Su Terry – Outsider

Jazz, social class, and insecurity

by Su Terry

Back in the day, on the jazz scene in 1980s New York City, I used to love hearing the alto saxophone player C#. That’s what everyone called him, because his full name was Clarence Sharpe.  Saxman C# was aptly named since his style was angular, lyrical, rough and velvety all at the same time. In addition to being a compelling player, C# was also a really nice guy. Sometimes I called him “C” for short. Which is ironic, because while C is as far from C# as you can get, it’s also right next door.

C# had hardly any teeth left. I guess he lived downtown somewhere, I never knew where his crib was.  His main venue was the University of the Streets, situated in a building on the Lower East Side. There were sessions too. If you wanted to play, you could always go to University of the Streets and there would be music happening. 

C# was an outsider. Outsider/insider has nothing to do with how well you play. It’s a social class thing. You wouldn’t have seen C# at the Blue Note, or even the Vanguard. Well, maybe he hung in the kitchen at the Vanguard sometimes (I’m quite sure he never set foot inside the Blue Note), but he didn’t play there. He was the complete opposite of mainstream. He wasn’t on the cover of Downbeat, or even in the polls. He never had a recording contract. He rarely toured. But the musicians knew him.

There were other cats like that. Tommy Turrentine for instance. Great jazz player whose instrument was trumpet and whose brother was the famed Stanley Turrentine. But Tommy, it seemed, couldn’t deal with mainstream life. I heard him often, played with him sometimes, at the Jazz Cultural Theatre founded by Barry Harris, which became a home–sometimes literally–for scores of musicians.

At the Jazz Cultural Theatre there were always workshops with Barry, concerts, sessions, something going on almost every night (C# played there too). Barry always seemed to me like an outsider who shouldn’t have been. He should have had the same gigs that Kenny Barron and Tommy Flanagan had. Even though he has a huge discography and has won tons of awards his only concern is the music and teaching, and as of this writing he’s still doing it. Maybe he didn’t like touring.  You have to be on the road a lot to be an insider!  I think Barry liked being a liaison between the inside and the outside. He also did that in his playing. He would often demonstrate things like a weird tritone or flatted 13th figure over a dominant chord and make it sound like it belonged unequivocally. Barry shows how you can go so far inside that you end up outside–or vice versa.

Jazz musicians are odd creatures. We immerse ourselves in arcane musical details and spend hours and hours honing our craft. It’s kind of like a cult, except there’s no leader. But there are insiders, because even something as outside the mainstream as jazz is, still has insiders and outsiders within it.

Does that sound paradoxical? That’s because it is. Jazz is the ultimate paradox. It’s like quantum physics. In jazz we even have particles (called “notes”) that can go back in time, just like quantum particles. For example, if we play a ‘wrong note’ (although there aren’t any wrong notes, there’s just notes you didn’t intend to play) we can play something else after it that makes it sound like we intended that note after all. Like it was all part of the plan–except there is no plan.

The only plan we have is the structure of the song we’re improvising over. And if we’re playing ‘free’ we don’t even have that. This is why jazz is like quantum physics. Ultimately, there is no objective underlying structure that exists apart from our perception of it. (There was a band in the last century that had Einstein, Bohr, Planck, Heisenberg and some other cats and they tried to explain it to everyone but most people are still trying to wrap their heads around it. ) There’s no notes, there’s no songs, there’s only stuff cats grabbed out of the air and put together into a structure, like a swing set on a musical playground. Of course, it takes years of training to be able to build the swing set, and then swing on it.

Are you swinging the swing, or is the swing swinging you?

Now you’re beginning to see why there are outsiders. Who else but an outsider could subsist on nutrition derived solely from quantum notes?

Outsiders can make money too. But they do it from outside. Some people might call it ‘outside the box’ but I don’t because that’s for squares. The opposite of ‘square’ is ‘hip’, but as an ancient Chinese text dug up in a cave sometime in the previous century says: He who 2 hip is ass.

Basically, outsiders can do whatever they want. They have freedom because they haven’t bought into the system. Once you buy into the system, you’re a slave of the system. If you don’t believe this, imagine walking away, right now. Could you do it? Would you even want to?

There’s nothing sadder than an outsider trying desperately to make it to the inside. Even if they do, they have to be super careful to not be eaten by the system. That’s happened countless times. Insiders belong to the system, but the system only exists to perpetuate the system.

Outsiders can, of course, get insider gigs. But insiders don’t do outsider gigs because, well, they don’t want to. Too bad for them. Ultimately even the terms ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ are meaningless anyway.  Are you an insider if you led your own band at the Vanguard?  Or are you the kind of insider who headlines at the Blue Note?  These are two completely different animals. 

And inside or outside what, exactly? Metaphysically speaking there is nothing to be inside of, or outside of. But because human beings like to define themselves with limiting concepts, if not in words then in beliefs, most of us, in our hearts, consider ourselves either insiders or outsiders. Not being an insider myself, I would imagine that there might even be insiders who feel they are pretending to be insiders because they actually feel like outsiders. Maybe most of them. But again, I wouldn’t know.

Some would argue that you need media presence and you have to rate in the polls in order to make a living.  That is a myth.  In order to make a living, tour and record it is not necessary to have the media acknowledging you.  So why do we want media acknowledgement?  Because it assuages our insecurities.  It makes outsiders feel more inside, and it makes insiders feel even more inside.

At the end of the day, perceiving oneself as an insider or outsider in one’s field serves no useful purpose.  Those are only perceptions. Much better to focus on the craft, study and employ marketing techniques, teach, create your gigs, write your music, damn the torpedos, full steam ahead.  Teachers can get their students to help with audio, video and social media.  When we were students we had enough humility to carry our teacher’s horn and be proud of it.  We set up our teacher’s drums or carried the amp.  We drove our teacher to the gig.   Then we got to hang out backstage with the cats, listen and learn, maybe even be invited to sit in if our teacher thought we were ready.  If the apprentice system was good enough for Michelangelo and Leonardo–who hated each other by the way–then it’s good enough for us.  

Hey outsiders: remember, every insider was once an outsider (except Wynton).  But as a certain insider wrote in a song, don’t worry, be happy. You can jump into the system when you want one of their trinkets, then jump back out again. The system is crumbling anyway.  But while it’s following the yellow brick road to entropy, don’t let it tempt you with its toys and lock you up in its toybox, because you have something way more powerful. You have freedom, and that can take you far.  It might even take you to the inside.