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The Beauty of an Artist's Voice

David Berger

When Mercer Ellington sold his father’s artifacts to the Smithsonian Institution they included clothes, newspaper clippings, tapes, films and about 250,000 sheets of music.  Over the next decade Annie Kuebler archived all this material.  I had the great privilege to look at thousands of pages of the music and, over time, I became friends with Annie. 


Besides housing the Ellington archives, the Smithsonian conducted hundreds of oral histories with older jazz musicians.  Each was interviewed on tape for a few hours.  Annie had access to these tapes and listened to all of them.  She enjoyed the stories that they all told, but confided in me that she had to take all of it with a grain of salt.  Either the musicians had faulty memories or they just made stuff up. 


I’ve always thought that I have a great memory—even better than Trump’s.  (That was a joke.)  Several times I’ve come to realize that I remembered things wrong.  For some reason, my memory tricked me.  I enjoy telling anecdotes about myself and others—especially if they are humorous, informative, or both.  I often don’t remember the actual words.  In those cases, I know the gist of what was said, so I can reconstruct what might have been said. 


The point of this is: does the truth matter, or is the artistic mind of the storyteller more important?  How much of Homer was history, and how much was fiction?  The same goes for the Bible.  Archaeologists have proven that the Hebrews never lived in Egypt, but isn’t Exodus still a compelling story?  Astronomers tell us that Jesus was born in June of 6 BC.  Everyone gets it wrong.  As Trummy Young taught us, “’Tain’t What Cha Do, It’s The Way That Cha Do It.”


Someone said that art is life without the boring parts.  Actually, I have no idea who said it.  Maybe I made that up.  Anyway, it’s true.  How we tell the story is more important than what the story is.  God, I wish I knew that when I was young.  But it took me many years to realize that it’s not any one of the notes that I write or play that people like, but it’s how I develop those ideas into a story that the players and audience enjoy following.  They like how it makes them feel. 


When I studied composition with Ludmila Ulehla, I was overly concerned with organic development.  I wanted my music to be perfectly logical, so that when she analyzed it at my lessons, it would make sense.  She knew right away what I was up to and encouraged me to forget all that.  She said, “Just write.  Don’t worry, you have a logical mind.”  See, there I did it again.  Did she really say that, or was it something close to that?  No matter.  It was very close to that.  The point is: imposing logic on art precludes the beauty of our subconscious mind and our natural instinct. 


I love logic as much as the next guy, but if I had led a perfectly logical life, I would never have become a musician, nor would I have fallen in love.  Those were decisions that I felt no control over.   At those moments, I felt like God was smiling down at me, and I was powerless to argue with God.  Neither of those pursuits has been all smooth sailing, but I wouldn’t change a thing.  I did what my soul needed.


In telling a story, writing music, or writing a book or this blog, my process is to be in the moment.  If I have the option to  edit, what comes afterward, at which point my logical, conscious mind can do some trimming.  Knowing that I can edit afterward gives me the freedom to just write—without fear.  As we used to say in my recording days, “We’ll fix it in the mix.”  Actually, we did used to say that.  I didn’t make that one up.


At a certain point, over-editing can tear at the fabric of the original.  An artist must understand the nature of his concept and protect it.  There are Duke Ellington recordings with gross flaws.  For instance on the original studio version of Dance No. 4 of the Liberian Suite, the trumpets play an entire passage a measure off.  Why did Ellington not choose a different take?  His answer to such questions was always that he liked the feeling. 


As artists, we love details.  We spend countless hours perfecting them, but what our audience wants is to hear our authentic voice.  We should never lose sight of that in our art and in our lives. 


A long time ago, Wynton Marsalis said to me something like, “You know all that stuff that you are insecure about and hide from everyone?  Everyone sees through you.  It’s just that we are all too polite to tell you.  It’s not just you.  This is true about everyone.”  And yet we go on pretending like everyone is buying our false self.  We aren’t fooling anyone, and we are making ourselves unhappy. 


The best moments of my life have been when I was able to drop all my defenses and enjoy being my real, true, naked, authentic self.  This has rarely happened with other people, but for some reason, I feel safe enough in music to just be me.  And in those moments, as the poet said, “God’s in his heaven.  All’s right with the world.”  Actually, Robert Browning did write that.  I looked it up.

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