I joined the American Federation of Musicians when I was just a teenager, and I still have my first union card to prove it. This was the late ’70s, and it was an amazing time for me. I was hearing Miles Davis’s music for the first time and performing it. I was hearing Beethoven’s Fifth for the first time and performing it. I was playing in concert halls, in country bars behind chicken wire fencing, and in jazz clubs that I was too young to get into legally, and I was discovering what would become my life’s work. I had many mentors back then, some famous and some not. I was fortunate that those mentors introduced me to the musicians union. I attended my first meeting of Local 125, in downtown Norfolk, when I was just 15 years old. From the time that I was learning the names of the great composers whose music I would perform for the rest of my career and the names of the great musicians that I would seek to emulate, I also learned the name of Leonard Leibowitz.
I didn’t actually meet Len until some years later, but I was always aware that he was a figure that had influence in my life, fighting tirelessly for the righteous cause of musicians. His legendary tenacity was an inspiration to me as I fought my way through every gig, through every class at two conservatories, and through every audition. One of the benefits of my work in ICSOM has been that I can now also refer to Mr. Leibowitz as a friend.
A few weeks ago, by mere chance, Len and I both happened to be working all night long, which I think is not entirely unusual for either of us. On this one night, we happened to stumble into a real-time e-mail debate at 5:00 AM.
I had been sending around an article I’d written for a local newspaper, promoting the idea that the arts are good for the economy of a local community. While this concept is unarguably clear, the artist still finds that he or she must often argue finances with the very people who should understand the economic value of the artist.
In words that would surprise many to learn came from a labor attorney, Len wrote me (at 4:59 AM):
I wish that there would be no need for the artist to justify governmental and corporate support of great music by arguing its value in financial terms as if it were a commodity, like pig futures, or any other kind of “business.” Wouldn’t the artists be better equipped to demonstrate the intrinsic values of refreshment of the human spirit, the recognition of beauty, and the contribution to nurturing and raising truly civilized and cultured men and women that are the real assets of art? Shouldn’t it be the business leaders, e.g., our own board members and other interested individuals, corporate and governmental figures, who report on the economic impact of the arts to their business? After all, they are supposed to be the experts, indeed, the “trustees” of the financial health of the community. As the old business slogan goes, “If it’s good for General Motors, it’s good for America.” If that is true, ought it not to be those running “General Motors” to tell us what impact music and other visual and performing arts have made, and continue to make, to the fiscal common good? But, instead, in today’s North American society, it has become the artists themselves who must be the sales personnel of their art form in the context of its economic value rather than the intrinsic value of their passion, their talent, and their ability to take the rest of us down the paths to some of life’s finest moments.
At 5:18 AM, I had to respond:
Wow…Yes, Lenny, of course I agree with you. I wish I could include in my 250-word-limit response to the editor such an eloquent appeal to the recognition of beauty as I have just read from you. But, as I know you understand, my response is to an article that suggests that there isn’t enough money. And I just want to write back to say that there is.
Of course, even if it was not good for business there would still be the compelling argument that you have made. But for the op-ed page of a business section of a local newspaper, there is also the convenient truth that art is, in fact, good for business.
Yes, it should be those running “General Motors” (or the equivalent) telling us that it is good for us to support the arts. But in the face of the rhetoric of structural deficits and diminishing relevance, I feel an obligation to instruct those business leaders on just how to make our argument.
But still, I am delighted to read your missive. And now, I think I might actually turn off my computer and go to sleep for a few hours.
And then, a mere 15 minutes later, Len responded:
And, of course, would that I were naïve enough to not fully appreciate your reasoning in writing this article. That’s why the ruefulness of my reply started with the fact that I wished it was not necessary for us to be bringing those economic realities to Newcastle.
It is also true that I am glad to have found a quiet moment like this sleepless night to ruminate on that which is so much more important than spending my days struggling with those economic realities.
G’nite Bruce, and thanks for being up so late tonight and for sharing these nether moments.
While Len Leibowitz is no doubt a legendary figure in our industry, I wonder how many of us have really considered the depth of his dedication to our art.
But don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that I have always agreed with everything Len has ever said or done. And, I suspect that he would want me to hasten to point out that he has not always agreed with me either. But, I have learned from, and I have benefited (as have all of you) from both knowing of, and actually knowing, Leonard Leibowitz.
It is indisputably true that if you have ever paid an electric bill by holding a musical instrument, then you owe Lenny a debt of gratitude.