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Peaks and Valleys

David Berger



I recently was surprised to read the results of a study that concluded that people’s peak creative years had little to do with age. Some people hit their stride in their 20s while others could be in middle or even old age. I’ve been thinking about this subject for many years.


A long time ago I noticed that almost all the greatest instrumental jazz records were made by men in their 20s: Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens, Lester Young with Basie’s Old Testament Band, Roy Eldridge with Krupa, Dizzy and Bird, Freddie Hubbard with Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Sonny Rollins on Prestige, et al.


These groundbreaking musicians never again made the same kind of impression on the jazz world as they got older. On the other hand, composers and arrangers sometimes had success later in their lives. Duke Ellington and Gil Evans come to mind, although it could be said that if Ellington had died in 1930 at the age of 30, he would still be considered America’s greatest composer. His music expanded as he aged, but he never startled the world like he did in those early Cotton Club days. Gil was the odd late bloomer.


I’m not saying that jazz musicians are washed up at 30 or even 40 like athletes and dancers, but they continue to play in the style they created in their 20s. As they age, they became less exploratory and take fewer risks. The same could be said of arrangers and composers.


There is another element at play—opportunity and exposure. Where the press is concerned, young people playing jazz is news. Old people playing jazz are not, except if they became famous when they were young, but even then, they are considered famous has-beens.


This phenomenon exists outside of jazz. Stravinsky’s three most famous (and arguably best) pieces, The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite Of Spring, were written when he was 28, 29 and 31, respectively. However, he lived and composed for another 58 years. Although he continued to compose on a very high level, he never wrote any music as shocking. The Rite Of Spring laid down the gauntlet for 20th century composers, and still no one has surpassed it. I guess you could say that he was on one helluva hot streak.


The jazz equivalent to The Rite Of Spring is Ellington’s A Tone Parallel To Harlem (or simply, Harlem) written in 1951 when Ellington was 52 years old. He lived another 22 years and composed Such Sweet Thunder, Far East Suite and many other masterpieces, but never surpassed Harlem.


Ellington’s two greatest periods were 1937-43 (Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue to Black, Brown And Beige and then Such Sweet Thunder through Far East Suite). Oddly, Harlem was written in a fallow stretch. It was preceded by The Tattooed Bride and Liberian Suite, which are top notch, but his output from the mid-’40s through 1955 could not compare to the weekly masterpieces of his peak years.


Duke Ellington became a household name in 1928 and remained at the top of the music business until 1943, when the recording ban prevented him from reaching mass audiences with his new works. All his popular standards were written between 1930 and ’43, with the lone exception of Satin Doll from the early 1950s. He spent the rest of his life entertaining jazz fans and older fans who grew up during his earlier peak years.


Ellington, like Stravinsky, continued to produce great music, but was ignored by the press and general public. The jazz press turned to Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, and the general public went for Elvis Presley and then The Beatles.


Maybe this has something to do with age. Duke was a sex symbol in his youth, but by the 1950s, he was considered an old man by teenagers (the bulk of record buyers) and the media who were promoting the generation gap. Interestingly, the second- best-selling jazz record of all time is Ellington at Newport, which was mostly recorded live in 1956. It is far from his best work, but became famous because Paul Gonsalves played 26 swinging blues choruses and a woman in the audience stood up and danced, nearly causing the audience to riot.


Sales from this record enabled Ellington to stay on with Columbia Records for another six years. Then when the suits told Ellington they were dropping him from the label, he asked why. They told him he wasn’t selling enough records. His response was, “I thought that was your job.”


Ellington is also quoted as saying:

Art is dangerous. It is one of the attractions: when it ceases to be dangerous, you don't want it.

Young people project sexual danger. Then, when they age, they seem like your parents. Those older musicians, like the Rolling Stones, who pretend to still be teenagers while in their 70s, are rather pathetic except to some of their original fans, who see them through their teenage lens.

Artie Shaw left the music business because he had no interest in playing Begin The

Beguine and his other hits every night. He wanted to continue to grow as an artist, but the public doesn’t really want growth. Record companies get upset when your new record doesn’t sound like the last one. Business doesn’t like to take chances. Artists must, or they become yesterday’s newspaper.

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  • Bob Schwartz on

    This one invites a Part II – re jazz, the evolution of the music itself (related to but apart from the age of the players). DB agrees but is on to another topic & invites more discussion here, so here goes.

    At least until 1970 the dominant rhythmic & harmonic approaches were evolving, leaving everyone (except Duke, who was ahead of most of it) to choose whether & how to adapt, independent of the age factor. Dex was young enough that when he’d heard enough of Bird he moved from cloning Prez to his own groove, where he stayed for the rest of his life. I think Coleman Hawkins never got enough credit for the things he added. I’m sure y’all can think of lots more examples of adaptation.

    I’ve often wondered what Brownie would have done in the 60s. Wynton did an XM show arguing that Brownie was more evolver than innovator. I read Brownie’s biography – the guy was all-around brilliant, a chess master, etc. What would he have made of the next decades? Would he have done an Artie Shaw? Or found a new path?

    On Brookmeyer’s best music being when he returned to NYC – his own take was that he’d fallen behind the times while in LA!

    Then of course there was the much-discussed change in popular taste as another factor – post-war move away from swing, focus on vocalists (most of whom flopped as singles). (Helen Forrest helped kill the big band format at which she excelled, by asking Harry James to let her sing opening & closing heads instead of a middle head.) Leading to … Mitch Miller.

  • River Bergstrom on

    Sad to hear what Chuck Israels says…I know what he means, but he means a lot to me even if he doesn’t know me. I am a woodwind guy living in the SE section of WA state. Not exactly a haven for the arts! I stay here to care for my mother in her old age, as I promised. Back in 2014 I did a tour with some greats; Cedar Walton, James Moody, etc. One night before he was to go on, Moody and I were having a little talk. He was sad…and his diabetes was bothering him a bit (I worked to take great care of him) but he said this to me, and I guess I’d never thought about it before. He said: “Ya know…I might as well not even go out there if I don’t play ‘that tune’…” Of course I realized he was referring to Moody’s Mood For Love, which was a big hit for him. Be careful what you wish for, was the lesson I took. I got to know Moody and Cedar and a few others and go to play with them also. That they dug my playing meant the world to me, as did their friendship. I’m pretty anonymous out here. I wish I could play with Chuck Israels! Peace, and Love Always, rb

  • Bill Kirchner on

    Don’t forget Bob Brookmeyer. After he returned to NYC in 1978 after ten years in L.A., he experienced remarkable growth and ultimate maturity as a composer-arranger that lasted until his death in 2011 at age 81.

  • Chuck Israels on

    I wrote most of my most adventurous music in my 30s. I don’t know if it was my best music.
    What I experience now is how little interest there is in what I am doing in 2018. Almost all the interest in my work is nostalgia for what I did in my formative years (before I had a good technical grip on what I wanted to do). There are occasional exceptions to this, but that’s the overwhelming impression the world is making. And there is no way I see to adapt my understanding of music to contemporary musical culture. It’s a puzzle that has no solution I can see.

  • Bob MIllikan on

    Good read David.

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