I actually know the guy who first said, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Two different art forms that don’t translate into each other. When he came up with the phrase, we laughed about it together. Then he passed it along to Elvis Costello and it became part of the language. And I finally finished The Bear Comes Home, a novel that wouldn’t work if I proved unable to dance about architecture and make it come off. The consensus is that I did it. Even jazz musicians told me that I was the first person to get the experience of musical improvisation into words. And, yes, jazz has influenced the way I write and think, but it’s not the only music I listen to.
If it happens that you’re writing about music, whether as fiction or memoir, I might be able to help you with it better than most.
I started writing professionally in Boulder, Colorado. Having moved there to be among friends and mountains in 1977, I began looking around for the prospects of work. It turned out that there was a sort of jazz magazine in town that was aimed at the music education market, and I thought I’d give it a try. I met the editor/publisher and was given a three day deadline to write something about Ornette Coleman, which proved a success; so that when Charles Mingus came to town the following week—a first-rate jazz club called The Blue Note had opened on the main drag shortly before my arrival—I had the chance to write about another musician I’d been listening to for decades. The magazine changed its name to Musician and started getting popular. I was being read more widely with every issue, and I used trips back to New York to catch up on new developments in the music I hadn’t been able to afford to see live, and I caught a quick if sometimes patchy education.
One of the benefits of the work is that I had to write well even if I didn’t feel particularly inspired, and after a while the level of my off-day writing began to rise closer to the level of the work I did when I was really onto something. It was a work-ethic matter and was also bolstered by writerly vanity: I was being read out there, and I’d better be good at it. Learning how to do it was one of the major benefits of turning pro.
Hemingway once said that journalism was an excellent thing for a writer to get into, as long as he got out of it in time, and although working for Musician opened up the jazz world for me, I felt the profession gaining on me: I worried that I was developing my skills as a critic in a way that led me away from the fiction-writing I truly wanted to do; and when I got away from the magazine for a while with this problem in mind—and when I say ‘got away’ I mean I went as far as Istanbul and Konya, Turkey—I found that my experience with the magazine had given me the insight, practice, and material to start writing some oddball fiction set in the jazz world. It later became a prizewinning novel.
The point of this is that as an aspiring writer you may travel many indirections to find your direction out. In the current online world, where too much journalism is done either literally or virtually without pay, you’ll have to be either very clever or very fortunate, or both, to actually get into the paying profession.
And oh yes, you’ll also have to be very good. If that’s where you need to go—and I don’t mean dancing about architecture—I’d like to help.
There was a guy I met when I was 23 or so who asked me what I thought the greatest invention of all time was. I didn’t have an answer for him, and he said, “Recorded music.” It harmed no one, he said, and has enriched our lives immeasurably.
And has fundamentally changed us, I would add.