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Why Music?

David Berger

The other day I watched an episode of Dr. Phil about a 30-something man who quit working, to follow his dream of becoming a “murder rapper.”  They showed a video of this raging guy with paint all over his face screaming hateful semi-intelligible words while holding his toddler son in his arms.  This is so wrong on many levels.  As if this isn't bad enough, he lives off his wife's income and is tens of thousands of dollars in arrears of child support for children from a previous relationship.  He has been to prison twice.  His wife, who has admitted to being attracted to bad boys, is on the verge of divorcing him.


Dr. Phil's response was that although he thinks this guy's music is crap, he would not discourage him from following his dream.  He suggested that the guy get a job and pay his bills and not expose his young son to this antisocial behavior.  I would say that this is basically sound advice except that the man’s creative output is nothing more than a poor excuse for spewing anger at a world that rejects his irresponsible sense of entitlement and manipulation.  This is not music or art of any kind.


The purpose of music and all art is to raise people's consciousness and enrich our lives.  It should encourage us to love ourselves and others, not to hate and kill.  This is a problem I have with some rap, heavy metal and other genres of music that are anger based. 


Music can express a wide variety of emotions.  The common goal is to connect with an audience and share an experience that resonates with the listener.  The amazing thing about music is that it can do all this without words.  When we create music, it's as if we are saying, "This is how I feel.  Do you ever feel this way?"


I've often heard the expression, "it's a matter of taste."  Somehow, after decades or a century, it becomes crystal clear to everyone which art was great and which was merely popular.  Why does it take so much time to become evident?  Did some people know all along?  Were most people confusing style for content?


I wonder if people really listen to music and judge for themselves, or if they are guided by which music is popular at the moment or who the critics tout.  How much preparation does it take to appreciate great art?  Would a 5-year old like Beethoven if he or she has never heard classical music?  Even among jazz musicians and fans, I've wondered how some don't comprehend Duke Ellington's greatness.  Joe Temperley used to say that no one is born with a taste for fine wine; it must be cultivated.


I can remember seeing Ellington on TV for the first time.  Even before I heard the music, I was impressed by his regal appearance.  He dressed exquisitely and spoke with distinction and humor.  He would always say, "our music," even though he had composed it.  By the time I was 12, I knew I wanted to be like him.  He was a truly great man.  A man to be admired.  He understood what is was to be an American and what it was to be a human being.  Even when he joked, there was a seriousness about him and his music. 


When I fell in love with bebop, I began to see Ellington as I saw my grandfather.  I loved and admired them both, but being two generations older than me, they didn't seem to be in tune with the current fads.  To a teenager, this can be confusing.  We want to be hip--au courant.


When I was a young man, I developed my own personal style in music as well as clothes, deportment, speech, grooming, etc.  as I've aged, I've made only slight adjustments.  I am not afraid to like what I truly like.  I could never pretend to like things just because they were popular.  I can remember when I was a teenager, watching people my parents' age doing the twist, and thinking how pathetic they looked trying to hold onto youth that was long gone.  I never wanted to become like that.  I'm completely comfortable sporting a porkpie hat.  No tattoos or piercings for me. 


Is it OK to be of an older generation that came of age over a half century ago?  I think so.  It's part of my authentic self.  I let people see different parts of my authentic self.  I try to be as open and truthful as I can be, but there are trust issues and also what is appropriate.   I've shown different parts of myself to my parents, friends, children, students, audiences and lovers.  I once had a girlfriend who gave me the freedom to show her everything.  I, in turn, gave her the same latitude, but I don't think she needed much encouragement.  It was scary for both of us, but liberating at the same time.  I discovered parts of myself that I didn't even know I had. 


Of course, my music has all of this and more.  Each piece I've written is different and explores different parts of my personality, but every note contains my DNA just as every cell in my body does.  In music I don't worry about trust or appropriateness.  I live for the vulnerability of putting myself out there for the world to see.  It's so much safer to do this in music than in words. 


Not everyone loves my music.  The great majority of people in the world have never even heard it.  I'm OK with people not liking my music, much more so than people not liking me.  I suppose I have more confidence in the quality of my music than I do in the quality of me as a man.  I constantly work on becoming a better musician and a better man.  Neither is easy to master, but that's what makes the journey so fascinating and enjoyable.

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  • Dennis Winkle on

    Hi Dave: Well, I tried to reply w/my phone, but finger tips must be too big… Any way, I agree w/you 100%.
    I believe the crux of the problem is what people have been able to listen to as far as music choices over the last, here it goes; the last 50 years. You and I are close in age and as an up and coming drummer in the tri-state area, (NJ) I was excited to be in NYC in the late 60’s (65-68) I heard so much on radio stations that allowed me to know who the artist was, record stores on every corner especially the one on music row I believe on W.48th street that would play Jazz records through their pay to be heard on the street. It was a 2nd floor walk up close to 6th Ave. I went to Berklee in 68 with big intentions, but over the years it’s been harder and harder to hear Jazz over the air waves. How is the public ever to know what’s out there.
    To keep from ranting about the state of Jazz and “real” creative music, let me just reiterate; The public does not hate or dislike jazz like the empty suits in media would lead us to think. If all radio stations all over the country would just continue being versatile in their play list selection, maybe the “murder rapper” would have made better choices in his taste in music, which might have trickled down into other areas of his life.
    For me, I could not shake the feeling and love of Jazz, big bands and small. After a Berklee education, I thought there was a fitting chance.
    Any way I’m still ranting :( but I think the problem is what the public gets a chance to hear. It almost seems like “Musical Socialism”. Have you ever seen the movie; Swing Kids? It worth seeing…

    Thanks for you blog, I really enjoy. It would be nice to come to your gigs in NYC, but I’m land-locked in Missouri. But I still play and teach privately full time. Even rehearsal bands are hard to find.
    Be blessed with all you do.

    Dennis Winkle

  • Steve Heckman on

    I agree with you David that Dr. Phil’s response was reasonable, although he may have also missed an opportunity to perhaps suggest that more therapy might get at the root of his anger, which may then ultimately transform his music into one of being constructive and adding to our world, rather than continuing to provide poor examples for the next younger disenfranchised generation coming up.We live in times of great paradox, in which lousy “poetry” put to a groove (with little or no melody or harmony) is exalted (and I hold the greedy record co executives responsible for cultivating this “weed which will not die”—and has been with us for now about 30 years!) while musicians in the jazz, classical, bluegrass and all sorts of varieties of world music are relegated to only 1% of the listening audience in the US! and in which little recognition goes into distinguishing between the “skill” involved in scratching a turntable vs. the decades that go into practicing an instrument such as saxophone,violin, bandoneon, banjo, sitar, oud etc. I agree with you that peer pressure is operative very strongly in molding people’s opinions, as I think many non-musician listeners are lost and don’t trust their visceral responses, and/or are not educated enough to distinguish true content from the obfuscation of flashy style. I think what will save us is working to keep music education alive in schools so kids can know what’s out there in this vast world, and that they have a choice. Thanks for posting this very thought-provoking piece.

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