This is a particularly “transitional” spring, with many of my students preparing to graduate from college, while one of my daughters graduated in December and another is months from wrapping up high school. Amidst this climate, I was asked by a student (well, technically, by his mom on his behalf) for advice relating to this phase of life. While I’m hardly shy about doling out advice, this one really got me thinking. So without any further ado, here it is, modified ever-so-slightly to make it a bit more universal. There’s a jazz musician slant to it, but I like to think that the broader ideas still translate.
When I was a senior in high school, I went with my friends Jimmy Greene and Noah Bloom up to Northampton to hear Eastern Rebellion at the Iron Horse. Mainly I wanted to hear Cedar Walton, and it was doubly cool in that they played his tune “Mosaic,” which I had recently learned at the Artists’ Collective. Largely, because both of my friends were bolder in this way than I was, we approached Cedar on the set break and asked him if he had any advice for us young musicians. He contemplated briefly and then said “Stay on the path. You may experience adversity, but if you stay on the path, you’ll get there eventually.” This made sense instantly, doubly so because it was coming from such an authoritative source. (Note: I retold this story to Cedar about 10 years later and he chuckled and said “Yep, that sounds like something I would say.”)
“Stay on the path” became a sort of mantra for me. As a freshman in college I made myself a large cardboard poster with those words and would look at it whenever I needed a bit of encouragement to overcome an obstacle, whether physical, emotional or musical. I figured that stubborn perseverance was the way to get through nearly bump in the road, and that philosophy did indeed guide me through lots of times that could have completely deflated and defeated me otherwise. Nearly 20 years later, I have been given the task of dispensing “wisdom” about adult life, with a number of years in the rearview mirror. So I find myself contemplating whether that advice is still relevant and whether it really is the be-all and end-all solution I perceived it to be at the time.
My conclusion? Yes, it really is, but with one catch: my concept of what the path actually represents has evolved a bit. At the time, I had a fairly specific view – I was trying to “make it” as a jazz musician, and I had to keep pushing if I wanted to get there. After all, Cedar said so. If anybody has a clear, genuine goal that is this specific, then staying on the path is not only valid but fairly necessary. Now in my late thirties there are a lot of things that I appreciate about my current life that are clear and direct consequences of that persistence. There are also things I appreciate about my current life that I can trace back to good decisions earlier on, but in ways that I could never have predicted. Some of my most life-altering opportunities have come about through largely flukish combinations of circumstances. Because they were flukish, they could have turned out differently if only I had not made a seemingly innocuous phone call or been gracious on a bad gig or put a sincere effort into the teaching of a seemingly unmotivated student. That could be unsettling (e.g. if things are flukish, why not just roll into a fetal position and wait for life to have its way with me?), but to me it just underscores the need for a strong code of action to insulate oneself from at least some of the volatility.
This much I have learned, then: it’s important above all to stay on the path of being a good person who is committed to sober self-assessment. There are so many variables to how life and career evolve that it can be overwhelming at times. But it is fairly safe to say that behaving with decency towards the people with whom you come into contact will help and that neglecting that will only interfere with forward motion in life, regardless of how “important” the person or interaction may or may not seem to be. Each time you let your good nature come through towards another, it is an opportunity for something great to happen. The great thing may not happen then (or in the way you might hope or expect), but if you act this way every day, the odds certainly skew in your favor. Of course, being kind to others is important enough on its own terms that it shouldn’t need a goal-oriented reward attached to it, but it’s a perk that bears mention.
Is it necessary to remain fiercely committed to the pursuit of a career in jazz? I don’t know, that’s really part of each individual’s personal path, and it may not be the same at 42 as it is at 22. The older I get, the more I see that each individual has the pretty awesome opportunity to sculpt (and often re-sculpt) a life that takes into account his passions, his goals, his willingness to sacrifice, his capacity to compromise and adapt and his relationship to the changing circumstances around him. To expect any one career trajectory to be universally relevant is just silly, and in the modern era (with its new challenges and new opportunities) it’s particularly silly to limit oneself to a rigid set of goals established by others. That’s especially true if the footsteps in which we’re trying to follow were established in another generation by people whose own footsteps would likely be very different if they were fast forwarded to now.
For each musician I know well and would deem to be “successful,” there has been a different life path. I know active NY jazz musicians who have gone to far-flung locales to take teaching work, and I know musicians who have left secure teaching jobs to move to NY and play $50 gigs. I know musicians who play any gig that pays them and musicians who play only what they love and make ends meet in other ways. I know musicians who live and breathe music 24/7 and I know musicians who juggle it with family or other careers or other passions or whatever combination of these. How happy and fulfilled and ultimately “successful” these individuals are has no direct correspondence to which paths they have chosen except insofar as those choices are consistent with their goals and personalities. I remember meeting a guy back in the late 90s (he was serving coffee at the café where I had a gig) who was talking at me about what a serious musician he was. The example he cited to demonstrate this was the birth of his daughter, which occurred on a night that he had a gig. So, “of course” he played the gig, and his wife hasn’t stopped giving him grief about that, but that’s apparently what a real musician does. I don’t think I need to editorialize that one except to say that if foregoing human decency is a prerequisite for being a legit musician, maybe being legit ain’t all that (and, in fact, that kind of behavior doesn’t really help your career anyway – who wants to play with a jerk).
Success, of course, has an elastic meaning by this way of looking at it, and I think it needs to be that way. I have experienced various things (or had something fall into my lap) that seemed like they should be life-altering from an external perspective, whether a record deal or a gig at a special venue or with a special musician or press from a coveted source. Nearly every time I have had such an experience (or “accomplishment,” if you will) it has been striking how anticlimactic it has been. This is not to say that visible accomplishments aren’t useful or important, it’s just that they seldom lead to any kind of deep transformation of your life or self. Heck, I had a great time on Marian McPartland’s show, but when it finally aired months later, I was actually a bit surprised (and, being 31 by that point, I should’ve known better) to discover that I was the same schmoe afterwards that I had been before. I have certainly had experiences or accomplishments that have felt life-altering, but usually not the glamorous ones (nobody’s going to give me a trophy for finally overcoming my intimidation to transcribe and learn that tricky tune that I’ve wanted to play for years, or for avoiding the dessert cart at the private party gig, but those are the sorts of things I feel pretty darned good about).
One could argue that the danger in this more flexible viewpoint is that it’s hard to stay on a path that has the potential to keep changing. This is why I bring it all back to self-awareness and human decency. Just like in a jazz performance, we can predict what’s going to happen with some degree of accuracy, but we don’t really know. What we can do, however (in jazz and in life), is be prepared. If you know who you are and are constantly tuning in to and refining that, then you have a basis for making good life decisions as you move forward. You’ll have to struggle and make compromises, as all people do, but courageously maintaining your commitment to finding your higher self will provide you with solace and a sense of purpose through the hard times. And that commitment will also enable the triumphs that surely lie ahead.
Indeed, Cedar was right – staying on the path is indeed the key. The cool thing is that you get to choose the path and what elements will guide you on it. Doubly cool is that commitment and determination put the odds in your favor for your path to be a fruitful one and for staying on it to be an exhilarating ride!