The 2018 film, The Green Book , depicts a 1962 tour by Don Shirley, an extraordinary black classical and jazz pianist, who melded jazz and classical music on that tour and in the majority of his public performances. What most viewers of the movie likely didn’t know was that in terms of ability, Shirley was one of the greatest classical piano virtuosos of the 1950s and 1960s. The composer Igor Stravinsky, a contemporary of Shirley’s, said of him, “His virtuosity is worthy of Gods.”

Shirley also wrote organ symphonies, piano concerti, a cello concerto, three string quartets, a one-act opera, works for organ, piano and violin, a symphonic tone poem based on the 1939 novel Finnegans Wake by James Joyce, and a set of “Variations” on the 1858 opera Orpheus in the Underworld.

Although he performed with a number of the great symphony orchestras, including the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony, and the New York Philharmonic, the majority of his income came from his classical-jazz fusion performances and recordings, because, in the 1950s, only a handful of classical pianists could make a living, and many classical venues felt that a black classical pianist would not draw audiences.

Shirley was able to stay in music because he was versatile and gifted enough to shift his focus and performance largely to jazz. It was certainly his decision to do so, but the choice he faced was whether to starve as a black classical pianist and composer or to use his talents in another musical genre. In a real sense, if he wanted to remain a musician, he had to put classical performing and composing on a back burner.

Shirley certainly wasn’t the first musician or creative artist to run into difficulties not of their own making that forced a change in career emphasis. In music, the changes in popular tastes are obvious, and popular tastes dictate who, and how many, can make a living performing or composing in a particular way or style. 1950s style rock and roll is gone. For the most part, so is the folk music of the sixties, etc. Some musicians are versatile enough to shift; others aren’t. Those who aren’t tend to be marginalized or totally unable to make a living.

In writing, times also change. How fast they change depends, from what I’ve seen, on the literary genre. What is published and “popular” in poetry has changed drastically over the past fifty years, largely, I suspect, because poetry is not commercially successful and is effectively subsidized in various ways. Because the “market” has changed, I suspect that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for a “traditional” poet, no matter how accomplished and how talented, who emphasized formal rhyme and meter to be widely published or acclaimed.

On the other hand, F&SF is a commercial marketplace, meaning that it’s big enough to support a range of subgenres, based on the preferences of readers. Even so, I’ve seen that certain of my books sell far less well than others, and that’s one reason why I don’t write many of that type, much as I enjoy writing them, but, like Don Shirley and others, I still need to make a living… and it’s the kind of choice most creative artists have to make, one way or another.

4 thoughts on “Choice?”

  1. R. Hamilton says:

    If an artist painted in the forest and nobody saw it, would it have happened? 🙂 Art is communication, and even looking or listening requires consent; reading or attending a live performance requires a bit of participation, too, over and above any cost.

    So it’s reasonable that the tastes of the audience, however limited they may be, are a factor in the livelihood of an artist, unless they’re fortunate enough to be independently wealthy, or to have a patron whose tastes closely align with the content the artist prefers to create.

    In one or more stories* I recall reading, the point was made that sonnets have a very strict structure, but within that structure, one still has the freedom of what to express. A possible additional inference might be that constraints can actually stimulate greater creativity or provide new opportunities, perhaps since more focus is required to operate within the constraints while still communicating something of interest to both artist and audience. Would you say that’s happened for you, navigating the constraints of the market? Is there even perhaps a not dissimilar if less direct satisfaction, navigating both marketplace constraints and content that still says something you want to say?

    * definitely in L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time”, but I think I recall a similar notion elsewhere, maybe in something by C.S. Lewis.

    1. “Navigating the market,” at least for me, is as partly intellectual, part experience, and partly feel. Experience has shown that my sales drop with a female protagonist, and that my science fiction books don’t sell as well as my fantasy novels. Beyond that, almost every Recluce character is someone’s favorite, but more likable characters tend to sell slightly better. The novels where I’ve been more ambitious in one way or another, either in style or subject matter, tend not to sell as well. If I want to write something more “ambitious,” it’s always a risk, but, as a writer, I need to take risks occasionally. A few times, I’ve even been pleasantly surprised.

      1. Grey says:

        In terms of navigating the market, I still feel you missed the boat a few years ago by not cranking out a ‘paranormal teen romance’ Recluce novel.

        I can see it now: Lebba, a naive black mage on her dangergeld, falls for the mysterious Wedard. But then Wedard is revealed to be the latest in a long line of nasty Chaos mages. Along the way, she catches the eye of Cajob, a boring but handsome and burly Druid from the forest of Naclos, who can’t go more than a chapter without removing his tunic. The whole setup fits nicely into the philosophical explorations of the Recluce series: Is Wedard bad, or just misunderstood, and should he be judged simply as the product of his lineage? Should she choose Cajob, the safer choice against Wedard’s high-risk/reward?

        Honestly, it just writes itself.

        1. In navigating the market, there are just some voyages I don’t want to make.

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