“WISDOM OF THE '35-50' SET"
by D.D. Jackson
[originally published in DownBeat magazine, Feb./06]
Comedian Billy Crystal once commented how shocked he was to discover that he was suddenly part of the “35—50” demographic upon turning 35, a symbolic and surprisingly sudden foray into middle age. I, too, had a late-30s moment recently while performing as sideman. The group I was playing with featured a 20-something last-minute sub, all youthful energy and enthusiasm. But as I bemusedly watched her force musical moments and at times simply try too hard, I couldn’t help but reflect on my own journey from youthful exuberance to world-weary calm.
When I started out, I seemed the perennial youngest member of any band to which I belonged. Fresh out of my master’s degree studies, I was given playful nicknames such as “The Professor” or “Bobby Cleath” (a strange, hipper-sounding re-imagining of my real first two names: Robert and Cleath) and was subject to frequent ribbings about my inexperience. One time I reflected to my band mates that an eight-day European tour we were on had been a long tour, only to have them burst into laughter (particularly drummer J.T. Lewis, a veteran of year-long “house tours” with Sting, so named because when done you would have earned enough money to buy a house). Craig Harris also used to routinely ad lib an entire musical routine in the middle of one of bandleader David Murray’s tunes involving an imitation of me calling my girlfriend from the road and wondering why she didn’t answer the phone.
My first foray into the Village Vanguard was also painfully memorable. I was a recent addition to David Murray’s Quartet and still getting my musical and conceptual feet wet. I became so obsessed over the placement of the monitor speaker that David had to apologize to the sound man for my over-eagerness. It was a humbling experience.
Yet it also reinforced the advice given to me a few years prior when I first started studying with Don Pullen and asked him how to feel confident in a new performance situation. His reply was Zen-like in it’s simplicity: Experience, he said, was the only true solution.
He was right. As time progressed and I gained my footing, performing in various settings around the world, I not only built confidence, but made some surprising realizations about myself. When I first started, I often boasted that my goal was to work 24/7 on nothing but my music. Now I relish the balance between the professional and an increasingly rewarding personal life. Back then I was so obsessed with the moment that there was little thought to a broader life direction. Now I see my activities as a steady marathon instead of a fierce sprint.
Certainly, I could tell today’s younger musicians that age and experience take care of themselves. If youth is about anything, it’s about throwing yourself in headfirst with idealistic zeal, not worrying about the future but instead embracing the now. Sure, it’s at time awkward and embarrassing and in many ways I’m delighted to be through with that phase. But it’s also part of the exciting energy of being young . There’ll be plenty of time to enter the 35—50 set later.