photo by Clarence Johnson Donald, early this morning I founded out you passed away on Sunday after a lengthy battle with an ugly illness. Most of today, I reminisced about the first time I heard you play at the International Institute in 1995. You performed the music of pianist Thelonious Monk. I wasn’t a published jazz journalist yet. I was still feeling my way around the music.
You were the first jazz musicians I ever interviewed? Do you remember that interview? It was in 1996 a few months after Arts Midwest named you Jazz Master. You and Marsha had just moved into an apartment at 1300 Lafayette. The apartment had a great view overlooking downtown Detroit. A piano was in the living room. You set on a black leather sectional, wearing a white silk shirt and black slacks, holding a silver flute. A glass of red wine was on the coffee table.
I asked you how it felt receiving the Jazz Master award. You said humbly there were other jazz musicians more deserving. Then you talked on an on about your mentor pianist Barry Harris. Harris taught you and other fledging Detroit boppers who came of age during the 50’s everything he knew about Be Bop.
You said Harris was a task master, and there were times when his criticism was so brutal you left his Westside Detroit home damn near in tears. But you stuck it out. And you became an accomplished musician, a tenured professor, a bandleader, and a business man. You only made three albums as a leader, "A Portrait of You", "A Monk and a Mingus Among Us," and "Focus: The Music of Tadd Dameron". Three albums isn’t a lot, but they were gems nevertheless. You always struck me as an artist who was more concerned with quality than quantity.
I heard stories you took your students through the same rigorous boot camp. That intense training worked. Bassist Rodney Whitaker is a star. Pianist Geri Allen is a star. Bassist Marion Hayden is a star. They were your students.
Mid-way through our interview, I asked if you ever, like saxophonist Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, quit playing to pursue a different occupation. You told me a funny story about pawning your tenor, and getting a gig delivering milk. For the life of me, I couldn’t imagine a guy as dapper as you delivering dairy.
You also told me about some lean times you had when you lived in New York. You said things got so tough once you had to run an extension cord from your apartment to an adjoining building where a friend lived to keep your electricity working.
You probably don’t remember that interview. It was a long time ago. Now you are in that exclusive section of heaven God reserved for Detroit jazz musicians jamming with your running buddies Teddy Harris, Roy Brooks and Harold McKinney. I bet the jam session they organized to welcome you home was fantastic.
After our first interview, we became friends. I could always count on you for a good quote such as the one you gave me when I was working on an article about your close friend bar owner Bert Dearing Jr. You said: “Bert is like a Jew business man who loves jazz music and who knows how to make a buck.”
You never got upset when I’d call you on a Sunday morning out of the blue to chit-chat. There was one incident when you got upset with me.
It was three years ago when I quoted you in an article I had written about Roy Brooks. I won’t give any detail because I’m sure you forgot about it, but I have never really forgiven myself. Our friendship, however, changed.
Donald that incident was one of those moments I regret. I had plenty of chances to apology, but I didn’t. I hoped in some way you forgave me. For what it’s worth, my feelings for you never changed, not one bit. You were the jazz musicians that give me a start.