Chuck Berry died over the weekend. He was 90. Some might say he had a good long life. On the guitar forum I frequent (TDPRI.com), there has been a lot of commentary about his passing. Most of it appreciates the pioneering music he created but some commenters have felt the need to remind everyone of some of Chuck’s not-so-nice qualities. Anyone interested in the unsavory details can get them somewhere else. My thesis is that art is greater than the man (or woman).
Maybelline, Roll Over Beethoven, Sweet Little Sixteen, and especially, Johnny B Goode, will live on in Rock ‘n’ Roll music long after anyone cares about the kind of person Chuck Berry was. Once art is created, be it music, writing, painting, or whatever, it belongs to the community of humanity. Arguably, that’s where it came from anyway.
The example I thought of this morning was the reluctance of Jews after the Holocaust to perform any music by the German composer Richard Wagner. This seems understandable since Wagner was a favorite of the Nazi’s who tried to exterminate the Jews. Eventually, though, the art was allowed to speak on its own in 1981 when the Israel Philharmonic played an excerpt from Tristan und Isolde.
(That was what I remembered, but the truth is, as usual, somewhat more nuanced. I did some research and found that there was such an outcry after that concert that the orchestra has not played any of Wagner’s music since. Interestingly, the reasons for that are not clear. Many other well-known composers who were worse anti-Semites and/or more popular with the Nazi’s are performed by Jewish musicians without any comment. Wagner has that special something . . . Still, I will stand by my thesis.)
So, Chuck Berry is gone but his music will live on. Tom and I, along with Loose Gravel, will be playing a CB retrospective set on Sunday in Loomis. Chuck’s music formed an important part of our coming of age as band musicians. We won’t be celebrating the man so much as the music. The music will live on.