My friend Mark Colby passed away early this morning. Here are some thoughts:
Musicians are slightly different than other people (we sometimes refer to them as “civilians”). We spend tens of thousands of hours in solitude perfecting our craft. And then we occasionally emerge (more than occasionally, hopefully) to be in public with other musicians (often in seemingly random combinations) so that we can get paid for our efforts. The hope is that these other musicians will be not only proficient at their craft, but pleasant to be around, too, because a significant portion of these opportunities will be spent on breaks, where a certain amount of socialization is called for. Over the many gigs I did with Mark (or Colby, as he was often referred to), I was relieved to learn that both his craft and “the hang” were always something to look forward to.
It’s weird to think about: Many of the relationships I’ve had with other musicians have been incredibly intense (because of the music) and incredibly pleasant, too (because of the hang). But in very few of them do I encounter these people in non-musical situations. And, if I do, it often feels slightly awkward. It’s weird. Probably because I’m weird. So be it.
I don’t precisely recall when I first played with Mark or when I became a permanent member of his working quartet alongside bassist Eric Hochberg and drummer Bob Rummage (we’re pictured above at one of our many wonderful gigs at Joe Segal’s Jazz Showcase in Chicago). But there’s a lot of stuff I don’t remember. Research shows that the first of the three recordings I did with that band (Reflections, Yesterday’s Gardenias and All Or Nothing At All) was in 2008. I loved being in that band so much. And, no offense to the many fine players who occasionally filled in for Eric or Bob, but it was never on the same level when one of the pieces was missing.
It actually took me a bit to figure how best to make my playing connect up with Mark’s. As a pianist, it’s logical that my obsession with chords and harmony would be my Driving Force. The music that we play is based (in large part) on a repeated series of chords that comprise the song’s structure. My focus (sometimes neglecting other aspects) has always been to either add some goop to the song’s chords (to make them sound fancy) or figure out alternatives to these chords that will still get me to the proper destination (to make me seem clever). I was initially confused by the fact that these ideas were not high priorities for Mark. He instead took a macro approach: shapes, textures, sound quality, variations of sound color. These, plus a rock-solid time feel: these (to me) were the earmarks to Mark’s ears (clever wordplay, right?). He taught me that these were important, too, and I’m forever grateful.
There’s no arguing that Mark had a tremendous career, and I think (as does most of the world) that he was an incredible player. As a well-disguised quivering bowl of insecure jelly, I’ve often found that, in the presence of someone with an impressive pedigree like Mark’s, I feel like I’m being judged and I end up playing not to fail. But, Mark’s vibe (both musical and personal) made me feel the opposite. As he led by example and generosity, I always felt complete freedom to dig deep and explore in my own playing. It also helped that, each time I looked away from my fingers and looked at my rhythm section mates, Eric and Bob invariably had smiles on their faces, assuring me that I wasn’t ruining anything.
Mark was so serious about the music. When that horn was in his mouth, it was all business, and you could feel and admire his ability to channel his life’s work into the music being made at that moment. But, once the horn came out of his mouth, he usually (if he started looking around) reverted to Lovable Goofball mode. Even after his solos, in the middle of a tune, we’d often make stupid faces at each other. That, to me, is the desired combination: Treat the music with an almost religious devotion, but never take yourself too seriously. That’s why I loved Mark. The music is sacred. Your family is sacred. Pretty much everything else is fair game.
I really admired Mark’s desire to record on a regular basis. This is not an easy task, especially when there are plenty of other things to distract. But he clearly knew that documentation was an important part of his legacy. He also took great care to encourage the future of our music. And not just with his private lessons: he would regularly book himself as the guest clinician with a high school or college band, and then have them play at the Jazz Showcase as an opening act for our quartet. Many of these students don’t realize it now, but they’ll be able to look back and recall that they performed at one of the most famous jazz clubs in the world. And, cleverly, we (the quartet) were then assured assured of an audience for our 1st set, exposing these same students (and their families) to our music that (in all likelihood) they might not have sought out otherwise.
The whole time I knew Mark (not very long, in the grand scheme of things) it seemed like he was recovering from one medical crisis or another. The cat had nine lives. But, each time I’d encounter him again, he’d still be playing his ass off and still be hilarious. It finally caught up to him, and it’s frustrating to think of how much great music and hilarious banter he still could have produced. But the world is a better place because of everything that he did leave us.
I’ll miss you, Mark. I miss you already. Yours was a life well-lived. Thank you.