Probably none of us understand why we react the way we do to certain peoples’s deaths. Why we respond almost stoically to a friend’s death while coming apart at the death of someone we hardly know is a question that no one has been able to answer. Sure, the mood we’re in when we hear the news is a factor. Perhaps where we are and who we are with at the time influences our response. Regardless, the news of a death of someone we know and/or love ilicits a response that we can’t predict. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about, you’ve probably had this experience yourself.
For me, two bombshells this year (2020, what’s new?) were the death of Lyle Mays earlier this year, and the news that Keith Jarrett had two strokes in 2018 and is still paralyzed on his left side. The news I got this week is that he’s not sure he’ll ever play again because of the paralysis.
First of all, I knew both players. Keith and I were in Boston at the same time, living in the same building for a year. He played several requests for us in a club downtown, and blew us away, of course. He wasn’t warm or personal with me, but his genius was unmistakable, even in his early days, before Charles Lloyd. I didn’t like Keith, but god, I LOVED his playing! Over the years he never disappointed the way some other of my piano heroes did from time to time (Herbie Hancock). And so it was that when I read about Keith this week, my heart hurt. I don’t know Keith at all, and I don’t like some of his videos of playing concerts and looking like he is screwing the piano. But his music, his creative soul… well, his raw creativity and spontaneity consistency inspired me.
Lyle’s death didn’t bowl me over, and i knew Lyle somewhat. I’ve already shared with you some of my Lyle experiences. Another screaming genius, he and Keith were as different as oil and water, except for their genius. Lyle was friendly but always distant. Keith was distant, period. He was friendly with me only once, a one-time experience. Yet the news of Keith’s left side paralysis did just about bowl me over, probably as it was easier to relate to not being able to play anymore.
It seems that, as we grow old, we have to start giving up activities we’ve enjoyed for much of our lives. Some of those activities can be slowly and gracefully released without too much ado, but there are some that are extremely hard to let go of, and in some cases, like Keith’s, it’s often an accident or a health issue that forces us to let go of the things we enjoy, and are often very good at doing. In that regard, Keith’s loss of his left side is so tragic… after all, that’s all the man has done all his life – make incredibly great and creative jazz music on the piano.
So yes, I was rocked. I have, in the past 8 years, given up, either by choice or by the hard edge of reality, several things I’ve loved. In those cases, I understood that I simply couldn’t do those things anymore, and trying to continue them would only be foolhardy and dangerous. Being of a somewhat logical nature, I reluctantly let those things go and tried not to think about them or agonize over them. An acceptance of old age is very helpful in these matters. and I’m sure it helps if one has led a full and active life, having a head full of good memories and a personal pride in one’s existence.
Johnny M. Clark comes to mind as well. A fine Atlanta drummer, who had a bad accident on a ladder years ago. That accident has affected his health and well-being every day since. He’s doing the best he can with it, and I think about him nearly every day. I can’t play the drums for John, and I can’t play the piano for Keith. What I can do is play the piano in gratitude for the fact that it has not been taken away from me… yet. I can continue to play the piano in gratitude and in the knowledge that I’m lucky enough to be able to still do it. I’ll continue to play for those who now can’t, for those who miss it so much, for those who now realize what a blessing it always was, a blessing that we all too often have taken for granted. Because of these wonderful musicians, I will not take an evening of playing for granted, ever again.
Sometimes, when I play these days, tears come… happy tears. Most of the old tunes I play now bring with them such a wealth of a lifetime of memories. The genius of Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Richard Rogers rings as true and beautiful for me today as they did when I first learned them. Somewhere along the way my memory and my heart got attached to these wonderful old jewels. And now, so many years later, they continue to reward me in ways I don’t deserve. So now I will play for Lyle, and for Keith, and for Johnny M. in hopes that the music within them still sings to the outside world, through me.