Writing is a solitary and sometimes lonely profession. Every writer, of course, works differently and it’s up to each to find the way that will lead to the most productivity. Some may be perfectly content to have family around, kids playing and even pets running back and forth. Others prefer, or need isolation, distancing themselves from even the smallest of distractions.
I’ve worked in a variety of situations over the years – including the aforementioned kids and pets – to the point where I could concentrate without the need for silence and isolation. Yet being a lifelong night owl, I was always awake hours after everyone had turned in, giving me that quiet time as well. And whenever I had an absolute deadline, even having to write a book in a week several times, I got it done. There was one thing, however, that was always close to me while I worked and continues to be, in fact more so now than ever. And that is music, namely jazz.
I won’t mince words. I appreciate other forms of music from classical to country/western, and early rock ‘n roll. But to me, jazz is special, America’s only original art form and the most emotionally wrenching and challenging music ever created. A good jazz musician can play other forms of music, but even the most technically trained musician in other genres won’t be able to grasp the improvisational nuances of jazz. My opinion, of course. With that said, let me try to explain what jazz has meant to me.
For openers, I love all genres of the music – Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet from the earliest days, right through the Big Band Era where Ellington, Basie and Artie Shaw are my favorites, and then to Bebop where so many more great musicians made their marks. Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Clifford Brown, Davis, Coltrane, Sonny Rollins. How can I omit Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and Earl “Fatha” Hines. Heck, there are just too many to name here. Then there are the singers. The big three of Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald all bring me to another place, especially when singing the Great American songbook. As does Louis with his vocals. And then we come to Sinatra. Not purely a jazz singer. But then again, he’s Sinatra. Enough said.
What does all this have to do with writing? For one thing, having jazz playing while I work not only relaxes me, but also encourages me. It’s a constant reminder of the artistry and creativity in the world and in this music. A great painting, great novel, or great sculpture takes time to create. All can be physically and mentally exhausting for the artist in one way or another. But a jazz musician can take his horn, keyboard or voice and create a masterpiece of a solo in a matter of minutes, one that cannot be duplicated. There’s an immediacy about jazz that is found nowhere else. And hearing it gives me an impetus to create, minute by minute, as the music plays.
Music has helped to teach me something else. One of the cornerstones of jazz is rhythm and timing. I learned a long time ago that’s there’s also rhythm to writing – every sentence, every paragraph, every chapter. And that’s what I strive for, to find that rhythm when I write. Am I always successful? Probably not. But there are certainly times when I’ll reread something I have written and feel that it works – except for one thing. The proper rhythm isn’t there. Then, I’ll edit and rework until I feel I’ve got it right. For me, in a sense, writing is a kind of music, and being that I’m creating – especially with fiction – it’s my form of jazz.
All things being equal, would I have preferred to be a jazz musician? Undoubtedly. I had an uncle who played the piano like Teddy Wilson and once turned down an opportunity to play in the Charlie Barnet Orchestra. Instead, he opted for a career in the military. I don’t think, given his talent, that I would have made the same choice. My father had an operatic-quality singing voice which he never fully developed. Unfortunately, though giving it a try with the clarinet and saxophone I just didn’t have the natural talent to perform at a high level. Alas, those aforementioned musical genes weren’t passed down to me. My love of literature led me to writing and it has been a long career, spanning four decades. I’m still at it after all these years and will continue as long as I can.
Even today, I listen to as much of the music I love as I possibly can. Though it serves as background while I work, I sometimes find my head and body moving to the rhythm. Other times, I’ll find myself typing to the beat of the music, as if my keyboard is a piano. And on occasion, without even thinking, I’ll suddenly stop and just listen as something special catches my ear, something so original and moving that it makes the hairs of my arms stand up. Then I’ll resume working, usually with a smile on my face and even a flutter in my heart.
That’s how great jazz affects me and, hopefully, it has helped make me a better writer.
You can contact Bill Gutman at: Bill@mikefargo.com.