Remembering Lyle Mays

Lyle Mays died last week. At 66. Just in case you thought life was fair… I am
now convinced that only the good die young. Which means I’m safe for the
foreseeable future.

Pat Metheny and a host of other people who loved him and worked with him
over the years have already written beautiful eulogies for and about Lyle. My
purpose here is to honor him in the only way I know… to share a few stories
about the Lyle I knew.

He was a for real genius, that much I know for sure. I had the rare opportunity
to sit with him for about 3 hours in E.J.’s after closing one evening. E.J.’s was
a jazz dinner club in N. Atlanta (Buckhead) that hired a lot of nationally-known
musicians from time to time. Many big names played there over the years,
and Lyle rolled in one week to play while between Pat Metheny gigs.

I had met Lyle before, mostly as an respectful fan, having a fairly good
understanding of his music and how deep his musical intellect and creativity
went. I was backstage with him at two different concerts in Atlanta, plus I
had breakfast with him and Pat one morning in, of all places, Montana.
They had played a concert the night before in Bozeman, over a Christmas
holiday, and were flying down to Denver to catch a connecting flight back East.
We ran into them in the Airport restaurant and ended up having breakfast
together, with me and my parents! I remember my folks being amused that I
knew some musicians from back East, and of course they had no idea who
Pat and Lyle were.

Many people who knew about Lyle knew of him only by his work with
Pat. But Lyle was a monster on his own. He has solo albums still out there
on the market that I highly recommend… you will not hear a more full, wildly
creative and masterful performance on the instrument than Lyle’s solo playing.

I had two Metheny albums and had heard them twice in concert when Steve
Negri, the owner of E.J.’s, called to tell me Lyle would be in town that week
and to stop by to hear him… that he was incredible! So it was easy to guess
I got by E.J.’s to hear him that night and every night for the rest of the week.
We had a drink or two together between sets, but it was the last evening I
remember so well. After the last set, and E.J.’s closed for the evening, Lyle
and I sat down at a table near the piano and Steve brought us drinks. We
chatted about music and the changing dynamics of the Metheny band. Lyle
got up and used the men’s room while Steve brought us more drinks. When
he came back, Lyle sat down at the piano and began playing something off
the top of his head. Naturally it was incredible. After about 10 minutes, he
sat down with us and we talked some more. I was blown away with what I’d
just heard, but was trying to be cool. Steve suggested I get up and play a
little bit. Almost embarrassed, I did… after all, how many players get to play
for Lyle? I played for 10-15 minutes, just playing off the top, as Lyle had, and
felt pretty good about it.

Thus began a three-hour drinking and playing fest that I will never forget. It
became Lyle playing for a bit, then me playing for a bit, with Steve just
grinning and bringing yet more drinks. At one point Lyle came back to the
table, having played some stuff that Steve and I couldn’t believe. I was feeling
the drinks by then and said, “Okay, Lyle. Maybe I can’t play what you’ve just
played, but at least I’ve thought of some of it…” Lyle just smiled and took a
sip of his drink.

I got up one more time and played again, probably better, more creatively
than I’ve ever played in my life, mostly because I was so inspired by what I’d
heard Lyle play. At the end, Lyle said, “Nice. Very nice.” Then he got up and
played one more time, this time played far above anything I had ever heard.
Steve and I just looked at each other, not believing what we were hearing
When he finished, I remember he sat back down with us, and for a few
moments the table was silent. Finally I broke it. “Well, shit, Lyle. I have to
admit it… I’ve never even thought of any of what you just played. That was
incredible!” Lyle just smiled quietly again, and sipped his drink.

—————————————

I’ve always liked the old swashbuckling movies, all the sword-play and heroic
bravado. Errol Flynn was my favorite, naturally, but there were others, too.
Douglas Fairbanks started it all in the ’20s, and one of my faves was Anthony
Banderas in “The Mark Of Zorro.” Several big actors played swashbuckling
Navy captains as well, Gregory Peck being a good one. But swashbuckling jazz
pianists?? A huge stretch. But that’s a little bit of how it felt that night. Sure
Lyle sliced me and diced me that evening, and he didn’t even do it on purpose.
I was delighted to be “sliced and diced” by Lyle, as that was easily the most
incredible evening of music I have ever experienced.

There have been others. One night, in Boston in ’65, Keith Jarrett, who was
studying at Berklee at the time, invited 4 us Berklee students to a supper club
he was playing downtown. We went, sat at the bar, and enjoyed a few drinks
Keith bought for us. I’m still wondering why he did that. At any rate, on his first
break he asked each of us for a request. We gave him four different tunes, and
in his next set he played them all, weaving their themes in and out of each other
in a way that would’ve taken me weeks to figure out. Naturally we were all
blown away!

Yet another time I was arranging horns and strings for a Susan Anton recording
in L.A. when the producer, James Stroud, decided to set up a musical dual
between Russell Ferrante, of The Yellowjackets, and me. He had us each play
a jazzy blues on the studio grand, which we did, one at a time. Russell cut me up,
to no one’s surprise, but it was all in good fun. Lyle and Russell are world-class
players, ones I’m proud to know and have played with. There was no way one
could easily get to know either one enough to become friends with them. Russell
got married early on and started a family, and with his recording and touring
with the Yellowjackets, he would have had zero time fora new friend or for
hanging out. Lyle, on the other hand, was simply quiet, reflective and to himself.
I noticed some similarities between him and Donald Fagan, who also liked to
be alone, lost in a thought of some sort.

Lyle reminded me somewhat of a modern-day Mozart, wildly creative while
totally unconcerned about fame of fortune of any kind. He always seemed far
above the crap factor of the entertainment business, avoiding it whenever
possible. I’m not sure we would have ever been aware of Lyle had it not been
for the Metheny band, which was a ground-breaking group in the late ’70’s and
’80’s, which was largely due to Lyle’s composing and arranging skills.

Instead of a eulogy, Lyle, I am remembering you with a short, simple piano
piece I played and recorded at Fort Apache Sound in Montana. It’s not a
blast-off attempt to show you what I learned from you, which was plenty, but
rather a quiet reflection of an old tune that came to mind while thinking of you.

So here we are. Lyle is gone at 66 years old, and I’m already 10 years older
than he was. Where is the justice, the logic, in that? Mozart died at 42, William
Shakespeare at 52… does genius burn out quicker than mediocrity? As much
as I would have loved to experience the intense fire of Lyle’s musical
creativity, still I have to prefer still being here in the tangible, writing about it.
Lyle, your genius has not gone unnoticed on this planet. You will be hailed
as a giant musician of your time and celebrated by future jazz fans the world
over.

You must know that I have this nasty little habit of being jealous of jazz
pianists who are only slightly better than I. Of you, my friend, I was always
in awe. Always. You were what we jazz musicians call “a monster.” In a different,
better world, where life expectancy is measured by brilliance and creative intent,
you would still be here, and I would be gone. Guess it’s only fair to say that
mediocrity has it’s benefits.

Steve Hulse

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