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Making Lemonade

David Berger



The last couple of weeks have been frustrating for me. I lived most of my life without the electronic connections of cell phones and the Internet, but being disconnected from one of those can wreak havoc on one’s life or business. I’ve known teenagers who have cried when their cell phones were taken away. I’m not particularly addicted to either modern contrivance, fortunately.


Starting about two weeks ago my assistant, J.Q., and I were unable to access my website. This not only meant that we were unable to post blogs or videos, but that our website was also inaccessible to our customers. We had just announced a website-wide sale of our books and charts and had received no response at all. That in itself was suspicious. I was beginning to think that I’d retired from the music business but nobody bothered to tell me.


We tried to get the site up and running, only to find out that our domain name had expired. This struck us as peculiar, since we hadn’t received any notification. In the past I was always notified a month or two ahead of the expiration date. J.Q. contacted our domain name provider, only to be told to enter a pass code. He tried all our usual pass codes, but none of them worked.


Ultimately, he was able to talk online with Google, and found out that our site was registered years ago through another company. We had no record of this. It seems that some of the email sent to us wound up going to a defunct email address that we could not access. Miraculously, J. Q. got to the bottom of everything, re-registered our domain name, got our site back up and retrieved a huge stack of emails that were sent to us between October 2018 and February 2019. I have no idea why this mail was routed there, and for those five months. Or were there other months of irretrievable email? Who knows?


So, the bad news is that I lost a lot of business during those five months. There were requests for me to perform clinics all over the country as well as musical questions and interest in purchasing some of my music and books. I responded immediately to these old emails with a brief explanation and apology. I realized that all those people who wrote to me must have thought that I was blowing them off. I hope that I was able to mend those relationships at this late date.


All in all, I couldn’t feel angry about all this. There’s not much point in that. I can’t change the past. And then I started to feel really good. It seems that I’m much more popular than I thought I was last year.


It’s not that I was ever one who sought popularity or wealth. My goal has always to become the best musician I can be and to share my music and knowledge with others (musicians, students, listeners and readers) and hopefully enrich their lives to some small degree. I had a buddy in college who became a recording engineer, but after a few years decided to move out west and become a shrink. Five or ten years ago a mutual friend found him on Facebook. After no contact for 30 years, I received a message from him: “Glad to see you are still saving the world from bad music.” I would phrase it a different way. I strive to save the great music of the past and promote informed interpretations in addition to encouraging the creation and performance of new music that builds on the triumphs of the past.


If we don’t know our history, we are forced to reinvent it. Almost 50 years ago, my trumpet teacher, Jimmy Maxwell, said to me one day, “What if every generation all the music of the past were destroyed? Then we could have a Beethoven every 20 years.” The great fallacy here is that the culture that Beethoven lived in no longer exists. So much has changed in the last 200 years. And even if everything remained the same, there are no guarantees that such a genius would be born every generation and want to compose nine symphonies that would change the course of music forever.


I had dinner with my buddy, Bill Dobbins, a week ago. We fantasized about what Beethoven would think of our modern performances of his music. We agreed that he would note how technology had improved the construction of certain instruments, and how our players have fantastic technique, but he also would lament that we have little idea what his music is all about. As much as the music was taught by older musicians to younger ones, with each generation something is gained, and something is lost. Pretty quickly, the idioms of the day are not understood or even recognized. Metaphors become dead metaphors and then ultimately are forgotten altogether.


When I started studying with Albert Murray, he asked me what Count Basie’s signature piano ending plink, plink, plink meant. I had no idea. He told me that it’s the train bell. Every blues and jazz player in the early 20th century knew that, but to the next generation, it was reduced to a stride cliché, and then to my generation it was Count Basie. Just knowing that it represents the train bell makes the story so much richer for me.


Although there was improvisation in European Baroque, Classical and Romantic music, this tradition died out as the performers stopped living the music in the culture from whence it came. Improvisation is much more important and integral to jazz, but even in jazz we have lost much of the authenticity and personal connection to the music. I hear a lot of intellectual exercises going on. I also hear some lip service to my old heroes, but much of that is slavish copying and impressions. I always thought that the aim of being a jazz musician was to learn the language and then tell your personal story in your own voice.


As much as I love Ellington, Basie, Armstrong, Parker, et al., I never substitute their aesthetic for my own. When I compose or arrange, I never think, “How would Duke do this?” And when I lead a band, I never try to copy the nuances of old recordings. I have learned the language, developed my own taste (aesthetic), and now coax the players into being their best selves with as little refereeing from me as possible.


The ultimate goal of the music is to be great. It matters not how we get there. I love the notes I’ve written. I took great care to notate them accurately, but if and when my performers think of something better, I implore them to follow their instincts. For me, those moments are my greatest joy. I much prefer to inspire greatness in others than to dictate it to them verbatim. There are many reasons why I choose to be a jazz musician, but I think this is the strongest one.


At any moment something surprising outside of myself can occur. My high school and college buddy and trumpet section-mate, Joe Ficco, and I were listening to a record in his dorm room one afternoon. There was a 2-bar tenor break, whereupon Joe turned to me in all seriousness and commented, “He plays that same break every time.” We both laughed, but on recordings everything is identical for every listening.


When we perform music live, there is always the possibility of change. That is at the heart of all the performing arts. That is the drama for the listener. That is the drama of most of our lives. We can be married to the same person for 50 years and live a life of routines, but there is always the possibility that something will be different one day. Without the possibility of change, what hope do we have for personal growth and a better future?

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  • Ron Sunshine on

    That’s funny. I never knew you studied with Albert Murray. He was my writing professor at Columbia for 2 semesters. He’d come in with a record player, play us a Count Basie record, and then read to us from Hemingway. Then he’d go off for an hour on Economy of Language. It was a great class. Also, my web hosting company has stopped hosting, and I’m not getting most of my emails. Thanks for the reminder that I need to get this sorted out. Maybe I’m more popular than I think I am!

  • Stutz on

    Ahhhh! Now that’s a good one, Dave! So enjoy your thoughts…. Little more heads up next visit. I’ll buy.

  • Nancy Valentine on

    Good to have you back!

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