How We Don't Talk About Musicians : A Blog Supreme Drummer Scott Clark is one of the best to be found in Richmond, Va., anchoring a number of excellent bands. But in an interview, he reveals that the life of a musician isn't as easy as his playing looks.

How We Don't Talk About Musicians

Scott Clark leads the Scott Clark 4tet in concert at RVA Jazzfest 2011. Patrick Jarenwattananon/NPR hide caption

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Patrick Jarenwattananon/NPR

Scott Clark leads the Scott Clark 4tet in concert at RVA Jazzfest 2011.

Patrick Jarenwattananon/NPR

Scott Clark is a drummer. He plays in a few original bands that you probably don't know about: Glows In The Dark, ILAD and recently, the Scott Clark 4tet. (There are others, I'm sure.) I don't say this with music nerd pleasure, like "I know about these bands and you don't"; I really wish you knew about these bands. They're just based in Richmond, Va., which means it's somewhat of an uphill battle for their wider recognition.

(Personally speaking, Glows is probably my favorite of the jazz/"jazz" bands from River City, and I just saw Clark come into his own as a bandleader leading a riveting gig at RVA Jazzfest a few weeks ago. Also, before saxophonist Darius Jones left the South and became Jazz Famous, Clark was one of his regular associates. I digress.)

He has this really interesting way of swinging, especially on triple-meter songs: It's a bit square, on top of the beat. It sometimes morphs into rock-ish straight eighths or fractures into free improv freakouts. But it always feels totally in control; I sense that his ride cymbal will never let you down. It feels personal to him, and I like that.

That's the usual way we talk about jazz musicians, right? Summarize their accomplishments, their associations, their strengths and weaknesses. Give a sort of career profile. But here is a different way of talking about being a musician:

Clark linked to this little interview of him online yesterday, and I was taken by it. When we talk about full-time or professional musicians, we don't really look at the inglorious parts of being one: the practicing, the rehearsing, the chasing down of gigs and recordings, the way most actually make money. (It's not gigging, that's for sure.) And with good reason: That's boring to most people, usually.

Not to Luke Rabin. He's a drummer, and founded a group called FREEWAYarts: "a company that hopes to alternatively finance music through supportive communities while offering artists a more sustainable livelihood." And FREEWAYarts has started a series of short online interviews with musicians (mostly drummers so far) about the realities of making a living in music. Check out its Vimeo channel for more, including one feature with Rabin himself.

The way these are edited is a bit bleak, like, "Don't musicians ever have any fun? Isn't that why they do this?" Rabin talks about the time he burned out of liking music at all, and it's unclear how much he's recovered. Still, there are valuable insights in the piece with Clark, like:

  1. Musicians don't choose to do music — it chooses them. It's almost a cliche by now, but how else do you talk about an inexplicable driving passion? Time and time again, you get people saying things like this: "For me, the decision was kind of already made. It wasn't like I decided, 'Oh, I think I'm just going to do this.'"
  2. Gigging is not nearly as easy as it looks. As Clark says, it's a timesuck to pursue gigs. They don't always pay a lot. It takes away from time you would spend practicing and rehearsing, which is not compensated. And there are horror stories: "I just drove to Atlanta for six loaves of bread, and I didn't play a single note of music."
  3. The irrational is essential. Save for those atop the food chain, being a musician anywhere means hustlin' for life, with little job security or even business model. I suspect that after a few years of making a living as an average musician, you realize that your dreams really are your anchors. Clark: "You have to have a bit of delusion to you, because I think being a musician is a crazy decision. There's no guarantees. It's a cliched thing to say, but you don't know where tomorrow's going to take you. You could all of a sudden get a break and be on Letterman before you know it. Or you could go the opposite way and not be doing anything and working at Capital One [Bank], you know? But I think that with that healthy bit of delusion that, 'Well, yea, I can go to Europe and play music, why not?' you know. Then that keeps you going. That keeps you believing in that reality."

Yea, kind of a downer. But it ought to be said, right? I often wonder what would change if more music fans stopped to think about the difficult, invisible parts of a musician's life.

Here's a brighter spot. Clark told me after his gig that he was looking to record the Scott Clark 4tet pretty soon. It was a great show, full of directed energy and the kind of adventurous writing that still leaves sonic anchors to hang on to. It should hold up to the studio well. And that would be a pretty important leap forward.