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What’s So Ordinary?

David Berger


In his excellent book, Cultural Amnesia, Clive James relates an anecdote about the Viennese writer who inspired Little Joe Gould, Peter Altenberg. “One of Altenberg’s many young loves had tearfully protested that his interest in her was based only on sexual attraction. Altenberg asked, ‘What is so only?’”


I could go on about the beauty of sexual attraction and its importance in love relationships, but that is a subject for another day. What I have been thinking about for the past few days is the relationship of the ordinary and the original (or unconventional).


Somewhere in high school, it was impressed on me that Classical literature and history were all about kings, queens, dukes, ladies and knights—the nobility. We see this from the Iliad and the Odyssey and Greek plays, to King Arthur, the Bible, 1001 Arabian Nights, and Shakespeare’s plays. The idea was that we readers and theatergoers would be more interested in “great” people than in average Joes like ourselves. Years ago I had a friend who ghostwrote autobiographies of celebrities. Her books sold in the millions. Would her own autobiography have sold as well?


This fascination with fame and power is not a recent phenomenon. Would anyone have cared about Elizabeth Taylor’s multiple marriages had she not been a famous movie star? Now we have risen to a new level of fame over content/style over substance—the Electoral College has given us a reality TV star for president. TV stardom is the new royal bloodline. Art is supposed to hold power to account; to help us to see the truth.


Somewhere along the line, authors like Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, two commoners, found audiences by appealing to the commonality of humanity. Their characters were regular people—ordinary in some or most ways, but when presented with extraordinary situations, they rose to great heights. In Great Expectations, the orphan Pip performs a kind deed, is rewarded with being made a gentleman, but in a simple handshake realizes that he has become a snob. Huck Finn feels love for his fellow man although society tells him that race should cause him to feel otherwise. Throughout Huckleberry Finn, Huck shines a light on hypocrisy even though he is uneducated and has had the direst of upbringings.


What these characters display is depth and development. When we meet them, there is nothing particularly admirable or outstanding about them. That is the point. It is both their growth as people and the unfolding of information about them that helps us stand in their shoes. We see ourselves in them, and in turn, we look inward to understand ourselves better. Do we have moral fiber? Reading great novels brings out the hero in all of us and makes us strive to do better in our own lives. Why? Because we relate to these characters. We see some of ourselves in them.


When I was first starting out as a professional musician in New York in the early 1970s, I noticed that some music seemed really fresh and unlike what came before, while other music was made up of well-worn clichés. Then there were the rare artists whose music could embody both extremes. In a way, the highly original music was kind of like the stories about kings, while the everyday old blues licks were more about ordinary folk. But then some composers, arrangers and players could start with something we’ve all heard a thousand times, and take it on a logical, step by step journey to places nobody has ever been.


Such is the music of Duke Ellington. It always amazes me how he can start with a humble idea and do imaginative things to it, while most other composers, arrangers and players seek to start with something truly original and, for the most part, they rarely develop much beyond their first few measures. Developing musical ideas is like telling a story without words.


When I was younger, I was very concerned with starting a musical composition or arrangement with a fresh, new sound. Sometimes this desire paralyzed me and I sat with a blank piece of paper for hours, days or weeks. As I matured, I came to realize that it’s not where you start in life (or even where you end), it’s all about the journey. That took a lot of pressure off me and allowed me to just start writing and see where my mind took me. The fun in writing music is watching the music unfold. It’s like I’m hearing a piece that I like for the first time.


As far as the development; it’s not the what, it’s the how. The confluence of surprise and inevitability is what gives a piece authenticity and eternal value. The more surprising it is, the more logical it must also be. When I write a very dissonant chord, it must at the same time have the strongest melodic, harmonic and rhythmic relationship to everything around it. As Einstein said, “God does not play dice with the universe,” neither do we believe arbitrary occurrences in music.


Which brings me to my latest venture, writing these short essays. The progression from jazz player, to arranger/composer, to teacher, to author of articles and books on jazz led naturally to expanding beyond the boundaries of jazz and music to its relevance to the rest of my life. To my surprise, I have been bolstered by my readers’ comments, and so I continue writing and exploring related topics.


Recently I wondered what it was that my readers like about my writing. I’m not what I would call a skilled writer, nor am I an intellectual. I see myself as an ordinary guy who is trying to figure life out. I’m willing to make myself somewhat vulnerable, and in so doing, I think my readers might see some of themselves. At least, that is what they tell me. As politicians like to say, we all have much more in common than we have differences from each other.


I like to write about things that make me wonder why they are, how they are put together, and maybe sometimes how to solve a problem. As in my music, it’s not particularly where I start, but following my train of thought that keeps people reading. I’ve gotten quite a few comments in this past year. Most of them have been positive. That’s always nice to hear. I’ve also gotten a few that were quite negative about certain things I said. I’m sorry that I’ve upset people, and I give those criticisms much thought.


As in music, I want to become better at my craft and how I relate to others. I am deeply grateful to all those that read what I write, as I am grateful for the opportunity to spend the time writing. Most people have hobbies. For me writing is a cathartic process that makes the day go by fast and leaves me with a feeling of satisfaction that I have accomplished something.

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