Real Words About Jazz: Music For The Long Run

I realized just the other day that I have been a professional musician for the past twenty-five years. This means that I was out touring, recording, and scuffling around before my University students were born but I really don’t want to explore that in great depth. I got my first job (Carnegie Hall with Cleo Laine – not bad) from friend and mentor, bassist Milt Hinton, who is now nearing 90 years of age. I believe Mr. Hinton symbolizes the circle-of-life tradition that jazz has come to be: you give love and you get it back.

I am not the only young musician that has been aided by this icon of American music. I found out after my Carnegie Hall debut, marked by my shaking hands which would barely stay on the fingerboard, that Milt had helped players like Ron Carter, Richard Davis, Jay Leonhardt, Bob Cranshaw and many others get their start in New York City. In the real tradition of substantial American music, such as jazz, folk, blues, and country, this family tree concept is what gives the music its heart and soul.

I had someone say to me recently, “You’re lucky you play jazz, you can do it forever. I play rhythm and blues and pop and they don’t want to see guys in their forties and fifties, it is more of a young person’s game.” We take it for granted, but there is a lot of truth in this. In jazz, we respect age and experience and, like a fine wine, jazz musicians are often at the top of their game in their advanced years. Working with Stephane Grappelli taught me a lot about the fact that an artist never stops growing

and can always be young in mind and concept. After around thirty years of relative obscurity, Grappelli was rediscovered by a loyal and devoted audience that can tell a genuine artist when it hears one. Stephane was playing better than ever at a time of his life when most people are thinking about golf and the next sunset.

I saw a concert the other day of folk musicians Richie Havens, Janis Ian and Tom Rush, and what became clear to me was that this was not a nostalgia trip, but a concert of three artists who continue to mature and grow despite the commercial record industry’s lack of fundamental understanding of the artistic journey. Music and the music industry are two completely different things, and it is surprising how few nineteen-year -olds realize that until it is pointed out to them. More lucrative forms of pop, rock and crossover country tend to eat their young the moment a record doesn’t move units up to expectations. Sadly, the audience tends to buy this line of reasoning, forcing the artist into a “Where Are They Now?” mold, perhaps for the rest of their creative lives. We put no such demands on a jazz musician and assume they will. play with heart and conviction until their last breath. I know Stephane did, and Milt will, as well.

Despite living in a throw-away and transitory culture like America, I am one of the older guys who love things that last. My bass is over 200 years old and the case, like the player, has been around for at least twenty-five years.

I will be presenting a paper on Milt Hinton at the IAJE (International Association of Jazz Educators) conference this coming January in New Orleans… Age deserves its justice.

As published in Jazz Improv magazine