How to absorb musical greatness

When I was learning jazz piano in college, I used to go hear the older jazz greats perform in concert. In liked the younger musicians too, of course, but I intentionally sought out the jazzers from the previous generations because I knew they wouldn’t be around forever (this was in the mid-1980s). I remember going to concerts by Clark Terry, Betty Carter, Oscar Peterson, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Jay McShann, Dorothy Donegan, and others.

In addition to hearing them play, I had another goal: I wanted to absorb their music in a way that would stay inside me forever.

I vividly remember watching Clark Terry take a jazz trumpet solo at a Hartford (CT) Jazz Society concert. I tried to deeply feel the music and take a musical “photograph” of what it felt like at that moment, in person, as he was physically playing his trumpet about 30 feet from me. I tried to “take in” his playing in such a way that would enable me to eventually play that way too. It was an unforgettable experience and yes, it’s still with me decades later and comes out in my jazz piano playing all the time. I absorbed that musical energy by osmosis and it’s become part of me.

I did the same thing when my jazz group served as “opening act” for Dave Brubeck, Lionel Hampton, and other jazz greats. And I continued this practice when I later became assistant to Gerry Mulligan, the great baritone saxophonist. And through Gerry, I was able to hear musicians like Dizzy Gillespie perform from just a few feet away.

At some point in our musical development, it’s important to be in the presence of greatness. Not to put these people up on a pedestal for random reasons, but because they have something that we want to get. To absorb. To learn to do in a real, tangible way. Total commitment to their music. Intensity. Passion. And they’re part of a cultural tradition that they pass down to those who want to continue it. I’ve found that as great as recordings are, there’s nothing like being in the presence of a great musician while they play music for a few hours. Listening to them, watching them, and soaking up every moment.

It’s the same thing with all musical styles, and we’ll benefit from seeking out opportunities to get as close to our musical heroes as possible. Especially the ones from previous generations. After all, we may not get the chance again.

The other evening, I sent my two teenage sons to see Springsteen On Broadway. (I say “sent,” instead of “brought” because I dropped them off at the Walter Kerr Theater and spent the next 2 hours and 20 minutes around the corner in Starbucks, writing my blog post for the day.) For one thing, there was a 2 ticket limit and I wanted both of my kids to see the show. Also, I’ve seen him perform with his band and at that concert I did the same thing I did at all the jazz concerts I’ver described above: I absorbed the music in a way that stays with me. It’s in my piano playing.

On this occasion, I wanted to give my sons the opportunity to spend a few hours in the presence of greatness. So they could experience a passionate performer like no other, who gives 200% effort for a whole performance. To feel connected to a musical tradition that goes way back before Springsteen himself, to old-time folk music and the blues. And storytelling in words and music.

I didn’t want them wind up feeling like I do when I think back at the time when my teenage self decided not to go hear the great pianist and bandleader Count Basie perform a concert in my high school auditorium. I could have walked to the concert! My “logic” was twofold: 1. They were charging a full $15 for the concert (Remember, a rock concert in the 70s only cost $7) and 2. I was just beginning to get into jazz and at the time, I preferred electric jazz fusion to acoustic swing-era jazz. I think it took me about 3 days to realize what a huge opportunity I had missed, and I vowed never to make the same mistake again.)

The boys loved watching and hearing Springsteen play, and they laughed at funny parts of his stories. The Walter Kerr is a small theater, and being in the 19th row, they were close enough to absorb his performance person-to-person, without watching it on a big screen behind the stage like we see in arena. They were as close to Springsteen as I had been to Clark Terry and some of the other greats that I’ve heard live. This is a rare event for a performer as famous as The Boss. They particularly liked hearing him play slide guitar on one song, which I don’t think they have every seen anyone play live before. Most of all, they came away from the experience with something out of the ordinary, very special, and perhaps impossible to express in words.

I’d like to give a special thanks to Lauren at Jujamcyn Theaters. I had emailed the company a week before the performance to make sure that kids could attend the concert without an adult with them. Not only did Lauren respond with a very warm and friendly response, but she followed up twice more: once before the event and, astonishingly, once again a few days afterwards, to ask if the boys had enjoyed themselves. Jujamcyn is a class act, and what Lauren doesn’t know is that I was once part of one of their shows, as a substitute keyboard player for the Broadway show Smokey Joe’s Cafe back in the 90s. It’s heartwarming to know that they really care about the people who attend their shows

Enter your email here to get your free copy of my ebook, Pop and Rock Accompaniment for Piano

* indicates required

Leave a Comment

Sign up for Blog Updates