Passing Notes - The Labor of Music

Labor Day was made an official holiday by President Grover Cleveland in 1894. Cleveland was trying to appease labor organizations and unions in the United States after another tense nationwide strike.  Of course the September date of Labor Day was far far away from May 1, International Workers Day, the celebration of the labor movement so chosen because of another ugly event in US labor history, the Haymarket Affair in Chicago in 1886.  You can look all this stuff up, of course, but the point is, the American Labor Day is, you know, different, exceptional, when you think about it in relation to what other countries do.  Sort of like how we still use inches, feet, gallons, and miles and the rest of the world uses the metric system.

Part of the working world in the past – and in the present – is made up of working musicians, those singers, instrumentalists, arrangers, and conductors who produce live music.  Back in the day before all of this newfangled music technology there were lots and lots of musicians who played music live for all kinds of occasions: dances and drinking, public and private occasions, parades and promenades, religious services – you name it. 

Who knew that with the arrival of the player piano in the 1870s, the writing was on the wall—however faitly?  The days of many working musicians were numbered.  The number was very large, but you get the idea. Now, in the early days of sound recording, the playback quality was so bad that musicians didn’t really have to worry too much about it as a threat to their livelihood.  The vaudeville halls and even the silent films kept many musicians gainfully employed well into the 1920s, but with the arrival of the talkies – sound pictures, radio pictures --  in the 1930s, tougher times were ahead.  When the talkies hit New York, for instance, they put 3200 pit musicians out of work in the space of a few years.

Jazz as dance music survived pretty well –in its more consumable forms both as rhythm and blues and swing – but over the late 1940s and the 1950s jazz became more a music to be listened to than danced to.  Instead of entertainment, many jazz artists insisted that what they were doing was art.  Fair enough.  Art it is.  It is art.  For a while, people sat down and listened.  That was a great period in the music.  In New York, again, 52nd Street came alive famously with music night after night.

Of course, most working musicians had to deal with low wages, lousy conditions, secondhand smoke, and, in New York again, the highly discriminatory Cabaret Card system, which allowed city officials to revoke the right of musicians to perform, sometimes for the most arbitrary reasons.  Television, radio, hi-fi systems, and suburbanization all helped to kill jazz and other live music venues. In New York, by the time the cabaret card system was abolished in 1967, jazz venues were few and far between nationally – and rock was ascendant.

It was the worst of times for jazz and for many working musicians.  Some dropped out, some burned out, some fled to Europe. Census statistics show that during the 1970s the percentage of American workers who called themselves professional musicians was at an all time low.  Among the people, saturated with hundreds of choices of hits old and new, music fans could listen to whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, at whatever volume they liked.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the record store.  Starting in the 1980s, some people had had enough.  Live music – of all forms – slowly became something in greater demand.  People wanted the live experience – excitement, presence, energy, creativity.  Again, if you look at the Census statistics, from 1980 to the present, there has been a slow but steady increase in the percentage of Americans who identify themselves as working musicians.  Go figure.  And the downloading digital age has accelerated this trend – with more types of music available much more cheaply, the live experience -- with just the right music for you – is all the more sought after.  There’s nothing like hearing it in person for the first time.

So, this Labor Day, honor the working musicians in your life, your neighborhood, your city.  Go to a gig.  Listen.  Maybe you can dance.  Enjoy the unique magic of that singular experience.  Then go home and practice your instrument.  You might be America’s next live music star.  Just don’t expect a big record deal.

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