Summer 2012 Retrospective: On Hustling, The Hang, and Autodidacticism

Here's the first definition for "hustle" from Urban Dictionary
Anythin you need to do to make money... be it sellin cars, drugs, ya body. If you makin money, you hustlin.
When I first moved to New York at the beginning of July, I heard "hustle" used pretty often by friends and musicians I spent time with. I didn't really know what it meant, but after observing at jam sessions, hangouts, and shows how different people go about making a career for themselves, I think I start to get the idea: to get gigs and to stay afloat, you've got to hustle. It's a lot deeper than just getting gigs, though. Above all when you hustle, you're acting in your self-interest—a fundamental principle of capitalism and economics—by whichever means you feel comfortable with and are capable of acting. Hustling might involve self-promotion, e.g., business cards, website, promo CDs, aggressive socialization, and what not; it might also mean that sometimes you do things your mother wouldn't necessarily approve of. You're "studying at Juilliard" (you're hanging out with cats at Juilliard), and, of course, you double on clarinet and can sight-transpose fluently (you haven't done either in quite a while, or ever, but if you get the gig—if—you'll spend a lovely weekend in the shed getting it together).

It seems to me that hustling is almost a way of life, another mode of existence that rarely goes by the same name at Harvard, for instance, but exists just about every place where competition between humans is a reality (I suppose we'd call it "climbing" or something, but in principle it's the same thing). As I figured out this summer, being polite is over-rated; it's essential to be good to work with, but you don't necessarily have to be "nice," per se. Like trying to catch the subway at rush hour, sometimes you've got to elbow around a bit to make things work for you. Although it does seem to be generally true that the rhythm section players who work most consistently and regularly are some of the nicest people you'll ever meet, it seems that horn players (who aren't nearly as essential or in demand in the severely overcrowded NYC "jazz labor market," to use a funky phrase I picked up the other day) often have to risk being seen as impolite for the sake of getting a foot in the door. This was something I did see happen, but I'm still on the fence as to how I'll negotiate the issue of hustling for myself in the coming years; I don't know how helpful it'd be to be the guy who gets the number of every cat at the gig, or the guy who brings sample CDs to the party (the not-jazz party).

But, hustling is a necessity for the 99% (all musicians). Probably one of the biggest differences I noticed between my friends who are musicians and those at Harvard was the range of problems people were dealing with (at least, those with whom I was in immediate contact): at Harvard, whether or not you can make the lottery to get into the Pulitzer Prize-winning professor's seminar might be the big stressor of the day; in New York, maybe you're way behind on your rent and you don't know when the next gig's coming. Real stuff.

So I picked up "hustling" this summer: maybe it'll catch on in Cambridge, but probably not; it's been a useful way of thinking about how to negotiate the world, though, and I think I'll keep it in mind. 

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Last night in New York: making $50 at the Highline
Another phrase comes to mind when I think about what happened this summer: "making the hang." Through high school and the past two years of college, I wasn't really making it. Part of it was that there wasn't much of a hang in high school (rural central New Jersey); another part of it was that in college, I often couldn't motivate myself to get out there. It's crucial, though, and although there might be the dark, distantly creeping hustling motivation behind making the hang, I really liked just being around musicians more often. Of course you learn about music—what's the latest gossip, what the records to check out, etc.—but it's really more about the sense of community that was stressed so much at Banff. It is better when you make some cash with your friends, but even when you're not, it's great. Some of the best times I had this summer were making the trip from Smalls or Fat Cat to the L Train at 3 a.m. or beyond. If I hadn't been hanging, I would never have known that going to 8th Ave. at that time of night is better than 6th Ave., since you can since in the air-conditioned train while it's waiting to pull out from the L train terminus, rather than steaming on the 6th Ave. platform. 

Courtesy of the wonderful Hyungjin Choi
A word from the lexicon that I'd like to write more about in the future is "dark," as in, "He's a pretty dark cat." It's easy to get dark (bitter, jaded, pessimistic) as a musician, especially when you're seeing other guys around you make it and you start getting those thoughts like, "Man, how did he get that gig? I should have gotten the gig." This kind of stuff happens in any profession, although typically if you're not doing music and you studied something "marketable" in college, you probably have a more steady and perhaps more sizable income than most young musicians, which alleviates the darkness a bit. Levity made a big impression on me: being light, taking things easy—it does make a difference. Even if that means you play a minor version of "Days of Wine and Roses" as a joke/thought experiment with your friends, the bearable lightness of being is something I'll hopefully keep in mind this year.

* * * * *

I've strongly believed for a while that teaching yourself is the way to go for most things. It's hard to say whether the reason so many greats in history were autodidacts (partially or primarily) is more because of an inherent passion to learn or because the method itself is more effective, but approaching the study of jazz with the same level of detail and rigor as I would the study of English has been incredibly effective, I think. If a close reading of a stanza of Yeats would involve the examination of diction within lines, metrical patterns, prosody, and more, wouldn't it make sense to check out a Coleman Hawkins line with the same attention to detail? 

In the end, this kind of study is all about getting the feeling of the music, I think. Checking out which notes Hawk puts vibrato on, how much and which notes he lays back on, which notes he tongues and which he doesn't and which he does some in-between air tongue—all of that stuff contributes to improving the feeling in playing, rather than the achievement of any rarefied conceptual goal. This does relate to the transcribing I've been doing this summer: I'd agree with Dave Liebman's approach to transcription, which I've heard involves the close reading of a couple solos over the course of months. A couple months might be a bit much for me, but checking out a solo line by line for a week or a few doesn't seem unreasonable, and it's been doing a lot for my playing. 

So, this summer in a nutshell: politeness is overrated, hustling is a way of life, the hang = community, feeling is #1, playing great requires playing strong (and being strong), and levity is the antidote to darkness. Enforced gratitude is the absolute worst, but there is no enforcer for this, and I can't thank enough all the people I met this summer who taught me about living and music, which to some are the same thing. Thanks to the New School folks who made me feel like an honorary student, and the older musicians who helped me navigate my way through this 2012-era morass—I feel like I know where I'm going, or, at the very least, where I'd like to go.