Playing in Time
By Henry B. Reiff, Ph.D.
Not too long ago, playing music with multi-generational family members was commonplace. In eras
before wireless entertainment dominated the ways we interact and socialize, families entertained
themselves by playing music together as a family band. Few opportunities exist today for family
bands. Even when there are multi-generational players in a family, musical development happens more
at lessons and in school than it does in face-to-family playing.
As the bassist in my 17-year-old son’s jazz trio, I do not take this opportunity for granted. As opposed to the musical divide I had with my parents (“You call that rock ’n’ roll music?”), my son and I have been on the same wavelength since he was a toddler. United by rock, we explored contemporary pop and blues as we headed inexorably toward jazz. Jazz players can play in virtually any style, but few players outside the genre can play jazz. So, as an invested father in developing not just skills but good taste, I’m thankful that my drummer son has turned into a musician who understands complexity and can play with a sophistication beyond his years.
Seeing him adopt a musical worldview that affirms values I hold dear is satisfying, but getting to gig together may be the best part of parenting so far. I may have been able to toss a baseball back and forth with my father until my early teens, but I never had a chance to be right in my dad’s wheelhouse, participating as an equal in his most passionate pursuit (whatever that may have been). And as a dad, to interact with my son as a peer and partner, dependent on each other’s skills and musical empathy, is a level of oneness I cherish as a bond that we rarely get to express or experience.
A bass player has a symbiotic relationship with the drummer. Each has to anticipate the other; each has to recognize that the whole of playing in the groove pocket is greater than the sum of the parts of showing off chops. Of course, we are both musicians who want all the attention for ourselves. We have to fight off the instinct of narcissism, and neither of us is always successful. But at those moments when we do it right, when we are locked in so that a solo just floats and bounces on the top, well, you really can’t beat it. In those moments, you can fall in love with another player you’ve never met. When that other player is your son, you feel that no matter how you may have screwed up elsewhere, you’ve done at least one thing right.
I spend my gigs playing in time. I see my son as a toddler, humming the Barney theme at his baptism. I see him in his middle school magic days, doing a show at the local arts theatre. I see him as a Berklee student, a model of seriousness and devotion to his craft. And I see him for what he may become, which undoubtedly involves exploring music at a level of elegance I cannot fully comprehend. I spend my gigs playing in time, which momentarily stands still for a father and son.
Henry B. Reiff, is Dean of Graduate and Professional Studies at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland. You can reach him at: email@example.com