Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Middle-of-the-night thoughts...

...or, what happens when you wake up at 3:00 am and can't get back to sleep.

For no earthly reason, I found myself thinking about some of the musicians I've known. For various reasons, having in part to do with some of my musical preferences, quite a few were nearing -- or arriving at -- the end of their performing careers. I'm leaving out those I met casually; Sinatra was at his peak circa 1958 when I shook his hand, and of course there are others -- my friend R., for example -- who have many years ahead of them.

In each case, it was a strange experience. Like athletes, each had maybe lost a step, and was making up for it with fancy footwork until age took control. And at times, their frustration with the limits the years had imposed on them would come out, though never in public.

Some were veterans of the real Dixieland days, making appearances and recordings as far back as the 1920s. Though almost all were wizened old men when I met them, they could play tunes they had played 10,000 times before with authority. And if a note was missed here and there, the audiences still ate it up. Louis, for one, had brought his trumpet a long way from his early days, and still loved what he did.

Others came along a little later. My music teacher, for example, got his first gig circa 1932; when work in his chosen area got scarce, he formed a trio that played in clubs and hotels, and later did radio in the days when live music was still important there. When I met him, his scene was primarily teaching.

Until the last few years of his life, he could still sit down and play, and while some heard the occasional error or noted his playing wasn't as crisp as it had been 20 years before, he was still well worth listening to.

A reasonably mild soul, he took the gradual loss and final departure of his skills gracefully. We still talked music, listened to music and, in his last year (a time when I was with him more than I ever had been in the past), he was pushing my musical education as quickly as he could.

And I always encouraged him in the idea that he would play again.

Perhaps a week before the end, he suddenly said "help me over to the bench; I want to play." I did, and he did. Weak as he was, his mind had forgotten nothing. I have never been able to explain (and cannot now express) the emotions I was experiencing as he played, and am not entirely sure what he was thinking.

Was it "good?" No. His motor skills were almost gone. But in another sense, it was a glorious performance, a heartfelt farewell to a career that had spanned eight decades. I heard it the way he wanted me to hear it, the way I hope he heard it.

Every note is stuck in my head today; it always will be. And if I ever play those songs again, it will be with that memory in mind. In a way, the music was as rich as it had been on recordings he made back in 1940, recordings I still play regularly to this day.

When I was much younger, I would listen to older performers and say "damn, I wish they'd hang it up." Now, as my own days grow shorter, and with the memory of my friend and teacher's final performance still echoing, I see it differently.

It is not how you perform as much as it is that you perform at all. That spans the entire range from skill level and experience to age.

So long as you love what you do, keep doing it until you're taken away.

That's doubly true if the Universe has treated you kindly over the years and allowed you some modicum of comfort in which to perform your art.

I don't even know how I got off on this tangent. Blame it on sleepless nights and loneliness, on missing what once was and never will be again.


Anonymous said...

Les Paul is still playing in NYC at the Iridium nightclub. I guess he is 92 or 93 by now.

MrScribbler said...

Would that be the Les Paul or all the Les Pauls together?

DAL said...

I have never had any great skills musically, so I guess they can't be taken away...

I heard that a few Led Zeppelin tunes will be transposed down a notch or two for the concert in Dec; it seems that Robert Plant can't hit those notes anymore :-)

MrScribbler said...

dal -- Transposition doesn't help keyboard players, alas. My musical talents are pretty minimal, too...but I hate losing what little I had.

Anonymous said...

Wow, what a bittersweet entry. It resonates nicely, and on a tangent my mother met Les Paul (and his wife, I think in the 50's?) and thought he was a helluva guy. I thought he'd passed on sometime in '06!! Few people have changed the world, much less music, the way he has.

I have many deep thoughts concerning music, and it is appropriate that most of them don't lend themselves well to the spoken or written word.

The Taoist's believe in a "higher power", and that the more you attempt to describe it, the further away from it you get. I often feel that way when trying to verbalize such things.

I consider playing music to be nothing less than the sacred work of God constructing the Universe. It's an ugly, laughable, and clumpy sentiment in prose, but I sincerely believe it, and here I go continuing to get further away from that central, vital point.

Yo Yo Ma has been quoted as saying, "I never practice; I always PLAY."

When I practice myself, I always play a few things purely for enjoyment, and mixed in with that I always do some things specifically to improve--as much as my temperament will allow. I frequently say that sticking to those songs you know, enjoy, and have played thousands of times is like masturbation...sure, it FEELS good, but it doesn't accomplish anything.

Ultimately, I believe all music should be played with the joy of the moment, and savored as though you are playing the last piece you will ever play in your life.

Someday, you'll be right, and I'd hate for my last thought as I die to be that I could've played something better or enjoyed it more.

betty said...

My uncle Mike was the best musician. He played right up to the day he died. In fact he was probably playing his guitar when he had the heart attack. My aunt found him at home, alone. He was only 58. I usually went over every day to write and play songs but couldn't make it that day. I've never forgiven myself for not being there. He might not have died.
I didn't mean to make this a book, I just totally understand your feelings about your friend. He sounds like a great guy. I imagine he heard the music the way he always had, beautiful.

Coyoteluck said...

My father plays the piano. He was playing regularly on Fridays and Saturdays at a little western bar/restaurant for supper and tips, but they let him go for a younger guitar player. This piece made me think that very soon I will hear him play the piano for the last time. Bittersweet indeed.

joan said...

Amen. Maybe in the next lifetime I will be musical. What a great gift.