In 1989, jazz great Dizzy Gillespie hit the road. It was a “big” tour by any standards, consisting of 300 performances in 27 countries and 100 cities across America.
He was then 72 years old.
I didn’t see him on that tour, but I did see him a couple of years before his death. Gillespie didn’t have the raw power you can hear on his recordings from the 1950s, but I heard people smarter than I was say that he played better. His style remained meteoric, explosive, but his taste had been refined by the thousands of dates he played before those 300. They made him a better musician in a way that physical skills could not.
This seemed to be widely understood in jazz, which saw a generation of young revolutionaries grow into elder statesmen: that an older musician plays differently, not worse than a young one.
There’s a prevailing myth that people reach a certain age and become “too old” to work, to enjoy certain things – among them, to play music publicly. This is a conceit of pop music, a mean machine endlessly using up and disposing of artists and audiences, hoping to capture the latter from age 12 to 25 and toss them aside when they’re done. Phil Spector called his productions “little symphonies for the kids,” but they’re not always the same kids – the demographic is eternal even while its participants grow out of it. By the time you’re old enough to have figured this out, you’re probably older than 25, outside the demographic and they don’t care that you know anyway.
DJing is different than playing an instrument, but it does have some similarities. Frankie Knuckles always praised taste above technique. When a veteran DJ comes to a gig, they’re bringing with them not just their records but all the knowledge they’ve had to date. On a practical level, there are few scenarios and nightmares they haven’t lived through (and coped with, and survived) before. On an artistic level, they have the knowledge of records that work well together and more importantly types of records that don’t.
I have yet to hear a DJ who played worse at 40 than he did at 20. Of course there are 40 year old DJs who have trainwrecked, crashed & burned. This isn’t a result of age. There is no skill inherent to DJing that age can diminish. Not one.
There was no doubt that many people (I may have been one of them) went to see Dizzy Gillespie play toward the end of his life just to see this remnant of a bygone age that preceded even our parents’ youth. The truth, though: if he would have sucked, if he embarrassed himself, if he couldn’t play, he wouldn’t have been playing clubs. He wouldn’t be playing anywhere – he’d be signing autographs.
It’s now been more than 40 years since this thing began, when the term “disc jockey” began to refer to something other than just a guy on the radio. We need to bring that level of understanding to DJ culture as it now grows into a comfortable middle age. Never believe and never let them tell you that you lose that special something when you grow older. You can only gain.