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Growing Older Jazzfully

Peter Rubie By

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Playing with younger musicians feeds you and keeps you alive, and it ensures the torch is being kept alive and held aloft. When I was starting out one of my heroes was the Scottish tenor player Bobby Wellins. His recording with British pianist/composer Stan Tracey of Under Milk Wood is arguably one of the great British jazz recordings. I all but wore the record out as a teenager. So there I am, on a gig in a pub in Brighton or somewhere south of London anyway in the mid-1970s, and who appears on the gig with my shaggy haired, long-limbed friend Tim trotting alongside, but Bobby. Tim had run into Bobby, who was just out of rehab, and asked him to play the gig. Bobby generously agreed. I was totally shaken at the prospect of playing with him. We got through the first tune and I'm pretty sure I was a nervous wreck during and certainly after. After all, I was playing by happy accident with one of my heroes and did not feel ready. Then Bobby leaned over and quietly made some complimentary comments to me about my playing, and I realized it was going to be all right.

Players of the caliber of Bobby, and George Coleman and Warne Marsh, Jack Wilkins and Peter Bernstein to mention a handful I've been incredibly lucky enough to get to know and play with a little bit, exude a musical presence that is awe inspiring. Depending on who they are, and these particular guys are immensely generous on the stand, their musical power somehow lifts you up and empowers you, while at the same time challenging you to meet it on its own terms. There is no compromise, nor should there be. All you have to do is find the courage to accept the challenge. Peter Bernstein once commented that when he studied at the New School, and Jim Hall taught a class, Jim's accompaniment always made everyone sound better. It's like talking with Sartre or Betrand Russell and have them actually treat you as a peer. I likely played better that night with Bobby than I did for a long time after. More to the point, Bobby and I became friends and over the years he helped me see all kinds of things about life and overcoming adversity, and music, and often invited me to play with him when I was back in town. He was always warm and encouraging and is sorely missed.

So what's the point here? As I grow older and continue playing, one of the things that has come more and more into focus is a certain clarity about music. That's not to suggest I have answers, by any means, but that as you grow older you begin to understand what's really important you should be focusing on. I recall the generosity of the people I've met and known and feel I need to somehow pay it forward to those who want to really try and make music with me. One aspect of that is that I strive to be and enjoy being an accompanist. Technique has a purpose, and isn't an end in itself any more. (Wes Montgomery once said, you need as much technique as you have ideas to play.) For me it's about becoming more and more intimate with the fingerboard, and really embracing the idea that harmony is derived from melody, it isn't separate from it.

Jazz feeds you as a musician as you grow older. You gain something, a depth of spirit—soul if you like. You strive to find simpler, more profound ways to say what it is you want to share. Getting older has demonstrated to me something that Art Blakey once said: talent is the speed with which you learn something. That means, to me at least, that if you honestly stick with it music will ultimately reward you, though it may reward others "more talented" than you sooner. It implies listening, rather than just waiting to speak. When I see guys like Jack Wilkins and Mike Clark playing a trio with bassist Andy McKee, you can revel in the excitement of listening to the back and forth of musical ideas between the players. It's an adventure, it's unpredictable and exciting, and regardless of how many or how few notes anyone plays, there is a flow going on that envelopes the musicians, and reaches out and touches everyone who's listening with ears to hear.

There's simply nothing richer. It makes you glad to feel alive.

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