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Making Sense of It All

David Berger



Do you ever feel insignificant? Actually, I haven’t felt that way. I know that I matter to my family and friends, and in a small way to people who like my music and enjoy reading what I write. I’ve probably touched a few hundred thousand lives, maybe a little more. That always seemed significant to me. That is, until two nights ago when I watched a piece on 60 Minutes.


I’d never really thought about the Hubble Telescope. I knew it was up in space—far enough above earth, so that it can see stars that we can’t see from earth because of the light we get from the sun. On 60 Minutes, they showed some of what the Hubble Telescope sees, and it boggles my mind.


I grew up going to the Museum of Natural History and the Hayden Planetarium. The idea of other stars and planets has always fascinated me. One day when I was a kid, I learned about atoms and came to the realization that the structure of atoms is like the structure of our solar system. I then wondered if electrons were tiny planets orbiting just like the earth orbits around the sun. Were there teeny tiny animals and plants, and even people on those electron/planets? If that is so, there are a gazillion planets and Lord knows how many civilizations in existence. When I first thought about this, it made me feel that life on earth maybe isn’t so unique and special.


Watching the images of space from the Hubble Telescope the other night had a similar effect on me, except that this is not my conjecture.   It’s awesome to look up at the night sky and see a few stars, but the Hubble sees so many galaxies that I would fill up this page with zeros just to give it a number. So far, it has seen more galaxies than there are grains of sand on our entire planet. Read that last sentence again. Let it sink in.


We are part of a solar system of 8 or 9 planets. I forget if Pluto counts. We are part of a galaxy that we call The Milky Way. There are 100 billion stars (suns) in our galaxy. Each of those stars has planets orbiting around it. Our galaxy is just one of the incredible number of galaxies in the universe. How many planets could there be out there? I can’t believe that out of all those planets, there aren’t any with living creatures, and maybe some more advanced than us. No maybe. There must be many, many civilizations that are far more advanced and civilized than us.


Our planet and even our bodies are made up of elements that came from exploding stars billions of years ago. Those other planets and life out there also contain the same iron, carbon, and other elements. This stardust is spread all over the vast universe. Through the Hubble Telescope, we can see exploding stars, new stars and old stars. Our sun is a middle-aged star, so we’ve got some time left, if we don’t destroy ourselves first.


I sometimes wonder whether what I do has much of an impact on people. When I perform music, I know that the band and audience are enjoying themselves. I’m sharing myself with them. They all are learning about me and how I see the world. My CDs and digital versions of my music are more permanent representations of my music. I’m not sure how many people listen to them now, or will listen in the future, or how far in the future. My books and articles also exist in cyberspace. I hope that my books will be read and studied for years to come. I have tried to document my thought process and how it relates to other jazz composers and arrangers. Since the generations older than mine have nearly died off, I feel the need to pass on their legacy.


Very few artists take the time and energy to explain what they and their colleagues do, so when they die, it is left to the next generation to keep the flame burning. When one generation fails to keep the music alive, the spirit of the music dies and is gone forever. I love jazz. I’ve devoted my life to it. Many people think that I’m a dinosaur—that I only want to preserve old styles of the music. Obviously, they don’t know me or my music. I’m a creative guy. I don’t want to recreate anything. What I want is to extend the lineage of jazz into the future. As long as there is a link to our heritage, we can build on it in ways that honor our culture and our forbearers.


And so, I spend my time on this earth writing music, talking about music, teaching music, writing about music, listening to music and devouring and digesting music. I am constantly thrilled when other people like good music. I’m not all that concerned about what happens after I die, but I do think that it would be a shame if upon my demise, my thousands of compositions, arrangements, transcriptions, books, and articles are thrown into a dumpster and taken to Staten Island to be recycled into land fill. The truth is, that may happen. Maybe not immediately, but one day. Humans can’t save everything. We create too much of it.


My mother didn’t have much of a sense of humor. A nice lady, but she couldn’t tell a joke or even make a pun. But she did say two funny things in her life. One of them was, “I worry about David because he worries so much.” Sure, I worry. I have dreams, and maybe I won’t get to realize them. Some of those ships have sailed, and I have accepted that. I’m not going to play baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers. I gave that one up in 1957 when they announced that the team was moving to Los Angeles.


I’ve lived many of my dreams. I’ve been in love. I have children and grandchildren that I cherish. I’ve performed on the greatest stages of the world with some of the greatest musicians alive. But most of all, I get to write music, books and articles, perform and teach every day. Oh yeah, and one more thing—I get to dream of new things that I want to do—new music to write, new shows to compose, night clubs to design and books to write. I get ideas every day. I don’t get to live all of them, but just planning them makes me happy. One day I want to write novels and screenplays. Why not?


Does any of this matter in the scheme of things? Will any of it affect people living on planets light years away? Probably not. Will it affect people here on earth 100 or 500 years from now? Again, probably not. But living this life as I do is what makes me feel happy and fulfilled.


My trumpet teacher, Jimmy Maxwell, was in a car accident that left him with amnesia for two years. He lived another 20 years and never played a rehearsal or gig. In fact, he rarely left his house, except to go to the doctor. Nevertheless, he continued to practice the trumpet every day for hours. When his doctor asked him why he practiced, he said, “Because I’m a trumpet player.” I guess that when it comes down to it, we are who we are, and there’s not much point to question it, if we live who we truly are. In some small ways, being our true selves makes the universe a better place.

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  • Frits Schjøtt on

    I’ll echo Steve Ross – count me in your retinue too. As to our significance, I must recommend Yuval Noah Harari’s
    two groundbreaking works: Sapiens (2014) and Homo – Deus (2016). – they are unavoidable (although rather pessimistic). In the counting of grains of sand and planets and civilizations and existing lifeforms etc etc I can only
    conclude: There has only been one Duke Ellington – and lucky we, who are more or less contemporary! All my best wishes to you and the good people in this blog!
    Frits from Denmark

  • DAvid bErger on

    Thank you, Steve. The grains of sand was from the 60 minutes piece. I love your quotes.

  • Steve Ross on

    HI Dave,
    Just to tell you that you are one of my heroes – your passion for music and communication and the ways you experience and promulgat it – just great.
    I’m particularly moved by this last post. I tried to dig up the 60 minute show on the web but although it was indicated it wasn’t playable.
    The statement about “grains of sand on our earth” REALLY? Is that from the show or from your own readings.
    I save sayings that have meaning to me – here are a few you might enjoy reading
    The first by that genius communicator, Carl Sagan.
    Carl Sagan:
    Look at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you knw, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived our their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creatorr and destroyer of civilization, every king an d peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended on a sunbeam.

    Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.
    What is love? ‘Tis not hereafter;
    Present mirth hath present laughter;
    What’s to come is still unsure:
    N dalay there lies no plenty;
    Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty!
    Youth’s a stuff will not endure,.” (Twelfth Night)

    Noel Coward:
    Then, with sudden desolation, I knew that the destiny of the human race was shaped by neither politicians nor dictators, but by it’s own inadequacy, superstition, avarice, envy, cruelty, and silliness, and that it had no right whateer to demand and expect peace on earth until it had proved itself to be deserving of it.

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