Here at NYU I am exposed daily to some of the most talented and successful musicians in the world. I’ve never been (and likely never will be again) surrounded by such a diverse and eclectic group of true musical masters. By virtue of this, I’m gaining a clearer picture of what it takes to “make it” in the musical world. No, I cannot point to a single factor that will guarantee musical success—  anyone who is in the business of reducing success to a single factor is probably trying to sell you something. There are always many unique elements— talent, discipline, luck, influential friends, facial symmetry, instrument choice, era, location, etc.— that may have lead a musician to his or her brand of success. Yet among the multitude of varying success factors, there is one thing that I think all the musical masters have: Love.

That’s right kids, buckle up, because this blog post might get a little sappy.

This seems obvious, but it is worth stating anyway: you have to love music to be successful at music. True, I can’t think of any musician I know who doesn’t love music, but I can think of a lot of musicians (myself included) who sometimes forget about that love because we are distracted by concerns like making money with music, pleasing an audience, or becoming a better musician. There’s certainly nothing wrong with considering those things, but I think it is important that they not cover up the essential fact that we are doing all of this because we just love music.

This semester I have the incredible honor of taking both an improvisation class and a guitar ensemble with the great John Scofield. By all measures John Scofield is one of the greatest and most important living musicians— he is an incredible guitarist and a prolific artist who has recorded and performed alongside jazz legends such as Chet Baker, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Herbie Hancock, Jim Hall, Tony Williams, Joe Henderson, and many more. Here is a man who (rightfully) could carry an air of self-importance— and yet what shone through when I met and interacted with him was just a selfless, joyful, and gracious love for music. After a two hour guitar ensemble in which he patiently played arrangements of his songs (at much slower tempos) with me and four other guitarists, he then treated us all to an impromptu rendition of the beautiful standard Days of Wine and Roses. It is clear that he doesn’t think of himself as “the great John Scofield” the way that we do as fans. Instead, he is the great musician that he is because he maintains a deep love for music that pushes him to keep playing, learning, and listening.

On Wednesday I was treated to another lesson in love by the delightful Mary Scott,  the widow of the English saxophonist and jazz club owner Ronnie Scott. Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club opened in 1959 and has been the most important jazz venue in London ever since. In 1964 Mary Scott, an avid lover of jazz, ditched her nursing studies and began working at Ronnie’s, thus beginning a long series of interactions with some of the greatest jazz musicians of all time. She spoke to all of the NYU jazz studies grad students about the onstage power and offstage antics of people like Ben Webster, Chet Baker, Stan Getz, Buddy Rich, Wes Montgomery, and countless others. She told us that when Bill Evans played there you could hear a pin drop in the room because everyone in the audience was listening to the beautiful music with rapt attention. She said that Sonny Rollins would always treat the club staff to an after hours solo concert that would sometimes last until the sun came up. All the while that she was telling us these amazing stories, Mary was glowing with sincere love for the music and musicians.

Again, there are countless reasons that Mary Scott and John Scofield have gotten to live the incredible lives that they’ve lived. You cannot discount the luck of simply being at the right place at the right time. Yet John and Mary’s experiences couldn’t have happened to just anyone. A fundamental reason that John Scofield has gotten to perform and record with brilliant musicians and that Mary Scott has gotten to hear them and know them personally, is that each has a deep devoted love for the music.

A lot of things need to go right for you to be success in anything. I can’t tell you what the right conditions are for you to become a famous musician, or a well known author, or a brilliant inventor— I’ll leave it to Malcom Gladwell to tease all of those out. However (no matter how corny it sounds) I do know one thing: you have to have love.

World's Smallest Studio
World’s Smallest Studio

Before arriving in New York City I was excited about the prospect of turning over a new leaf in such a lively place. I was convinced that I was going to work harder than I ever had before— I would write, record, play gigs, excel in school and promote myself ceaselessly. For I knew that if I did these things that I would grow musically, enhance my career, meet some incredible people, and learn countless lessons that I would carry with me for the rest of my life. Yet as anyone who has ever set a new year’s resolution knows, it feels great to dream up a grand new life, and it feels bad when you inevitably fall short of your goals. Thus, I was feeling blue last week because (in addition to America electing it’s first cartoon super-villain president) I felt like I was falling short of my musical and personal goals for my time in NYC. Sure, I’ve been going to school, doing my work, and paying my bills— there’s no reason for anyone else to be upset with my behavior here, and yet I am disappointed in myself because I know in my heart that if I truly want to succeed in music here or anywhere else, there is much more that I could be doing. So I did what I always do when I’m feeling down on myself: I made a list of things that I could do to make myself feel better.

1. Seek out gigs. Why? Because performing has been such a large and positive part of my life for the past nine years and I’m sad to say that I haven’t played a single gig since I’ve been here. I yearn to perform, and I absolutely have to if I want to become a part of the New York City musical community.

2. Talk to David Schroeder, the director of the NYU jazz studies department. Why? Because I’ve had something on my chest since I enrolled in school here—namely that I do not think that I am a “jazz musician.” I absolutely love learning from the many jazz masters who teach at NYU, but I needed to bring it to light that I am interested in playing a great many other genres and that it is likely that I am not going to make my millions (or thousands, or dozens) strictly playing jazz.

3. Play music with someone. Why? Because I’ve been spending far too much time cooped up in a small room practicing music, and not enough time actually making music with other people. As I’ve written before, playing music alone and never doing it with others is merely masturbation.

4. Call the producer of a short film that I am scoring. Why? Because I wanted to clarify some of our goals and deadlines, and it is better for me to be proactive than to passively wait on her guidance.

5. Go play pickup basketball. Why? Because I love pickup basketball. It’s fun, therapeutic, social, and there’s no better sound than a crisp swish.

I am very proud to say that in addition to fulfilling my usual school duties, I achieved all five of these goals this week. I booked a couple of gigs for mid-December, I had a wonderful heart to heart with David Schroeder, I played music with a couple of classmates, I got in touch with the producer, and I played pickup basketball. Each achievement momentarily infused me with joy and confidence and yet, on Friday after I had accomplished all of them, overall I still felt low. The good news is that I’ve lived long enough to learn that sometimes my sadness is not a result of outer circumstances, but just part of the natural ebb and flow of my spirit. You cannot have happiness without experiencing sadness, and I’m likely experiencing a natural low after the incredibly exciting high of being a New York City newcomer. I’m oddly at peace with my sadness, for I know it will pass and give way to joy again. Such is life.

So Friday night I was feeling sleepy and sad as I was taking the Subway home—I got off of the A train in order to transfer to the C, when I was suddenly face to face with a vivacious young subway performer wearing a red tie prancing around singing Holly Jolly Christmas along to a backing track. Now I’m generally uninspired by the song Holly Jolly Christmas (especially before Thanksgiving), but there was just something so enjoyable about watching this little dude sing it. He followed up Holly Jolly with his final number of the evening: a highly dramatic dance routine to a high-energy club song. It is comical for me to write this, but I sincerely mean it— that little guy’s sparkling dance routine brought me back to life. I felt intense joy at watching him so freely and spontaneously express himself. Coincidentally, if you go to his instagram page (@masterblasterg) you can actually see video of this exact moment. Scroll down to the video titled “Dance because you can” and you’ll see me in the background, first languidly looking at whatever distraction I have pulled up on my phone, and then by the end, flashing a huge grin.

As he was packing up his gear I went over to slip him a tip and talk to him. His name is Gabriel Angelo and he is 17 years, and he had the same effervescent personality in conversation that he does while performing. I asked him what his musical goals are, and he told me (with a dramatic wave of his hands) that he wants to do more shows than anyone ever has in the world, and to heal people with his music. You’ll have to suspend your cynicism to read this (as I have to suspend mine to write it) but he did heal me that night. I cannot describe it any other way than to say that in watching him sing and dance, he transmitted his pure joy directly to my heart and soul. As if that gift was not enough, he reminded me that I did not fall in love with music for any practical purposes. I fell in love with music because of it’s mystic ability to transmit feelings beyond words. Certainly it is good to set goals for myself and achieve them, but I should remember that practical goals may have very little to do with love, happiness, and music.


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I said to myself, “I am thoroughly happy and content, now. If my most pitiless enemy could appear before me at this moment, I would freely right any wrong I may have done him.”

Straightaway the door opened, and a shriveled, shabby dwarf entered. He was not more than two feet high. He seemed to be about forty years old. Every feature and inch of him was a trifle out of shape; and so, while one could not put his finger upon any particular part and say, “This is a conspicuous deformity,” the spectator perceived that this little person was a deformity as a whole. A vague, general, evenly-blended, nicely-adjusted deformity. There was a fox-like cunning in the face and the sharp little eyes, and also alertness and malice. One thing about him struck me forcibly, and most unpleasantly: he was covered all over with a fuzzy, greenish mold, such as one sometimes sees upon mildewed bread. The sight of it was nauseating.

The above is an abridged passage from Mark Twain’s 1876 short story “The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut,” and the sense of disgust that the protagonist feels at this fuzzy little troll-person very accurately sums up my feelings right now about president-elect Donald Trump. I borrowed Twain’s description because I, in fact, cannot accurately convey with my own words the deep visceral disappointment that I am feeling about the election results. The closest I can come to expressing it with my own faculties is by making pained guttural noises (not unlike what I imagine an aardvark dying would sound like).

I, and nearly all of my friends, family, and Facebook feed are feeling shocked, outraged, and afraid at the prospect of Donald Trump being our next president. It is tempting (and quite enjoyable in fact) to sit back and fire insults at Trump and his supporters. Like this: Trump and his supporters are the human embodiment of a Nickleback song— tasteless, gross, loud, and limp. Yep, that felt good. I could do that all day. Yes it is tempting (and fun), and yet counterproductive. For here is the twist in Twain’s tale: the narrator reveals that the “vile bit of human rubbish seemed to bear a sort of remote and ill-defined resemblance to me!”

Like Twain’s character, we as a nation are now face to face with a clear embodiment of our own twisted nature. I don’t believe that most of Trump’s supporters are overtly racist, misogynistic, or stupid, yet I do know that Trump’s victory has seemingly given license for some of his supporters to partake in some very racist, misogynistic, and stupid behavior. The KKK in North Carolina has announced plans for a Trump victory parade. On Thursday at my own NYU the door to the Muslim Student Association’s prayer room was vandalized with the word “Trump.” On Friday a teacher reported that a ten year old girl had to be picked up from her school because a boy had grabbed the girl’s vagina—when asked why he did it, the boy said “if a president can do it, I can too.” Since the nation’s founding, America, while boasting some truly great cultural, social, economic, and technical achievements, has always harbored an appalling underbelly of racism, sexism, and domination. Because we have elected an appalling, racist, sexist egomaniac to be our president, this underbelly is simply being more blatantly exposed than usual.

If there is any silver-lining to the fact that some people now feel emboldened to play out some of their darkest drives, it is that we as a country can no longer ignore it. Whether in a single person, a family group, or an entire nation, things do not change unless it is first recognized that there is a problem. In my eyes, it is clear that we have huge racial, economic, social, and educational divides in this country, and that those divides breed fear, hatred, and disregard. We cannot simply write this off as the fault of those “ignorant” Trump supporters. If we want America to be great—not “great again,” but for the first time— we all have to accept responsibility for the fear and prejudice in our country and in our own hearts and combat it with love whenever we see it.

I am encouraged by the massive and active backlash against the election of Donald Trump. Right now there is a days long protest roaring at Trump Tower, just a subway ride away from me. Liberals and democrats have been suddenly inspired to action in a way that they would not have been if Hillary had been elected. This is a wake up call. There is a huge amount of energy behind the anti-Trump movement and if everyone who is disappointed in the election results decides to use this energy not towards Trump-hate, but towards acts community building, volunteerism, social justice, and general kindness, then I believe that we can transform Trump’s presidency into a step forward, rather than two steps backwards.

In addition to being inspired towards social action, I also also feel an urgent desire to double down on my musical life after this election. For playing music has been a bridge in my life to communities of people that I would have otherwise not been exposed. I’ve performed with and for people of all different races, cultures, sexual orientations, and political leanings (yes I’ve even been in a band with a Trump supporter or two). It did not matter what our superficial differences were, we were all there to just enjoy the incredible human endeavor of making music.

For it is not politics, but our shared passions (whether music, sports, cooking, dancing, art, science, writing, sewing, etc…) that have always brought people together. In 1999, it didn’t matter if Eminem was white, he was accepted into the historically black Hip-Hop community because he could rap really well. In 1947, it didn’t matter that Jackie Robinson was black, he was accepted into the historically white Brooklyn Dodgers clubhouse because he could play baseball really well. In 1898 it didn’t matter that Marie Curie was a woman, she was accepted into the historically male scientific community because she discovered Radium (and made many other great scientific breakthroughs I don’t claim to understand). Now I admit that Robinson and Curie were “accepted” into those communities with a lot of struggle and backlash, and I need to point out that you shouldn’t have to be superlatively great at something to be accepted into a community. Yet the point that I am trying to make is that it is in fact rarely politicians that affect true social change and progress— the most powerful positive force in the world is normal people coming together to do the things we already love to do.