I’ll admit to having a conflicted relationship with organized sports. Now before you turn the page, I promise this month will include some musical moments, and please do read to the end as I’ve a special request (or challenge if what you read herein turns you pugilistic). But to get there, I must share the atmosphere in my home as a young child. While both my parents encouraged my musical growth, my father was (and still is at 83) a jock. He skied, he earned his black belt in karate, he was an expert marksman, he played tennis (now he’s turned to that “overnight” hit, although invented over 50 years ago—Pickle Ball); up until recently, he’d play hockey three times a week with guys 20-40 years younger than he was. I was tall and slim with long legs and arms. He had big athletic plans for me.
For his initial attempt to lure me into a team sport, remembering how much I loved skating in the winter on a nearby frozen pond, he enlisted me in a junior hockey league. On the pond I could meander at a relaxed speed with no direction in mind; now I had to keep up with everyone else, wear a helmet and mask, elbow and knee pads, carry a stick, and lurch around trying to make contact with a (hard) black rubber object until I fumbled it into a net. Charlie Chaplin couldn’t have taken more pratfalls, but my constant falling made me feel like a prat!
The coach took pity on me and, since I was the biggest kid on the team, made me goalie. FanTAStic! At least half the time the action would be on the other side of the rink, and I’d be safe. THEN, at least a dozen times a game, would come the moment when 10 eager six-year-olds would come screaming at mach-10 (at least to my petrified perception) towards the net…and me. To compound the agony, the coach had expertly taught (almost) all of us to skate very quickly but hadn’t gotten around to instructing anyone how to stop, so I’d end up in the net underneath a pile of ten stick-flailing, kicking, biting Gordie Howe-wannabes. To say the ordeal was Orr-ful…well, is a horrible pun.
Undaunted, my father took me to Tae Kwon Do. I learned to kick, punch, break boards…skills that would’ve come in handy on the skating rink…but couldn’t manage the twenty pushups on knuckles our instructor insisted we do when we made a mistake, and I made a lot of them! I was, even at the age of nine, afraid for my hands and so only managed to achieve an orange belt.
I also had a brief stint in elementary intramural football. I was the tallest and fastest kid on the team but was booted after the tenth time I caught the ball (by mistake I assure you) and ran like the wind…NOBODY could catch me!!…straight into the other team’s endzone!
My father suggested track, reasonably positing that I couldn’t lose my way on an oval with lanes. I kept stopping to flirt with girls or look at the flowering weeds or count the seats in the bleachers. I didn’t last long at that one either.
Baseball? He took me to a few games, and I was bored to tears. Ninety percent of the time, NOTHING happens, and then there’s a frenzied burst of activity! A musical equivalent of watching a baseball game would be attending a concert comprised of repeated performances of John Cage’s 4’33” interspersed with the final 16 bars of “Cakewalking Babies From Home.”
At his wit’s end, Dad took me to a basketball game. He knew I liked lots of action (we’d also tried soccer, but I kept forgetting to not use my hands). Because he was aware I also liked comedy, he took me to an exhibition game by the Harlem Globetrotters and whatever unfortunate team had drawn the short straw to share the court with them. I laughed, I loved it! We got home and my proud dad turned to his beaming 11-year-old son and asked, “What did you get out of that, then?” My reply was unexpected: “I loved how funny it was and their theme song is terrific!” I ran over to the piano and began to try and figure out “Sweet Georgia Brown.” To his credit, five years of trying to make a sports fiend out of me came to an end.
I really haven’t changed in the intervening 45 years. If I’m not working on Super Bowl Sunday, I’ll watch the game wherever I am as an excuse to drink too much and eat REALLY unhealthy foods (although I’ll admit I find Animal Planet’s “Puppy Bowl” earlier in the day just as entertaining). I’m just not part of the sports-obsessed culture that rules this country. I’ll not be incendiary here by comparing arenas hosting team sports to the Roman lions-vs-Christians spectacles–events that aimed to use diversion and bloodletting to quell a nation’s discontent–nor resort to invective concerning the disparate dispersal of resources regarding athletics and the arts on the local, state and federal levels here in America. I’ll simply ask why ours is a country that deifies successful athletes at all stages of education from kindergarten through college while largely ignoring those with an artistic bent. Many countries with sports obsessions (Brazil and football—American soccer—) are equally supportive of the arts. Our National Endowment for the Arts is about as well-endowed as a eunuch in a harem and funding continues to shrink.
That’s not the insidious part. Recently I acted as Artistic Director for a music festival that occurs on a college campus. It’s a high-class show, marred only by the continual struggle for financial support at the same time the Athletic Department, along with other schools in their division, just received a $75,000,000 dollar increase in funds…each!! So, I thought I’d use some humor, making up a scenario to galvanize the festival audience to dig into their pockets and give a few bucks to our event, joining the too few, but very generous, sponsors we already had.
“Thank you all for being here, ladies and gentlemen,” I started out. “A special thanks to you sponsors out there. As you know, ours is a shoestring budget. We’re always looking for ways to raise funds to continue this annual event. Looking at the college landscape and seeing the vast arenas housing sports, I was struck that perhaps the Athletic Dept. had a few stray dollars to share. So, I called them up and asked, ‘Could you possibly find it in your hearts to donate one percent of one percent of one percent of the profits you make from the next home game of any sport? If so, we can keep our event going until 2123!’”
I was waiting for chuckles and received gasps of horror: this David was likely to be drawn-and-quartered for going up against Goliath. [N.B. When I shared this anecdote with my dear friend, the incredible pianist Brian Holland, who is WAAAYYYY more culturally aware than am I, he too looked at me in abject terror, and said, “No. No! No, No, No, you NEVER bring up the money sports pulls in…not endowments, salaries…I’m surprised you’re still alive.”] That night, I saved myself by waiting five beats and intoning, “And, surprisingly, they hung up on me!” The result was good-natured snickers, and I didn’t have to do twenty pushups on my knuckles. But I’m still disturbed by the draconian hold sports has on our conversation…
I tell this story partly to exorcise my demons, but more to encourage all of you to try and increase your (and your friends) participation in the arts: music, dance, theater, any and all! In the “preaching-to-the-choir” category, if you’re reading this column and this paper, you hold a high value in the hot music we love, whether it be ragtime, classic jazz, swing or any combination of them; you are among the few indoctrinated into the religion of rhythm. We need more exposure, we need more support, we need more arenas. The Syncopated Times is trying to expand their reach of influence in the form of podcasts, production of documentaries and other videos for YouTube, compiling albums for Bandcamp and bringing Syncopated Times Radio back from the ashes. And that’s just the start. Once they achieve “not-for-profit” status, Andy Senior (who I like to call “William Randolph Hurts” as he’s putting his own money into the continuation of this paper) and Joe Bebco will have some freedom to spread the influence of this publication and get the joyous word of righteous syncopation out to more people.
To that end, although as a full-time performer of ragtime, early Tin Pan Alley and pre-bop jazz I don’t have to apply to be “non-profit” I’m donating a portion of this month’s stipend for my columns to the GoFundMe he has started to become a 501c3. I urge everyone reading this to do the same. $7.50, $75.00, $75,000,000; no amount is too small, and as I told the sponsors at that festival on the college campus, “no amount is too large.” Thank you for reading to the end and thank you for your support!
You can contribute and follow our progress at www.gofundme.com/f/syncopated-times