Leonard Bernstein: The role model of a complete musician

When I was seriously getting into music as a teenager, the musicians I admired were Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Keith Emerson, Frank Zappa, and Keith Jarrett. Looking back, I see that they all have something in common: they can play any type of music. Classical, jazz, rock, folk, pop, latin, etc. They’ve internalized the elements of music so completely that they can deal with the particulars of any style they’re involved with, and compose, interpret, or improvise freely in any musical situation. In addition, they’re own music draws from a wide range of influences.

It seemed so obvious that this was the “way to go” that I naturally assumed that every musician could do this. I thought that any pianist, for example, could sit down and learn a classical piece, and then rock out on a Pink Floyd song, and then practice some bebop.

Later, when I got into the world of musical theater, I was delighted to discover another musician I could add to my list: Leonard Bernstein.

Playing keyboards for Bernstein’s West Side Story was one of the highlights of my life. The production was at the Downtown Theater in Bridgeport, CT, and it was one of my first professional jobs. I loved every minute!

There’s a great video of Bernstein, a few years before “my” production, conducting a recording of West Side Story. He had never actually conducted the score before, and the film opens with him explaining this to the wide-eyed cast, in his NYC apartment in The Dakota.

Like my other musical heroes above, Bernstein is intensely curious about all types of music, and he tells the singers how his children would share pop and rock music with him.

He then relates how he found all this music in the West Side Story score:

“R&B, it’s acid rock, it’s hard, it’s soft. It’s all here (indicates musical score).”

Watching this when it was first released, in the 1980s, I chuckled at what I thought was Bernstein’s flippant way of exaggerating. And yes, he surely reveled in “shocking” the opera singers by mentioning acid rock at their first encounter. But while playing through the score again myself, I now realize that he was correct. There is R&B in there. There is rock in there, even acid rock. (And the West Side Story score was composed decades before the term acid rock was even coined.)

What’s there, in the West Side Story music, is the essence of all these musical styles. The same feeling, or energy.

Leonard Bernstein was equally at home composing classical music, writing jazz fugues, improvising on Cole Porter tunes, orchestrating symphonic scores, and playing jazz. (While he wasn’t a full-fledged jazz musician, he could certainly sit down and play a blues. And yes, we jazz pianists will find a goldmine of material to challenge and invigorate us in West Side Story!)

There’s even a wonderful moment in one of the Young People’s Concerts where they demonstrate Rock and Roll. While the NY Philharmonic’s bassist and percussionist make a gamely attempt to “go along for the ride,” it’s Bernstein who truly rocks out.

Leonard Bernstein embodies the spirit of a musician who understood the value of “letting go” and trying anything. He knew that a C chord is a C chord is a C chord, and if you can play a C chord in Mozart, you can learn how to play it in Duke Ellington. After a while you realize that Mozart was Duke Ellington. And Leonard Bernstein was Leonard Bernstein; a musical role model for those who aspire to become complete musicians.

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