I had a tennis lesson this morning at 7 o’clock. I put on my shorts and one of my old Essentially Ellington tee shirts with a caricature of Duke in a top hat across my chest. While walking home up Broadway after the lesson, a middle-aged Black man hanging out on the sidewalk asked me if that was Duke Ellington. When I told him that it indeed was, he smiled and said, “Take the ‘A’ Train.” I might be easy to please, but that made me feel really good.
It’s been 44 years since the Maestro died. I went to the funeral at St. John the Divine. I think there were about ten or fifteen thousand people inside the cathedral. After the star-studded ceremony, which included Duke’s band, my buddy Art Baron and I went outside with tears streaming down our faces. We were floored by what we saw—Amsterdam Avenue as far as we could see was completely covered with people. It looked like Times Square on New Year’s Eve. The funeral procession then headed up to 125th Street and turned right, going past the Apollo Theater and all the way east. Both sides of 125th Street were filled with people, many of whom held signs and banners with messages like, “We love you, Duke.” I’ve never seen anything like it—especially for a jazz musician.
That was 1974. We live in a different era where jazz is invisible, or so I thought. The message I got this morning is not to give up. This comes on the heels of the movie I watched last night, Roman J. Israel, Esq. Denzel Washington plays an extremely idealistic lawyer, who is at odds with the real world. Life is not easy for him, while cynical lawyers with a tenth of his talent and knowledge are making fortunes all around him in Los Angeles.
This movie is about being a person of principle and knowing that you’ll have to pay the price. The reward is that you touch people all around you, and just by knowing you, their consciousness is raised.
I first heard about consciousness-raising back in the early ’70s. Again, I was with Art Baron, who was playing in my band, and he invited me to a sales pitch for TM (Transcendental Meditation). Art was a practitioner and thought that I might like it. I was starting to do yoga at the time, so it seemed like it might be a good fit. The one thing I remember from that evening was the idea that if enough people around the earth meditated, the general population would feel the effect and start behaving better towards each other and the planet.
I thought this was an interesting concept, but meditation was not really for me. Around that time I invited my yoga teacher to a concert I was performing with the National Jazz Ensemble, where we played a bunch of my arrangements and compositions. After the concert, my teacher told me that I don’t need to meditate because the creation of music is my meditation. He was right about that. It still is.
Getting back to Denzel’s idealistic lawyer character, I related to him. Being a jazz musician, I have sacrificed making lots of money for the pleasure of doing something that I believe in, something that enriches my life and the lives of those that come into contact with me—musicians who play my music, our audience, my students and readers of my books and blogs.
As I go through life, I try to understand myself and the world better. I have become a better musician and a better person. Maybe only a percentage point or two, but it’s meaningful to me. I have this unquenchable desire to learn and improve and to share with anyone and everyone who will listen.
Some people are on a higher spiritual plane than I am, and I have learned from them. Others are on a similar level with me and we have an equal exchange. Then there are my children and young friends and students. I see their desire to navigate life, and I hope that I can be a positive force for them as my teachers were for me.
The point of this is that each of us has something special. We need to nurture it and share it with the world. Even the smallest gift can be the most beautiful and touch others—like that man on the street this morning who smiled at me and said, “Take The ‘A’ Train.” It was as simple as that. We made a connection that made us both feel good in the moment and afterward.