I suppose it might seem ironic that a composer/arranger/author would be espousing the Zen bliss of living in the moment, but maybe not. Lately I’ve been thinking about the impermanence of everything we know and existence itself. This started when I took my granddaughters to the Hayden Planetarium a few weeks ago. It’s hard to contemplate the immensity of time and space of the universe without seeing ourselves as nearly completely meaningless on that enormous canvas.
I’ve been thinking about re-writing my will, and of what becomes of my music and other belongings after I’m gone. I don’t plan on leaving anytime soon, but I also don’t want to die intestate like my hero, Duke Ellington, who refused to think about his own demise. The thought of my son hiring workmen to empty the contents of my apartment into a dumpster parked out front on Duke Ellington Boulevard makes me feel like my life has no meaning, or at least no permanence.
It’s not that I’ve ever created anything for posterity. Sure, it would be nice if my music and writing survive me and continue to enrich people’s lives, but that is not what makes me want to create. The true center of my creativity is my need to make sense of the universe and to feel like I have some positive control. This makes me feel secure and hopefully has the same effect on my musicians, audience and readers. The fact is that I have little control of most things in life. There is advice to parents: never fight a battle with your kids that you can’t win. I suppose that goes for artists as well.
As early as high school, I staked out this jazz turf where, if I learned the language, I could converse with other jazz musicians in real time. Pretty quickly I found that I had a talent for structure that was beyond my instrumental and spontaneous abilities. I could hear entire pieces in my head from start to finish and could pencil in little black dots between the lines that would convey my ideas to the other players who immediately recognized my talent. It felt great to be appreciated by my teachers and peers, but the big reward was in the moments of creation and realization.
I’ve never been inspired to create anything abstract. I write music that will be played and books and blogs that will be read. True, sometimes projects don’t materialize, or get cancelled. Shows close. Bands fold. And then I am stuck with hundreds of archival boxes of scores and parts in the bookcases in my office. I can’t express how frustrated I feel about good music that just sits on the shelf and is not performed. I’m OK with the arrangements or compositions that didn’t quite gel. I see those as stepping-stones to future work.
I know I shouldn’t complain. There are bands and orchestras all over the United States, Europe, Japan and who-knows-where playing my music every day. So I should feel grateful. And I do, but it’s not enough. Marlowe, which is probably my best work, although I recorded it 15 years ago, has never been played live in its entirety, let alone choreographed. I originally started composing it for Alvin Ailey, but alas I finished it too late. Maybe one day. But that is just one example. I’ve got entire musical comedies and aborted operas, and then there are the hundreds of jazz arrangements that I no longer have time to play. How many charts have I written for singers for concerts, recordings and TV shows that got performed just once? What is to become of all this stuff?
My stuff. Is it any different from my furniture, clothes and other personal effects? I feel a personal connection to my belongings, but my creations take precedence. Although I dress myself in a style that represents who I am, my music and writing give a much bigger, more deeply personal picture. It’s kinda like cooking a meal from scratch as opposed to heating up the contents from a Campbell’s Soup can. Yes, I chose which can and paid the supermarket for the soup, but I make serious decisions of content and process when I cook beans, chop and sauté vegetables, herbs and spices and apply a specific amount of heat for a specific amount of time. This is my soup, not Mr. Campbell’s.
It feels good to have some control over what I put into my body and that nourishes me. This is not so different from creating music, except that I am much better at music, so I have been given an international stage—maybe not the biggest stage, but a stage no less. Apparently, there is something or things in my music that other people relate to and which resonates in them. Like my looks, my intelligence, my parents and my place of birth, I don’t take pride in my talent. We are all born with certain abilities. Of course, I nourished and fine-tuned my talent, and had the faith to persevere in the face of adversity. I’ve known many musicians and others in the arts with enormous talent that lost interest, quit, or turned to drugs and alcohol rather than fight the uphill battles that we all must face.
And then there are many artists who opt for a different kind of life with trees, houses, families and financial security. For me and many other artists, this was never a choice. I’m not saying that one way of life is better than the other. Each person has to decide for him or herself. What will make us truly happy, and how do we get there? That is the question everyone should face. You don’t need to figure out all the details, but take positive steps every day toward your goals. One foot goes in front of the other and after a while, you are on your way to your happiness.
The key to success is the enjoyment of the process, because you never get to your goal. It’s like Zeno’s dichotomy paradox. If I want to go from one side of my room to the other, and each step is half the remaining distance, I will never get to the other side. I’ll get pretty close, but I’ll never get all the way there. If you don’t feel good each time you get closer, maybe you are in the wrong room.
So why did I choose jazz? Or maybe, why did jazz choose me? First it was seeing Louis Armstrong on TV. He exuded unbridled joy and love on a level that I’ve never seen in another human being. I took up the trumpet, but it wasn’t until I played my first notes of jazz that I felt the rhythm and interaction with the other musicians. I was only 12 and just becoming aware of what it meant to be an American, but this music was immediately my music in a way that Beethoven and Mozart, as much as I loved them, could never be.
The swing rhythm and the blues melodies, inflections and colors were a big part of it, sure, but the freedom in the music was what invited me to join this welcoming fraternity. For those that learn the language and the conventions, there are no rules other than Duke Ellington’s rule: If it sounds good, it is good. The degree of personal expression in performing jazz far exceeds any other music that I know of, with the exception of chaos. Like Bach fugues and our normal conversations, there are roles and conventions that we adhere to so that each person can be heard.
I don’t remember where I first heard jazz described as “democracy in action.” It could have been Al Murray or one my fellow disciples, either Wynton Marsalis or Stanley Crouch. It sure sounds like Al. When we play jazz, we have the freedom to express ourselves as long as we respect the other musicians’ right to express themselves. In the best of circumstances, each musician strives to make the others sound good—the combined effort resulting in the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.
Think of Duke Ellington’s band in 1940 or the Miles Davis Quintet and Sextet of the late 1950s. There were a few stars in each band, but the group concept elevated each and every player’s contribution far beyond any all-star band that was ever assembled.
The existing recordings of these groups are snapshots. They give us an idea of what the music was like, much the same as when we look at snapshots from our distant past. The joy isn’t in the picture—it is in the memory of what we felt like at that time. The memory is merely the residue of what it felt like in the moment.
And so, I write jazz for musicians to play and for me to rehearse them and lead them. While I am writing, I think about the players who will breathe life into my notes. How do I inspire them to be great? What combination of improvisation and structured pre-planned music will excite them to go beyond themselves and fill the room with so much joy that everyone in the audience will tap their toes and feel the irresistible urge to get up out of their seats and move their bodies in celebration of the overwhelming oneness and twoness of the universe. Those are the moments I live for. I am not alone.