Listener Essay - Music At Last

Oct 31, 2017

Stephen Gerard Dietemann makes his living as an architect and musician in the Berkshires and beyond. He can be reached at sgddesign@gmail.com.

Music At Last

I can’t remember exactly how it started, but one day I knew I had to learn to play the bass guitar.  Perhaps it was a thought, long suppressed, that if there were reincarnation, I wanted to come back as a musician.  I had spent most of my life in creative fields – architecture is my day job, and the visual arts my avocation since adolescence – but something was still missing. At 55 the illusion of youth that time was unlimited was long gone and the sense that it’s now or never created an urgency previously unexperienced. 

When I taught painting to adult students a few years back, I realized that the greatest obstacle most of my students faced was the overwhelming sense that they weren’t good enough, that creating art was only for those with precocious talent.  Sometimes it was a college instructor, sometimes a ‘friend’ or even a parent who had sewn this self-doubt.  Equally problematic, in a world where – to quote Oscar Wilde “people know the price of everything and the value of nothing,” creativity could easily be seen as mere self-indulgence… or even madness.  All that time spent – and without lots of time there is no art of any kind – and usually no real financial return! I knew that the first thing I needed to do as a teacher was to blind that relentlessly critical eye that hovered above each of my students. 

Yet, floating above me was my own relentlessly critical eye. You are too old!  Music is a game for the young!  And, of course, you’ll never be very good anyway starting at 55. But 55 also offered something in return: far less concern for what others might think about my decisions -- the definition of freedom.  As a young artist studying at the School of Visual Arts in New York, I remember hearing an artist say that, “you have to care enough not to care” If you were to do anything of interest.  In the end, good art is brave art; you are wandering out into the unknown.   Such a sentiment can set you free.

The bass made sense.  First, I have always listened to the bass lines; for me they had an elemental power that I couldn’t resist. Secondly, I figured 4 strings is easier to master than 6, but of course I was wrong; playing the bass well is at least as difficult as playing guitar, but sometimes what you don’t know helps move you forward. Equally important, a musician friend suggested the bass made sense since I’d likely have more opportunity to actually play. “You can’t swing the proverbial dead cat without hitting a guitar player,” he noted helpfully.

Equally important is that music is mostly communal and I wanted the companionship and group sense of ‘one for all and all for one’.  Of course, I need to spend hours practicing alone; as Tom Waits says in his Sunday, March 5, 2017, interview in the ‘Men’s Style’ section of the New York Times, “music is emotional, once you transcend the equipment” -- piano in his case, bass guitar in mine.  But he notes, it is with others that you feel the true power of music.  “There’s something magical about it … it is one of those things you go (to) as a group.” 

It turned out I was not alone.  The impulse of middle age and older men and women to either form or re-form bands with instruments abandoned decades earlier in favor of careers and family, was not unique to me. Children grown or not-to-be, careers made, and, importantly, some discretionary money and free time, and many of my now fellow band mates decided to give making music another shot.  Most come with good memories of previous glory days, but some, like me, are intent on learning to make music for the first time. The urge to do so crosses all economic and social lines: listen to Dave Barry talk about his band of literary glitterati, The Rock Bottom Remainders, and you’ll see that fame does not inoculate anyone to this impulse.  

So now, at 63, I play in several bands, with a playlist that run from blues to jazz, funk to R&B.  Upright bass followed the electric bass and brought all kinds of new challenges and rewards.  Playing “Naima” by John Coltrane, I learned the power of silence and restraint from the great Paul Chambers.  James Jamerson, the legendary bassist on Ashford and Simpson’s magnificent, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (and most of the other Motown hits as well) showed me what “syncopation” meant.  Mimicking Jaco Pastorius’s iconic bass line from his electric jazz masterpiece, “The Chicken” opened up a world of sonic beauty and musical whimsy I would have never known otherwise. Today, I listen to the likes of Esperanza Spalding, Christian McBride, Sting, and Ron Carter – among so many contemporary masters -- and get a glimpse of the endless possibilities the instrument offers! 

So much music, so much joy! And I don’t need to wait for reincarnation for any of it!