Last night I had a dream that I was at a school board meeting and made an impromptu speech advocating introducing the great works of art to children rather than watered down versions or inferior books, plays, movies, and music from the pop world or that are specifically designed for children. Let’s just say that the response was extremely negative.
When I woke, I tried to remember how young I was when I was exposed to the real thing. Yes, like other kids I had Golden Books and Golden Records, but I also had my mom playing a mixture of the classics and American Songbook on the piano every day. My dad couldn’t play an instrument or even carry a tune, but when he was home he loaded as many records as possible onto our record player, first 78s and then years later 33s—Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, along with My Fair Lady and Gershwin.
By the time I was in elementary school, I would borrow classical records from the public library. I wasn’t a baby anymore. I wanted the real thing. I watched The Little Rascals on TV, where Spanky attempted to recite Marc Antony’s speech from Julius Caesar: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” before he was pelted with all kinds of objects from the kids in the audience. That was my introduction to Shakespeare. I wanted more.
About the same time, my mom told me that H.M.S. Pinafore was going to be on TV that night and my friend Tommy’s father, who was a professional singer, was in the cast. Gilbert and Sullivan—what a revelation. I couldn’t stop singing the songs. The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado followed. I loved the combination of humor and music.
In music class in elementary school, we memorized all 6 verses of The Star-Spangled Banner along with countless folk songs. But what I liked best was Carnival Of The Animals, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and all the other classical pieces Mr. Deniston introduced us to.
On Saturdays there were a few programs at the elementary school. I remember one with a chamber orchestra that played Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony to an audience of attentive youngsters.
When I was 9, my aunt took my brother Bobby and me to see The Music Man on Broadway. I was hooked in the opening number where the salesmen’s conversation created the rhythms of the train. But most of all I loved Trouble, where Robert Preston regaled us with the dangers of a new pool table in town. We bought the cast album and my buddy Gregory committed the entire number to memory.
I don’t remember much of anything in our classes before 5th grade, but when we were 11, Mr. Lurie opened up the world of poetry to us—not with silly kiddy rhymes, but with Richard Corey, Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman. I had no idea how beautiful and deep language could be. It was like Beethoven.
In fifth and sixth grades we were required to recite poems from memory. I can still clearly recall Nina’s performance of The Highwayman in Mrs. Moylan’s class. How did she memorize all those verses and recite it so beautifully? It was a no-brainer when she got the part of Peter Pan in our class play that year. We didn’t do the entire show, but we got the gist of the story and most of the great songs. After all, we only had 50 minutes for assembly.
The next year was junior high—seventh grade. From then on it was only the classics in English class. Dickens, Bret Harte, Robert Benchley, Hemingway. When I heard pop music on the radio, it seemed superficial and empty, missing the intellectual and emotional connection I had with classical music. When I discovered jazz that year, I discovered myself. It connected all the music I heard as a kid and had the emotional impact of the great poetry and literature I knew, but most of all, it infected my body and soul with its rhythms. They were my rhythms—how I moved and spoke.
First, I devoured my parents’ record collection and became obsessed with Swing. Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr. My instantly favorite record became Take The “A” Train. It was magical. I loved the sound of it—the saxophones’ tone, the brightness of the trumpets. I loved how, like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and 1812 Overture, it told a story. Most of all, I loved the call-and-response between the saxes and Ray Nance’s trumpet leading up to the pyramid when someone pulls the brake on the train. It was Louis Armstrong’s heroics in the world of Duke Ellington.
A year later I discovered Count Basie and then Charlie Parker. There was no going back. I was now a bebopper. I spent my hard-earned pennies at Sam Goody’s buying Blue Note records. They were 33 rpm and weighed a ton. Horace Silver, Bennie Green, I wanted them all.
Many years later, when I was teaching at William Paterson, my students asked me to write an arrangement in class, so that they could watch how I did it. I agreed. They all gathered around the piano, and I wrote about half an arrangement of Jumpin’ With Symphony Sid that day for them. At one point, one student asked me how I think of such great stuff. I never think of any of my ideas as particularly great. They are just things that happen spontaneously. I explained that the difference between the students and me is that I listen to better music.
I’m immersed in all the arts, but only the best artists. I can look at a Van Gogh or Jackson Pollock for an hour and be mesmerized. You are what you eat. I encouraged them to engage with the best humanity has produced rather than what is popular today or is easy to digest. Shakespeare, Van Gogh, Rodin, Bach, Ellington, Armstrong, Hitchcock, Philip Roth, and every other artist that I have embraced has informed my music. They have taught me aesthetics—form, beauty, depth, the relationship of content and technique. Most importantly, they have given me the courage to look inside myself and overcome my fear to express what I find deep down.
This only happens with great art. I was exposed to enough quality at an early age, that I developed a taste for it and could discern when I was being sold a fake. Nowadays, our youth is bombarded with trash 24/7. The odds of them overcoming this are much smaller than when I was growing up. When I was in school, there were very few great arrangements for sale for jazz bands. I once asked my high school band director if we could play better music. He asked, “Like what?” I said, “Duke Ellington, Count Basie, …” He laughed. “Do you think Duke Ellington would sell us one of his arrangements?” I agreed that it was a bit farfetched.
For the past 30 years I have made hundreds of Ellington’s arrangements available. In fact, through Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington program, high schools can get 8 arrangements a year for free. And yet only a small percentage of schools take advantage. I’ve asked non-participating teachers why they stay away. Mostly they say that they prefer to play music that is easier for them to rehearse and make sound presentable in a few weeks. Is that stuff going to inspire the students? Are they going to learn how to create fine art - or will they learn to aspire to mediocrity? Personally, if I hadn’t been exposed to greatness in my youth, I have no idea who I would be. It frightens me to even think about a life without excellence.