Integrity

“Mulgrew [Miller] always played with integrity.” ~Russell Malone
“There are no rewards for disciplinarians – only consequences.” ~Ahmad Jamal

Sadly, the word “integrity” doesn’t generally inspire excellence these days. We are living in a time when words like “nobility”, “genuine” and “righteous” are associated with individuals touted as fanatical conservatives who oppress and judge. The inverse is some overly liberal, carefree existence where there are no rules, no definitions and no parameters. Even parenting has taken on an anarchic edge, as many parents are virtually letting their children raise themselves and select their own choice of consequences for bad behavior (or no immediate consequences at all.) We are rapidly deviating from any moral compass, devoid of the responsibility of making choices that require integrity.

Integrity costs. I watched a brilliant pianist like Mulgrew Miller get brushed aside for some 30 years. Essentially, Mulgrew was a quiet but warm individual, not controversial or outspoken and really not concerned for his own glory, but for the edification of others and their musical and personal wellbeing. One could say that he was largely ignored because he didn’t put himself out there; industry-wise, one could be right. But, Jazz (or any other art of this nature) is supposed to soar above the fray of greedy/thieving promoters, surly club owners, incompetent managers, jealous and mediocre musicians, publicity hounds and ignorant record executives that make up the crux of the “music industry.” We can take some solace in the fact that this venomous listing does not include every individual in the aforementioned factions, for there are a number of “angels” who serve the Jazz community well, of which Mulgrew Miller was certainly one.

Arts institutions do not exist in a Utopian vacuum; everyone has a fiscal bottom line. But, what of the artistic bottom line? Essentially, since we are the ones creating the music, the onus of integrity in the music is upon the artist, more so than anyone else. Once artists acknowledge that notion and subsequently function with this in mind, external entities would have no choice but to respond accordingly. We have to stop accepting whatever is tossed at us because our charge and mission are greater than that.

Look – nobody wants to be a “struggling artist”; we’ve spent many years eschewing the personal paths of Van Gogh, Mozart and Bird. But, in mentioning those geniuses in particular, I am moved and even terrified by the mere listing of their names beside each other; the amount of work they produced in their tragically short lives (not one of them reached age 40) – one could almost believe the myth that you have to suffer the worst of hardships and be self-destructive in order to pursue a higher artistic consciousness. We know this to be false, but we do know that there is definitely a struggle involved.

Part of the struggle includes making sacrifices that most of us are simply not willing to make. Though there is a high price to pay for excellence, these sacrifices don’t have to cost us our lives. Yes, an individual can excel artistically and take care of himself and his family – but, it’s by no means an easy road. What we have to accept is that most of us probably won’t be awarded the highest honors or “a little pin from the pope,” but look at Mulgrew Miller: quietly, he terrorized Jazz pianists with his abilities and was a beautiful human being – this is his legacy of integrity. I’m willing to follow that example.

“If the mountain was smooth, you wouldn’t be able to climb it.” ~Unknown

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One thought on “Integrity

  1. Dear Eric,

    Thank you for this posting. It says what needed to be said.

    I am a Jazz pianist from India, who actually knew Mulgrew Miller: not well enough as a friend, but as a colleague who gave me much encouragement to pursue the course of pianism. I had spent a brief time in New York before leaving North America for India, and never had the opportunity to meet you personally, but I really enjoy your artistry, and have listened to your work with Wynton, Wycliffe Gordon, as well as your excellent trio album “Stand”.

    What has also stuck in my mind about Mulgrew is a total dedication to the highest potential of Jazz piano, not compromising his playing in any situation with gimmicks, and a very deep personal integrity: he is one of the few people I have met the world at large, in or out of Jazz music that never had a negative vibe about him. He was also extremely generous with his time and knowledge, and gave crucial concrete advice to pianists such as myself.

    It is difficult to fill the void that he has left, but I am also happy that there are musicians still interested in swinging hard such as yourself who are not going to let up on the swing as well as the artistry. I guess the best tribute to pay pianists who have left us this year such as Mulgrew and Cedar Walton is to swing hard, play as well as we can, and make sure that the artistic bottom line as you put it, is NEVER compromised, and the mandate for true excellence is NEVER let go.

    With warm regards,
    Sincerely,
    Madhav Chari

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