Mozart in the Jungle

So, I’ve been wanting to write about this gem of a comedy Mozart in the Jungle streaming on Amazon Prime.  I saw its previews a year or so ago, discovered it was “based on” Blair Tindall‘s memoir: Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music. I ordered the book because I’d been wondering about those early years of Jan‘s career, the 60’s into the early 70’s, before she went to Rochester, when she was building her freelance career. What was it like to be a young artist in the city at this time? A classical musician choosing not to sing opera?

Tindall’s book threw me. I read it quickly–it’s not a difficult read–and boy is it breezy, lousy with references of real living people, as bawdy and free lovin’ as my imagination could muster about New York hippie artists. I didn’t believe what I was reading, about sex, drugs, and politics in the pit. I couldn’t place Jan in this context.

Tindall was coming of age and entering the New York freelance scene in the early 70’s. I graduated high school in 1980. She says in an interview  that her life “coincided” with a burgeoning renaissance of classical music in this country, that she was playing (and partying) as “this whole phenomenon of funding and the rise of culture in the late 20th-century America started.” She started the book to defy the myth that classical music had died, was dying, here. (The book tries to thread many themes, this, her personal life story, an academic run through “high culture”, and her intent to show the real story of the pavement-walking, hard-working, thankless freelance musician.) In the end, it’s the memoir that hijacks the story; Tindall weaves tales of love affairs, parties, drug and drinking binges, competition with some scant interruptions of historical markers and an indictment of the corporations controlling the arts. The personal is what you remember. And I didn’t believe it.

And so, I was lucky to have been led to New York cellist Fred Sherry early in my research more than a year ago; he invited me to his huge Upper West Side apartment he shares with his wife. We hit it off instantly, joking and laughing easily together. We sat across from one another at his long heavy dark-wood dining room table. I asked him about Tindall’s book, and he grinned, laughing robustly, admitted that,  yes, he was in the book. And yes, it was just like that.

[I think of my husband’s admonitions after the six years he spent as a US Navy man: if I tell you, I’ll have to kill you.]

Still, I couldn’t quite accept this crazy, freewheeling image depicted merrily, loudly, without apology in the early episodes of MITJ: Season 1 and Tindall’s book.

There is one story, its origin I can’t put my fingers on at the moment as I write this post from my mechanic’s waiting area in Nottingham, NH, but someone told me a story about Jan in the 70’s and “drug use.” (Hold on, don’t worry, this is a cute and totally legal story; it may have been Fred who told this to me.) Jan was travelling internationally–maybe this was the Japan trip with Seiji Ozawa?–and someone she was travelling with asked her about taking drugs through customs, and the uneventful truth is she told this musician,  I would never do that stuff; it’s just not worth the risk.

I am admittedly an innocent. In 1980, I’d barely tasted beer. The few folks I knew at Eastman who smoked knew not to ask me to join. It wasn’t my thing. But I still have a hard time with this depiction Amazon Prime has given us because Tindall wrote this book. (BTW: She took  A LOT of heat for this; was “blacklisted” she says, for the past decade. Apparently this tell-all pissed people off. She says, “I knew it was going to unfold this way, but the classical music press was very snarky about it.” Does the fact that she uses the word snarky give you a clue? And after all, if you’re going to subtitle a book Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music, you’re kind of asking for it.)

I think I will write some more about this book, this show, my own experiences. Because for one, while I didn’t really admire the book for its writing or story, I have continued to watch the show: I’ve kind’a fallen in love with it, the characters, the story. It’s not memoir, anymore. And I don’t care about inaccuracies: it’s not trying to be instructive. It’s fun, beautifully acted, shot, written, and sounding. It’s all about the characters and their relationships, which is what all good TV writing is about. It’s what the book–a fiction, that is–should have been.

In the Amazon series “Mozart in the Jungle,” Lola Kirke plays a character inspired by Blair Tindall


About dhaines54

Dawn Denham (formerly Haines) lives in the hill country of North Central Mississippi where she's writing a book about her mentor at the Eastman School of Music mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani and teaching writing at Oxford High School. Her work has been published in Poets and Writers magazine, Brevity, Zone 3, Literary Mama, and WILLA. Her book with authors Jacqueline Raphael and Susan Newcomer Writing Together: Transforming Your Writing in a Writing Group was the first book of its kind published in the US. Her essay Aleatorik about her mother’s death won the 2012 Solstice magazine Creative Nonfiction prize chosen by Jerald Walker and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She received an MFA in Nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts, an MA in Rhetoric and Composition from the University of Arizona, and a BM in Voice from Eastman School of Music.
This entry was posted in Dawn's Journey, Fun Research Tidbit, Photo, Reflecting on Jan, Reflection and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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