Objectivists often like to gossip about the latest celebrity or entertainer who has been quoted as saying that Ayn Rand influenced him. Rarely, however, does the person's work reflect a true understanding of Rand's thought.
Vincent Herring, an important and immensely talented young jazz saxophonist, has not only read Rand, but has incorporated many aspects of her thought into his life and music. Almost a year ago, I read good things about Herring in a jazz publication. And although I am always suspicious of the hype that seems to pervade so much of music journalism today, I decided to take a chance on one of his CDs. While looking through his CDs at the record store, I was shocked at the title of a cut: "In the Shadow of John Galt." This discovery led to my purchase of Don't Let It Go, and the music contained on it led to the enthusiastic purchase of numerous other works by Herring. It also led to discussions with Herring about music and Ayn Rand's influence on his art.
Herring was born in Kentucky and raised in California, but like virtually all aspiring jazz artists, he moved to New York at a tender age and became immersed in the city's competitive cauldron of jazz talent. He quickly built a reputation as a fiery, aggressive alto saxophonist in the tradition of the late Julian "Cannonball" Adderley. Since then, he has recorded with jazz greats Freddie Hubbard, Phil Woods, Cedar Walton, the Mingus Big Band, and Cannonball's brother, Nat Adderley. Moreover, he has released a string of critically praised records on his own, including The Days of Wine and Roses (complete with a cover of Herring playing the saxophone on railroad tracks with the New York City skyline behind him—hmm) and 1997's Change the World.
Bullock: When did you first start reading Ayn Rand, and what books did you read?
Herring: In order to answer that question, I have to share an experience. In the summer of 1991, I was on a three-week tour of Japan, and I finished the books I had brought with me, so I traded a book with another musician on the tour. I gave him The Content of Your Character by Shelby Steele and he loaned me The Color Purple by Alice Walker. Years before when the Alice Walker book came out and then the Steven Spielberg movie, it was quite controversial. The media were relating quotes like "Black men are portrayed in a negative way," White people can't make a realistic movie about black people without stereotyping them," etc. With that buzz, I just never got around to seeing the movie or reading the book. I figured both were as stupid as most pop culture entertainment. It turns out the book was great and the movie was just as good if not better.
After that experience, I realized that I had let people censor my intake of books, movies, and other things. I let others control my intake of knowledge. Around the same time, one of my best friends, Mitchell Kornblatt, was reading Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. He had had a similar experience. For years, he had not read Rand because popular culture and cultural [spokesmen] had defined her as a fascist.
Mitchell read Atlas Shrugged and loaned it to me a few weeks later in the summer of 1992. Ironically, I took the book with me on a second trip to Japan later that year. Never has any book moved me as much as Atlas Shrugged. Ayn Rand put into words and story many things I was thinking about and observing. Atlas Shrugged is my favorite book. After reading Atlas, I read more of her books: Philosophy: Who Needs It, The Romantic Manifesto, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, The Virtue of Selfishness, and, of course, The Fountainhead.
Bullock: Ayn Rand believed that art expresses an artist's "sense of life," or the integrated sum of a man's basic values. Rand wrote that the artist's sense of life "controls and integrates his work, directing the innumerable choices he has to make, from the choice of subject to the subtlest details of style." But Rand was cautious and tentative in setting forth exactly how music manifests a sense of life. Moreover, Rand focused primarily on the listener's perception of music as opposed to the musician's creation of it. How has Rand's philosophy affected your own approach to life and music, and how does your sense of life reflect the artistic choices you make?
Herring: Probably the most immediate way the ideas affected me was to make me think more in depth about so many different things. Before, I was more or less just floating. Now, I evaluate and analyze what I am doing and why I am doing it. Also, I set higher standards for myself.
Perhaps most important to me after reading Rand is that logic is always the order of the day, both in life and in music. Tying together passion, drive, wisdom, and logic is the hallmark of great music. For instance, jazz players sometimes stretch out and take harmonic liberties with music. But if it is done within a logical structure, it can still make sense and be incredibly moving and enjoyable. Your ear is guided by the logic of the phrases and the notes chosen by a skilled and passionate musician. I tray to be as creative as possible when making music, but I try never to lose the logic underlying it.
Also, I make music for selfish reasons. It provides self-fulfillment. I enjoy music more than anything else, and I will not allow myself to be put into a position where I make music only because it is a job. Those situations will destroy the passion and energy and drain your own sense of life from your art. I have seen many guys over the years get burnt out and turn cynical because music becomes a chore. They might as well be flipping burgers.
Frankly, it helps to have this attitude when playing jazz. The audience for jazz is still rather small, and even though there is some money to be made, a career in jazz is by no means a pathway to riches. So with jazz, to play it well and to be devoted to it, it has to be for the sheer personal joy it brings to you. I started playing jazz because I love it, and that is what will keep me going.
Bullock: Have your views gotten you in trouble in the music business?
Herring: Definitely. I actually try to avoid discussions of philosophy or politics with people in the business because anything other than left-wing or extreme left views are totally unacceptable. The problem is that many people, including musicians, do not think for themselves. As a result, they say some incredibly stupid things. For instance, a talented, young tenor saxophonist was asked recently about his views on affirmative action, and he said something along the lines of "We black people are creative, but we just don't have the brain thing going on." I just couldn't believe he would say something that dumb and defeatist.
I have also gotten in trouble with the musicians' union over the years. In fact, I let my membership in the union lapse because I ate the idea of being coerced into joining anything. The union then told me that I still had to pay dues even if I was not a member. I told them that it was illegal to force me to pay dues, so they really hate me. When I told them I was not going to be a member any longer, they said: "What are you, Seventh-Day Adventist?" I said, "No, I just believe in individual rights." I have definitely paid a price for this, missing out on certain opportunities because I don't belong to the union. One the other hand, I am now able to negotiate my own salary—sometimes playing for more, sometimes for less—but it is on my terms.
Bullock: Are there areas of Objectivism you find problematic? How about Rand's controversial views on unbridled capitalism or religion?
Herring: I really can't say there are any major areas where I find myself in disagreement with Rand. There are, however, certain areas where I think there are some gaps. For instance, family is extremely important to me and I don't see any emphasis on Rand's writings on the importance of children or families.
With economics, I don't feel I have read enough about it to make a totally informed opinion, but I find Rand's writings on the subject persuasive.
As far as religion is concerned, I was not a believer even before I read Rand. Frankly, I find it difficult to understand how people today, with so much technological and scientific advancement and improvement in the quality of life, can embrace what seems to me to be a rather primitive philosophy. Of course, even though I am not religious, I champion people's right to believe whatever they wish (although religious individuals don't often seem to champion my equal right to reject religious views).
Bullock: You seem to be a rather brutal self-critic, calling some of your earlier work flashy and immature. How have you matured as an artist? And what paths do you see your music taking in the future?
Herring: I consider some of my earlier work flashy and immature because I would sacrifice logic, trying to be entertaining and impressive. I will give you some examples. I would play fast with a lot of notes because it was impressive (to some people). In the heat of the moment, I would sometimes lose track of where the harmony was, but I kept moving my fingers fast to impress people. I did not have a concept and overall structure for creating music. I did not have all the tools to reharmonize with logic. Now I do and I regret some of the things that made it to CD in the earlier years. When I play a solo today, I am trying to create and play great music from note one. I have the tools and the knowledge to do what I want to do in a solo. So when I play fast with lost of noes now, it is because at that moment in time the solo I am constructing calls for it and that is the way I want to paint my musical picture. Whenever I play music, I try to create what I hear in my head. I am no longer trying to prove that I can play. That is the first step to reaching a state of mind conducive to creating great music. As far as the future goes, I will try to develop my originality through writing and performance. Most importantly, I enjoy the challenge of creating music.
Bullock: On your latest release, Change the World, you do jazz that takes on popular songs by such performers as Billy Joel, Babyface, and Prince (or the Artist Formerly Known As). In the liner notes to the record, you candidly note that you have some reservations about trying to reinvent rock songs in a jazz idiom. While jazz artists have always reworked popular songs, many of America's earlier songwriters were familiar with jazz and many of their songs, especially ones by George Gershwin and Cole Porter, lent themselves to jazz interpretation. The same probably cannot be said for today's songwriters. Will you continue to use the current popular songbook as a source for your own music?
Herring: If you play any song on that record for a jazz snob before telling them the composer, and if they like my style of playing, they will assume it is an original song and it will pass the snob test as real jazz. If the same person knows the composer is Billy Joel, he will not give it a chance. Test out the theory, and you will see what I mean.
Last week I recorded a track with Carla Bley for a children's record. She made an arrangement of "Old McDonald Had a Farm." It was very hip and had a great arrangement. you can make just about anything work if you arrange it just right. Listen to the original version of "My Favorite Things." It was very corny. Now listen to John Coltrane's version of the same song—very hip. Before hearing Coltrane's version for the first time, most people would never think that the song lent itself to jazz interpretation. You can always find a few good, popular songs, even in today's musical environment. I do not have any plans to use the current popular songbook as a source of material, but I do not rule out using certain good songs.
Bullock: So 'fess up about the cover of The Days of Wine and Roses, complete with railroad tracks and a New York City skyline. Was this in any way a Rand tribute, consciously or unconsciously?
Herring: I wish! That would make a better story. The Japanese film crew took me there to film me for a CD-ROM. The Days of Wine and Roses record was released in Japan in two versions. A regular CD or, for double the money, a CD-ROM with childhood photos of me, a few different interviews, and all kinds of Vincent Herring footage.
Bullock: Many people interested in Ayn Rand explore the arts as a passionate hobby, and see them as a vital part of our lives. Any words of advice or encouragement for individuals who participate in music out of passion and dedication, even if they could never earn a living at it?
Herring: If you are playing music because you love it and you are getting enjoyment out of the study and performance of music, I think that is great. Not everyone will make a living from playing music, but does that matter? Of course not. Keep in mind that the better you develop your musicianship, the more enjoyment you are likely to get out of it. There are some excellent part-time musicians in the world. I played a few concerts in Germany with and industrialist named Franco Ambersetti. His family has a company that makes landing gear for aircraft. He enjoys playing jazz, and he is very good. He enjoys his life, and jazz is a big part of it.
Keep working hard and enjoy what you do. My father-in-law purchased a clarinet a few years ago. He dreams of playing in a band after he retires from his construction company. Music means different things to everyone. Some people are willing to lay everything on the line for it; others are more careful. Find out what it means to you, set short-term and long-term goals, and create a plan to improve your musicianship. If you must measure your success, measure it by the enjoyment and fulfillment music brings to your life.