Darling Husband and I are the oldest members of the press corps at a jazz festival we go to every year in the beautiful Swiss town of Ascona. I have always been a jazz fan and it's a pleasure to reminisce with many of the American musicians about long-vanished jazz clubs in Chicago as well as mutual friends.
I have huge respect and affection for these old guys. They are top-notch musicians who still have the magic. What amazes me is that they can still stand and play sets an hour long and keep going into the small hours. Frankly, I can't, probably because I'm not a musician anymore. (I was an aspiring singer and played guitar in clubs in Chicago in the very early 1960s, before children came into my life.) These guys seem indestructible. They absolutely thrive on making music, some even well into their 90s. I think the music makes all the difference. Louis Armstrong famously said, "Musicians don't retire. They stop when they run out of music." That usually means when they're dead.
Franz Jackson, a veteran of Louis Armstrong's original All Stars and an incredible singer and tenor sax man, was touring Europe into his 90s. He told me not long ago that he didn't take pills, didn't wear glasses or a hearing aid. His only problem was that his neck and shoulders get a little tired after carrying that sax around for more than 70 years. Annie Ross, formerly of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, is about my age and she sang at the Ascona festival a couple of years ago. She was terrific!
None of them play music because it's the easy life. It isn't. They play and sing because that's just what they do. There's not a lot of job security, and it's certainly not easy on family life. Many of the musicians get by without health insurance, unless they're under contract with a big record label. They've never made the fabulous sums that pop and rock stars pull down. They get along all right, but more important, they love their lives. Still do.
I limp around this festival, dodging people who apparently don't notice that I'm struggling with my cane. Nobody gives up a seat for an old lady anymore. And I really have to sit down. I can't stand there as the musicians do. DH and I don't last for the late-night sets. But it's hard for me to feel sorry for my poor old self when I watch Charlie Smith, who is many years older than I, stand on the stage for hours, playing his heart out with a beautiful, old trumpet.
Last year, Warren Vaché, a brilliant cornet player, couldn't come to the festival because his hips, which had plagued him for years, were finally replaced last summer. He finally got old enough for Medicare. This year he's back and playing every night. My informal survey of the musicians and some of the press corps reveals that a great many of us are now collections of replacement parts. Vaché and Howard Alden, who is also at Ascona this year, both played in the backup band for Rosemary Clooney many years ago. Another nonyoungster present this year: Mat Domber, the Arbors Records producer. He is everyone's old friend, based in Clearwater and the organizer of the March of Jazz Party for many, many years. We have reminisced about old friends who finally "ran out of music." His Jazz Party will be back in January, in Clearwater Beach, to be called the Arbors Invitational ( arborrecords.com).
And then there's Uncle Lionel Batiste from New Orleans. He is the grand marshal and the leader of the daily New Orleans-style parade through the town. Uncle Lionel is certifiably older than God and beloved by everyone who has watched him, danced along as he leads the brass band down the street. Apparently even he doesn't know exactly how old he is, but he makes the great journey every year. This year he missed a connection and was a little late in arriving, which had everyone a little worried. But he made it. The parade wouldn't be the same without him.
It takes some strength and stamina to play music every night but if we really love what we are doing, and keep on doing it, life can be beautiful and long. Follow your dream, don't quit doing what you love and life's harmony is your gift to yourself and everyone around you.
Sheila Stoll is happy to hear from readers but cannot respond to individual queries. Write her at PMB No. 309, 7904 E Chaparral Road, No. 110, Scottsdale, AZ 85250.