Sunday, 8 March 2009

Watermelon Man

There's a concert on Wednesday at my school. In it I'm playing a piece called Watermelon Man. This is all just so the title makes sense. Anyway, I love it. It's a jazz tune, so I improvise for a few minutes after playing the main theme through. In order to do this better, I found myself on Youtube searching for every performance I could find, by every artist, so I could see their take on it, and maybe get some inspiration.

What I found made me reconsider how I looked at music in general. I think everyone needs a way to express themselves, and mine is when I pick up my sax and play, usually very badly, but I play it nonetheless. And that's why I like the jazz side of things - I can pretty much be as expressive as I want. If I'm in a bad mood, expect straight quavers, punched-out scales and me being as out-of-key and melancholy as I feel. On the other hand, if I'm feeling upbeat, I'll throw out those ridiculous high notes which usually fail but sound ecstatic if they work. That sort of freedom can't be found in many other genres, not belittling them in any way.

Anyway, the video I found was an original recording by the guy who wrote Watermelon Man, Herbie Hancock, talking a little about where he got his inspiration for the piece. It was about a street vendor who, for some of the kids in Harlem, was the happiest thing they'd see all day, and who'd give them discount watermelons. It was about finding joy even through adversity. These were the days, of course, when racism was unthinkably commonplace - black people lived in ghettos attached to American cities. The most exciting thing for a kid maybe my little brother's age back then would have been a free watermelon.

I felt guilty. Incredibly guilty. I'd been thinking that when I was playing I was truly expressing myself, that the music coming out the end of my sax was mine and mine alone, and that I was conveying just a little bit of what I love and how I feel to whoever happened to be listening. But it turned out that all I was was a rich white kid playing music written about adversity and hardship the likes of which, due to dumb luck, I could never even imagine. I felt like I was bastardising his music, imitating him, pretending that I had experienced things that he had. I felt like I had stolen a part of him, that I was expressing something which I had no right to.

Then I figured that I had to do my best to convey what he'd been thinking about when he wrote that tune, and in some way make him proud that his music was reaching other people. I still feel bad that I'm in some way trying to be someone I'm not, which goes against everything I believe - and defeats the point of me playing in the first place. Holden Caulfield would call it "phony". (Just an aside - I recently read that book for the second time and for God's sake if you haven't read The Catcher in the Rye yet go do it. They sell it in Tesco for about £6)

Whenever I turn on the radio I usually get angry. Whenever I hear that processed shit, written by someone whose name you'll never know, and performed by someone who can only sing because they're digitally remastered to do so. The Rihannas and Chris Browns of this world. That's isn't music! That's the equivalent of squeezy cheese. There's no expression, no feeling, no emotion in there. Like everything else beautiful in this world, it's been sold out in the name of the relentless pursuit of money, fame and fortune.

So anyway, I'm now stuck. I'm gonna play my heart out anyway, but still it won't take away that uneasy feeling that I'm stealing someone else's glory. I know it's irrational, and I know that if anything, he's probably glad that his music is being opened up and heard by another person, but I just hope I do it justice. And there's a lot of me in that piece as well. I sat down at the piano and wrote one tune the other day. It's alright. You listen to it and you can tell how stressed I was. Fuck me, it's manic.

Problem is, I doubt I'll ever be good enough that anyone will really listen to the stuff I write. So here's yet another catch-22 to fall into. I guess what I'm trying to say is that everyone needs an outlet for what's in them, some way of communicating that to the outside world. Whether it's bad poetry, bad music or bad art, at least it's better than that shit the radio keeps throwing out. At the end of the day, Herbie wouldn't mind. I hope.

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