Way, way back in the late 1960’s I was rehearsing with a small avant garde multi-media ensemble in Chicago. This group was lead by William ‘Bill’ Russo, former head arranger for Stan Kenton. Russo was also founder of Columbia College’s music department and director of its Center for New Music.
During one rehearsal, Russo said we were going to have a special visitor drop by. Later that evening the special visitor arrived. It was Duke Ellington. We were all, of course, completely star struck; it was as if a god had walked in. Ellington listened for a while and during a break spent a few minutes with each of us individually, encouraging us to ask him questions.
When my turn came I asked Ellington how can I become the best musician I possibly can. His response was “Always seek opportunities to play with musicians that are better than you.” And as he did with everyone he spoke with, he smiled and kissed me on both cheeks.
Playing with musicians better than yourself is the best advice I ever received - and it’s the advice I have told countless players over the decades - ever since hearing it from the Master.