I only wanted to do two things in this life: play for the Brooklyn Dodgers and be a jazz musician. Obviously, I only got to do the latter, but that hasn’t stopped me from being a rabid baseball fan. With the Yankees’ crushing defeat last night at the hands (and bat) of 5’6” José Altuve, it was classic David (Altuve)and Goliath (Aroldis Chapman, the biggest and baddest pitcher in baseball history). And so ended my 8-month 162-game investment in the 2019 New York Yankees, my home team. I have the next 4 months to nurse my wounds and focus on the rest of my life. My first thought when I woke up this morning was how different baseball and jazz are, and yet, how similar they are in some ways.
The statement that America’s three great contributions to humanity are the Constitution, baseball, and jazz has become a cliché. I’ve never questioned it, even as each entity has undergone serious existential challenges. On the surface, jazz and baseball seem to have little in common. Jazz is an art form. Baseball is a sport.
For some of us, baseball is unquestionably the greatest sport ever invented, but it is a sport, which means that it is a contest—a substitute for battle. We are too civilized to go around killing people who don’t live near us. So, each city picks its champions to represent it and do battle with the champions from the other cities. At the end of the season, the best teams play each other. The last team standing is the winner. All the other teams (and cities) are losers. Losers! Ugh!
It’s clear who wins and loses—after nine innings, the team with the most runs wins. There are thousands of rules. The umpires are the judges. What they say goes. If a player or manager argues with them, the ump will toss him out of the game.
Besides wins and losses, baseball is a game of infinite statistics. Players are now rated by wins above replacement. There no longer is any question who the best players are—the numbers tell all. When I was a kid in the 1950s, my friends and I would argue endlessly about New York’s three great centerfielders: Mickey, Willie, and the Duke. All three went on to the Hall of Fame. Willie Mays had the longest career with the fewest health issues. Both Mantle and Snider were ultimately hobbled by their ailing knees. It was magic to watch them play.
Between 1951 and 1957 New York was the capital of baseball. We had three great teams that were vicious rivals that dominated both leagues. They were so competitive that at the end of the ’57 season, when the Dodgers told Jackie Robinson they were trading him to the Giants, he told management, “I hate the Giants. I quit.” And so, he retired.
From the 1920s through the 1950s baseball was America’s pastime, while jazz was our popular music. Professional basketball and football were in their infancies. Rock ’n’ roll began as teenage music in the ’50s, but didn’t become the loudest voice in the room until a few years after the Dodgers and Giants broke the hearts of millions and moved west. For us Brooklyn fans, the Dodgers were our religion.
But baseball, being a sport, is, at its root, a metaphor for war. We are either overjoyed when our team wins or depressed when they lose. About 40 years ago my friend Dan Meltzer wrote a column in The Westsider, our local weekly newspaper, about how he was giving up baseball. Dan was a long-suffering Mets fan. He came to the conclusion that he couldn’t ride the emotional roller coaster any longer. He no longer wanted to give the Mets control over whether he was happy or sad on any particular day. Understandable, and maybe even logical. However, this is not an option to us addicts.
In the arts, it’s not about winning and losing, and there are no stats to determine if Miles Davis is better than Dizzy Gillespie. We can have our favorites, but at the end of a piece of music or concert, everybody wins.
Trombonist Alan Ferber wrote that “baseball players and jazz musicians both strive for a perfect balance between disciplined practice and spontaneity.” This can be said of all the performing arts, but jazz demands more improvisational skill than any other art form. Many years ago, Wynton Marsalis and I set out to define the characteristics that are essential to jazz. What we came up with was:
More than mere improvisation, the essence of our music is the democratization of everyone’s contribution. We improvise our parts within the conversational structure that enables us all to express ourselves while respecting and even encouraging all the other players. No other music that I know of is so highly structured and at the same time so flexible to allow spontaneity from all its artists.
I tend to think of ensemble playing in music as a team sport. It involves coordination and discipline. The proportion of individual and team contributions varies from sport to sport as it does in various genres of music and even from one jazz band to another.
It can be argued that baseball has the most integrated relationship between the individual and team play of any sport. It begins with the pitcher and catcher deciding on a set play (pitch selection--fast ball, curve, slider, etc.), then the batter decides whether to swing or not. The result of that swing puts the other eight or more players on the field in motion, improvising in response to the ball and baserunners. This requires split-second decisions and dependence on all the members of each team on the field. In jazz we decide on the tune and the pre-set arrangement. Following the count-off, the ball is in play.
At every moment the jazz musician (and composer and arranger) must entice the listener to be able to predict what will happen next, and then, at the last instant, throw him or her a curve ball. This cat-and-mouse game is as much the essence of the pitcher/catcher confrontation as it is at the heart of comedy and music. When this element of set-up and surprise is at its height in jazz, we recognize the delight we feel with a smile or in extreme cases, an audible laugh. Timing, manipulation, and humor. I’ve read that other animals and even plants love jazz. Do they appreciate the humor? I’ve never seen a dog laugh, let alone a tree, but who knows?
Like sports, music gets better with repeated playing by the same personnel. Aside from Duke Ellington’s compositional genius, much of his success can be attributed to his loyal personnel. It takes time for a team to gel. This year’s Yankee team was picked to win the World Series before opening day. On paper they were the favorites, but you know the old saying: Man plans, and God laughs.
Injuries ensued starting in spring training. I mean injuries on a Biblical scale. It was like Job and the plagues on Egypt rolled into one. In response, the Yankees purchased undervalued players from other teams and promoted youngsters from their farm system. Miraculously, these fill-ins excelled, and the Yankees kept winning. All the while, the fans, announcers and journalists kept wondering what would happen when the stars came back at the end of the season. Wouldn’t this team be unbeatable?
This past week we got our answer. The stars came back from their injuries, and they didn’t gel. On paper, this should have been one of the greatest Yankee teams in history, but with a few exceptions, they hit a speed bump—they slumped—Mighty Casey has struck out. I’m not sure that the Yankees could have benched their stars and played Voit, Ford, and Maybin (Tauchman and German were not available), but these were the guys that got them to the dance.
In jazz we are often enticed by all-star groups, but for all the talent on the stage, those groups can lack the cohesion of a well-oiled, seasoned band, even if those bands don’t have the star power. It often comes down to choosing between great solos and great ensemble playing. Ideally, we want both, but realistically, financial constraints prevail.
A few days ago, my buddy Bob Keller asked me for my personnel for the greatest all-time jazz big band. Obviously, this is silly, but it made me think. Here is what I came up with. Mind you, this is primarily a swing band and also represents my personal taste:
Saxes: Johnny Hodges, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Lester Young, Gerry Mulligan
Trumpets: Snooky Young, Louis Armstrong, Clark Terry, Miles Davis
Trombones: JJ Johnson, Tricky Sam Nanton, Bob Brookmeyer
Rhythm: Wes Montgomery, Duke Ellington, Oscar Pettiford, Elvin Jones
Singers: Billie Holiday, Nat Cole
Leader & Arranger: Duke Ellington
It was hard to not include Ben Webster, Dizzy, Lawrence Brown, Charlie Christian and Thelonious Monk and Joe Williams. I might have to start a second band. Try assembling a similar All-time baseball team. When I was a kid, I had a book that did that. There wasn’t one player that played after 1950. No Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Nolan Ryan, Yogi Berra or Derek Jeter, let alone Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson. Complete reverence for the distant past.
As great as my All-star band might be, if we could assemble it in heaven (assuming heaven exists), would it compare to Basie’s Old Testament or New Testament bands, or Duke’s Blanton-Webster band or his late ’50s group? Who can say? The playing would be great, but would they gel? Or would they make four errors in one game and leave dozens of men on base? As in love, chemistry is a powerful component. And now the Yankees must consider all this and move on to next season. Will this be a team of stars or an evolving, working team? We shall see.