How Old Are You? How Young Am I?

Michel Petrucciani was a total hedonist. Women, money, fame – he wanted all of it. “C’est la vie” he would say when describing his lifestyle. Most people would disparage that, but when he died in 1999 at age 36 his appetite for vice was far from anyone’s mind.

Michel had osteogenesis imperfecta – brittle bone disease. His arms were in constant pain and he never grew past the size of a young child. He had over 100 fractures before he was a teenager. Despite this, he managed to make hundreds of public appearances a year. He was insatiable.

Petrucciani was one of jazz’s premier pianists in the 80s and 90s. Kenny Clarke described him as a musical giant. Clark Terry came out of retirement to play with him. In memory of Michel, Wayne Shorter said “he had the ability to feel and give to others of that feeling, and he gave to others through his music.”

Check out his performances on YouTube:

Caravan

Round Midnight

Take the A Train

Track your reactions, from “oh that’s a horrible stroke of luck” to “he’s so cute and little” to “this is incredible!” to “I would trade my able body for that.” It’s not the technical ability I want (though I’d take it). I want the unbridled, all-consuming enthusiasm. I want to view obstacles as challenges and impediments. Michel famously said “I’d be on my deathbed saying, too bad I can’t live another year, I would have been much better.” He didn’t know complacency. Complacency and I know each other well, but I hate it. I want it gone.

Everyone has their things. I’ve always been a music guy. I have music on constantly. I get depressed without it. I practice, write, record, and practice some more in hopes of being able to create something worthy of the artists who have inspired me. It’s an endless pursuit but every discovery and improvement, no matter how marginal, feels like a tremendous accomplishment. I work almost exclusively alone – not for my lack of interest in teaming up, but the simple circumstance of not knowing the right people. Working in solitude is edifying and at times difficult. I don’t know if what I’m doing actually sounds good. I sometimes fall into repetition. Often, I get frustrated with my own lack of skill.

Petrucciani might have gotten frustrated, but he used frustration as motivation. Everything we can’t do is a present form of something we will be able to do. It doesn’t matter if it’s playing more like Bill Evans, serving more like Sampras, or something as mundane as making sure we get to the grocery store every week. Obviously we need a dose of realism. We’re not going to play on Kind of Blue or win Wimbledon seven times, but we can draw analogies to personal milestones. The truly great cultural icons are such because they inspired people. After The Beatles got big, every garage had a band playing in it. Some of those music wombs birthed great work. Other young aspirants went on with their lives. I would bet anything that almost all of those would-bes view are better off for it. I look up to the great ones. I want to learn from them. Sometimes, when I’ve been drinking, I imagine being one. I want to work towards personal greatness, in the context of my life and ability (whatever it may be).

I was listening to the great Replacments album “Let it Be” earlier. Album lead “I Will Dare” opens with the line “How young are you? How old am I?” I asked both of these questions of myself. I’m old enough to know my limitations but young enough to have a real shot at overcoming at least a few of them. I figure if a three-foot tall man with brittle bone disease can become one of his generation’s finest pianists, I can spend an hour a day practicing Hanon exercises. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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