This morning I watched CBS Sunday Morning as I usually do when I am at home on a Sunday. This particular week’s show was their 40th anniversary show, where they played highlights from shows of the past 40 years. After a while, I began to notice a pattern. With very few exceptions, they presented clips of pop culture stars or of ordinary people and children. It made me think that so little time on TV is given to true masters of the arts and/or geniuses.
They showed 5 seconds of Arthur Miller joking about loving all the critics, and a couple of minutes of Wynton Marsalis joking around. He got one of the longest segments because he is the program’s music correspondent, and even more importantly because they use his recording of their theme, which they showed a few seconds of him recording. Other than Wynton, the only other jazz musician shown was Billy Taylor, who while playing 8 bars of Sophisticated Lady on the piano stated, “Duke Ellington is what American music is all about.”
That’s funny. From the 50 or so pop stars on the show, other than Billy Taylor’s 10 seconds, you’d think that jazz doesn’t have anything to do with our lives. Nor does the American Songbook—no mention of that other than to say that 40 years ago Richard Rodgers died. No mention of Shakespeare productions, David Mamet or the theater (unless you count the 5 seconds with Arthur Miller, where I’m not even sure they mentioned what he did). Curiously, hardly anything about movies or movie stars. Nothing about sports.
Basically, this show was not about great achievements by Americans like our space program or inventions that make our lives better or safer; it was celebrating ordinary people, or making celebrities appear ordinary, which in many respects most of them are.
Curiously, I’ve worked with some of the people they showed. There was a real moment when an interviewer asked Shirley MacLaine who she is. A cell phone accidentally started playing music at that moment. Shirley started to dance in her seat and said she was a musical comedy performer with an interest in spirituality.
All this got me thinking that great art, thought, scientific achievements, history and other things that would inspire us to become our best selves are not readily available to us. Almost everything that comes to us for free isn’t worth the time we spend with it. In fact, what we get on TV, Facebook, movies, etc. is not much better than anyone can create with a few hours of practice. What about Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours? But, really, practicing for 10,000 hours is no guarantee that you will be the next Shakespeare, Ellington, or Isaac Newton. Some people are born with the potential for greatness. Some are born with the potential for genius. Few rise to either, and even fewer rise to both.
Sadly, we live in a world where hardly anyone can even quote Shakespeare, Ellington, or Newton. How come I grew up learning about them and striving to attain their heights? What has happened in the past 50 years to our education system and our culture?
We have been experiencing cultural global warming, and it may be too late to turn it around. Colleges are eliminating classes that are not career- oriented, to the point of them becoming trade schools. Maybe I’ve led an unrealistic life. I don’t work for money. Oh, people pay me money from time to time, but I write and perform music and write books and this blog for the fun of it. OK, more than just fun. How about personal discovery and the pleasure of sharing with other people, and maybe, just maybe, touching one person who will listen to a Duke Ellington record and know these sounds are the essence of what it is to be an American, or even more, what it is to be fully alive.
It’s no coincidence that Shakespeare’s plays are still performed by our greatest actors after 500 years, while other playwrights are lucky if their work will last a season. When I watch a Shakespearean play, my initial reaction is that it is hard to understand the language. After five minutes, all that goes away, and I am at one with his genius.
Years ago when I was teaching my Duke Ellington course at Manhattan School of Music, a student grabbed me after class, and asked what I listen to for fun. I told him, “Duke Ellington.” For me, it is fun to experience deep feelings and thoughts and be challenged by the greatest minds who ever lived. I may not ever rise to their level, but it won’t be for lack of trying. They’ve inspired me to never stop trying.
When I watched Novak Djokovic defeat Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open this morning, I marveled at their talent, hard work and skill. I play tennis for fun. I try to improve, and I have improved. I’ll never be a professional, let alone on their level, but when I watch them play, I have deep respect.
When I first started playing tennis 25 years ago, I went for my weekly massage in the Village. Michelle had a bunch of famous clients, so I wasn’t particularly surprised that as I entered her apartment, John McEnroe was putting on his jacket to leave. He had a guitar in a gig bag with him, so I asked him if he played professionally. He said, “No, I used to play tennis.” As he turned to leave, I said, “Sorry the tennis didn’t work out.” He laughed as he left. To this day, I have no idea if he knew that I was messing with him.
The point of all this is, I think, that we all have special talents. My father never wanted to talk about my career with me, but he told his best friend that he loved me because I followed my dream. I’ve often wondered if he had a dream, or what it was. I was never good at compromise—living a life of quiet desperation. That’s just not my style. As a young man, I read Thoreau. I don’t think that I got the idea from him, because I already was doing what he said:
I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.
Everyone has lots of great excuses why not to do what their heart truly desires, but I for one don’t want to be on my deathbed saying, “I wish I…”