When I was a young man I read a few books on how to be successful. After all, my parents were obsessed with success, which to them meant making more money than they were currently making, having a happy marriage, and raising successful kids. Somehow I must have gotten their message all messed up. For me, success meant being happy—finding what makes me happy and devising a life that maximizes the time spent in those pursuits and minimizes my involvement in unpleasant activities.
As to me achieving my parents’ definition of success, I suppose that I have fallen short. With the exception of a few years, I’ve never made the kind of money my father and grandfather made. I’ve never had a happy marriage. Where my parents were in love for their entire 56-year marriage, my relationships with women have been complicated and unsustainable. I did raise two successful, independent children (now adults), which proves that sometimes genes skip a generation.
At the age of 12, I decided that I would become a jazz musician. I’m not sure that I really understood what that entailed, but I liked the feeling of playing the music, staying up late and sleeping all morning. When you’re 12, things like that seem awfully important. Pretty quickly, I set out to be as good as I could be in this field. I had a modicum of talent playing the trumpet and piano, but it was clear almost from the outset that my greatest talent was in organization—organizing notes and people. I set out to follow in the footsteps of my hero, Duke Ellington, the greatest composer, arranger and bandleader in the history of jazz. I didn’t want to be Duke or even to be like him. I had my own ideas about how I wanted my music to sound and whom I wanted to play it, which had to do with the perspective of my generation.
As a teenager, I wrote music constantly. By the time I graduated from high school, I had written over 50 charts for our high school dance band as well as over a dozen for a 10-piece band of high school kids that I put together, and numerous small band charts for both singers and instrumentalists. In addition to writing all the scores, I copied out all the parts for the players in ink. All of this was done in the most professional style. I was serious. That was over 50 years ago. Since then I’ve written well over 1000 arrangements and compositions.
Back when I was starting out, I wanted to study scores written by great jazz arrangers and composers, but these were very hard to come by. The famous bandleaders didn’t want other bands playing their arrangements, so I never even saw a Duke Ellington score. Once a year Downbeat Magazine published a score by a famous arranger. I subscribed to Downbeat at that time and devoured every note. But that wasn’t enough. I wanted to learn more about how to write music. I needed to have scores to study, so I started the arduous, painstaking and intimidating task of transcribing my favorite recordings. I would play a cut from a record over and over until I could figure out what each singer and instrumentalist was doing, and then commit that to pencil and score paper. When I first started doing this, I didn’t even know that you could buy blank score paper, so I drew my own staves with a pencil and ruler.
Over the years, I’ve transcribed more than 1000 recordings. Some were done just so I could learn the music, but most were commissioned. This became a significant portion of my income for many years. As I write this, I am sitting at my desk in my office surrounded by about 500 archival boxes filled with my scores. I often am asked how I managed to write so much music. The answer is: one note at a time.
I never set out to do anything other than to write one good piece of music. Something that I would like to hear, that the musicians would enjoy playing and that the audience would relate to. After I finished writing an arrangement, I would start another because I had new sounds that I wanted to explore. After a while the scores started to mount up. When I was younger, I had limited space to store all this music. Most often, I wouldn’t keep a copy for myself or after a while I would give away the scores and parts. So, I can’t reasonably estimate how many scores I’ve actually written, but it’s in the thousands.
When I used to teach, students would ask me how I write music, and how I’ve come to have written so much of it. The answer is the same thing my father taught me and that I read about in those books about success: organization.
When I was a kid, my father was the sales manager for my grandfather’s company. He spent half his time working in the New York office and the other half traveling—two 8-week trips a year to Europe, a week in Chicago, another in Atlantic City, one in Philadelphia, two on the Jersey Shore, etc. I’ve never known anyone who could pack a suitcase like him. When I told him how much I admired this skill of his, he said that he learned from the older salesmen that he worked with, and that they were the true masters. This visual organizational skill extended to his packing the trunk of our car and organizing everything in our house.
Whenever my mom would greet visitors at the front door, she would always say, “Please excuse the mess.” To which, the response would be, “What mess?” Our house was the model of neat and orderly. My father grew up in the Great Depression and was frightfully poor until he was drafted into the army in 1941. His monthly GI check was the biggest percentage raise he ever got in his life. Having started life with nothing led him to a lifetime of appreciating everything he got. He never threw out anything. He saved every piece of string, every paper clip, pen, pencil, piece of paper, you name it, he saved it. In our kitchen there was a door that led down the stairs to our basement. On the doorknob on the basement side my father saved every rubber bands that came into our house. Obsessive?
Speaking of the basement, when we moved into our house, we had an unfinished attic and basement. Finishing the basement was my father’s pet project when I was 4 and 5. Although he traveled half the year and worked Monday through Friday and half days on Saturday when he was in New York, he and one of his warehousemen spent Saturday afternoons putting up wood paneling, building a bar, a toy train room for me and a workroom. When did this guy sleep?
The workroom was the most impressive part. It had horses for sawing, all kinds of saws, hammers, pliers, screwdrivers, and drills (neatly hung on the wall), a mounted shoeshine station (he shined his own shoes—which eventually became one of my chores), and a set of drawers. Each drawer contained nuts, bolts, screws, nails, and every conceivable small item you might find in a hardware store, all organized by size and type. It was truly impressive. Nothing was disposable. When he would remove a nail, and it would get bent, he would hammer it back into shape and place it in the appropriate drawer. Waste not; want not.
When he became senile in his final five years, he would drive my mom nuts. Whenever she would leave him alone for a few minutes, he would go into their closet and rearrange everything. She would often call me on the phone to complain that she never knew where anything was anymore. The guy was an organizer to the very end.
All this visual organization pales in comparison to my dad’s use of his time. Besides finishing our basement and caring for the upkeep of our house in the few minutes he actually spent there, he read two newspapers on the train to work every day (the Times in the morning and the World Telegram and Sun in the evening) in addition to about 50 books per year. By the time I was a teenager, he bought my grandfather’s business. He had the corner office on the 12th floor of the Empire State Building. Each morning he would hand the receptionist a list of phone calls to be made. She would dial each one for him as soon as he was finished with the previous call. He ate lunch at his desk—they didn’t have cell phones in those days. Each morning the mail was delivered and dumped on his desk in a pile a foot high and 2 feet wide. By the end of the day, his desk was clean as a whistle, and it was time to take the Long Island Railroad back home.
So you can see where my talent for organizing sounds and time comes from. I get a lot of pleasure when the universe seems to be in order. Of course, it’s always in order, but it doesn’t always appear that way to me. I’ve got my routines and have always been curious about other people’s. How do they organize their day?
When I was young, I read an article in Downbeat magazine about Billy Byers, a top arranger in New York and then Los Angeles. Billy said that he wrote Monday through Friday from 9-5 in the office in his home. He would begin by rolling up his sleeves and removing his jewelry (rings, cuff links, etc.). He always wrote in pen. Billy, for many years, ghostwrote for Quincy Jones.
Similarly, when I was young, I did some ghosting, some of which was for Al Cohn, which is kind of funny, since Al in his younger days was one of the greatest ghostwriters in the music business. Al’s morning routine was to read the paper, do the crossword puzzle and then he was ready to write. Even though he often faced ferocious deadlines, he left everything for the last minute and wouldn’t write the first note until the last letter of the crossword puzzle was in place. When he would get a big project, like a TV show, he wouldn’t write a note for 3 weeks, he’d just let it percolate, and then write 3 charts a day. I’m a fast writer and mostly write one chart per day. Three is insane.
My routine is similar to Al’s, although I now live in the digital age. I wake up early, check my emails, texts and Facebook messages, read the newspaper, do the crossword puzzle and kenkens while drinking my smoothie. Then I shower, dress and begin my work. Unlike Billy Byers, I write when I feel inspired. Deadlines inspire me. Unlike Al, I am not a procrastinator. As soon as I get hired for a project, my creative wheels start spinning, and I can’t wait to start writing.
My routine on crossword puzzles, acrostics, and the like, is to not get stuck in one spot. If I don’t know an answer, I move on to other spots. I figure that I can always come back to a problem, and that maybe I’ll know the answer when I return. Sometimes I will put the puzzle down and come back to it later. This usually helps. Very often, the answers will then seem easy. The two main concepts here are: don’t waste time, and let your brain keep working on solutions while you are doing something else. I’m a big believer in sleeping on a problem. So often when I wake, I can find a solution.
I apply the same philosophy to everything I do, whether it is puzzles, music, business decisions, and interpersonal problems. So often I can be upset about something, and then I calm down when I get some perspective. Sometimes getting input from friends and family does the trick, and sometimes just letting time pass does it. Once a long time ago, I was in a business slump and feeling scared and depressed. When I told my mother about this, she said that one of the perks of getting older is that you have the perspective to see patterns in life—some days you are up and some days you are down. If you have patience, you will be up again. I like that. See the big picture.
For me, success in life is about priorities. What do you want to accomplish? Make sure your goal is worthy of you devoting your life to it. Establish a plan. Work at it. Have patience. Oh, yeah, one more thing—it’s not about arriving at your destination, it’s about enjoying the trip. People say that so often that it’s become a cliché. The key is to choose the trip that makes your life meaningful. That’s different for every person. For me, it’s been putting little dots on lines and spaces and then standing in front of 15 great musicians and hearing them breathe life into those dots. For most people this would not be fun. For me it’s rollercoaster, orgasmic sex fun.
I have recently come to enjoy writing these short essays. I think about something, and I feel the need to start writing and get to the end of it—just like when I hear music in my head. When I recently told someone about what I do, she couldn’t understand how I could enjoy writing. To her it sounded like a school assignment. Truthfully, I never enjoyed writing back then either. Somehow the perspective of life now that I am longer in the tooth seems interesting in ways that it never did before. Some of this is my experience and some may just be the passage of time.
Could I have done things differently along the way? Sure. Would my life have turned out better? Who knows? Do I have any regrets? Nothing major. Shortly before I left for college, my dad’s army buddy and his wife were at our house. When I told her that I was off to study music, she said, “Good for you. Follow your dream.” The key is for each person to know what his/her dream is. When a high school kid asks me if he/she should become a musician, I always say no. And then I tell them that just by asking, they told me that they are not committed. Following your dream is like becoming a priest. It is a calling that you must own with every ounce of your fiber. What makes your boat float? No one can decide that for you. You can’t do it for someone else. Be careful. Make sure that you make yourself happy. It’s truly up to you. You only have a certain amount of time on this earth. Use it wisely—create joy for yourself and those you touch.