In 1959, when I was ten years old, there was a new show on TV that quickly became my favorite. It was called The Twilight Zone and was the creation of Rod Serling. Serling had written a number of great TV scripts and was finally given his own series to write and produce. His onscreen intros and outros took him from the invisible behind-the-scenes writers’ world to instant fame. After more than 150 Twilight Zone shows, Serling went on to write screenplays like Seven Days in May and Planet of the Apes.
While in college, I signed up for a film course taught by a visiting professor, and to my surprise, it was Rod Serling. At that time, he was producing a TV series called Night Gallery. It was similar to The Twilight Zone, but darker. At the first class, Serling asked us what genre Twilight Zone was. The student he called on answered what we were all thinking, “Sci-fi.” Serling answered, “No,” which surprised us all. After getting no other takers, he told us, “Fantasy.”
After 50 years, why do I still remember that exchange? To me, sci-fi is a subgenre of fantasy. After all, all fiction is fantasy. I once read that the beauty of sci-fi is that you can address taboo subjects without being explicit. Politics, religion, sex—nothing is off-limits. This was certainly true of The Twilight Zone—half-hour morality plays. The last season went to an hour format, but those were not as good as the shorter shows. Like Duke Ellington’s 3-minute masterpieces, Serling excelled in getting to the point—in and out.
Last year Jordan Peele created a new Twilight Zone series. I read a review that sounded great, but then I forgot all about it. I meant to watch it, but life got in the way. Finally, this week, by chance, I came upon the series on CBS All Access. I signed up for a free week and watched the first show. It did not disappoint.
This episode starts with a stand-up comic talking about the Second Amendment to a completely uninterested audience. After bombing, he goes to the bar and orders a drink. An older man sits down on the stool next to him. Realizing that this man is a renowned comic, the young man asks for notes on his act. The older gentleman doesn’t hold back. He asks if the young man really wants to know how to be a successful comic and then proceeds to tell him the secret—no one cares about politics, no one cares what you think. What everyone wants is a personal connection.
We’ve all got a personal story. It’s the only real story we have. When we open up and talk about our life experience, people sit up and listen. They relate to us. Everything else is outside of us. It doesn’t ring true like when we talk about deeply personal stuff. That’s when we are authentic.
At first, the young comic doesn’t take the advice, but when he starts to bomb with his political act, he switches gears and talks about his dog and gets instant laughter from the audience. There’s much more to this show, but this is the part that really intrigues me.
Last week, my buddy Bobby Keller turned me on to Gene DiNovi’s autobiography. It’s free online here. I read the first chapter and was hooked. He starts in medias res with the afternoon jam session when he was 15 and sat in with Dizzy Gillespie. I could totally relate. I’d never heard of DiNovi, but I learned from reading his book that he knew and played piano with most every musician and singer from 1940-70. I loved hearing his stories about my idols and musicians I came to work with after him.
It didn’t dawn on me to check out his playing until I was most of the way through his book. When I listened to a few tracks on YouTube, I wasn’t particularly impressed. He was certainly competent, but nowhere near the level of Hank Jones, Roland Hanna, Bill Evans, Barry Harris, Tommy Flanagan or many other pianists of that generation I’ve had the great fortune to work with.
When I discussed the book with Bobby, he said, “Yeah, but look at all the great people he played with.” True, but how much of that is the world he was lucky to live in. Opportunities for jazz musicians have steadily diminished since WWII, but there was still enough jazz and jazz-oriented popular music to make a good living until around 1970, by which time record labels and TV shows switched over completely to rock and roll.
I graduated from college in 1971 and moved back to New York to start my career in earnest. I had prepared to be an arranger who could write any kind of music for bands, orchestras, singers, or whatever. I didn’t know that world within the music business was crumbling. I thought it was only a matter of time until I met the right people who would recognize my talent and let me prove myself.
Actually, I was right. I quickly got in with the hot young players of my generation and within a few years was working with my idols and doing the kind of work I set out to do. The only problem was that work was becoming less and less abundant. For a long time, I managed to stay just ahead of the curve and rise in the business a little faster than it was falling apart.
Jazz musicians are always talking about how great things used to be. By the way, Things Ain’t What They Used To Be was written by Johnny Hodges in 1941 and subsequently lost in a card game to Mercer Ellington. Hodges used to say, “Things ain’t what they used to be, and they never was.” There’s a lot of truth to that.
In the ‘60s, DiNovi tried to appeal to the younger generation and formed what he thought was a rock and roll band, but the only audience he attracted were a few jazz fans from his generation. He quickly learned that he needed to be authentic. You can’t pretend to be something you’re not and have people take you seriously. That’s a great lesson. He moved to Toronto and basically spent the next couple of decades as a cocktail pianist playing the songs he loved (the American Songbook).
I’ve striven to write the best music I could every time I’ve picked up a pencil. I’ve studied thousands of recordings and scores by the great composers and arrangers. I’ve analyzed thousands of great songs. I don’t claim to be on the musical level of Mozart or Duke Ellington, but not for the lack of trying. I want my music to represent how I feel—my perspective on the world. I want to tell my unique story. I first had to learn musical language—classical and then jazz. I’ve written a number of pieces “in the style of,” but I never substituted anyone else’s judgement for my own. This is crucial.
Great art (and great living) is dependent on trusting your own instincts and telling your unique story without thinking if other people will like what you do. I always figure that if I like something, a lot of people will like it. Of course, this only works if you’ve done your homework and you are sincere. I had a shrink when I was a young man who advised me to “play the game”—compliment people. I asked her, “Won’t people know I’m lying?” She said that people want to believe compliments. I thought about it for a few seconds, “Yeah, but I’ll know.”
I’m not advocating anything. I can only tell you how I’ve lived my life. I suppose I could have been much more “successful,” but would I even know who I was? Everyone has to make these decisions for him or herself, but when it comes to creating art, those who know will know. Sure, I want the world to love me and my music, but more importantly, I want them to love the real me, not me pretending to be someone better than myself. No one ever said this was going to be easy.