I just spent the afternoon enjoying the moving film adaptation of August Wilson’s Fences directed and starring Denzel Washington and costarring Viola Davis. A few years back I got to work with Denzel Washington on a film that he also both directed and starred in. In the two days that I spent on the set, I got to know Denzel a little bit. Sitting next to him, I got a sense of his directing process and his personality.
In the scene that I was involved in, Denzel shot from a number of different angles. I had written about 8 minutes of pre-recorded music. Denzel got all kinds of ideas for shots as we filmed—so many good ideas. I had no idea how it would look in the film. Sadly, most of that great footage ended up on the cutting room floor. The scene runs about 2 minutes in the final cut. Now that I think about Fences, I wonder what other shots didn’t make the cut.
I haven’t seen most of the movies that will be nominated for Oscars, but I can’t imagine that any starring actors’ performances can come close to Denzel’s and Ms. Davis’. To say that Denzel’s acting performance was brilliant would be an understatement. It was real, painfully real. I’ve known lots of men like Troy Maxson. I could see a little of my father in him as well as a little of me. I surely could see my mother in Rose.
In an interview recently, Denzel said that August Wilson had hoped that a Black man would direct this movie. I can see the importance of knowing the culture, but there is so much more here. The themes are universal. Denzel was born to play Troy, the powerful husband/father/friend. His good looks, winning smile, charm and confidence are the Denzel that everyone has known for decades. But there is also Denzel’s anger. It is intense. Frankly, it scared me. In real life I only saw it for a few moments of frustration on the set, but my reaction to it brought me back to my childhood with my father. When Denzel draws on that anger in Fences, it is palpable.
Without giving away too much of the story, Troy was a superstar baseball player in the Negro Leagues, but by the time Major League Baseball was ready to integrate, he was 41 years old, so he wasn’t even considered. He wound up living out his life as a garbage man. He went from hitting towering home runs and the adoration of thousands of fans to lifting barrels of trash and dumping them into the back of a garbage truck 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, 50 weeks a year for $57 and change per week.
Although he is blessed with a loving family and friends, his anger and bitterness is too much for him to bear. He needs to be idolized. He had it for 10 years in baseball, and then Father Time took it from him. The intimate relationships he subsequently developed weren’t enough to feed his ego.
Many years ago, before alcoholism and drug addiction became more commonplace in America, people used to ask me why so many musicians were alcoholics and drug addicts. My standard answer has always been that we bare our souls in the performance of our music, and that is extremely scary for us. But there are many other factors.
When I was coming up, I got to know and work with hundreds of older jazz musicians who had played in the name bands. These guys (and girl singers) were huge stars back in the day. This remained a source of pride for them. Trumpeter Bernie Privin, besides having played in many of the top swing bands in the day, was renowned for his caustic sense of humor. He had a gag that he would pull on other musicians: in front of the other guys in the band, he would hand the butt of his joke a tiny scrap of paper and say, “List all the name bands you worked with.”
In sports as the body ages, younger players push the older ones aside. In music, younger players create new styles that push their predecessors aside. Unlike sports, older musical superstars can continue their careers to varying degrees, but the lesser names not so much. This is a bitter pill for those of us who become accustomed to the artist’s life and especially for those that are accustomed to being in the spotlight.
When I was in my 20s, my trumpet teacher, Jimmy Maxwell, said to me one day, “You’ll never know what it felt like to play with Benny Goodman in 1940. When you walk down Broadway, every guy wants to shake your hand and every girl wants to sleep with you.” Jim’s career lasted into the mid-’80s when a car accident left him with amnesia. He was very philosophic about fame, art and the music business, but, truth be told, he was never happier than in his four miserable years with Benny.
Benny taught Jim to be a great lead trumpet player, but at the same time Benny played sadistic head games with him. Jim made it no secret that his favorite band was Duke Ellington’s. This drove Benny nuts. Finally he told Jim that he couldn’t have anyone in his band who didn’t think that his was the greatest band in the world, so he told Jim that he was fired as soon as a replacement could be found. A year and a half later, Jim left the band to settle down and start a family. He gave up his $200 a week salary ($3400 in today’s money) to freelance in New York, which turned out to be much more lucrative, although not always as rewarding musically.
During Jim’s tenure with Benny, the band was laid off for a couple of months, which gave Jim a chance to play lead trumpet for six weeks with Count Basie. Unlike Benny’s dictatorial style, Basie led a happy loose organization featuring the All-American Rhythm Section and filled with major soloists.
I could tell you hundreds of stories about these fabulous musicians and singers, but the one thing that always gets to me is that those days were fleeting. By the end of WWII the bands were folding left and right. The demand for jazz diminished, and the road life became more of a grind—greasy spoons, shoddy hotels, low pay and fewer young groupies. Towards the end of Duke Ellington’s 50-year run with his band, he would be constantly approached by blue-haired older ladies. They would say to him, “Duke, don’t you remember me? We had such a nice time together in 1932.” Duke’s patented answer was, “Oh no, that must have been my father’s band.”
Of course I’m much too young to have been on the jazz scene in its hey day, but I did get a nice piece of road experience. Traveling with a band and playing every night for weeks on end might be a grind for some, but for me, it was heaven. In a great band, the music gets better daily. Everyone finds delightful little nooks and crannies that can only be gotten to with dozens of performances of music that has depth. Everyone in the band needs to be sensitive to working together—playing in perfect balance and perfectly in time and in tune.
And then there are the personal relationships. Traveling with the same group of people creates a family. Deep bonds are established. When I listen to the sportscasters on Yankee broadcasts, the former players talk about the magic of cohesion that makes a team a winner. So and so is a team leader or is great in the clubhouse. Those ballplayers have had the same bonding experience I’ve had in music. The success of the performance is a team effort. We depend on our teammates. It’s not life and death like soldiers in battle, but it is life and death for your career, so it is important, certainly in the moment.
August Wilson doesn’t mention anything about this brotherhood in Fences. Troy was raised in a terribly dysfunctional poverty-stricken family, and then spent 15 years in prison. His 10 years in Negro League Baseball must have seemed like he died and went to heaven. Life after baseball was buffered by a loving wife and son, but that wasn’t enough. His job was unfulfilling to say the least. When he says that he hit more home runs than anyone except Babe Ruth and Josh Gibson, he’s not just boasting. He’s telling us that he was one of the greatest men to ever play the game, and now he has to face the daily pain of being an invisible, ordinary man. He tries to cope, but it’s not easy for a man who has had a taste of greatness.
Isn’t it interesting that for Troy, he was born too soon to play in the major leagues; and for my fellow jazz musicians and me, we were born too late. Either way, we have no choice but to make the most of the times we live in and to take the biggest bite out of life that we can. No one’s life is perfect, but for those moments when you hit the baseball on the sweet spot of the bat or when you feel the band’s cumulative swing course through your body; in those moments you feel so alive that you know deep down that you are going to live forever. That alone makes life worth living and more than makes up for any disappointments. The full expression of who you are in perfect harmony with the universe, if only for a moment, is some kind of gift. Nothing lasts forever. That’s why we have memories.