Last month, I was working on a story about musician-composer Henry Threadgill, who was then composing a piece in tribute to the late musician-composer Butch Morris. Threadgill and I met at DeRobertis Pasticceria and Caffe, not far from where Threadgill and Morris made their homes and established their artistic presences in Manhattan’s East Village. DeRobertis is the sort of place that exudes the humble dignity that results from clarity of focus—to sip espresso and eat sfogliatella there is to grasp what that means—and that has maintained its place on a street and within a neighborhood where gentrification has wiped away most of what once was.
According to the bakery’s website:
The present DeRobertis Pasticceria and Caffe was established by Paolo DeRobertis, our grandfather on April 20, 1904. The original name Caffe Pugliese was in honor of the birthplace of Paolo DeRobertis, Puglia (the Apulia region of Italy) in the Province or Bari. Paolo DeRobertis instilled many passions that have been passed on through four generations. One of those passions was to create and maintain a tradition of family (La Famiglia). The meaning of La Famiglia is to reach across generations with Quality, Tradition and Prestige.
As I sat with Threadgill, he reflected on a relationship with Morris that spanned nearly four decades, and that seemed familial. Threadgill’s comments, which always range far and yet carry a tight logic, focused mostly on those same themes as the DeRobertis clan—Quality, Tradition and Prestige.
As I’ve written in the weeks since about the creative and practical challenges facing musicians here in New York, as well as about tensions over the place of traditional culture in a fast-changing New Orleans, I keep hearing echoes of what Threadgill had to say.
So I’m simply going to spill out some of those comments out, with just the barest (but I hope enough) context:
On his connection with Butch Morris:
He was a person I would talk to about musical concepts, and ideas about how to do things. It was an important relationship in that sense. To have somebody you can talk about such things with, to get a different perspective from somebody that you know can actually grasp what you’re talking about and is aware of what you’re talking about–that was a big thing for me. To have someone in life that you can talk to about what you’re doing when you’re constantly trying to go forward, that is important. The depth of the exchange with him was a rare thing.
…The discussion turned at one point to digital downloads of music, sampling in recordings, and aggregated news online…
We’ve gotten into this thing that is all about borrowing from other people. But not the way great artists have always borrowed, based on understanding and research and in order to make a contribution. Just this whole idea of borrowing to take from others. Borrow, take, borrow, take. It has become an American way of life. It’s a total breakdown in terms of respect for the cultural things that have made us a civilized group of people. If you keep disrespecting the cultural and intellectual aspects of life that have made you a civilized and humanistic people, you stand a great chance of losing a lot. I’ve seen documentaries and programs about children in school where they think cheating is the norm, that it’s OK. This is all part of what I’m talking about, too: “I take from these people’s work and put it down as mine. I never did the research.” It’s all related to the idea of guaranteed success, and profit at all costs. I like success and profit too, but no one seems to understand that it’s a great thing to fail. There’s nothing wrong with failure. The only thing a failure tells you is to go back and get it right. If you’re going to cheat to go forward, to take or steal or sample or exploit… for what? OK, well, then I don’t really want you to be my artist. I don’t want you to be my brain surgeon: I don’t want the person who cheated to operate on me. I don’t want you sweeping the floor near my feet.
Threadgill was talking about some of musicians, decades his junior, that he admires, including pianists David Virelles, Jason Moran, Matthew Shipp and Vijay Iyer. I asked him to compare the context for their art and their careers with his when he was much younger.
I think it’s much more difficult these days for young creative musicians. I think it’s the most difficult period that I’ve seen because of number of venues and the amount of support is much less. In part, that’s because you have so many people out here now looking to draw from these revenues and support. The schools and universities have turned out thousands and thousands of people with so-called jazz and classical music degrees that have overwhelmed the field. And these people didn’t find their way naturally into this area, so that there would be a natural balance. A piece of paper, a degree, is not the same as experience in a band or on the road or as a true artistic apprentice. It used to be that there seemed to be a natural balance. Now there’s an imbalance. And with the breakdown of the recording industry, all these people are making CDs, and there are more and more put out in the market. Yet there’s no discrimination. People say they don’t like the idea of mediation, or the fact that somebody determines whose painting and whose film gets out here. Well, there’s a little bit of a downside to that, I admit, but you have to ask yourself: How many great artists did we really lose, since we have Michelangelo and Charlie Parker and Debussy and Jack Kerouac? Who do you think we lost as a result of gatekeepers and mediation? Who possibly could have slipped through the hole? Everyone should be able to practice something, but not on a professional level. See that’s the disrespect.
When we spoke, Bill de Blasio was about to take over as New York City’s mayor. I asked Threadgill about the New York City he came of age as an artist within, the one he lives in now, and the task at hand for those who wish to protect and serve the city’s cultural vitality.
When I came to New York City, there were so many venues that we could work in and be able to pay our rent without leaving. We didn’t have to go to Europe. We didn’t have to go to even to Boston or D.C. or Philly. We could play right here in New York City. Now the cost of living here is so extraordinarily high, it’s totally unfriendly. New York was always—always—a welcoming haven. An artist could survive here. When the artists can’t survive in a place, that place will no longer remain a cultural haven. What people don’t understand is that once you start running the artists out, they’ll be gone. It’s not just that artists generate revolutionary ideas, but that artists put those ideas into action and produce the work here. And now we have arrived at a place where the artists can’t live here anymore because it’s unfriendly, economically. I had a far different environment.
The support from large organizations— Guggenheim, MacArthur, and such—that has been given lately to young and middle-aged artists is needed, because the cost of living here is so devastatingly damaging. So with that help, these artists can stay here to see their artistic ideas out. And that process, where that process happens, is important.
Because the art forms will survive. But the artists may just go somewhere else. Paris…Vienna… Chicago… New Orleans… Arts centers exist at certain times, and then at a certain point they stop existing. They lose their cachet or that sense of environment that enabled them to carry that title in the first place. New York is no different. It’s just like any other place. Once it becomes irrelevant or unlivable, the artists will move on. If the people that run this city lose respect and understanding of why this place is a cultural center, if they start behaving and thinking as if only high-end commercial art is what makes this place a cultural center, they’re completely off-track and confused. They have no idea of history and should go and get an understanding of what really made these places special. History is replete with going back to make this examination.