Back in the pre-pandemic days (P.P. days? PC19 days?), when I used to sing with the old folks every Friday at the Jewish Home for the Aged, 5 o’clock and their dinnertime would roll around and my friend Fran and I would look at each other and say, “So soon? We’re just getting warmed up!” That became a mantra not only for that experience, but for my life in general. “45 years teaching at school? I’m just getting warmed up!” “Six hours of non-stop talking in a recent film interview—I’m just getting warmed up!” And so on.
And that’s how I feel about my life at 69 years old. Not as a string of accomplishments behind me, but the sense that I’m almost ready for my ship to finally come into port. And still part of me trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. Jazz piano player? Author? Poet? College Professor?
Preparing for my next Jazz History Course, I started to make a list of jazz musicians who had died before 1959 and this turned into a different list of musicians who died before they were 50. People whose music turned this culture inside-out and upside-down and brought so much solace, beauty, challenge and soul force to this country, who created the soundtrack to the tragedy and comedy of American history. It’s quite a list. Stunning how many accomplished this with such a short life.
Many died in their 40’s. From my almost-70 vantage point, at the apex of youth!
They include singers Bessie Smith (43) and Billie Holiday (44), pianist Art Tatum (47), sax players Lester Young (49) and John Coltrane (40), guitarist Django Reinhart (43), trombonist Glenn Miller (40), trumpet player Roy Hardgrove (49).
But then there’s another list of those who are now immortal and died in their 30’s! Pianist Fats Waller (39), drummer Chick Webb (34), songwriter George Gershwin (39), trumpet player Freddie Webster (30), singer Dinah Washington (39) and the extraordinary sax player who changed jazz forever, Charlie Parker (34).
And yet younger! Those who passed in their 20’s (!) include trumpet players Bix Beiderbecke (28), Fats Navarro (26) and Clifford Brown (25), guitarist Charlie Christian (25), bassist Jimmy Blanton (23), pianist Richie Powell (24).
At once inspiring and sobering. These geniuses sowed seeds that came to full blossom at more than half my age and I’m still looking around for a garden plot!
But at the other end of the spectrum, there’s an impressive list of jazz musicians who lived into their 90’s. Singer Jon Hendricks (94), pianists Dave Brubeck (92), Hank Jones (92), Marian McPartland (95), Randy Weston (92), Eubie Blake (96) and Cecil Taylor (close at 89), vibraphonist Lionel Hampton (94), harmonica player Toots Thielman (94), bandleader Gerald Wilson (96), trumpet player Clark Terry (94), bass player (with Dave Brubeck Quartet) Eugene Wright (97), guitarist, Bucky Pizzarelli (94), saxophonists Jimmy Heath (94) and Lee Konitz (93) and drummer Jimmy Cobb (91).
Nonagenarians still with us include pianist Dick Hyman (93) and Barry Harris (91), singer Tony Bennett (94), saxophonist Sonny Rollins (90), and the drummer Roy Haynes (96).
And speaking of Roy Haynes, I had the good fortune to hear him perform at a SF Jazz Concert. It was Roy’s 80th birthday and a remarkable group of musicians that included Chick Corea (recently departed at a too-young 79) and vibraphonist Gary Burton. Gary took the mike at some point and told the audience that it was difficult to fit this concert into his schedule, but when Roy invited him, he said: “Okay, I’ll play at your 80th birthday if you play at mine!” Everyone did the math and giggled, but in fact, Gary Burton turns 80 in 3 years and Roy might still be up for the gig at 99 years old! (Though sadly, Gary Burton had a minor stroke and is now retired from playing.)
What else can one say? The clock keeps ticking and always faster than we would want, but at the same time, grateful to be able to hear it tick. If the fates are kind, more opportunities to share what I love await me and that would make me happy. Because after all, “I’m just getting warmed up!”