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So You Want to Be an Artist?

David Berger



Today is Mother’s Day. I’m thinking about my mother and thanking her for the gift of life and music.


I’ve been watching Genius: Picasso on the National Geographic channel. I enjoyed their Genius: Einstein series last year and was hoping that they would tackle more geniuses. I was fascinated with Einstein’s passion to figure out how the universe works, even though I am a mechanical idiot. His belief in himself hit home. Before he was hailed as a genius, he faced the question many people grapple with: Am I good enough to pursue my dream or should I listen to my parents and just get a day gig and be done with it?


Picasso, being an artist, has many more parallels to my life as a musician. All artists deal with the same basic issues: universal truths and personal perspective. The world conspires to make us conform. It starts with our parents, then schoolteachers and finally public tastes. The overwhelming message is to forget who you are and just play the game. Young Beethoven wrote dance arrangements to pay the bills. I’m 69 years old and still playing in nightclubs for dancers.


Mind you, I’m not complaining. Sure I’d rather be composing and performing more “serious” work like Marlowe and Harlem Nutcracker, but the truth is, I also do enjoy playing lighter fare, as long as I can express my musical aesthetic. I treat these dance arrangements as miniatures and do my best to create a satisfying experience in three to five minutes given the confines of the function the music is fulfilling.


When I played in big bands in my salad days, there was always one chart that the musicians looked forward to playing every night. With Lee Castle it was Ernie Wilkins’ Sweetie Cakes, with Larry Elgart it was Bill Finegan’s Soon, with the National Jazz Ensemble it was Chuck Israels’ chart on Blues In The Closet, and so forth. Every time I write an arrangement or composition I set out to write the chart that the band will look forward to playing every night. I need to satisfy the audience, the person paying me, the performers, and last, but certainly not least—me.


A craftsman pleases his audience and benefactor, but an artist must satisfy his or her craving for universal order—the pursuit of which brings us true happiness and peace.


In this week’s TV show, Picasso tells a young woman artist that to be an artist you must work at your art constantly and that no one can make you an artist. You need to discover that for yourself. In the next scene he relents and offers to teach her, saying that he got help all along the way. So which is it? Actually, both.


Being an artist is a calling—much like the priesthood. It’s not for everyone. It’s all- consuming. If you need to ask, it’s not for you. My relationship with music is much like a detective story. I’m constantly digging deeper to solve a mystery. The more I discover, the more I learn what I don’t know, and ultimately how great and vast music and life are.


I have read many books on music and studied with many teachers. I’ve played with and written for many of my heroes. They all taught me what they did and what they knew. As much as I’ve appreciated all those experiences, not one of those other people could teach me who I am. They could point for me to look in one direction or another, but I am not them, and they are not me, as much as I loved them and their art.


Picasso was obsessed with being original and breaking new ground. He was very competitive with Matisse. Initially, he felt inferior to Matisse. I have had idols, but I always knew that my music was going to grow from the soil of my life experience. Duke Ellington was once asked what music he listened to and what influenced him. He replied that his music developed from the music within his band, each piece building on the previous ones they created. He inspired his players and in turn, they inspired him.


I’ve taken the same path. Yes, when you hear my music, you can hear Ellington, Mingus, Gil Evans, Bob Brookmeyer, Thad Jones and even Igor Stravinsky, but even if I write a tribute to them, I get to a crossroads where I think: So-and-so would do it that way, but it would be more fun for me to do it this way. After all, I don’t need to satisfy my heroes; my life is about expressing who I am. I frequently quote Oscar Wilde, “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” Or as Maestro Ellington said, “Better to be a first-rate you than a second-rate Johnny Hodges.”


 A craftsman must master the technique of his discipline, but an artist must also (and even more importantly) embody the precariousness, diversity, conflict and balance of life on the deepest and most superficial levels. Pop artists excel at the superficial, more “serious” artists focus on the deep stuff, but great artists understand and integrate the entire experience.


And then there are geniuses. I don’t bandy that word about. Ray Charles said:


People say: "Ray, you a genius, Ray, you a cornerstone, Ray, you this and you that." Those are nice accolades, and I certainly appreciate it when people think well of my music and what I've tried to do with it. But in my heart, I mean...I don't kid myself. I know I'm not a genius. A genius is somebody like Art Tatum or Charlie Parker. I don't come close to those guys. I just happen to be a guy that can do a lot of little things and do 'em well.


I’m not sure about Tatum. I think he was the greatest pianist who ever lived, but his effect on the future of the music was limited. My musical pantheon is Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Armstrong, Ellington and Parker. Their music embodied the past and showed everyone the future.

But what about John Coltrane? The jury is out for me. Having grown up when Coltrane played with Miles Davis, those records made a huge impact on me and every jazz musician I knew. As Lester Young had done a generation before, Miles personalized the music and showed us another side. Like Johnny Hodges and Marlon Brando, he was a tough guy who showed us his vulnerability. Miles set out to copy Ahmad Jamal’s trio, but went so much further.


So, I’m on the fence about including Coltrane, who pushed the abstraction envelope and redefined how jazz instruments function in a band. When Miles’ My Funny Valentine record came out, it laid down the gauntlet for my generation. The boundaries of personal expression were exploded. I’m still waiting for the Second Coming.


So, genius? Sure, the gods in my pantheon worked hard and practiced, but so did millions of other musicians. I believe that geniuses are born. They are unstoppable. I’ve told this story many times: Back in the ’70s Brooks Kerr had a trio gig at a small club on the Upper East Side called Gregory’s with former Ellingtonians Russell Procope and Sonny Greer (Duke’s drummer from 1918-1950). I used to hang out at Gregory’s a lot in those days and got friendly with Brooks, Russell and Sonny. One night, a middle-aged woman approached Sonny, and the conversation went like this:


Woman:          I understand you played with Duke Ellington.

Sonny:                        Yes, I did.

Woman:          When did you join Duke’s band?

Sonny:                        Duke Ellington joined my band. (Sonny looks at me and we laugh).

Woman:          What was Duke Ellington like?

Sonny:                        Duke Ellington was like: when he walked in the room, it was like somebody turned on the lights.


That’s what geniuses do. They turn on the lights so that in a moment, we can understand the past, love the present, and see the future.

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  • Dan Kassell on

    Thanks for recalling your moment with Sonny Greer. I enjoyed similar moments observing Russell Procope’s fingers improvise.

  • Frits Schjøtt on

    Thank you for another fine installment.
    I certainly love reading your blog. Almost as much as listening to your music!
    Kind regards,
    Frits from Denmark

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