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The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

David Berger




The tragedy of dying young is that you don’t get to outlive your relevance. The tragedy of old age is that you do. A friend of mine posted on Facebook that he was feeling down because he didn’t receive any votes in this year’s Downbeat Critics Poll, so he went out and bought a pair of fabulous sneakers. Being a fantastic saxophonist who is well known to musicians, he got more than a few loving responses.


My response was that in my 50-year professional career, I got exactly one vote in that same poll, 45 years ago when I was first starting out. In fact, that is the only poll of any kind that I have ever appeared in. And yet, I’ve had quite a fulfilling career. I went on to mention that just that afternoon I rehearsed some of my new charts for my band and got to experience music on the highest level for three solid hours. I wouldn’t trade that for a million dollars or the adoration of myriads of fans.


The point of all this is that artists do what we do for the love of the art and for personal growth and expression. No one understands our art as well as we understand it. No one knows me as well as I know myself. Yes, others can have some insights, but no one can completely know another person’s soul.


Now that I am a senior citizen, the number of gigs I’m called for has dwindled. I’m not offered teaching positions. This seems wrong to me since I’ve learned so much over the years and am a much better musician, composer, arranger and communicator than I was when I was a young man and in demand. The painful truth is that there are very few young people who think that anyone much older than they are can understand their world and help them.


It’s true that my taste in music, clothes, all the other arts, and people in general may be different from kids 40 or 50 years my junior, but we have a lot more in common that they realize. Sure, I haven’t kept up with pop culture. I don’t watch reality shows (other than the Trump presidency), nor do I know any pop music of the past 40 years. I may not be able to afford the best restaurants on a regular basis, but I have eaten in many of them, and I have developed my palate since my picky eater childhood. I read new books, see new movies and watch TV series that interest me.


My respect for the classics, be it Louis Armstrong, Mozart, van Gogh, et al. has not stopped me from following their lead to Ellington, Miles Davis, Stravinsky and Jackson Pollock. With that same zeal for innovation I have developed my own music and have championed other contemporary artists who have built on the past and shown us the future. Just because I love the past doesn’t preclude me embracing innovation. Where I differ from most critics is that I demand more of a connection to our cultural heritage than “It’s new, man!”


I was thinking about Philip Roth the other day. He wrote Portnoy’s Complaint when he was 36. It was an instant bestseller, as well it should have been. He wrote book after incredible book for the next 50 years, and never received that level of recognition again. Did he peak at that tender age, or was he just not in sync with the zeitgeist? Or does the public, which is a generation or two or three younger just think that he’s irrelevant to their modern lives? What could some old codger talking about the Newark of the 1940s have to do with America now? After all, the Jews left Newark after the riots of the ’60s and condemned the city to urban blight and poor people. Are there any lessons to be learned here? Is there anything to be learned from studying Duke Ellington’s scores? God, I hope so, or I’ve wasted a whole lotta my time over the past 50 years.


When I was going through a fallow patch financially about 20 years ago, I expressed my concern about my future to my mother, who by that time was in her 70s. She advised me that she had lived long enough to see that life is cyclical. I might be down now, but I’ll be up again, and then down again, and so on. Time has proved her right. I’m an optimist. I get pretty dark sometimes, but I have faith that things will even out in the long run.


Will I ever get the recognition I got in my youth? Probably not. Does that matter to me? Probably not. I became a musician so that I could spend my life sharing my music with others and constantly working on my craft, so that I could get as close to perfection as possible. I shoot for the moon. I haven’t hit it yet, but I keep getting closer.


The musicians in my band have been with me for long enough to appreciate what I’m up to, and I appreciate that they stick with me and enjoy playing my music. They breathe life into the little black dots on the page. They express who they are within the structures that I set up. This excites me and keeps me forever young. It’s a shame that we don’t have more opportunity to reach a wide audience like we once did, but I remain hopeful. The blues teaches us that “the sun’s gonna shine on my backdoor someday.” In the meantime I’m enjoying every day and every note that goes through my head.

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  • Dr. Larry Ridley on

    A well stated reflection David of the Rites of Passage that we all experience! Praise GOD!!! Keep on Keepin’ On!!! - Dr. Larry Ridley

  • Chris Byars on

    Professor, as you know, I’m still enjoying listening to what you have to say on many topics! For 30 years, now! And as a long-distance runner, I can tell you that it definitely gets lonely out there sometimes!

  • Ronald Zeigler on

    Great message for the young people. Life is a journey. I am probably near you in age and appreciate your efforts. Dealing with students 50 years younger can ne a challenge.

  • Steve Heckman on

    Beautifully and poignantly expressed, David. I certainly resonated with your points about the hollowness and emptiness of being “in” with the current (and usually fleeting) fads. But being human, it does hurt when the craft we have spent decades honing does not seem to get its just recognition, while (what I often consider to reflect) mediocrity, if flashy enough or packaged to present the “right” image, seems to get all the notice. I agree with your truth that the art must be pursued first and foremost for oneself, and if anyone else can also appreciate it, they are free to come along for the ride. RE: Downbeat’s critics, I find myself often flabbergasted that some fabulous (and frequently-recorded) players do not even make it onto their “lists”; I must say I am not that impressed with the breadth of these critics’ knowledge as a group, overall. I am also greatly confused by the disconnect between what the jazz djs like and what DB considers valid, having had 2 albums of my own hit numbers 10 and 19 on Jazzweek, yet one of them given a very lukewarm DB review (and it always being a battle to finally get a review out of them). Also, living in the SF Bay Area, we are invariably overlooked by DB in favor of NY and Chicago, despite a wealth of talent here, with the west coast occasionally getting thrown a bone. Thanks for the beautifully written piece.

  • Freda Payne on

    Hi David, it’s been along time since we worked together and I say it was a very enjoyable and rewarding experience working with you. As I read the journey of the long distance runner article , I felt your frustration of being in your senior year’s as I can identify with that myself if you know what I mean and I have the exact experience . Talent and artistry does not diminish with age it only becomes richer and more profond. Keep on keeping on , doing what you do best being a great musician.

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