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Years ago, in an old book, Jonathan Bewley found quotations and insights about playing jazz from some of his musical heroes. It was stuff Billie Holliday and Charlie Parker said about their experiences playing music that Bewley had never seen anywhere else. He clutched these thoughts like pearls, thankful for the journalist who recorded their musings in the book, called “Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya.”
But beyond that book and a few other publications, Bewley found it difficult to catch a glimpse of the history of the artists he loved, especially contemporary musicians.
So Bewley and a team have formed the Snapshots Music and Art Foundation, a San Diego-based nonprofit that is documenting artists performing and talking about their musical trajectories, a snapshot of their life’s work.
The 30-year-old San Diego native studied music and film at Grossmont College before striking out on this venture a few years ago. Now he’s working to raise money for the project. The group plans to place their videos in libraries, at universities, online and at the Library of Congress.
They’ve formally launched the project with five profiles. I caught Bewley this week to talk more about his effort and the gems and insights he hopes to find.
What’s often written about a lot of artists and musicians is this kind of chronology: They’ve studied with this person, they’ve made this work, they’ve had this solo show at this venue, but there’s not the, “They lived in North Park and they kept chickens” or something.
There’s very little. Often journalists — and they’re doing their job — try to find an angle or a story. Usually that’s the artist promoting an album or on a tour. And we had a lot of that. But we didn’t have a lot of the life details and creative ideas. And just the musician talking, not a narrator. Just let the artist talk. That’s what we try to do: To get the artist to open up, and back out of the way. And that renders incredible results, I mean, the interviews have been great.
Now it also renders incredible challenges, right? It’s hard to get artists to talk sometimes.
Musicians don’t want to be pigeonholed. We have a challenge in even talking about music. How do you describe the difference between the sound of an organ and a violin? Or even one organ player playing versus another? This is a challenge to the spoken word, to the written word. And a lot of artists want to share what they’re doing but they don’t want to be put in the box. You as a journalist have to somehow present a package so that people can take it all in, and that’s a challenge we all share.
There are some very reclusive artists that are very well-known. And yet privately they still want their work to be shared and understood. We have a dream list of some artists that we would like to profile who are notorious for not doing any press. We would love to feature Boards of Canada, the most reclusive and revered electronic artists of our time. So you’re very fortunate if you can gain that confidence.
Artists like to connect personally with people and they don’t like clichés.
What are some of those clichés?
What was your most inspiring moment you can remember playing music? Who’s your favorite artist? What was the most difficult period in your life? It’s hard for us to understand this, but for them, art is a daily 24/7 experience. Sometimes they don’t play music and they’re just cooking. But whatever happens, this is their day job and they live in this creative space all the time. So life is a little bit different for them than it is for most of us.
All of the artists, I’ve noticed, have a good work ethic. And that’s one of the things, when we talk about great artists, that separates them. They really have put in the time. You can be born with perfect pitch or a good memory, but that’s a starting point.
Why are you telling these stories?
Two reasons: To preserve the artist’s voice for all time. And then the second thing is to share it with people. The music-listening public can get closer to the artist through their own words. And then those of us who are on the path of learning as students and musicians can also benefit from it.
When we interviewed Matmos, Martin Schmidt explained how the creative process is an ebb and flow experience and not a switch they turn on and off. Great musicians live with music in a very organic way; it is not forced.
Is there some kind of boundary you’ve drawn around what kind of music you’ll cover?
We focus on jazz, classical, electronic, world and crossover genres. Our criteria for selecting artists is that they have an identity in their sound, are unique and are contributing to and recognized for their music. Age and awards are less important than vision and sound.
The first artist we interviewed was Jason Soares of Aspects of Physics — experimental electronic rock art music. And then the second artist was Steven Schick, a solo percussionist. And then Holly Hofmann (jazz and classical flutist). So we want to paint with a broad brush but there are some types of music that are doing just fine commercially and they don’t need to be covered in the same way that we’re doing this.
Is it better for us to sit down with 50 Cent to talk about his lyrics, or is it better for us to sit down with a young and promising pianist and give them exposure?
The element of curiosity is very important, too. How we discover anything that’s new, but particularly music? I can remember when I listened to very hardcore music and then how did I end up buying a Dave Brubeck album? I’m not sure but I think it had something to do with the Wherehouse when there were record stores.
I’m glad you said that. How do we discover new artists? I’m not just going to go onto Google and type in “avant-garde percussion solo.” I’m certainly not going to assume that that just exists in San Diego. So how do you tell somebody who might not care already? What do you give them to start to navigate that world?
We hope that if someone’s aware of one artist we profile that they’d also explore the other artists in the collection. Kind of a cross-pollination. Of course you can’t force people — they’ll have to voluntarily go on that journey themselves. In presenting a broad spectrum of great artists in music, you give people a rainbow of colors to choose from. In a way, that’s a similar effect to the record store experience. We’re moving over to video as a means to share all sorts of music. Video draws you in in a way that’s kind of its own animal.
Why is this foundation rooted in San Diego?
Well, I’m local, so there’s that. But San Diego’s changing — we’re collectively moving into a more progressive place as an arts and culture community. A lot of that has been spontaneous. But we have institutions here that have supported the musical arts like the Neurosciences Institute and the Athenaeum and UCSD. There’s a desire to take things ahead.
Why do you say this is an idea whose time has come?
Let’s be honest: We’re going through a global financial transition, which affects the arts. Musicians and artists will have to develop new models to share their work with people.
When a concert’s over and everyone leaves, that music is finished and that experience was unique to that moment. But that video can not only capture the moment but it can travel without boundaries. That’s the way I like to think of sharing the life history of musicians and their music.