(Sorry about the blurry video.)
We raced across the country in two days and spent eight coming home. The magic journey erased grief, inspired dreams, and solidified souls. In New Orleans, we went in search of good jazz. On Bourbon Street, abundant sounds conflicted with each other in a cacophony of mediocrity. As we walked, drinks in hand, I paused when a strain caught my attention — the lines of a standard I like, a trumpet solo that braved its voice above the noise — but mostly, we kept walking. Strip clubs, hawkers, con men, and scantily clad girls selling Jello shots to passersby assaulted my senses and threatened to destroy my perceptions of the city.
In vain, we prowled the side streets looking for authenticity, the backroom bar the locals frequent, an artist not yet beaten down or big enough to make the strip. Finally, we ducked into a posh club with a decent trio, were blessed for two songs by a kick ass vocalist, and headed back to our camp site wearied not by the evening, but by the lack of originality.
We tried again the next night. Drunk on the river and dancing to Dixieland on board a paddle boat, we didn’t care what we found as long as it had a beat. However, we stayed away from Bourbon Street. At one club, a tiny man bellowed with the voice of a giant and shook us to our core. Then, at another, we found what we’d been looking for.
It was a backroom venue, behind an empty bar, but it reached for something beyond grunge or decor. The band opened without preamble. It played like fire. So engrossed were the players in their music we never learned their names. Instead, they mesmerized us. Eyes closed, I felt the music in my blood — a dart, a stroke, a storm over the ocean. Eyes open, I thrilled to the exchanges between them. All emotions bared, they grinned at each other or made love to their instruments as if the audience wasn’t there.
The difference between competence and quality, good and great, is hard to qualify, but my experience in New Orleans made me think about it. We saw several good bands, some skilled performers, and environments that catered to any range of desires. We only saw one great thing. What made this particular band so good was their passion. They didn’t play by rote as if they’d played a thousand times and had everything down to a science. They didn’t stroke the audience. They were genuine. As if they had invited us into their private world, they were generous hosts, but it was their home. Intimate, personal, and alive with crumbs on the counter, an unmade bed and dirty dishes in the sink.
We strive for polish, for perfection according to an intricate and often contradictory set of rules, and to belong. In doing so, we bleed the juice right out of our work, sterilizing it in the process.
As we traveled across the country, I also had an opportunity to read several books. Most were by Indie authors. Some, admittedly, were wretched. You can’t make anything sing if you don’t mature your craft. Some, however, were fabulous. In spite of the occasional error, they caught me by surprise and enriched me with their freshness. Not surprisingly, the ones I didn’t like tried to be like someone else or tried to fit in to a pre-established formula. Those I did like didn’t give a damn about supposed to’s. They just went for it and took me on a hurtling ride.
What do you think? How do you define the difference between good and great? I’d love to hear your thoughts.