Last night I attended a rare concert by Johnny Mandel at Vitello’s Jazz and Supper Club in Los Angeles. Although he may be less of a public figure than today’s pop stars, Johnny is a musical genius who has had a significant role in the formation of American music and in the careers of many of the legends that have since become household names. Following his early days as a sideman with greats like Jimmy Dorsey, Buddy Rich and Count Basie, Johnny went on to become one of the most in-demand arrangers for countless artists including Tony Bennett, Quincy Jones, Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra. Even if you have never heard of Johnny Mandel, you have probably been touched by his music, which includes all-time-standards like “A Time for Love”, “The Shadow of Your Smile” and “Suicide is Painless” (the theme for M*A*S*H).
The intimate space upstairs at Vitello’s created a unique opportunity to enjoy, not only the music, but also the man himself. We sat within inches of the 17-piece big band, right beside Johnny. Each time he turned around from conducting, he literally became the 5th person at our table. We could read along with the music by looking at his conductor parts just a few feet in front of us, and listen in as he gave cues to the players. I hadn’t had an actual dialog with Johnny since I first met him nearly 20 years earlier, but last night I felt like I got to see inside the man and his music in a whole new way.
Near the end of the show Johnny let the audience know it was his birthday. Quickly doing the math, I realized that would be number 88 – the number of keys on the piano and the same number of years my recently deceased father enjoyed on this earth. At that moment, the evening took on a deeper level of resonance with me that I had only intuitively sensed. I felt deep gratitude for that opportunity to be there with Johnny, my good friends and the beautiful music. I enjoyed a sonic journey back through my life – reflecting on loved ones and fond memories. It was Johnny himself, however, who brought the power of gratitude into the spotlight. With an innocent pride and profound sense of humility, he turned and thanked us for sharing with him the greatest birthday gift he could ask for – a chance to make music and to relish with us in the experience as his compositions were performed by these astounding musicians. You could see the youthful sparkle of joy in his eyes.
This sense of deep gratitude, and the humility that makes it possible, is one of the most inspiring qualities that I have found in other visionaries and masters of their craft whom I have had the privilege to meet in my life. I almost immediately thought of my late friend and mentor, the great film composer Georges Delerue. Even at the very top of his game, and right up to the day he spoke his last words (at the podium, upon completing his recording of the score for Rich In Love), Georges would always express to me how lucky he was to be able to create music, and how grateful he was for all those who helped to bring it to life.
Moving through my heart and mind last night was more than just nostalgia or an entertaining musical evening; I found myself reflecting on the deeper meaning and quality of life. I thought about the values and tools that have allowed me to be more present, to feel more deeply and to continue to reconnect to the joy in life. I remembered what my mother taught me about the power of humility and what one of my teachers meant when he said gratitude was the shortest road to joy. While music has been one of the greatest connectors for me, I have come to realize how much more empowering that emotional channel can be when I surrender to it, trust in it, and honor life with humility and gratitude. Music can, in and of itself, be a great expression of gratitude. Just think of all the hymns, songs of praise and love songs that recognize the beauty and gifts bestowed upon us in this life. You can even find some fun lists like Time Out magazine’s Thanksgiving nod to their “Top 20 Songs of Gratitude.”
Maybe not all great artists are humble or grateful, but I believe that true musical mastery, like gratitude itself, requires a kind of humility – a recognition that something far greater than us is at play, and an appreciation for the gifts and love we have received.
No matter where I find myself in my life, I can always return to the music and the gratitude and follow that path to joy.
Thank you Johnny. I hope I can give half as much joy and inspiration to the world as you do, when I’m 88.
View this article on Huffington Post.