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August 26, 2004

TT: Wishful thinking

I'm not funny, and wish I were. Witty, yes, sometimes, and I'm pretty good at making an audience laugh when lecturing (a situation in which the prevailing standards are admittedly fairly low). But plain old drop-dead funny? Absolutely not. The only time I ever brought down a house was when I contrived to be hit in the face with a cream pie in front of an audience of pubescent classmates who thought they were going to be forced to listen to me give a prize-winning speech as part of a talent contest. That stopped the show. Short of such skullduggery, though, I lacked the power to impose my personality on a crowd, and still do. As a naughty but honest colleague said of Leopold Godowsky, a legendary turn-of-the-century pianist who was miraculous in the studio but dull in the concert hall, my aura extends for about five feet. This incapacity has made it hard for me to be funny and impossible for me to be either an actor or a conductor, two professions toward which I was briefly drawn when I was young and foolish.

I also wish I were graceful. Gerry Mulligan wrote a song called "Just Want to Sing and Dance Like Fred Astaire," which has always been my own vain wish. Instead, I suffer from a chronic condition dubbed Inanimate Object Trouble by the playwright George S. Kaufman, who suffered from the same disorder. I'm a dropper and a tripper, and I don't need anything to fall over in order to fall--my shadow is quite sufficient, thanks. This problem I attribute to my lifelong left-handedness. I once read a study whose authors concluded that most of the variance in the lifespans of lefties and righties (we die younger) can be explained by the fact that left-handed people are accident-prone. It seems we're more likely to crash cars, cut off our pedal extremities with power saws, and other such domestic tragedies. The study went on to suggest that our curious penchant for self-destruction is due to the fact that the world is arranged to suit the convenience of right-handed people, a hard truth I learned the first time I picked up a pair of scissors.

Whatever the reason, I gave up on sports as fast as I could, and never made serious attempts to master any manual skills other than typing and playing assorted musical instruments. At the former I was and am a virtuoso. At the latter I was solidly competent without touching the high C of maximal dexterity. I got work as a jazz musician because I had a good ear, knew all the old standards, and was a reliable sideman, but I never did get to be much of a soloist. What I liked to do was keep perfect time, which is more a function of mind over matter than anything else. Hence I fell in love at an early age with Count Basie's original rhythm section--four unshowily graceful cats who did nothing but swing like the wind--and when I discovered the records they made on their own in 1938, minus the Basie band, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. If I could have played music like that for a living, I'd have never become a writer. Alas, jazz in 1978 was completely different from jazz in 1938, and in any case I was too bourgeois to spend my life playing music in gin joints until sunup.

Having ruled out all possible alternatives, I succumbed to the inevitable and became a critic, which turned out to be what I should have done in the first place. Never since then have I doubted that I made the right choice. Instead of acting in boulevard comedies, playing jazz in nightclubs, dancing pas de deux with sylph-like women, or tossing off John Marin-like watercolors with a dazzling twist of the wrist, I write appreciatively of those who do. I can't imagine anything more delightful than to write a profile of a little-known artist that makes him better known, and I know from experience that my abilities in this line of work are cherished by those who've been on the receiving end of them.

So no, I'm not frustrated--I'm fulfilled. I know exactly how lucky I am. I adore my work. And would I give it up in a heartbeat in order to be able to dance like Fred Astaire, or play piano like Count Basie? Please don't embarrass me by asking.

On the other hand, Astaire probably would have cut off his left foot in order to write songs like Irving Berlin, a thought I find oddly comforting. I don't know about Basie, though. If he had any thwarted aspirations, I'm not aware of them. He might well have been one of the few people in the world who was perfectly happy to do what he did and be who he was, and I think he would have been right to be. That's the way his music sounds--an eternal present in which no one is tempted to take thought for the morrow.

Basie's divinely carefree music reminds me of something I wrote about George Balanchine in All in the Dances:

Having come so close to death at so young an age, he determined instead to spend the rest of his days living in the present. It was a resolution from which he never wavered. Of all his oft-repeated refrains, the most familiar was Do it now! "Why are you stingy with yourselves?" he would ask his dancers. "Why are you holding back? What are you saving for--for another time? There are no other times. There is only now. Right now." His ruthlessly practical approach to running a dance company was rooted in the hard-won knowledge that his next breath might be his last. He worked within the means available at the moment, using them to the fullest, never wasting time longing for better dancers or a bigger budget: "A dog is going to remain a dog, even if you want to have a cat; you're not going to have a cat, so you better take care of the dog because that's what you're going to have." He ran his private life along the same lines: when he had money, he spent it lavishly, on himself and others, and when he didn't, he lived frugally. "You know," he said, "I am really a dead man. I was supposed to die and I didn't, and so now everything I do is second chance. That is why I enjoy every day. I don't look back. I don't look forward. Only now." This dance, this meal, this woman: that was his world.

And yes, I wish I could be like that, too. It's the spiritual equivalent of physical gracefulness. But at least it's a habit of being to which even the clumsy and unfunny among us can aspire. Not in this lifetime will I do a gargouillade or play Beethoven's Op. 111 like Artur Schnabel, but I can try to live in the moment today, and try again tomorrow and the day after that--and while I'm at it, I can listen to Count Basie all I want. I can think of worse bargains.

Posted August 26, 2004 12:02 PM

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