I once took drum lessons from a technically talented, analytical drummer. He was both patient and articulate, and I felt I was learning a lot. Over time, we began to socialize after my lesson, and he’d play tracks of different drummers’ recordings to demonstrate certain techniques that he either did or did not admire.
One day he played a track of something he had recorded of himself performing with a band. One of his drum licks really grabbed my attention, and I asked him to show me how he played it. He refused, saying, “That lick is mine and I don’t want to share it. If I show you how to play it, then it won’t be mine anymore.” I didn’t argue with him, but I remember thinking, “He must not have any confidence that he can come up with new licks if he’s so protective of this single one.”
Not surprisingly, he was an emotionally isolated jazz player. Although he was a fine technician and an accomplished sight reader and his playing was professional and competent, he seemed unwilling—or unable—to emotionally mix and bend with other players. He once said to me, “It is the drummer’s job in any musical setting to establish the metronomic time. If others don’t agree, he has to force them to.” There is some truth to this in a big band, but in a small group, this approach runs contrary to the entire jazz premise. The jazz dialogue is a conversation between friends, not a contest of wills.
This drummer retired from playing in his late 50s. I suspect that because he led a fairly lonely and isolated musical life, never really connecting with others in a musically satisfying way, he found little joy in the jazz interaction. I think he often saw other musicians as threats, not as fellow travelers exploring and sharing a fascinating, creative journey.
I have thought often about this incident over the years because it has implications for friendship’s place in our lives. Life is a journey to be shared with others that we meet along the path. Our friends take this journey with us. Don’t we want to make it as spontaneous and as loving and as generous an experience as we possibly can?
Not so incidentally, accomplished jazz players rarely retire voluntarily. They become so addicted to the intimacy and emotional connection resulting from the ongoing exchange of ideas tied to the jazz dialogue that they play until they’re no longer able. Some play into their late 70s and early 80s with good facility, still improvising and communicating.
I believe the same is true for our deep and real friendships. They can last as long as we are alive and able to enjoy the free and easy, improvisational nature of our shared adventure.
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