There’s a quote from Henri Matisse that goes “there are wonderful things in real jazz, the talent for improvisation, the liveliness, the being at one with the audience.” Matisse was talking about choosing the word “Jazz” as the title of one of his final collections, the hand-brushed and stenciled works released under the Jazz name in 1947.
The series–now considered among the most important of Matisse’s career–grew out of setback and pain: as Greg Kucera describes the period, “The years of World War II were a difficult time for Matisse and his family. He had separated from his wife Amelie in 1940 when he moved to the south of France. His wife and his daughter Marguerite were each tried and then jailed by the Gestapo for their parts in the French Resistance movement. Marguerite was tortured and then deported to the Ravensbruck concentration camp but was miraculously rescued before arriving there.” The artist himself was ravaged by gallstones, insomnia, failing vision, and the after effects of surgery for intestinal cancer, but as Kucera reflects, the pain produced a spark: “After a risky operation, Matisse remarked to his friend Albert Marquet in 1942, ‘Truly, I’m not joking when I thank my lucky stars for the awful operation I had, since it has made me young again and philosophical which means that I don’t want to fritter away the new lease on life I’ve been given.'”
Without drawing too sharp a parallel, I believe many journalists are finding their own inspiration in the pain of unemployment, furlough and fear. Over the past weeks, journalists on this page have shared their own versions of Matisse’s improvisational “Jazz:” for Brian Andrews, it was selling everything he owned to move from Miami to Columbia and–quite literally–start his own English language news operation. For Polly Kreisman, it’s an online hyperlocal effort that, like the lady herself, has smarts and attitude.
And now, almost without realizing it, I’ve found myself producing my own collection of new works unlike anything I’ve produced before. I’m improvising, and I’m loving it. As you know (since you’re here), I began blogging back in January as a way of expressing my own uncertainties about the local television news business. The daily writing–and connecting with creative, passionate people across the country–has become a treasured part of my life. It started as strict improvisation: I had no idea what it would become, I just knew I was being honest, about the business, and most of all, about myself. As Matisse wrote, I was truly being “at one with the audience.”
And like nothing I’ve written before, people have responded to that. I’ve made new connections, joined with other journalists determined to innovate and create instead of sit and bitch, and a few weeks ago, I found myself contacted about a job that somehow, in all the job-listing-looking I’d been doing, I missed. And they hired me. (No agent-negotiated, megabucks deal here–I’m working for a nonprofit, and making nonprofit wages, so I’ll still be blogging my heart out, shooting my own stuff for my neighborhood newsblog, and getting goofy on Saturday nights for Toni Senecal’s “Toni On! New York” on WPIX. (Today’s shoot: doing improv with the comics at New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade–am I driving the improvisation metaphor too hard?–if I am, whatev, they’re crazy funny and it was a blast to share the stage with them.)
Anyway, a week ago I ventured into a world that may one day be commonplace for journalists, or, perhaps, it won’t. But for now, I’m part of a journalistic experiment being bankrolled by a philanthropist (Ruth Ann Harnisch, former local newser turned benefactor to journalism schools, research programs and countless community efforts) and being studied by a university professor seeking–as so many of us are–new ways to keep journalists on the job. I’m serving as a “community supported journalist” who works not for a paper or television station, but for a group of people who have a shared interest, in this case, in the field of coaching. Will people interested in getting news on their field one day decide it’s worth their own money to keep a reporter on the beat? We’ll know more in a year.
For now, I’m part pioneer, part guinea pig. And improvising my butt off. But like the artist with the new lease of life, I feel a stronger connection to my original love of journalism, writing, and storytelling than I’ve felt in a long time. In part, because I really don’t know what I’m going to do next. And also, because I feel a kinship with all the others out there spinning plates, juggling knives and tap dancing…waiting to see what new show an audience will pay for.
I feel confident one day soon we’ll look back and realize that some of us are doing some of the most important work of our careers.