Updated: Nov 6, 2022
"We are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters." - Yoda
At the beginning of my career I fell in with a bunch of older, established players. At least 10-15 years older than me. That's one of the reasons I was playing clubs full-time at a relatively young age. For the next 35 years I was always the youngest guy on stage. Then I noticed that the guys I depended on for gigs were dying, retiring &/or getting out of the business for financial or health reasons and so on. I also noticed the same thing happening to the crowds coming out to see us.
This was driven home to me one night in a particular incident. I'm not going to name names here, it's not necessary.
Anyway, back in 2010, a particular group I'd played with for decades (in which I was the youngest member) got booked for the first time in one of the more happening venues in town. On top of that we had the prime-time slot; Saturday night from 9:00-1:00.
When I got there the place was packed; and they were our fans - the same folks who had been coming to see us play for years. The owner told me,
"I'm seeing a lot of new faces in here!"
"Yeah" I proudly said, "These are our people!" - all the while thinking this bodes well for a book-back.
By 11:00 the place was almost empty.
The owner looked at me and said, "What the hell, man?"
"Look" I said, "If you book us back, and I wouldn't blame you if you didn't, it needs to be an earlier show. Like from 6:00-10:00."
I had just realized "our people" were freakin old and wanted to be in bed by 11:00 - the same people who, in the old days, partied till 5:00am and then went to work. That was when it dawned on me that I really needed to get in with some younger players.
Last year I did a run of weekly Tuesday night gigs that went from 10pm-2am in one of the more popular jazz venues in town. Not one single older person who has followed me for the last forty years (if they’re still alive and not in a home) showed up. The place was packed with people my kids' age and younger.
What‘s the deal? Too late? Dude, you’re retired! You got nowhere to be early tomorrow. You can sleep all day if you want to. See? It’s just a fact; older people don’t want to stay out late. Heck, if I didn’t have the gig I’d be in bed by midnight…’cause I’m getting old!
After the incident in 2010, since I wasn't ready to quit gigging (I'm still not ready to quit), I decided I needed to flip that age difference. It became my goal to be the oldest guy onstage! I aggressively started networking with younger players. I would scope out the go-getters I wanted to play with, cold-call them, then take them out to lunch and let them know exactly what I was thinking.
When I was young, the older guys were the bandleaders. They would hire and mentor the younger guys - and sometimes pay them less than they would pay older, more experienced players.
In the mid-eighties I just naturally evolved into a bandleader. You can read about that in I Used to Love This! What Happened?
The net result of being a bandleader was that I realized I hated everything about the music business except for playing the guitar, which I dearly love. I hated the time spent on the phone. I hated dealing with flakey club owners, booking agents and promoters. I hated dealing with the logistics of a band on the road. I hated being responsible for dealing with the internal and external politics. I hated chasing the money. Taking a leaders fee off the top didn't come remotely close to being worth it because of all the headaches. So I figured out how to maximize the guitar playing and minimize everything else. One of the strategies I employ is to avoid being a bandleader. So hiring the younger guys I want to work with is not an option; they have to hire me! This limits things even more. The young guy can't just be a younger player; he also has to be the bandleader.
This creates an interesting dynamic; I'm the oldest, most experienced guy onstage, but I'm in a subordinate position in the hierarchy of things. So how do I mentor, how do I teach and influence those younger guys from this subordinate position?
The bottom line is I don't care; I don't pay any attention to it because it's gonna happen organically no matter what - because I am who I am and that's all I need to be to influence and teach someone no matter where I stand in the hierarchy of things. Plus, I'll never be too old to learn something new - to me. I'm open to learning from anyone, old or young.
Now, some 12+ years later, I am working with a lot of younger musicians - and some mighty fine players among them I might add:
Tim Reid Jr. was born the same year as my oldest daughter. Furthermore, his father-in-law was a drummer I roomed with on the road in the early eighties. How's that for some goes-around-comes-around? Tim has several standards in his repertoire that haven't been on my radar. I've learned them and started adding solo arrangements of them when teaching my more advanced students. See? Still learning. Multiple function.
I played a few gigs years ago with Brian Ruskin's dad, who was a world-class jazz drummer. Another comes-around-goes-around situation. I've also given Brian a few lessons but not enough that I consider myself a mentor or influence; he obtained his considerable guitar chops elsewhere. He has subbed for me in many situations as well. He's covered me more than once when I got sick or was double-booked.
But something else has happened that I didn't really foresee; I'm being hired as a sideman by some of my former students! So the 15 or 16-year-old kid I gave lessons to 25 or 30 years ago is now my boss!
Now that's a role-reversal that takes some getting used to.
Another thing I didn't foresee is how good some of these guys are. It's not unusual for me to be onstage with a former student and think,
"Holy crap, I didn't teach him that! Where did he get that? I can't even do that!"
Clayton DeLong does a lot of Gypsy Jazz - type music. We never covered any of that genre in his lessons that I can remember. Of course, the harmonic content is the same as most jazz which is something we did cover during his lessons. When Clayton first hired me I was not used to playing the way Gypsy Jazz pushes the beat. I've spent most of my life nestled in a hair behind the beat (see, A Fraction of a Second) and so performing as Clayton's sideman has had something to teach me.
Evan lives and gigs full-time in St. Augustine, Florida. In 2016 my wife and I stopped in during a road trip and Evan booked him and me as a duo. It was Evan's gig and I just kind of followed along to whatever he was doing. However, there was a contingent in the club from Bloomington, Indiana. Of course they wanted to hear some John Mellencamp (that's where John Mellencamp is from). Well...that's before Evan's time. Plus it's not the genre he generally does but the old man still has a trick or two up his sleeve! Notice the percussion Evan does on his guitar - I didn't teach him that! Furthermore, I can't do that! Notice his soloing on a song he doesn't know...ok, I taught him that! I think. From my wife's phone:
I taught Brett when he was about 19 years old and in an eighties hair-metal band. That was before most of his tattoos. One day at his lesson he showed me a nipple piercing he'd gotten the day before and raved about it like it was a good thing. I'm like, "Dude! All the pain money can buy!" Now he wears suits and plays jazz. In 2014 I was a guest on his radio show, Jazz Quest Radio, in Laguna Beach, California. Yeah, he had his own radio show on an FM commercial station for about 10 years! And in the LA market no less. Here's Brett reminding me of some advice I gave him during one of his lessons (I have no memory of the lesson to which he refers):
Goes to show you just never know. That kid you reamed out for not drilling his II-V-I's enough just might kick your ass onstage one day! Or feature you on his big-time whoop-dee-doo radio show.
When Dan Weller started his lessons with me he was already an accomplished pro guitarist. He'd had some classical training, but his formative years were '80's Rock, I think. He had played in some pretty big-time situations (Colt Ford among others), had endorsement deals and so on. So there is no way I can take credit for starting him from the ground up as a kid, he was already an established, fully-formed pro guitar player. However, he wanted to up his jazz game and I helped him with that. He studied with me for a few months - we covered 7th inversions (at least) and a bunch of Real Book tunes - and then he left for Nashville to record with an unknown band he was in called, Florida-Georgia Line. Next thing I know they're pretty much as big as you can get. About eight months after he quit his lessons he posted a picture of the band in a private jet with the caption, "Record label sent private jet to take the band from Atlanta to LA for the CMA awards. Life does not suck right now!" Dan, I sincerely hope you've saved some money!
These are just a few examples; there are many more, of course. I've taught tens of thousands of lessons.
I said above that the role reversal takes some getting used to. That's true, but the other side of that coin is that I'm incredibly proud of my students that have gone on to bigger and better things. It's not an easy game; surviving and thriving as a professional musician takes some skill sets and mojo that no amount of guitar lessons can teach.
"We are what they grow beyond."
For me, it feels a little conflicting; it instills humility, but there's also pride...at the same time. I think those are both good things.
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