Jazz Greats: Getting Better with Age

Jazz Greats: Getting Better with Age

Jazz Greats: Getting Better with Age

Jazz Greats: Getting Better with Age

Excerpt

In February 1978 Mississippi Rag reviewed a new recording by jazz saxophonist Benny Carter, aged seventy-one, noting that Carter "was playing better than at any time in his life" (1978:13). A year earlier, Carter had been the subject of a feature article in Down Beat, which reported that he had recently played "a jazz nitery in New York for the first time in 30 years and was as brilliant as ever" (1977:20). Since Benny Carter has always been something of a hero to me, I went out and bought his new album, Live at Montreux. And indeed, I found that Carter's performance on both alto saxophone and trumpet was every bit as good as the reviewers claimed.

About the same time that Carter released his new album, octogenarian blues singer Alberta Hunter returned to regular performing after a thirty-year hiatus. She became one of the hottest attractions in Greenwich Village, and her records were much in demand.

During this period, my own career as a professor of anthropology had led me to become deeply involved in cultural gerontology. Since I had also been moonlighting as a jazz musician most of my life, it was only natural that these examples of jazz musicians who continued to excel in spite of advanced years made me wonder how many other jazz performers were also past retirement age. Leonard Feather's Encyclopedia of Jazz ( 1966) provided the answer. The list of active jazz performers in their senior years was long and impressive: Count Basie (seventy-four), Benny Goodman (sixty-nine), Vic Dickenson (seventy‐ two), Roy Eldridge (sixty-seven), Lionel Hampton (sixty-five), Earl "Fatha" Hines (seventy-three), Milt Hinton (sixty-eight), Bud Freeman (seventy-two), Red Norvo (seventy), Mary Lou Williams (sixty-eight), Teddy Wilson (sixty-five).

Since a jazz performer's livelihood depends in large measure on his (or her) ability to improvise creatively and capacity for a continuous flow of fresh invention, aging could be a particularly precarious and traumatic experience for jazz musicians—if, that is, old age truly is a time of intellectual and creative decline. It therefore occurred to me . . .

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