The Cold Crossfire of Competitive Self-Interest

This post’s title is a term I’ve coined in my mind over the last week in an attempt to accurately describe my particular socio-musical “place.” (The academic side of me is loving this multi-syllabic feast, by the way.) That place, as I see it, is the intersection that I represent between a host of ensembles in a variety of styles. I say “socio-musical” because, after all, there is a social aspect to ensembles in how the various personalities interact. I happen to be friends with a number of the people I perform and record with. Not all, but a decent amount. (As a freelancer, I often gig with strangers, indifferent colleagues, and occasional “adversaries.”)  However, even the seemingly positive interpersonal relationships quickly become muddied with insecurity and one-upsmanship.

[Etiquette (or lack thereof) and other interpersonal concerns have weighed on my mind the last few months, and I was delighted to see it addressed in a recent NewMusicBox article by Dan Joseph.]

As should be clear throughout this blog and in my playing, I have my saxophonic irons in myriad musical fires. It’s one of my favorite aspects of playing: regularly, the music varies and I get to work with an array of different folks. What’s more, I’m also fortunate that a vast majority of the gigs I have are those that I want. Of all the benefits, one of the few drawbacks is that I occasionally (sometimes often) feel caught in the cold crossfire of my colleagues’ competitive self-interest. That is, people in one group or project are in some capacity uncomfortable with my involvement in another, assuming it’s a zero sum situation and that what benefits Group A detracts from Group B. Of course, when looking at it objectively, such an assumption couldn’t be more inaccurate.

I mean “cold crossfire” a la cold war – no shots fired. And I originally considered “competitive indifference,” but self-interest lies at the heart of it. I rarely – almost never – actually hear direct complaints or condescension about another from group from someone. There’s the occasional passive aggressive remark, but most often it’s a sin of omission: pretend as if everything else just doesn’t exist. This is a delicate balance, of course. If I’m playing a one-off freelance gig with someone, they needn’t know or care about anything else I do. But if I’m working with friends, it’s curious when such topics are avoided – or problems are created – when personal relationships are involved. I don’t how conscious non-artists are of just how competitive artistic types are with one another, but it can be just as cutthroat as sports, business, politics, etc. One person’s success means another’s failure, even if the disciplines are completely unrelated. It’s one thing when one basketball team bests another on the court; it’s another when a soccer team envies the baseball team. And that latter example is precisely how it often feels.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had gigs, rehearsals, or meetings with or for at least six radically different groups, and half of them involved some element of the above to varying degrees. In one instance, I sat and got an earful about all the good and largely impressive accomplishments of one of my colleagues while he didn’t even field one question about my goings-on outside of what I’d be doing for him. When I subtly tried to shoehorn some news into the conversation I was met with a snarky remark and we quickly changed topics. A couple of other instances lacked the braggadocious element but included an active ignoring of such “taboo” subjects. Again, it’s curious and quite noticeable when it’s conversation between friends as opposed to just bandmate-for-the-night X or Y. And again, these groups in question hardly share the same universe let alone genre or scene. The only thing they have in common is me.

As a result, over the last couple years I’ve resigned myself to just not even addressing my other projects around said “combatants.” Again, if talking to my soccer teammate about my recent tennis trophy makes him uneasy, then I’ll instead just avoid discussing sports altogether.

One unfortunate thing about even writing about this is that it probably paints with a broad brush. A great number of my friends and colleagues are genuinely supportive no matter what. They know, as I do, that we’re all hustling and bustling and working towards different but not competing or antithetical ends. And for all of the above complaints, I had an equal number of positive experiences personally the last few weeks. But those few bad apples taint the bunch. I’m not sure what can really be done to remedy the situation. I’ve tried to directly address it with several people but it goes nowhere. So, as with most things, it’s all about keeping one’s head down and forging ahead anyway.

…And I of course can’t post something with “Crossfire” in the title without referencing Stevie Ray Vaughan. That just wouldn’t be right. So, to be official, here’s a version that’s very appropriate for this blog: a live performance from NBC’s short-lived Night Music in 1989 with a band that features blog semi-regulars Hiram Bullock and Jools Holland (also note Don Alias). (And, while absent in this performance, integral to the show were also Marcus Miller and Dave Sanborn.)





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