2020 Hindsight (Post-George Floyd)

June 10, 2020


I need to do better. Everyone needs to do better, but this starts with me and my little world, so that’s what I’ll talk about.

I’m not an overly political person. I will say that I’ve never voted for a Republican and that my Dad was involved in the local Democratic party. He had me distribute campaign literature to all the houses in our precinct when I was a kid. My Mom marched in Montgomery in 1965 and smuggled books to Jews in the Soviet Union a decade after that. But me: I’ve never been quick to march or join causes or discuss politics. I don’t know why, really. Maybe it’s because I really don’t like confrontations. If something is burning a hole in my stomach, I’m more likely to work it out from a piano bench. That’s on me. That’s my baggage.

But what’s happening now isn’t about politics, really. It’s about humanity, and how people deal with each other when they don’t look alike. And it’s about how the playing field has been so uneven for so long, it truly blows my mind.

After living in New York for 13 years, I decided to move back to Chicago for many reasons. One of them was to get a fresh start and to play different kinds of music with different kinds of people, although I wasn’t quite sure how to make that happen. So I was completely surprised to find out how segregated Chicago was (and is); not just where people live, but also within the music scene. It still pisses me off when I hear someone refer to “a South Side guy” as a transparent reference to someone with black skin. I was lucky enough to start gigging right away, but almost never did I encounter people of color on the bandstand. But, as I said, I was pretty busy, so, even though I was disappointed about the lack of diversity, I didn’t do anything to change my situation. That’s on me. That’s my baggage.

One exception to that trend was when Dana Hall called to ask if I’d be interested in joining the Chicago Jazz Ensemble, a big band in which he and Jon Faddis had leadership roles. I said yes, and immediately noticed that the band was a very healthy mix of black and white faces, providing an environment that I’d so rarely encountered. It was a great feeling, and the band played a lot of enjoyable music at a very high level; I’m extremely grateful to Dana for offering the opportunity. Plus, it gave me the chance to make music with Chicago stalwarts like Larry Bowen, Pharez Whitted, Jarrard Harris, Bobbi Wilsyn and the legendary and recently departed Art Hoyle, in addition to Dana and Jon. My tenure with the band overlapped with a long run in the orchestra pit of “Wicked.” Oddly enough, the rather jarring disconnect between the lily white world of that orchestra pit and the “gorgeous mosaic” (ex-NYC mayor David Dinkins’s term) of the CJE provided me with a soothing sense of equilibrium.

I’m fully aware (and extremely grateful) that I owe a large percentage of my lifetime earnings to music that is born of the Black Experience, and that an even higher amount of the music that I love to play (and listen to) comes from the same source. The thought that I may have been given (because of my white face) opportunities denied to a qualified person of color (due to the “marketplace”) is a notion that truly horrifies me, and it’s one that floats through my mind every day. Struggling to know how to prevent that from happening, I reach out to anyone reading this for suggestions.


I hope that evolution kind of works like this:

1. An early generation engages in practices that we now realize are abhorrent, but was not realized at the time.

2. The next generation starts to realize the unfairness of these practices, but strives to keep the status quo due to self-interest.

3. The generation following those in step #2 starts to realize that changes have to be made, and takes steps to implement them using the established infrastructure, making progress agonizingly slow. Two steps forward; one step back.

4. The ensuing generation, generally fueled by youthful energy, decides that enough is enough, and speaks up with a new urgency. This finally brings about long-overdue changes, aided in part by attrition and the inevitable departure of those with Old School attitudes.

I realize that it’s fairly naive to assume that people in the power structure will change merely because “it’s the right thing to do”, so let me suggest reasons coming from two different angles:

First, in the macro-universe that is dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic as I write this, the black community is suffering disproportately, largely due to economic conditions that make social distancing and telecommuting extremely difficult. Even so, the virus is color-blind and, as a result, anyone can infect anyone. If we can more evenly level the playing field so that Bezos, Gates and Buffett aren’t worth more than the combined wealth of households in our country’s bottom 50% , then we will have created a safer and healthier environment for EVERYONE.

Second, in the micro-universe that is invested in the creation of art, consider the unlimited potential when artists of different backgrounds come together to combine their unique experiences. It takes a leap of faith to venture out of one’s comfort zone at the expense of what is familiar and safe, but the upside is certainly worth the effort. In Mayor Dinkins’s Gorgeous Mosaic, each component maintains its identity, but, when in collboration with other components, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, to quote Aristotle.

So, in this Annus Horribilus 2020, let’s hope that what appears to be a tipping point leads to far better things. Everyone needs to do better. Especially me. I’ll start by calling out anyone who is still comfortable with the old intolerant and marginalizing way of looking at the world. Angela Davis articulated it far better than I can: “In a racist society it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.”

Hits After Hits

One of my students asked me about a certain chapter of my earlier life after I’d made a reference to it. Here it is:

When I lived in Brooklyn in the 1980’s, a free-form (but regular) softball gathering evolved in scenic Prospect Park. I don’t recall exactly who initiated it, but the participants were primarily jazz musicians who had their days free. There were, as I recall, a few non-musicians who joined in, but not that many.

We had a great time reliving our childhoods, having discovered a mostly-unused diamond in the park. Since we never knew how many people would show up, we had to get creative with the game’s form, as true jazzers do. We called our gathering the Reeferdome Allstars; I don’t recall why.

These games weren’t completely incident-free, though: I recall someone breaking their leg on an ill-advised slide into home plate. I also remember a drummer breaking his wrist when he muffed a grounder to shortstop. He could’t play any gigs for a couple of months. When he returned, the exact same thing happened again. That was a disappointment for him.

Some of the regulars that I recall were Chris Pasin (my roommate), Tim Horner, Ed Howard, Tim Horner, Michael Weiss, Frank Griffith, Bill Overton, Spencer McLeish, Geoff Gordon, Tardo Hammer, Pete Malinverni, Matt Finders and Ralph Hamperian. Some notable appearances were made by the likes of Branford Marsalis (I think that’s how Matt Finders landed the “Tonight Show” gig), Jim McNeely, Kenny Werner and actor D. B. Sweeny (“Eight Men Out”). I also see my old college buddies Paul Meyers and Paul Ricci in that photo.

Probably the most memorable moment for me was a game where I was patrolling center field. A lazy fly ball came to me, and I misjudged it a bit (or, my theory: a freak gust of wind made it veer from its logical path). The ball landed right on my head, sending me to the turf in a dazed heap. When I got to my feet, I noticed that everyone was howling with laughter, understandably so. But I didn’t know the half of it: the ball had bounced straight up, and fellow outfielder Tim Horner had the wherewithal to run over and make the catch. Well, at least I got an outfield assist on the play!


Brushes With Greatness

I was sad to hear about Wallace Roney’s passing; he was a tremendous trumpeter. I crossed paths with him memorably twice:

In 1979 or 1980, My fellow New England Conservatory jazzers (Steve Johns and Ed Felson) got hired to back up sax heavies Sal Nistico and Jimmy Mosher at Michael’s in Boston. I was pretty nervous, because I had never really played with a lot of older great players. As I recall, the first set went fine, and then we hung out in the tiny, stuffy band room. We were passing around a bottle of something, listening to Sal talk about being a junkie when I passed out. Fainted. Out of the blue. When I came to, Ed was standing over me, saying “What the hell happened? You scared the shit out of us!” The police and EMT’s showed up, and I had to convince them that I was okay (which I wasn’t; extremely groggy is what I recall). And I think that the owners were also freaked out, partially because other substances may have been passed around, too.

After that, I think that I tried to play a tune or two before being relieved of my duties. But I remember that Wallace Roney (a hot young mofo trumpeter at Berklee) played a bunch of tunes (maybe/maybe not with me) and sounded fantastic.

Twenty years later, I had the incredible fortune (thanks, Arnie Roth) of being part of the local orchestra to back up Joni Mitchell on her tour. The CD she was promoting featured Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, but neither one was doing the tour. I was looking at the piano parts before rehearsal started, not-so-subtly doing my Herbie imitation when I knew that the conductor (Vince Mendoza) was within earshot. After a minute or two, he said, “I’ve got good news and bad news: The bad news is that there won’t be any piano solos. We gave them all to Wallace Roney for the tour. The good news is that we won’t be needing you during the first hour of the rehearsal, so you can go do some shopping if you want.” I was disappointed, but I certainly understood. And, in the end, I was thrilled to have sat at the piano, in the middle of a 60-piece orchestra, four feet behind Joni, playing with Wallace Roney, Bob Shepard, Chuck Berghofer and Peter Erskine.

Location, Location, Location

Driving from Oak Park to Aurora along the Ronald Reagan Interstate 88 (named after the only president born in Illinois; we are so very proud), one passes a huge outlet mall off of the Farnsworth Road exit. I’ve made this drive a LOT, most recently because of employment at the mighty Paramount Theater for a production of Disney’s “Beauty And The Beast” (Walt Disney: another native Illinoisan who was a childhood classmate of my Aunt Jimmie. Again, very proud. But I digress).

The day after Thanksgiving, I was annoyed that traffic had slowed to a crawl a couple of miles before my exit. But I soon discovered the very logical reason: The Farnsworth exit ramp was backed up for about a mile, and the outlet mall’s parking lot was packed to the gills with Black Friday bargain-hunters.

Making the same commute on the next day, traffic had slowed in the exact same place. I assumed that the reason had to be because of the logjam of shoppers, but I was soon proven wrong: there had been an accident on the road. As I neared the scene, Here’s what I saw: A seemingly undamaged car was stopped in one of the middle lanes, and there was a man talking on his phone standing next to it. There was another man lying on the ground next to the front door on the driver’s side. He was on his side, curled up almost as if he was taking a nap. He was not moving. A First Responder was jogging towards the car, carrying something that I can only assume was a defibrillator.

I’ve had a hard time unseeing that scene. I can only assume that the man on the ground was dead. But how did this scene evolve? I tried reconstructing it with lots of variations. Did he have a stroke or a heart attack while driving, and did his passenger miraculously grab the wheel, guiding the car to a stop, and then pull the victim out of the car in order to apply CPR? That was one of the scenarios that could explain him lying on the driver’s side of the car. I ghoulishly scanned the Internet for any information, but was unable to find anything. I’ll never know the explanation and I haven’t yet come up with a version that satisfies my curiosity.

It got me thinking about some larger questions, though: Now that I’m on the proverbial Back Nine (you dig the golf reference? I’ve actually never shot a round of golf; I’m not confident I could get the ball under the windmill thingie….but I digress…..), I pondered about whether it was preferable to die quickly or to have it progress over a period of time? And would the preferred coda be preferable to me and not to my loved ones? And vice versa? And I reflected on the vast number of ways (and locations) in which it’s possible to come to the end.

As a mood-lightener, I’m going to recall my late and colorful uncle Ralph Eisenschiml, who used to delight in telling stories about his various relatives. The following one is about his cousin (I’ll call him Dave; I don’t recall his real name), and its connection to the theme of this post should become painfully obvious. I’ll try to tell it as I recall Ralph doing so:

“People die in all kinds of crazy ways, especially in wartime. I once met a guy who, after he learned my last name, asked me if I was related to Dave Eisenschiml. I said ‘Dave Eisenschiml was my cousin. He died a hero in WWII.’ The guy laughed, saying ‘”Died a hero”, my ass! Here’s how he died: He hitched a ride in a bomber, and you know the signs in there that say “Do NOT pull this lever”? Well, guess what? He pulled the lever, the floor opened up the way it does when they’re dropping bombs, except it was Dave who went out. And that was that!’

I’ve tried to convey the twinkle in Ralph’s eye as he related this rather gruesome tale. He was an interesting guy, with an appetite for the macabre.

(On a not-entirely unrelated note, I’m writing now on 3/19/20, in the midst of a seemingly out-of-control pandemic called Covid-19. Just today, my village of Oak Park, Illinois has ordered all of its residents to stay in their homes except for things like buying food and going to the pharmacy. At this point, there haven’t a lot of deaths in the US, but President Trump seems to have dawdled with his response to this crisis, so we’re facing numbers that may overwhelm our medical infrastructural ability to deal with it if things continue at the present rate. I’ve had all of my recent and upcoming gigs canceled. Unnerving times. Stay tuned. But…this post isn’t about how you die; it’s about where.

Let me wrap this up (not a moment too soon) by saying that none of us can really predict with any accuracy the location of our own personal Finales. My advice is to always wear undies that don’t have any rips or holes in them.

The Real McCoy

Learning about McCoy Tyner’s death today sent me on a journey into the Way Back Machine:

When I moved to Boston in 1977, one of the first things I did was to go to Ken’s on Copley Square because I was told by several people that they served amazing sandwiches there.  Never one to pass up an amazing sandwich, I sat myself at the counter and ordered up something potentially scrumptious. 

There was a guy sitting next to me (also alone), and he looked so darned familiar. Could it be? No way! I spent about 15 minutes summoning up the nerve to turn to him and say, “Excuse me, but you look a lot like McCoy Tyner.” He looked at me and said, “Well, I AM McCoy Tyner.” (Sidebar: I was never able to achieve similar success with subsequent usage of this slick Opening Line. Women, in particular, never really responded to it. But I digress.)

I then introduced myself as a jazz pianist about to enroll at New England Conservatory. McCoy seemed genuinely interested and asked who my teacher would be. “Jaki Byard,” I told him. “Jaki? He’s my guy,” McCoy said with a smile. We then made small talk until our Amazing Sandwiches arrived. 

That’s about the end of it. But it’s no small thing: a random encounter with one of my idols, someone who literally invented a new dialect in the language of Jazz Piano, turned out to be a very nice guy. How very refreshing.