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Art For Art’s Sake

David Berger



When Joe Temperley would complain about the music business, he had two favorite expressions: “Art for art’s sake, but money for Christ’s sake,” and “Music by the yard.” Joe was a true artist. He was who he was. He never pretended to be anyone else. When he played, he bared his soul. He was a virtuoso and an original. You only need to hear him play one note, and you know it’s him. He died at the age of 88 a year and a half ago, and played almost to the end. His music was always immediate and heartfelt drawing the audience in, and bringing everyone within earshot to a place of introspection and warmth. He spoke to us and we loved him in a way that I’ve rarely seen a musician be loved.


And yet he never made any attempt to keep up with musical styles. He grew up in the Swing Era, and remained a product of it. His music told us of his childhood in a mining town in Scotland, his salad days in London and his love for Duke Ellington, Ben Webster, Harry Carney and Art Tatum. When I hear him play, I am drawn into his world (the time and place) and informed of it. But his music is more than that. It touches us so deeply because it speaks of the universality of the human condition and experience. Joe was a true artist, and remains so on the many recordings he has left us.


In the early days of Jazz at Lincoln Center, I had many long discussions with Wynton Marsalis, Stanley Crouch, and our mentor Albert Murray about the nature of art—what makes some art at once great and eternal. Al laid out the idea that fine art is personal expression within the context of the culture from which it springs and at the same time strikes a chord in the experience of all human beings. This is as true for Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington as it is for Mozart, Beethoven, Rembrandt, van Gogh and Orson Welles.


Welles said that a genius is out of step with his time. I would add, not entirely out of step, but just enough. The business of being an artist is to have a personal and insightful view of society and life—to bring a new understanding that we can relate to. Like our dreams and mythology, art expresses itself in symbolism. Alfred Hitchcock’s movies tell us stories about spies and lovers, but what sets his work apart from lesser spy movies and romcoms are the themes that are below the surface and not addressed head on—the stuff Hitchcock never wanted to talk about in interviews. Likewise, Ellington would say, “Too much talk stinks up the place.” I loved Ellington and Hitchcock before I knew any of this. I absorbed the messages subliminally. Becoming aware made the experience richer and helped me to become a better artist, teacher, and human being.


This past Sunday, I watched a segment of 60 Minutes about a 12-year old English girl named Alma Deutscher. They have done pieces on child prodigies before, and I often come away thinking, “Where does this come from?” They showed clips of Alma singing and playing the piano and violin all at a very high level even for a professional, but the amazing thing about her is her compositional skills. At 12, she has already composed concerti and an opera. I’m not just talking about melodies—but fully orchestrated compositions, and in the Classical style very much like Mozart. From what little I heard, it was amazingly true and deep within the vernacular of Haydn, Mozart and other great composers in the late 18th century.


Alma’s parents are teachers and amateur musicians. I assume they played Classical Music in the house when she was little. By the age of 3, she could read music and play the piano amazingly well. A year later, she was composing. I don’t know if she has heard any music written after 1800, but I can’t imagine how she could avoid it. In any case, it has had no musical effect on her. It’s as if she was growing up in Vienna in 1790. Weird, right? But I’ve seen this sort of thing before, just not so extreme.


For one thing, almost every time I see or hear a child prodigy, they are amazing for their age, but ultimately have little to contribute to the adult world of the arts. They just don’t have enough life experience to draw upon. And so, they rarely grow up to have major professional careers. Two notable exceptions: Mozart and Joey Alexander.


Like Alma Deutscher, Mozart was famous for playing the piano and violin and composing as a very young child. The difference was that he was living in Austria during the Classical period, so he was immersed in the culture and music of his place and time. Joey Alexander grew up in Indonesia, and was born in 2003. He taught himself to play jazz by listening to his father’s old jazz records—50-year old music from the other side of the world. The level of his knowledge, proficiency, improvisational ability and depth is unexplainable. When I first heard him a few years ago, I asked Wynton if he believed in reincarnation. His answer was, “What else could it be?”


So, when I heard and saw Alma on TV, I thought about Joey. They were both living in cultures and time periods far from the music they produce. I could understand Joey more. The jazz he plays is still alive in the world to a small degree with jazz musicians like Wynton and me still creating new works, and Joey’s style is only 40 or 50 years old. That’s quite different from a little girl in the English countryside writing music that sounds 250 years old.


So what about Al Murray’s requirement of art emanating from the culture? What insights on life in Vienna circa 1790 is Alma imparting on us? Does she dress in that style, eat that food, ride in horse drawn carriages, and perform for the aristocracy? I don’t think so. Al used to say that Ellington is America’s greatest composer because his music best defines what it felt like to be an American in the 20th century—a topic Ellington was a living expert on.


I asked my buddy Chuck Israels what he thought about Alma. He was mightily impressed. When I brought up the incongruity of her style, he said that maybe she will grow. Perhaps Beethoven is next or maybe hip hop? Or maybe neither. Maybe she just likes and relates to this music, and will stay there. Then Chuck added, “What about us?”


Chuck is 81. I am 68. We are both products of our youth—the culture in general and music specifically. Chuck’s music is based on the bebop of the 1940s, hard bop of the ’50s, and his six years as bassist in the Bill Evans Trio from 1961-66. His main influences were Oscar Pettiford and Bill Evans. He’s been alive and living in the US since then, but his musical style eschews all evidence of later pop music.


I grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s. Initially I heard swing music like everyone else in America, but by the time I was a teenager, I was most influenced by the big band music of Count Basie, Gil Evans (Birth of the Cool and Miles Ahead), Thad Jones, and Duke Ellington, and by the small groups of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, and Horace Silver. Although I was a young man on the jazz scene in the ’70s, my style was an amalgamation of pre-’70s jazz. Both Chuck and I grew up on classical music, and have done our share of score and private compositional study, but our music is firmly rooted in the jazz tradition.


So do mainstream jazz artists like us represent the American culture of 2017? I have no interest in pop music, and haven’t had any since 1970. Hip hop culture is foreign to me. There’s no chance you’ll ever see me wearing my pants hanging down below my keister with my boxers in plain sight. And forget about all that gold jewelry. I don’t even wear a watch or rings.   But I do live in New York City, read the Times every morning, and watch the news, movies and TV (not reality shows). I read books and am an active part of my culture, but I see it through the lens of a guy who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s. Everyone has his/her point of reference. That is mine.


My music reflects how I see the world now, but with the perspective of my upbringing. I don’t pretend to be a generation older than me or a generation or two younger than I really am. I’m just me. My music seems relevant to me, and apparently to the musicians who perform with me, and to our audiences. I’m just being honest, and honesty is the very least we should expect from our artists.

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  • Hans on

    Re: “….child prodigy, they are amazing for their age, but ultimately have little to contribute to the adult world of the arts. They just don’t have enough life experience to draw upon.”
    One notable exception is Ethan Bortnick. I wish we could clone him :-)

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