Category Archives: Music Industry

George and Nathaniel.  Names of two American boys growing up a decade apart.

One white.  One black.  Both pianists. Each came to be known by different names. The former was an orphan from New York.  The latter a preacher’s kid born in Alabama.  Music eventually brought the two together.

Rather than finish high school, Nathaniel Adams Cole (1919-1965) decided to take his music career to the next level.  His mom – the church organist – had taught him how to play as a boy. She had an impact on her whole family; four sons all pursued music careers in the 1930s and 40s.  Inspiration surely also came from the likes of Louis Armstrong, one of the many music icons Nathaniel would sneak out to see perform in nearby clubs.

Making a living as a jazz pianist and big band leader, he eventually formed his own band per the request of a club owner. They called themselves the “King Cole Swingsters,” taking a cue from the nursery rhyme: “Old King Cole was a merry old soul.”   Singing was never his goal, but once he got started, people raved about the voice of Nat King Cole.

1946 saw the debut of the 15 minute radio show King Cole Trio Time, and a number of hit recordings followed. Notably, he even got a TV show in 1956, The Nat ‘King’ Cole show on NBC.  After six months, they doubled the show length to 30 minutes. And six months after that, it ended. Despite an array of big name musicians trying to help recruit a national sponsor, the financing wasn’t secured. Shortly thereafter, Cole made the poignant remark that “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.” (‘Madison Avenue’ is a term sometimes used in reference to the advertising industry as a whole.)

Much of the country was afraid of the dark. When Cole bought a house in an all-white community of Los Angeles in 1948, the home owners’ association informed him that they didn’t want any “undesirables” around. His response?: “Neither do I.  And if I see anybody undesirable coming in here, I’ll be the first to complain.” He was greeted with a burning cross from the KKK on his new front lawn.

Interestingly, Cole initially avoided much involvement in the civil rights movement or racial issues.  He didn’t want to shake things up, and he even performed for segregated audiences into the fifties – much to the chagrin of peers who longed for him to use his platform to effect change. He eventually did just this, contributing to the Montgomery Bus boycott in ‘56, and helping coordinate efforts for the 1963 March on Washington, among a number of other political and social initiatives.

Jump back a few years to the packed out Lincoln Theater in Los Angeles.  It is 1947. Cole’s delicate vocal style has attracted someone to try to connect with him.  Someone who wants to share a piece of music.  Cole’s manager passes it along to him, and in short order Cole was performing it in his shows. In 1948 it was recorded.  The composer was not seeking fame.  In fact, he was hard to find at all.  There’s not really an address for “under the first L of the HOLLYWOOD sign.”

George Alexander Aberle, born in 1908, had been adopted at age nine and raised as George McGrew in Kansas.  He made his way to California in the 1940s, building on his career as a jazz pianist and band leader – just like Cole. He reached a different audience though.  Aberle played piano at a health food store and raw foods restaurant.  (I would take that job! When our local co-op recruited feedback on their expansion plans, I really should have suggested a piano.)

Following eccentric ideologies and lifestyles strongly emphasizing back-to-nature living, organic vegetarian diets, beard-growing, sandal-wearing, and deep thinking, Aberle and other followers of this lifestyle at the time were termed “Nature Boys.” He even changed his name to eden ahbez, insisting that God and Infinity are the only words that should be capitalized. (He was known to friends as “ahbe” – pronounced “AH-bee” – which, ironically is our oldest daughter’s nickname.) 

As one of America’s early hippies, ahbe roamed the countryside of California, at times making his home, as mentioned, under the famous sign above Los Angeles. “Mostly he slept where he gardened.” (see article below) This is where he was found when the publishers and media wanted to make deals and tell the world the story behind this hot new song.  “Nature Boy” was a No. 1 hit for eight weeks.  Imagine, this nomad of a man, being reviewed by Life, Time, and Newsweek magazines – simultaneously!  He actually had a number of songs that Cole and others recorded over time, as well as his own 1960 solo EP Eden’s Island.

Below is a powerful excerpt about the song, from a 1977 Los Angeles Times article written by Pearl Rowe, ahbez’s sister-in-law. The article gives a keen description of this unique man – it’s worth a read.

“It was a song that touched everyone.  Even the disenchanted buck-hungry stopped to listen and wonder where they had missed the final pay-off in their lives.  It was strange for those days of Cole Porter-like sophistication.  But it grabbed the imagination of a world still stunned by a terrible war and then a peace that never really came, a time when no one could find answers so they hopefully clung to the sweet philosophy of someone who had come from nowhere and soon belonged everywhere.”  From the Los Angeles Times calendar – Sunday July 24 1977.

“…It grabbed the imagination of a world still stunned by a terrible war and then a peace that never really came…”

ahbez was once asked about his perspective on race relations in America. He answered,

“Some white people hate black people, and some white people love black people, some black people hate white people, and some black people love white people. So you see it’s not an issue of black and white, it’s an issue of Lovers and Haters.”  source

If ahbez had had his way, the lyrics for this song would have been “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is to love and be loved, just to love, and be loved.”  Poetically not as fitting, but it does eliminate the implication of a deal being made.  As ahbez said “To be loved in return, is too much of a deal, and there’s no deal in love.” source

In February of 1965, Nat King Cole died of lung cancer at the age of 45. Thirty years later, in March of 1995, at the age of 85, eden ahbez died after a car crash.

Between the two of these men – the eccentric mystic vagabond, and the famous jazz professional – one white, one black, both socially ‘othered’ – is a snapshot of diversity and unity and collaboration and unexpected success.  The strangeness of it all is rather endearing.

LYRICS
“Nature Boy” by eden ahbez

There was a boy
A very strange, enchanted boy
They say he wandered very far
Very far, over land and sea

A little shy and sad of eye
But very wise was he 

And then one day
One magic day he passed my way
While we spoke of many things
Fools and Kings
This he said to me:

“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return.”

Listen to our recording of this song:

Sources:

featured image: elijah macleod via unsplash.com

Wikipedia –
Nat King Cole

eden ahbez

Nature Boy

http://shadowboxstudio.com/edenahbez.htm

Ties and Slurs and Jobs

I’m not not talking about clothing accessories and inebriated speech…just yet.

When reading them little black and white dots on top of all them lines, aka music notation, it’s really easy for beginners to confuse ties with slurs.  Both are graceful arcs between notes. The actual shape of the lines can be identical.  The purpose is very different, however.  Ties are about rhythm.  They connect the rhythmic event of one note to the rhythmic event of the same note later on and tie the two together in one rhythmic event. Slurs denote how a series of different notes should be played.  Slurs are drawn over a series of two or more notes that are different than one another but who share the same melodic idea.

Sometimes life and work is like reading music notation.  It looks like it’s black and white and you just have to make music out of it.  However, if you misinterpret the notation you’re going to fall flat….and on your face.

There’s so much that I love about being self-employed and in music.  The thrill of hearing my volunteer church choir lock into their chord.  The joy of hearing my voice students creating gorgeous music to express themselves. The fun of casting a vision for a new concert production and seeing it come to fruition through collaboration with a dedicated team of various talented friends.  I love it all.

Brian Tracy, in his book, Earn what You’re Really Worth says that income security can only be guaranteed when you do something that is A. Important, B. in Demand, and C. where you are Irreplaceable.

I know that music is important.  I know that my music performance/instruction/production is in demand and has been growing consistently over the past five years.  I’d like to think that I’m irreplaceable.

So why then am I looking for full-time work? Well, there’s a few.

  1. Work/Life Balance. Teaching thirty voice students at five different teaching studios has been exciting to have a somewhat regular flow of monies, but it makes for a difficult work/life balance.  The emotional cost to my family has been greater than the financial reward.
  2. Growing family, growing needs.  Yep.  Number 4 here we go!  We’re very excited to meet this little addition in October.  I’ll be more excited if we’re able to move into a different home by the end-of-summer.
  3. Self-Employed and you want a Mortgage?  Despite growing my own business for the past five years and experiencing some really cool successes/expansions with teaching/performing/producing, all I need is a couple of pay stubs at a new job and I’d qualify to buy a home for my family.  #thanxhousingmarketcrash

SO.  I’m looking for work that allows me to capture more of the value of my experience in a full-time W-2 “real” job.  The music won’t stop.  Don’t you worry.

After telling a friend of mine about my job hunt, he said that he was sad at the thought of me in a tie and a cubicle.  I understand that I don’t fit inside that box very well.  I’m hoping to God I get to do something that I’m passionate about where I can work with people, care about a cause and finally get paid to be the creative vision guy.  But most importantly, I welcome the tie if it comes with some economic security for my family.

I’m just going to read it as a slur and make it part of my melodic line.

Defining Success – The Entrepreneurial Musician

When informing people of my career path I am occasionally asked “Are you successful?” or, “Are you making a living?”  I appreciate the sentiment behind both of these questions.  People like to know what life is like for a professional musician and I am glad that a lot of folks care about how my family and I are doing, even when asking about my income.  However, this is a question that is hard to answer.  This is something I will wrestle with this week via the blog.

What is success in the life of a classically-trained operatically capable musical theater tenor?  I have not sung at Carnegie Hall.  I’ve had some successes, but does that make me a successful musician?  I have a couple of CDs  which you should purchase here.  The answer is…in terms of life on planet earth…no.  When people ask about success, what they really mean is…well, that other question, “Are you actually making enough money to pay for life?”

For a classically trained musician your income will probably be a concoction of many things.   Perform. Direct. Teach. Record. Compose. Produce.  Being able and willing to diversify your income is necessary.  How you do this determines whether you can be called an entrepreneur.

While my education at NWC and DU was exceptional and inspiring, as I learn about making life work as a musician I have frequently thought since then, “It would’ve been nice to learn about this in school.”  Being gifted in music, and having the knack and drive to complete a couple of degrees does not automatically make you an entrepreneur.  The qualities that make business-minded people excel are often the opposite qualities of an artist.

Willfulness. Perseverance.  Luck.  These words are some of what Fred Rosen used to describe an entrepreneur.  Rosen, the former owner and CEO of Ticketmaster, offered these words to Artists House Music.  He said that the two most important elements of an entrepreneur is that, in the second grade you failed the “plays well with others” and that you have a “monumental fear of failing” as this would be your “driving force….” when you are truly alone.  I have always been a nice guy and often prided myself at my willingness to fail for the sake of remaining positive.  According to Rosen I don’t have it.

I found a blog posting on growthink.com about the most successful entrepreneurial musicians of our day.  I was surprised that so many of their business ventures were outside of music.  I was also surprised that there were no classical musicians on the list.  I know they are not as popular, but some have become quite weathly via their entrepreneurship.

I don’t want to be the owner of conglomeration that may include restaurants, production companies, record labels, fashion designs, clothing lines, and at least one fragrance.  I don’t need the press, or media coverage.  I have no desire to become a sensation in and of itself.  I need a different definition of success.  It is not possible to sing very well when you’re consumed by a “monumental fear of failing.”  Nor would I believe it possible to live well and be a husband and father of any considerable good under such duress.  In singing, fear of failure produces tension which inhibits the sound.

In an article by Jon Foreman, lead singer of Switchfoot, he calls for “re-eappropriating the phrase “making a living.”  Perhaps instead we can think of a life in art, and following our passions as making life worth living.

I don’t have any plans for a fragrance, or even a label.  However, I have many thoughts about how to make music more accessible, enhance music appreciation, encourage funding for the arts, bridge across art forms, and create interesting and beautiful concert experiences.

I think I will start there.

That Sound We Want – The pressure of studio perfection on live performance

Gartner Auditorium at the Cleveland Institute of Art - the venue for recording Massif Trio's premier CD

Here is an interesting thing.  Most music consumers love perfect quality recordings.  Consumers and the industry together have developed a preferred “sound” that the public expects to hear when they listen to their i-tunes, CD’s, etc.  This “sound” is specific to every musical genre, however many genres have the goal of perfection in mind; no mistakes, no flubs, any hiccup and there’s another take.  Producers record massive amounts of material and edit it down to perfection.  Having worked with producers whose art is this process, I am impressed and thankful that they can make me sound so flawless.  But what’s the problem of striving for perfection via 100 takes?

First,

This perfection cannot be duplicated live.  The public goes to said live concert and hopes to be wowed by the perfection that they are accustomed to on the recording.  The result – pressure on the artist to meet the impossible standards of their own produced work.  How many singers tax their voice to the point of un-health in live performances?

Second,

The performance becomes a show.  Add attractive multi-sensory entertainment.  Anything from a cool set to pyrotechnics is enough to distract people from noticing that they sound different live.  A show is still art.  It’s just a different art than the music that preceded it.

Last,

I hope that someone’s art is truly an expression of their soul.  Would you enjoy a painting that was made by a robot?  Why do we enjoy a recording pieced together by a computer and a producer?  A friend recently commented that he can’t stand the recorded music of a certain Christian Contemporary Artist, but loved this individual’s live show.  Can any of you relate to this in other genres?

Is this pressure on performers good for the industry?  Would you rather hear good music or be entertained by a fun show?  What would it take for you to be ok with only live recordings of everyone in your collection? Do you prefer the perfect sound of highly engineered perfection, or freshly squeezed human authenticity?