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The Fifth Commandment

David Berger



Honor thy father and mother.  It sounds simple.  These people brought you into the world and taught you how everything works.  They are not perfect.  Deal with it. 


We spend a lot of time blaming our societal problems on the breakdown of the nuclear family and our inability to transition from traditional primitive societal structure to the modern post-industrial world.  This is not a new problem.  When Europeans came to the Western Hemisphere, they saw themselves and their culture as being superior to the hunter/gatherer Native Americans.  They then set out to push these inhabitants off their land and to extinguish them and their way of life from this earth.  Nevertheless, a small number of white men and women “went native” and lived among the Indians, adopting their ways.  This phenomenon has always fascinated me.


These two groups of cultures couldn’t have been more different.  One was primitive (hunter/gatherers) and the other on the precipice of the Industrial Revolution.  Few Native Americans were attracted to the white man’s ways and vice versa.  The physical hardships Native Americans faced were fierce, but they had a spiritual connection to the earth that served them well.  Whites viewed Native Americans as barbaric, even though their primitive ethical code was still intact after more than 10,000 years.  That’s more than I can say for our white ancestors. 


European culture may have developed scientifically, but it has been in an ethical crisis for millennia.  The Judeo-Christian religions have tried to teach their people ethics and morals, but the disconnect from nature that happened thousands of years ago has made these efforts like shutting the barn door after the horse has run away.  Basically, European culture is a material way of life that is all about “might makes right” in the pursuit of amassing more personal stuff.  It’s been that way, and it continues to be that way, between individuals, tribe, religions, and countries.  This is not new, nor is it going away. 


I’d like to think that selfish greed is a product of youthful male testosterone, but, although young men do the actual fighting, old men, who should know better, give the orders.  And what about the women and girls who buy into materialism and power? 


The commandment to honor our fathers and mothers reflects the belief in primitive societies that the elders, who have the benefit of many years of experience, can pass wisdom down to future generations, so that mistakes don’t need to be made over and over.  Also, it is the duty of the elders to pass down cultural tribal lore from all the previous generations, as it was passed down through the ages to them.  To respect these traditions connects us to the beginning of time. 


When there is a break in the transfer of tribal lore, the younger generation is rudderless and must try to imagine what they have not gotten and invent new solutions.  This is the chaotic world we are living in.  Superficial pop culture, destruction of nature, drug and alcohol addiction, dysfunctional government and fear and loathing of “the other” have replaced self-knowledge and spirituality.   Add to this our worship of youth at the expense of our elders.


I understand the natural tendency of each generation to express itself.  As a musician, I create music that satisfies my needs.  Although I learned from the generation before me and respect them, the world I grew up in and live in differs from theirs.  What satisfies my generation is in many ways more extreme than that of our predecessors.  We live in an ever-increasingly fast paced world.  Our art must address this. 


As much as I love Mozart, Beethoven, and even Stravinsky and Ellington, my music needs to express how I feel, walk, talk and move.  Maybe it even expresses how I dress, eat, travel, exercise, and everything else.  It expresses what is going on politically in my city, country and world.  It’s got my fingerprints and DNA all over it.  As it should.  But it also has the DNA of my musical ancestry. 


About 15 years ago after rehearsing a brand new chart of mine for the first time, our bassist, Dennis Irwin, told me that although I’m generally known for my connection to Duke Ellington’s music, he could hear the influence of Thad Jones in this particular piece.  Then he added, “Maybe they don’t know that you were into Thad before you embraced Duke.” 


I tend to think that my music has its own style, which is based on all the music that I’ve liked.  I’ve made no effort to disavow my love of my heroes.  I’ve spent a large portion of my life studying all kinds of music that I like, in the effort to understand it and incorporate some of it into my aesthetic.  I try to be inclusive.  If I like something, I ask myself, “How can I use that?” 


Of course I try to avoid writing and playing sounds that I don’t like.  In fact, I try to avoid hearing music that I don’t like, or music that is superficial.  The more I live the aesthetic that I aspire to, the better my chances of my art rising to that level. 


I understand how pop culture celebrating the current young generation can capture the attention and imagination of that young generation.  What seems odd to me is when someone in their 60s or 70s dresses like a 20-year old and listens to their music.  Being aware of the world outside of yourself is a great thing, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of being who you truly are.  Knowing ourselves is a lifelong quest that begins with knowing our parents and their world.  To know something—first you copy it, and then you use it to express yourself, and in so doing you expand the language for others to build on.  The freedom to create is meaningless in a void.  Art teaches us the beauty of context, personal expression and creativity.  Step one: respect.

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