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Celebrating Mediocrity

David Berger



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…”

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  • Mark Taylor on

    Great post!

  • Alec Katz on

    Thank you, David, I have really enjoyed reading this!

  • Chris Byars on

    “What do you listen to for fun?” Ugh. Did he pay attention to how you taught the class?

    Quick story about life advice and following a dream:
    At Stuyvesant High School, I was lucky to have been assigned Frank McCourt as my Creative Writing teacher. Although this was ten years before his bestseller “Angela’s Ashes” hit the bookstores, he was already a cult figure at Stuyvesant; developing a reputation as an out-of-the-box teacher by holding classes in Stuyvesant Park and cooking for the homeless people while reading the recipes out loud (as a writing assignment, see?) among various other oddities. For my classwork, he encouraged me to bring my alto and play original music for the class. I did this every few weeks. Like all of his students, I wanted to do my best for him as a writer. Of English Language. I remember being called up to the front of the class for a brief one-on-one with him, and he handed back one of my essays, saying in his Irish brogue: “Chris, this is okay, but please stick with the music. That’s where your heart is.” He put aside his own passion, and the reinforcement of his own purpose, to push me in the direction he knew was right.

  • David Berger on

    I can definitely relate. I knew the first day of junior high that I had to become a jazz musician. That was the first day I played jazz. for the next 4 years, I couldn’t figure out how to tell my parents. My father’s dream for me was to work for him and take over the family business. After one of our Pop Concerts, where I played trumpet in the dance band and wrote many of the charts for the band and singers, I saw my parents talking to our band director, a very fine musician who played at Radio City Music Hall on the weekends and had extensive experience in the jazz and legit worlds. On the way home in the car, I asked my parents what they were talking to Mr. Schoales about. My mother said that he told them, “I know you would like David to become a doctor or a lawyer, but you really should let him do what he wants.” Then she asked me what I want. I told her that I’d like to pursue a career in music. She said, “So be it.” I never doubted my decision. Like you, I didn’t become an alcoholic or drug addict, nor did I make a lot of money, but I’ve had more fun in any one day than I would have had in a lifetime of spending all the money I could have made selling tschochkes. I’ve gotten to share the joy of music with millions of people. That makes me feel really good.

  • Larry Dwyer on

    I can remember being a senior in high school and preparing to go to college. It was frightening. I didn’t know what subject to choose as a major. So I picked mathematics, because it seemed like a good “scientific” subject and I had been good at math in high school. I remember my high school band director asking if I wanted to major in music, because he could see the talent with which God had blessed me.

    But I was afraid of being a professional musician. When I was 16, I had begun playing in professional dance bands around the Joliet (Illinois) area, where I lived. This was in 1960. Most of the musicians in those groups were middle aged men who had been in high school or in the military service back in the 1940s. Many of them were drunks. They had red noses. They slurred their words. And I had read the stories of famous jazz musicians who had been alcoholics or narcotic addicts. I didn’t want any part of that life style.

    Because of good academics, I was accepted at the University of Notre Dame. I studied math, but was not passionate about it. The good thing, however, was that ND was not a “math academy.” I had classes in math, chemistry, and physics, but also in English, philosophy, history, and theology. The broad range of subjects helped me gain perspective on various possibilities.

    I was spending nearly all of my free time doing musical activities. I played in the marching band, the concert band, the basketball band, and the jazz band. I played as a trombone soloist with the concert band. I was writing music for the concert band and for the jazz band. It wasn’t for some class credit; it was just because that was my passion: I had to do it. Second semester of my freshman year I was able to add an elective in music theory. Although I had been writing music since being in high school, now I was able to understand the structures which made it all work. I loved it.

    I started thinking about being a music major. But it was a heart-wrenching choice. I was still afraid of the self-destructive life-style choices made by so many of the musicians I had known personally or had read about. I went to talk with one of the counselors at Notre Dame, Dr. Richard Pilger, who himself had been a percussionist when he was in school. After I discussed my situation in detail with him, he gave me some good advice:

    “Young man," he said, "you are clearly passionate about music and you have great musical talent. You have the intelligence to go into any field: law, medicine, engineering, science, business, anything. And guess what! In every one of those fields there are men who are alcoholics and dope addicts. If that is the life style you wish to choose, you can do so no matter what subject or field you will be working in. But if you choose music, you can also choose to keep your head on your shoulders, and live a clean life. Do that, and you will live a life doing what you love. You may not become wealthy (note: he was correct about that) but you can make a decent living and be happy with your life.”

    It was some of the best advice I ever received.

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