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I lived and learned about the power of music the hard way. Because of my own experience, I’m here to warn you of the very insidiousness of the result of accommodation and compromise that lay lurking for us all, particularly, for those of us in the arts and especially in the world of music.
Early in my career, it was considered to be a compliment to your musical prowess if you were able to cause the people you were playing for to become excited by your performance, to such an extent that they might divest themselves of their reservation of behavior and “Let the Good Times Roll.”
Consequently, we became proficient at playing in a manner that would achieve that relaxation of behavior which would, automatically, result in the amount of booze our audiences would purchase and imbibe, etc. Of course, their dancing would become more expressive of what the music insisted on.
Of course, the bar or dance club venue owners were very happy with our work, as we brought them more money during each evening we performed there.
So we tailored our musical offerings to acquire that kind of reputation—so we would be desired by as many people in that business as possible and, of course, our price for the evening could be justified, making us more successful. Oh! They called that R&B or Rhythm and Blues.
Who would deny our success? Hey, that’s what being a performing musician is all about, right?
After being a part of these musical organizations, usually quartets or quintets, my performance skills became more pronounced and readily expressive of that form of communication. I then began to realize what was happening to the people who came to hear me play. I first began to realize that it was the way we played that brought out this response, which got us all that recognition at the expense of those who were altered by that musical (and alcohol-induced) experience. Good for the club owners, but not so much really for the spiritual health of those who packed the place. No, I didn’t really think about it in quite those terms, but I had begun to realize that we, the musicians, were creating the atmosphere and emotional energy that led our audiences to become different people at our events.
This was years before I moved to New York City and began my aspirations to achieve a higher level of professional musicianship. However, I had begun to change the way I used my instrument and the idiom of music that I had adopted, which was the epitome of the elevated expression of what music was supposed to represent to the audiences. At this time, I knew nothing of the Baha’i Faith. The only aspect of my life, at that time, that had any connection to the elevation of the soul, as we recognize it in the Faith, was the approach and expressiveness of the way we played together. I could feel, deep in my soul, that I was using my music for the wrong ends.
Later in New York, I was asked to play with the Duke Ellington Alumni Orchestra—even though there was never an Alumnus on the Baritone Sax Chair, as Harry Carney died about six months after Duke passed—easily the most demanding of all the major classical jazz orchestras of that period. We were 15 musicians – five Saxophones; three Trombones; four Trumpets; Acoustic Bass; Drums and Piano, who all played together, like we were a String Quartet with that kind of musical sensitivity, awareness and unity. Our part had to complement what everybody else in the ensemble was playing at that time.
Every musical voice being heard, within that structure, was equally as important as the part you were playing. This assumes that you do comprehend the delicate and musical embrace of each voice in a String Quartet, necessary for everybody’s ear to hear how all the different lines are being expressed and their relationship. That must be achieved so that the totality of the composition can be heard as the composer intended. That was how all of the compositions of the Duke Ellington Orchestra were written by Duke and Strayhorn, and how we played them.
I have relished that gift ever since, as there was no way I could have come to know of this intricacy and connection other than being there and experiencing it.
There is another aspect of that music that would require me to become even more profound in describing the essence of those compositions of Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. That musical comprehension is too demanding for me to expound on properly. However, I will give you this statement, which does not come from that orchestra but is a very profound acknowledgement of a similar element of how we played.
Dizzy Gillespie asked this question of us in his band, while we toured Europe. On a bus going from one hotel to another airport, to fly to another country, and another hotel, to play another concert, Diz asked:
Fellows, do you know what the difference is between the way we play and the way all the other bands play?
No one answered, though the band was full of major jazz artists. Diz answered himself:
Fellows, the difference between the way we play and the way everybody else plays is: We play (pause) so that everybody else sounds good.
This was a uniquely Dizzy way of stating something, that is so deep that it sometimes takes a while to really comprehend. I have used that quote ever since, as it is how we should all play and how we should all live—and it does take a period of time before it truly sinks into your consciousness.
The Baha’i teachings, in fact, ask us all to play that way, whether we’re musicians or not:
O peoples of the world! The Sun of Truth hath risen to illumine the whole earth, and to spiritualize the community of man. Laudable are the results and the fruits thereof, abundant the holy evidences deriving from this grace. This is mercy unalloyed and purest bounty; it is light for the world and all its peoples; it is harmony and fellowship, and love and solidarity; indeed it is compassion and unity, and the end of foreignness; it is the being at one, in complete dignity and freedom, with all on earth. – Abdu’l- Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 1.