How a piano player found the key to life

'I am amazed by how many people in their eighties show no interest in body-building at all'
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The Independent Online

There is a series going out on Radio 4 at the moment called Ripe Old Age, in which the spry 75-year-old Paul Vaughan talks to people who are a lot older than him, and often just as spry, and tries to find out what it is that keeps them going.

Most of the people he has been meeting are artists or performers. None of them is a lorry driver or a builder, but that makes sense because, although it's not odd to find an 80-year-old conductor or writer, it's absolutely unknown to find a train driver or window cleaner of that age. They have all been forcibly retired by then, or they have gratefully given up.

However, a creative person is most unlikely to give up, for the simple reason that the creative side of their life is – as Vaughan has been discovering – what keeps them going. When you have something to write or to play or to paint, you do it. When you stop doing it, so does your body. (I wonder, by the way, how Paul Vaughan would explain the extraordinary longevity of the Queen Mother, who seemed to have no creative impulse and who had no job, in the ordinary sense of the word job, to keep her going or to retire from...)

One interviewee whom I was very impressed by was the octogenarian Sir Charles Mackerras, a man who waves a stick at an orchestra and who said that research into all those repeated arm movements had shown that it was wonderful physical exercise, something that kept you fit, kept the circulation going etc etc. Not open to most of us, countered Vaughan. Can't think why not, said Mackerras – you don't have to have an orchestra to wave your arms about. (Has anyone done any research into the longevity of traffic policemen, or people who use sign language a lot?)

This reminded me of a man I heard on the radio years ago who was an expert on body-building and who suddenly said: "Incidentally, you can do body-building at any age, because the muscles can still take development when you are old – I am amazed by how many people in their eighties show no interest in body-building at all." Ever since then I have been longing to attain my eighties so I can get down to some serious iron-pumping...

It does worry me slightly that all the liveliest oldies who talked to Paul Vaughan tended to those arts that involved physical activity, unlike my sedentary writing. There was George Melly wrestling with a microphone, Mackerras waving his arms or Terry Frost waving his paint brushes. Frost was a likeable old codger who was just about to go off to the south of France to get some paintings back from an exhibition at Vence and who hoped while he was down on the Med to see something he had never seen before.

"What's that?" asked Vaughan.

"I hope to see one of those millionaire's yachts actually put out to sea," said Frost acerbically.

One of the people who seems to have slipped through Vaughan's net is the jazz pianist Stan Tracey, who is celebrating his 75th birthday this week by going to work. I know, because I shall be watching him do it, when he goes on stage at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London to play with all sorts and sizes of groups in a grand birthday concert on Thursday evening. I fell in love with Stan's playing when I was a teenager and have never got tired of the crackling rhythms, the crunching chords, the languorous dissonances that make his playing instantly recognisable.

For about 15 years I was the jazz reviewer for The Times, and that meant going to Ronnie Scott's club most weeks, and that meant listening to Stan Tracey most weeks – he backed all the American guest stars – and I never once got bored by him.

I got bored with jazz reviewing eventually and gave it up 20 years ago, but Stan Tracey is still playing, still travelling, still wrestling with pianos around the world. How does he do it? Why does he do it? Why hasn't he signed off? Because he can't, that's why, and he won't until his fingers fall off. That's maybe the definition of a creative person – someone who can't imagine under what circumstances they would retire.

The last time I talked to him, incidentally, I asked him how his fingers were holding up, and he gave me a wonderfully opaque answer.

"Fine," said Stan. "No problems. I owe it all to celibacy and the love of a good woman."

If that's not gnomic, then I don't know what is.

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