It tells the story of a group of friends from New York who have a little Dixieland band. They get together to play just for fun every week and only the star of the movie, Wayne Rogers, plays a professional musician who teaches private trumpet lessons to uninterested youngsters and others. The others have “day jobs” and they all love playing together and take pride in being pretty darn good at their music. Then one day they receive an offer to fill in for two weeks for a band who has a gig at a fading, old resort up in the Catskills. They jump at the chance but just before they leave their bass player has a heart attack and they are forced to hire a real pro, played by Cleavon Little.
I won’t go too far into the plot beyond that except to say that the realities of a real gig are in immediate conflict with what they thought the experience would be. They are ready to pack it in, but Cleavon Little’s character (who up to that point had been distant and somewhat disdainful of the rest of the group) angrily explains that this is his job, and they’d better buck up and play what the owner demands. He needs the job. Things progress from there, with a bit of romance and some funny interactions with the elderly guests at the resort.
But at one point, one of the band members confronts Cleavon Little. I really want to be a player, he says. Why won’t you help me (and us) learn? You have experience with some of the greats of jazz!
Cleavon Little pauses and then says very deliberately – “Just wanting it is not enough.”
The clarinet player is hurt and angry. But eventually he understands.
And there is one of the great, hard lessons that all professional musicians confront, sooner or later. Passion, desire, understanding and commitment are essentials but in the cold, hard light of day, you either have the chops or you don’t. How a player reacts to that reality determines his fate as a professional musician. If he can’t handle that reality he can become bitter and in some extreme cases may stop playing altogether. I’ve known such musicians over the years and it is a sad thing to witness. Some keep playing but become nasty and cynical, blaming everyone around them – players, spouses, and especially the audience – for not giving them the accolades and success they think they deserve. I know just such a musician right here on the Cape, a hugely talented player but definitely “a big fish in a small pond.” He is a joy to hear play (when he deems it’s worth the effort) but a thoroughly unpleasant person. At one point in exasperation after we had done a gig together and he had dissed every song we played, I asked him: is there any music that you really like? In the only time he every spoke to me with complete candor, he said…. No.
How very, very sad. I wanted to suggest he go dig ditches for a living instead, but I bit my tongue. Needless to say, that was the last time I ever played with him.
However, most musicians go beyond the fact that they will never be famous because, on the most basic level, they just don’t have “it.” They take a step back and look at their lives and their ability and decide, I’m going to be the best I can be at what I do. This can be an epiphany, a huge lifting of pressure born of unrealistic expectations. And it feels wonderful! It usually leads to a new level of commitment to the craft of making music. The best part is that anyone hearing them can sense it. It is a realization of just why someone began playing music in the first place. It also involves learning to be non-judgmental about what constitutes “good” music, whether created yourself or by others. The absolute best players I’ve known throughout my life embrace that outlook. Sure, they have personal preferences in different styles of music but they have learned to not bounce their abilities off those of others and make value judgments.
If you get a chance to check out “The Gig” you won’t be sorry. Whether it is your hope to be a professional player or a life-long enthusiast, I guarantee it will give you plenty to think about.
Peace & good music (and it’s pretty much ALL good music!),