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Life and Death

David Berger

Every year, I look forward to summer.  A few years ago, I had a thought: I’m getting older—how many summers do I have left?  This encouraged me to milk all the enjoyment I can out of each summer.  But, why limit this attitude to just the summer?  How about living life to the fullest year-round? Sometimes I do things that I can’t really afford—like visit my daughter and her family, or treat my son to a sumptuous meal in a great New York restaurant just to celebrate a holiday.  The point here is: what’s the point of living if you can’t live?


My old buddy Jon Hendricks used to say that his will reads, “I, Jon Hendricks, being of sound mind and body, spent it all.”  Furthermore, he would add “Living within your means is to deny God.”  Someone said, "A genius is the man who dies in the most debt."  If you can handle the stress of no financial security, this could work well.  The point is that some people spend their whole lives scrimping and saving and miss out on the joys of being alive.  Of course, the opposite can reap dire consequences if you are not careful. 


Whenever I’ve had financial difficulties, I’ve always concluded that I can do one of two things:


  1. Spend less.
  2. Earn more.


Spending less always felt like deprivation and a denial of who I am, so I’ve opted to figure out ways to make more money.  So far it’s worked.  Although I now write books for fun and to share my ideas with lots of people, my books have a byproduct of producing income that hopefully will continue for the rest of my life.  As I get older and am less active professionally, this money will pick up the slack.  At least, that is the plan.  But, I have many irons in the fire: numerous shows, concerts and projects that I’ve created and would like to create.  Eventually, some of these will come to fruition.  It’s just a matter of time until the world catches up to me.  It took 21 years from the time I pitched Harlem Nutcracker to Alvin Ailey in 1975 for Donald Byrd to produce it in 1996.  Good things come to those who wait—and have faith.


A friend of mine ran into tennis great Billie Jean King at the gym a few years ago.  He asked her, now that she is getting older, how she felt about dying.  She said that when the time comes, she’ll be really pissed.  Her reason for that is that she has so many things that she wants to do in this life.  That’s exactly how I feel. 


When I was four years old, I became aware of death.  I asked my father about where his parents were.  He said that they were in heaven looking down on us and thinking about the lives they lived.  Somehow, that wasn’t satisfying to me.  After a while, I wondered if when we die, our consciousness ceases to exist.  This frightened me more than anything, and I lived in fear of death until I was about 30 when I awoke in the middle of the night with an excruciating pain in my abdomen. 


I’m a very healthy person, and had never experienced anything like this.  I woke up my wife and told her to call an ambulance.  I explained to her what I was feeling, and that I would surely be dead within a half hour.  She got hysterical, but I was completely calm.  A feeling of peace and serenity that I had never experienced came over me.  I told her not to worry about me.  I accepted death and did not fear it in any way. 


The ambulance never showed up, but two policemen came and took me to the hospital emergency room where a doctor explained that my appendix was on the other side.  I was passing a kidney stone.  They put me on morphine and told me to pee or they would stick a catheter in me.  It wasn’t easy, but I peed.  I must have peed out the stone, because when I awoke around dawn, I was no longer in pain and the x-rays showed no stone. 


I went home feeling that I was given a new life—an even better life.  I no longer feared death.  I can’t tell you what a relief that was.  To this day, I still know that when the time comes for me to die, I will accept it in the way that the seasons change in nature.  Oh, and that cliché about seeing your life flash before your eyes—I did think about the people I loved.  In those moments I had no concern about my legacy.


I’ve spent the last 40+ years transcribing and publishing Duke Ellington’s music so that it could be performed by my generation of musicians and future generations.  Ellington had little regard for posterity.  He created in the moment and for the moment.  Fortunately, his copyist, Tom Whaley, understood the importance of Ellington’s music and took steps to preserve much of it.  At a dinner in honor of Ellington, Whaley and Billy Strayhorn presented the Maestro with a number of beautifully bound engraved scores that they had prepared from Ellington’s original manuscripts.  In typical Ducal fashion, Ellington graciously thanked them, and then left the books sitting on the dais when he left the event.  The message was as clear as always; he had no interest in the past.  He was planning his next masterpiece.  Whenever he was asked which of his pieces was his favorite, he would answer, “The one I am writing now.”  I can relate. 


But, what about posterity?  Was Ellington really not interested in his music surviving him?  Wherever he is now, does it make him happy that we love his music?  As long as there are human beings, his music will stand beside Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Stravinsky and the works of Shakespeare, Homer, Chaucer, Twain, Rembrandt, van Gogh and the other geniuses whose works transcended their era. 


But, what about the next tier of artists?  Will those works (many of which were tremendously popular in their day) survive the ages?  As time goes on, we become more selective.  There are more than 1000 American Song Book standards that are still sung, played and loved by millions 50 to 100 years after their creation.  How many will survive another 50 years, or another 1000 years? 


When I think about my own work, I know that my transcriptions will survive me, because the works I transcribed by Ellington and other great jazz composers and arrangers have already stood the test of time.  They will become more and more important.  But, what about my own compositions and arrangements?  Those that are recorded will have a shot at some longevity.  I doubt that any unrecorded scores of mine will engender enough interest for anyone to perform them in the future.  As I sit in my office, looking up at the shelves containing thousands of scores and parts that go unplayed, I have to admit that it bothers me a little. 


My band can only perform a couple dozen charts per performance.  We carry 50-100 charts with us, and choose from them.  Some of my arrangements have been published and are played by bands all over the world.  You can go on YouTube and see all kinds of performances.  I especially like the Japanese all-girl high school bands dressed in sailor suits or cowgirl outfits.  But, my published pieces are but a small percentage of my output.  I guess this is the frustration of being prolific. 


I’m not saying that everything I’ve written is worthy of perpetuity (or even of performance now), but the value of art is independent of its popularity.  When was the last time you listened to Rudy Vallee or Al Jolson?  They were the Bruce Springsteen and Katy Perry of 100 years ago.  Stravinsky’s Rite Of Spring is now more than 100 years old and still gives me goose bumps.  It shows no signs of aging.   Can you imagine if after its premiere performance (which was a disaster), Stravinsky said, “OK, I tried that.  I’ll throw it out, and write some new music?”  I know that my life would be much poorer.


Don’t get me wrong.  My only considerations for music are: does it sound good and does it feel satisfying?  I can only know how it affects me now.  From experience, I have a pretty good handle on how my music affects audiences, but it’s hard to know how people in the future will perceive art from a different period.  How much does an understanding of the culture from which the art came color that judgment.  Do we need to know 19th century Vienna to appreciate Beethoven?  I would say that we don’t need to know or do anything but listen (or observe), but it wouldn’t hurt. 


One aspect of art is that it tells us (and future generations) what it felt like to be alive then and there.  Fine art taps into the universality of the human spirit.  We relate to it because it tells us who we are.  Sometimes it tells us what we want to hear, and sometimes it shows us what we don’t want to look at.  The greatest art expresses both at the same time, because that is the real complexity of living.

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  • Bill Kirchner on

    As one who has been living on borrowed time for 24 years (ever since I had surgery for a life-threatening spinal tumor—a neurologist recently described my cervical spine condition as “atrocious”), I appreciate intimately what you’re discussing.

    For the past decade, I’ve been doing what you’ve been doing: getting my work organized so that anyone interested can have easy access to it. (This includes an online discography and releasing CDs of exceptional live performances.) The chances are at least fair that thirty years from now, after we’re gone, some jazz nerd (not unlike you and me) will discover us, and we’ll get a big write-up in the Sunday NY Times Arts and Leisure (smile). Meanwhile, this is all we can do. Ever up and onward!

  • Chris Byars on

    Professor – I think you’ve neglected to mention the unquantifiable passing down of wisdom that you’ve participated in, which has been going on since the the first cave-dwellers started a big band with bamboo flutes and log drums. Ogg The Caveman Composer, Igor Stravinsky, Duke Ellington, our Dear Professor Berger and many distinguished talents in between have benefitted from, and partaken in the filtering, curating and highlighting the finer elements of rhythm, melody and harmony for those who came up later (and anybody else with an open mind). No single person thought up any of this stuff. In this way, the work you’ve done lives on forever, or at least until the sea levels rise. I’m sorry to hear about the kidney stone incident. I’ve had four, and they’re the reason why I’m a vegan today. There’s nothing quite like that pain!

  • David Berger on

    Back at Ya, M. Funny, I was just thinking about you this morning. Funny how that happens.

  • M Clarke on

    David Hi!
    I enjoyed this!
    Miss you.
    martha C

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