Cart 0

The Enemy of My Enemy Is My Friend: Embracing the Opposites

David Berger



I’m sitting in my living room watching Nicole Wallace’s show on MSNBC. I love this woman. I know, I know, she worked in Dubya’s White House, but dig what she says. She understands democracy. The same for Steve Schmidt (who brought us Sarah Palin), George Will, David Frumm, Jennifer Rubin, and all the other Conservatives who are now former Republicans. I know that there are issues that we would disagree on, but the big issue (and the only one that matters right now) is the preservation of our democracy. These Conservatives are patriots. And then I had an epiphany.


Evan McMullin was one of Ms. Wallace’s guests. In case you don’t know who he is, he ran against Trump for President. He’s a former Republican (now Independent) and former CIA agent. He’s a Mormon and grew up in rural Washington State. I’ve been impressed with him since the first time I saw him interviewed while he was a candidate. Then it hit me: What if in 2020 the Democrats nominate him for Vice President? Sounds crazy, but hold on a second.


Our founders envisioned the possibility of the President and Vice President being from different political parties. Other countries have coalition governments. Why not us? Let’s look at the pros of such a situation.


  1. We get different points of view. With reasonable, intelligent and imaginative leaders, this could give us a functioning government.
  2. With Trump controlling 40% of the electorate, such a coalition could stop Trump and his followers and successfully override the political polarization that is crippling us now.


This plan can only work if our leaders embrace cooperation and compromise as our previous leaders did. I have no idea who the Dems should pick for President, but he or she must believe in the process, and in democracy. Of course, this is all dependent on whether Trump doesn’t suspend elections or declare himself dictator. At the time of this writing, I’d say that the odds are in Trump’s favor. I don’t see anyone standing up to him. So my great idea may never get tested. Time will tell.


So, what is the musical equivalent that led me to this concept? Easy—jazz. When I was a young teen, my brother bought me the Count Basie Old Testament Decca sides. There it was: Lester Young and Herschel Evans—the two star tenor players who couldn’t be more opposite. Herschel was a Coleman Hawkins disciple, replete with heavy vibrato, big fat sound and overt emotions. Prez was cool—light sound, terminal vibrato at most and an abstract approach to his solos. These two opposites contributed to the rich and devastatingly swinging Basie aesthetic.


Back in the day, bands sought to be homogenous, racially and musically. Benny Goodman broke the color barrier, but other bands were slow to follow. Artie Shaw hired a young Billie Holiday to sing with his band, but she couldn’t take the racism she had to face when they traveled outside the Apple.


Likewise, a few other white bands hired a great Black soloist or two: Tommy Dorsey had Charlie Shavers and Sy Oliver; Gene Krupa had Roy Eldridge. Later on, after the war, things eased up a bit. Charlie Barnet had a more integrated band, but it was harder for the Black bands to integrate. There was a lot more racial blowback. Earle Warren’s light complexion led to him barely escaping lynchings while traveling with Basie. Ellington tested the waters in the early ’50s when he hired Louie Bellson. There was no problem that I know of. After Bellson left the band, it would be many years until Duke hired other white players.


It was a big deal when Miles hired Bill Evans in the late ’50s. He got grief from his brothers. Miles was firm. He liked Bill’s playing, and the music was what it was all about. Clark Terry told me that he got flack for hiring white musicians. Understandable when white contractors were not hiring Black players.


I’m surprised at how many bands are still segregated. When Wynton and I formed the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, it was racially mixed, as it remains to this day. The same goes for my own band. I can’t say that either he or I have paid much attention to race, so this result is driven by musical concerns.


Now the issue is gender desegregation. There have always been all-women’s jazz bands, most notably The International Sweethearts of Rhythm. Many of the best women leaders and singers have worked mostly or exclusively with men. With the increase in women jazz players on the scene, the gender barrier is gradually dissolving. This may not be fast enough for some  people, but as with civil rights, I’ve seen great strides in my lifetime.


What about musical diversity? It used to be that bands would hire players who played just like the other players already in the band. Everyone had the same vibrato, time feel, tone, etc. I’ve always found this to be too limiting. As far back as high school, I envisioned having a band populated with players who played in diverse styles and somehow found common ground. Duke Ellington’s band would become my model.


There were times over the last 46 years of bandleading that my choice of personnel was questioned:  “So-and-so doesn’t blend in the section,” and other criticisms. My concept has always been to hire good soloists who want to be team players because they respect the other cats in the band and believe in my music. A few times things didn’t work out as I’d hoped, but mostly the music seeks its own level, and we are all richer for it. I think integration  in society at large may be more difficult than it is in the arts, but maybe that’s the lesson that Donald Trump has to teach us. We only change if we have to.

Older Post Newer Post

  • Graciela Carriqui on

    Speaking of gender desegregation, here’s a crazy thought: how about a woman as president? I don’t really care who’s vice president, they don’t hold any power—with the horrifying exception of Dick Cheney—and very few actually get the prize when the Jack-in-the-box is finished. Regardless, we really should have a woman as vp as well, but there will be enough backlash as it is after we’ve had a woman—look at the national whiplash after Obama—that I’ll settle for a guy. Although I think he should at least be a Native American :)

  • Brian Priestley on

    A good piece, as usual. This is just a small qualification of one of your comments re Ellington hiring Louie Bellson. A subsequent incumbent Dave Black was also white, and Jimmy Woode told a story (at the 97 Ellington Conference) of a promoter c.1955 preventing Black setting up on the same platform as the other band members. Duke’s solution was to have no one on the platform and the whole band set up on the dance floor.

Leave a comment