On JazzTimes’ editorial calendar, September is denoted as our “Legends” issue, and you’ll find quite a few in our September 2019 edition. Some are no longer with us: Mary Lou Williams, Gene Krupa, Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter, Art Pepper. Two others are, we’re grateful to say, very much of the living variety: newly named NEA Jazz Master Abdullah Ibrahim and Nile Rodgers (and if you think the latter doesn’t belong in this magazine, please go directly to Ashley Kahn’s interview and see what you think after reading it).
Ibrahim is 84. Rodgers is 66. Although the process of becoming a legend doesn’t necessarily require that you stick around awhile, longevity is a factor without doubt. And yet the longer you last, the more your final legacy is threatened by the many indignities of life. The creative spark of the divine that you, at your best, access through your instrument can be dampened or snuffed out by infirmity, declining faculties, and frailties that are all too human.
Most musicians want to keep playing for as long as they can; in many cases, they have to play to earn the money they need to survive. The percentage of jazz artists—or any musicians—who have sizable retirement accounts is minuscule at best. I’m reminded of the heartbreaking story of surf-guitar pioneer Dick Dale, who died earlier this year at 81, and who kept touring right to the end, not because he wanted to but because there was no other way he could pay his sizable medical bills.
Of course, retirement is no panacea either. Bossa-nova giant João Gilberto, whose recent passing we note in this issue, stopped performing more than a decade ago, but his final years were marred by struggles and squabbles. His daughter, singer Bebel Gilberto, claimed that he could no longer handle his finances and had him declared legally incapacitated. Others in the family disagreed with her, but the elder Gilberto did have to give up his longtime Rio de Janeiro apartment due in part to his crushing debts. A lawsuit over unpaid royalties and the presence of an ex-wife younger than most of his children made matters even murkier.
This brings us to another legend, and the subject of my column last month, Kenny Burrell. On its face, the GoFundMe campaign launched in May by his wife Katherine to support the 88-year-old guitarist in the wake of numerous medical and financial troubles was a tremendous success, an inspiring instance of the jazz community coming together to help one of its own. But a subsequent statement by Burrell on our website, followed by a lengthy report in The Washington Post, painted a far more complicated picture of his situation, and of the public and private responses to it. The saddest part of both the JazzTimes statement and the Post article was their sounding of an overfamiliar but never comfortable theme: that of family members estranged from an aging parent.
So the question becomes: How do we best honor our elders as they move toward the close of their earthly span, shedding some of their outward mystique as they deal with the most basic truth of being human? There is no perfect answer to such a question, But even an imperfect one necessitates that we acknowledge the personal weaknesses and fallibilities of our great artists along with their musical gifts—that we look on them, in other words, not as legends but as human beings.