Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five , 1926 . Left to right : Louis Armstrong at piano holding trumpet , Johnny St . Cyr with banjo , Johnny Dodds , Kid Ory , Lil Hardin Armstrong . American jazz band . Louis Armstrong , jazz trumpeter , singer , born 4 August 1901 , died 6 July 1971 . Hardin Armstrong , jazz pianist , composer , arranger , singer , born 3 February 1898 , died 27 August 1971 .  Jazz band . Editorial use only

The world is awash in ways to deliver content, but content worth delivering is still in short supply.  Now that everybody has a phone that can take a good picture there are still precious few photos that will make a viewer gasp in wonder. Now that recording music or video is within the reach of anyone with a laptop, there are still few movies or music compilations to get excited about.

The fact that content is given away for free is hardly an inducement for anyone to devote him to life-long discipline in the creative arts.  Getting a Master of Fine Arts in a discipline will not lead to any sort of gainful employment.  There are no meaningful certifications in the creative arts.

We are in a strange place with our culture. I can hear Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five play Potato Head Blues on my cell phone, laptop, pad, and if I were to buy a blue-tooth enabled hearing aid, I could even listen to that snappy tune on that if I wanted.  I think I already own one pair of good headphones and three pairs of ear buds, enabling me to listen without being constrained to any one location.  I have the freedom to consume anything that is created nowadays, except that I am unaware of any such product. One could assume that alive today there are many artists as talented and driven as was Armstrong, but I have no way to knowing who they are.

Would Armstrong have been able to develop his prodigious talent if he had been unable to get paid for writing and performing? I imagine if he had to endure four years at University in order to get a teaching credential in music in order to lead a high school band, such an ordeal might have taken the wind out of his sails before he ever bothered to record himself and distribute it free on Youtube. Burdened by student loan debt and exhausted at the end of the day from preparing lesson plans and the onus to constantly proving his worth to school administrators, he might have soured on the whole music thing by the time he hit his prime.  Bix Beiderbecke only made it to the age of 28, so going that route would have surely been a fool’s bargain for him. Chopin and Mozart would have proved too difficult to get along with the school board or the PTA, and their only hope might have been to seek permanent disability status.

Maybe the reason I don’t know what to get excited about in the arts today has less to do with my age than it does with the fact that we have created a world that actively discourages creativity. Rather than being a boon to artists, the Internet has proven to be the final stake through the heart, the last knot in the noose, the biggest clump of dirt thrown on the coffin.


Productive Enough For Ya?


Does a life well-lived include a lot of productivity? How important is it to leave behind a legacy of work?


There are certain times in an artist’s life when he or she can’t seem to work fast enough to get down on paper or canvas all that want to find tangible expression. Chopin was already quite sick with tuberculosis when he finally finished his collection of piano preludes. Bach and Milton both struggled against failing vision before finally giving up on writing and editing their work.


For a select few, it’s been very important for the rest of us that they struggled to crank out new work while there was still time.  Today, a couple of hundred years later, there is little paper involved in the creative process. What will the museums of the future have to curate? E-mails?  


Amazon Kindle Direct publishing is now electronically publishing thousands of new works every day, most by unknown writers of mysteries, romances, and self-help books. No one will ever read most of what they have written. Likewise, there are now millions of newly-retired people writing blogs that will only be skimmed by other blog writers. Every backpacker nowadays is writing a travel blog, which is cheerfully rife with pictures of the blogger (called “selfies”) in front of some formerly exotic but now hopelessly over-exposed locale.


One thing we can be sure of: what we lack in quality we have made up for in quantity. There sure is a lot of it out there and most of it is being given away for free.  

The computer has made producing new works much easier and rapid than ever before, but the quality of what has been produced is less obviously improved, nor is it likely to be in the future, when the act of typing will have been replaced by voice commands. When music can be composed by a wave of a wand or some sort of controller, it won’t mean that the composer is any more gifted because he or she can equal Bach’s lifetime output in a few hours.

People will still be listening to Stairway to Heaven more than St. Matthew Passion, and I’m afraid no matter who comes down the pike in the future, they’ll have a hard time breaking new ground and through the accumulated detritus of centuries come before.

When Bach composed, he had to surround himself with assistants he could trust to copy out the individual parts for orchestra and chorus. He had to somewhat carefully apply ink to paper and, because paper was relatively precious, not make a mess of it. If he were alive today, he could simply press “start new page” on his laptop’s music composing program and start clicking away with the mouse or joystick.

Would the quality of his work increase? Would he find more time to spend with his twenty children? Maybe he could lead rehearsals with his orchestra via Skype and not have to journey up and down the terrible roads of medieval Germany.

Tolstoy’s wife typed the manuscript for War and Peace twice, first and final draft, as he read from his hand-written manuscript. They would have had an ugly divorce, except he ran away from home just as he was dying from consumption and managed to succumb from the disease in an unheated railroad station in Siberia before she could start divorce proceedings.

Maybe a good word-processor could have made their time together more bearable.