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Income Inequality

David Berger



We read about it in the papers every day: income inequality in the U.S. is at a level not seen in a century. In this morning’s Times there is an article that breaks it down by occupation. It seems that doctors are the highest tier in the top 1% of earners, and specifically dentists. That’s right, dentists. I immediately thought about my own dentist. He’s a very nice man. He even has classical music coming through his office speakers. I think he’s a good dentist. I kinda doubt if he’s one of the top five or ten dentists in the world, though. I have no idea how much money he earns, but I assume it’s 3-5 times what I do. There’s something wrong with that.


I’ve worked diligently for 60 years at my craft. I set out to be the best arranger and composer of jazz and jazz-related music (American Songbook, some Broadway, some film, etc.). I’m not a household name, but I am known to easily a million people worldwide. How many people have even heard of my dentist? Maybe 1,000? So why the extreme income gap?


The obvious answer is the same as the answer to why the arts are the first thing to be eliminated in school programs—they’re not essential. But is that true? They are essential to my life, to my very existence. I’m not alone.


Without music, life would be a mistake.
-Friedrich Nietzsche


I never thought of Nietzsche as much of a music lover. But I was wrong. Between philosophizing, he composed music. He lived before there were record players, radios, TVs, and the Internet. If he wanted to hear music, he would either have to go to a concert or create it himself. In his world, music was either a communal experience or a creative one, or both.


In today’s world music is a cheaper commodity than toilet paper. I have to go to the store to buy toilet paper and hand over my hard-earned cash in exchange for this essential, but uninspiring part of my existence. On the other hand, I can listen to a phonograph record, CD, or mp3 for free—all by my lonesome. It doesn’t cost anything, and I don’t share my experience with any living thing.


Of course, I’m a bit different from most Americans in that I own a piano and can sit down at it and create my own music. Actually, I hear music in my head all the time. There is always a score accompanying my dreams at night. I don’t think a day has gone by since I was 12 when I haven’t listened to music, and the days have been very few that I haven’t played music. When I encounter music I like, I am transformed. My needs are met. I am still in this world, but the petty annoyances and injustices of my everyday life are out of my consciousness. I am focused on an emotional ride that operates on a higher plane of consciousness—the perfection of Bach and Mozart, the passion of Beethoven and Stravinsky.


When I hear Louis Armstrong, immediately a smile comes to my face and my insides dance. Duke Ellington reminds me of how rich life can be if we dare to imagine. Miles Davis and Billie Holiday transform their pain into beauty. When I listen to them, I inhabit their world and experiences.


I had a dream last night that I was at Jilly’s, where Frank Sinatra was entertaining a group of 10 of his friends at a table and asked me to join them. They were eating dinner, but I was just having drinks. Sinatra engaged me in conversation, and the rest of the table watched and listened. After a while he asked me how much money I make. I said that I’d had a bad year, and told him the amount. He responded that I probably couldn’t afford to pay for the meal they were all sharing. At that point Dean Martin sat down and devoured a plate of langostinos in three bites without saying a word.


Don’t ask me what that dream meant. Something to do with Sinatra being interested in me and inviting me into his world. He recognizes my talent, but I’m not an equal. What is it about Sinatra that appeals to billions of people? I think it’s basically two things. The first is that he is a great actor—he makes us believe that he is the guy in the song. We feel his pain, his joy, and everything else. Secondly, he is a tough guy who shows us his tender side. This he shares with Johnny Hodges. When they perform ballads, they are not prissy. They own the opposites.


I digress. In this modern world of ours, we are at once in touch with everyone, but rarely interact in person. Church attendance is down, as are live shows and concerts. I live in a building with almost 500 people, and outside of the 11 men who work here, I only know the first names of less than a dozen people. Of them, I only know three of their last names. When I grew up, I lived in a community of 96 houses. I knew the first and last names of nearly all those 500 people and their dogs, and they all knew me. I delivered their newspapers and played with the kids. I shoveled their snow.


Now when we use the term “friends,” we are not sure what that means. I have 5,000 Facebook friends. Maybe I know 1,000 of them. Of the rest, some are fans of my music, and some I have no idea who they are. I need to be on Facebook for business purposes. I’m not under the illusion that those 5,000 friends actually care about me. Not like the people I grew up with.


When I see people from my past, there is a connection—a space that we shared. That is much harder to create online, on the telephone, or any way that is not tactile.


Many years ago Al Cohn said that our music (jazz) is not for everyone—it’s for a small percentage of the population. During my childhood, jazz was popular. It was on TV, in movies, in concert halls, and in clubs all over. Over the years, the ranks of true greats have thinned and our culture has been debased, both of which have taken a heavy toll on the music and its popularity, but does that make it worthless?


My royalty checks from streaming and download services are pitiful. People still hear my music on YouTube, but that is free. Why pay for something if you can get it for free? If I could stream my dentist’s services for 2/100 of a cent, would that make him less of a dentist? So far, he is safe. So far, because AI is coming, and it’s coming soon. First to be replaced is the hygienist who cleans my teeth. Maybe she should start practicing the cello. A little humor there.


We live in a capitalistic system. We are paid based on supply and demand. This has more to do with marketing than with value. What it comes down to for each of us is to decide what gives our life meaning. I don’t need billions of dollars to be happy. In fact, I don’t need millions. Sure, it would be nice to have those kinds of resources, but I’m not willing to do what that would entail.


I want to spend my days in the world of music, not the music business. Trump would call me a loser, but I get to do what I love every day of my life. I decided to be a jazz musician when I was 12 years old. I’ve never regretted it. In fact, it wasn’t a decision at all—it was just being who I am.  My friends said I was lucky that I knew. They were right. I’m still lucky. I get to enjoy what I love and share my joy with a community of other musicians and listeners. As for money—the universe will provide.

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  • Roland Butta on

    I think that what someone else is paid is irrelevant. We know before we start out in business or profession roughly how much we are likely to be making so many years down the line. Complaining about how much more someone else in a different line of work, suggests you made the wrong decision.

    I made enough to live on and have a few treats along the way. We had perhaps 4 or 5 real holidays during that time. Since retirement we have had none.

    I enjoyed my work. Others in my profession earned more but were in a different branch. I don’t and didn’t think I was badly off. I learned an instrument and have enjoyed playing with others of like mind. My life has been as full las I wanted it to be. I have a very modest pension, a Labour government stole a third of it, but I have enough to live on modestly.

    Let’s face it I am lucky to have more than some who don’t have homes or enough to live on.

  • Frits Schjøtt on

    A true humanist speaking. Thank you, DB

  • Frits Schjøtt on

    A true humanist speaking. Thank you, DB.

  • Marilyn on

    LOVE this blog! And love YOU, Dave! (Probably will never love your dentist, tho I DO admire what he’s doing with your teeth!) XOXO – M

  • Terry THompson on

    Loved every word of your “essay.” So meaningful, especially for me. I am now 77 and I been a working professional musician since I was 15 years old.
    Terry Thompson. 314-660-2363 St. Louis is my home.

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