A lot of cartoonists seem to be drawn to making music as well as drawn to drawing. Lee Lorenz is a professional cornet-player in New York City, John O’Brien plays the banjo, and I used to see Arnold Roth in the elevator at the New Yorker carrying his sax case.
I got interested in playing also, but much later in life. I actually had a dream a long time ago in which I was playing the tenor sax just like Sonny Rollins, who I had been listening to a lot. I had a sax-player friend at the time to whom I related my dream and he suggested I borrow an old horn he had and try it out. From that day forward, I began playing nearly every day, eventually getting my own horn and taking lessons. It isn’t easy to learn an instrument after you reach a certain age (50, in my case) but I persevered and am still at it, almost 20 years later.
At first, I tried to apply the same rules (Or lack of rules) I’ve learned to use in cartooning to making music. That perseverance I mentioned before is one thing which applies to both occupations, but there are a number of differences between the two, and I had to throw out a few ideas which just don’t apply to learning and playing music. In cartooning, I have no one to answer to except my editors and my own sometimes flawed and always biased judgement. I do what I think is funny at the time I do it and send in the results every week to the magazine, where Bob and David decide whether the work is funny or not, and meets the nominal requirements for publication. It’s just me and my ideas all week long, with maybe a sale at the end of the cycle. No one tells me how to draw or what’s funny and what’s not. I’m almost totally free to create whatever I want without rules or limitations, except for the usually unspoken or unwritten law that one doesn’t copy or steal another artist’s work.
In music, especially classical and jazz, there are rules, and plenty of them. Many of them are based on the mathematics of music-making, hard and fast rules which make the music intellectually coherent. The intricacies of keys, chord-structures, rhythm, and a host of other details must be mastered before one can sucessfully make music. It’s also a collaborative art, unlike the solitary nature of cartooning, and the musicians have to communicate with each other before they can communicate with their audience. Also, when you’re up in front of an audience, you can’t erase what you’ve done, or start over. All those bad notes are out there, for all to hear and wince at. In spite of the rules and restrictions, I was surprised at first to find that musicians have no compunctions about stealing ideas from one-another. In fact, lifting someone else’s musical invention, a lick, a riff, or a phrase, is very common and even encouraged. The idea is that the music itself is the beneficiary of all this traditional lifting and swapping. Of course, there’s still room for individual expression within all the rules. In the case of what’s called “free jazz”, the kind of jazz played by Ornette Coleman and others, the object is to intentionally flaunt or ignore the traditional rules, but it’s implicit, one assumes, that you have to first know the rules well enough to break them.
Somehow, I manage to do both cartooning and music, trading off hours during the day for each, drawing in the mornings and afternoons, practicing the saxophone in between, and on weekend nights, performing in clubs here in Saint Augustine with our quartet.
(I also now find myself drawing a lot more cartoons about music and musicians. The results are documented in The New Yorker from time to time, and also on my band’s Facebook and web pages for anyone interested in looking at them.)