music got two opposing movements in his home country of Jamaica to join forces at one of his live concerts… and these two sides were killing each other at the time. But Marley’s music and positive outlook on humanity that rang through in his music inspired these feuding parties to lay down their differences, if for just one moment in time, to come together for this event.
The power of music indeed!
And yes, there are those of us who see themselves as “the new movement” in music today, however pretentious and bold that may sound.
Most artists in all genres of music see themselves as innovators, but frankly, you can still hear the “stylistic sameness” in every style of music that exists today, from Hip-Hop, Rock, and Jazz, to the “new schools” of music like Jungle, Techno, and Drum & Bass (*DnB), which the DJs of the world have claimed as their own “musical movement”.
I struggle myself with trying to produce something new… it is an incredible task for all musicians to pursue. But if we don’t try to look a little deeper into our sound, then we are forced to continue down the same paths that have already been traveled, and in turn become a generation of imitators.
For example, when I play jazz piano at any given event, I try to first “speak the language” of jazz musically to the best of my ability to establish a certain vibe, then I begin to search for a way to express Jazz piano from a “Generation X” perspective, while still maintaining the colors of Jazz.
And getting back to the DJs, I know and work with some DJs and I must say, they do seem to have a grasp on the idea of “expanding their musical frontiers” beyond the popular mainstream, or what you’re “told to like” in a sense.
It’s like an Ivan Pavlov experiment, where the media conditions the public to “salivate” to a certain sound and accept it as “cool” or the “it” sound of the moment. That’s all fine and dandy if you’re just looking for “the hits”, which is your average consumer and listener, but for the musician it should be a deeper mission involved with the creative process. Also I believe a lot of musicians who do have great new ideas and concepts about music are either apprehensive or afraid to test these ideas out on a public who can be harsh, and even cruel, when it comes to establishing a new sound or idea that’s not already in the mainstream, or if you deviate from a style you’re known for to experiment with other ideas (i.e. Bob Dylan and Miles Davis going “electric”).
So are we to say that the mainstream media (MTV, VH1, etc) are to blame for this “disintegration” of the music scene? I have mixed feelings about this question… the reasons being that in the end, people make up their own minds on what they want to hear, and also it’s up to the artists who owe it to themselves and the public to be more than just the “same ol’ deal”.
Another big problem that modern musicians have about secular or popular music is that they don’t want to “sell out” to the mainstream because it will “damage their art” in doing so. That can be true, if you’re not looking out for your art and its “integrity”. But other than that, it’s not a very strong argument, but rather a fear of succeeding in the mainstream world of the music industry. This to me is a narrow-minded argument because those of us who are actually living the “starving artist” role are trying hard to make music our careers, and should therefore try to reach as many people in the world as possible. And in all honesty, to reach such a broad audience, you need the “evil empire” of mainstream media to expand your fan base…unless you’re content with playing clubs and small venues for the rest of your life… and for some musicians, that’s enough…. or at least they “put up a front” that they’re content.
And also for some musicians, positioning themselves for “big time” stardom creates a paradox in their minds because of the uncertainty of what’s to come once they’ve made it, and this also creates a conflict of interest with wanting to succeed in the music industry. Becoming successful, however, does not legitimize your plight in becoming a “true musician” per se, but becoming successful in music enables you to inspire and entertain people beyond your own means of promoting your music to the masses.
And to be blunt, if you’re “financially handicapped” (P.C. for “poor”…lol), you need to have some capital to build upon, enabling you to pursue your musical endeavors with more financial security for your efforts in promoting your sound to the world; your musical aspirations are only limited to your imagination.
Ultimately, if you truly desire to make music your life and a way of expressing yourself and your ideas, try to look for the Divinity in music. What do I mean, you ask? Well, try to aspire for those rare moments when the music you hear around you takes you to that “other-worldly” place that only music can take you; when everything is “in the pocket” and the music is going smoothly. You can achieve this state of musical nirvana through performing music with pure passion as well as listening to music for its essence and how it makes you feel, rather than listening to a song simply because it’s a “hit”.
Remember when you were a kid and it didn’t matter what you listened to, as long as it made you feel good you dug it? That’s the innocence I’m asking you to “channel”….humble yourself before music like a child. Try to listen to music with your soul and your heart, as well as your ears, which many musicians tend to forget once they begin performing and recording music on a regular basis….even I have “lost touch” with that innocence at many stages of my musical development…every musician is susceptible to forgetting the essence of music.
We must all stay in the practice of maintaining humility in the presence of the divine entity, which is music! We must try to create with more substance and depth if we are to grow from our current creative stagnation in modern music. I’m trying to do my part by staying productive and maintaining love and respect for the art of sound. We must become “one with music”, and in turn we become one with the universe through sound.
Allow the Creator of the Universe to enter your soul through music, releasing sounds and visions within you that were once hidden from you.
So in closing my fellow musicians try to maintain a real sense of reason and purpose with your music. Music is only misunderstood to those who do not comprehend its true intent, which is to entertain, inspire, uplift, enlighten, and in its purest form, to simply be sound! I leave you with this quote I came across when I was reading the Autobiography of Miles Davis by Miles Davis and Quincy Troupe, “A musician’s attitude is the music he plays”. I bid you adieu fellow artists.
This article was originally printed in The Local Voice #9 (published August 17, 2006).