Thursday, January 12, 2012

Musicians and Aging

Hey everyone,
I recently got into a debate with someone regarding a legendary musician. The individual I debated saw the legendary musician in his twilight years after a long and fruitful career. The great musician was not well physically or mentally, and did not put in a great performance. The individual commented on this performance as if it was an accurate representation of everything the great musician did as well as throwing in some classless, insensitive, and frankly ignorant comments. The plus side to this is it got me thinking of my own experiences of watching musicians play at various stages of their careers and an experience I had that I'd like to share.

I was (and am) a huge Art Blakey fan. I bought my first record of his when I was on a band trip in 10th grade. Although I didn't really understand much about the music I certainly felt like I "got it' on an emotional level right away. I continued to check out many of his recordings as a sideman and leader but didn't get an opportunity to see him play live for quite a while. Finally, in 1990, he came to Montreal when I was living there. I was so excited! I had front row seats.
Time came for the concert and the first thing I noticed was how small and frail he looked, in contrast to most of the pictures I'd seen where he looked quite robust. The other thing I noticed very quickly is playing seemed to be difficult for him and the band played several numbers without him while he appeared to be getting his strength back. In short, it wasn't the sort of performance I was used to hearing from him on records. He obviously wasn't well, and he passed away less than 6 months after that concert.

I left the concert feeling quite disappointed and sad. It brought up questions for me. Why didn't he retire and relax after all the great music he gave us? Will I quit playing when I'm older? Keep in mind I was 24 when I experienced all this and for how little I knew about music, I knew even less about life!

I saw an interview with Blakey's last wife where she said she asked him what he would do when he couldn't play and he replied he'd die then. Music wasn't just an occupation for Mr. Blakey, it was an all consuming passion for him. His band wasn't called the Messengers for nothing! It was his mission to hip everyone to the great American art form called Jazz and he devoted (and gave) his life to it. He wanted to play as long as he could and it was nobody else's decision to make. After I realized this my perspective on seeing live musicians changed. We may not always get to see people play at the top of their form. Some people get sick (physically or mentally), have substance problems, or just might not be able to recover from travel fatigue as well as a younger person. But when we see a musician who has devoted their life to the music, we are also honouring them by going. We are telling them that we love and respect their whole body of work and appreciate the inspiration they have freely given to us over the years. I certainly have no regrets about being in the same room with Art Blakey, as well as many other greats I saw when they weren't having a stellar night (which can also happen to anybody of any age, especially when playing improvised music.) Let's celebrate all artists that have given to us, no matter where they are in their career.

Also, let's have someone tail Roy Haynes, because if there's a fountain of youth, he's being filling up a lot of Big Gulp cups from it!


  1. Right on Ted!!! I believe that you have to give respect to musicians for their entire body of work. Take for example Larry Graham. He invented slapping on the electric bass I think, and many people went on to surpass what he did, but without him the ball wouldn't have gotten rolling. Each generation takes it up a notch, so when I hear someone dissing an older musician because their playing is slowing down or getting sloppy etc., I have to remind them of what that musician has contributed over the years. I love the fact that some of these musicians keep going right to the end. I read that during the last week of Elvin's life he was still playing a gig and his wife was holding him up from behind as he sat at the kit. Probably not the best playing of his life, but my God, look at what he gave, and how many were influenced by his work! I cried when I read that.....

  2. Bull's-eye, Ted. I've seen musicians past their prime who, while not playing technically well, still demonstrate an overall musicality from which we ca learn a lot.

  3. Thanks guys. This also points to the even larger (and more disturbing) issue that the elderly are somehow disposable. Certainly the Bozo who got me thinking about this issue seems to view it this way. There's a chance that a person can get through life without experiencing age related mental deterioration either themselves or somewhere in their family, but the numbers aren't in favour of that. As Meryl Streep said regarding the movie about Thatcher that doesn't shy away from addressing her dementia, "We're all going there eventually."