For a long time, I used to get really jealous of my jazz musician peers who grew up in musical households. So many of today’s great young players—Gerald Clayton, Anthony Wilson, Zack and Adam O’Farrill, the list goes on—come from families of jazz greats (not to mention, of course, the Marsalis Dynasty.) I remember hearing Clayton, for example, as a precocious dreadlocked teenager wowing all of us in jam sessions at the annual Port Townsend Jazz Workshop, where he is now on the teaching faculty, and his dad John is now the Artistic Director.
Even as a young player, I could tell how skillyfully these musicians soaked up new musical ideas, plugging them into a seemingly inborn musical logic. Of course, they woodshedded harder than the rest of us; still, I’ll never forget feeling like they had access to some secret formula. These guys had something special—and everyone knew that their proud papas had a lot to do with it.
What I never realized then, but have since come to appreciate since taking a dive down the Jazz Writing Rabbit Hole four years ago, is that I was getting a similar father-son transmission all along—I just don’t think that either of us knew it before.
Although his professional life has taken place in the medical world—he still practices (in the doctor sense of the word) once a week in SE Portland, on top of directing Providence’s family practice residency in Milwaukee—somehow his soul also has room to harbor a secretly talented connoisseur of the written word. Reflecting recently on my own circuitous path towards becoming one of the jazz world’s “scribes for the tribe,” I’ve come to realize that he’s been there encouraging me every step of the way.
This fact started to come into relief a few years ago, when my grandmother Adele became seriously ill. Even though her declining health often left her unable to comprehend her surroundings or even recognize his face, my dad paid frequent visits to her hospice home, where he would read poetry to her out loud. Of course, growing up listening to his bedtime stories, I knew the soothing power of his relaxed baritone—and certainly Adele felt it, too. What really touched me, though, was when I could see him connect with that inner literary muse, feeling the mixture of joy, terror, and heartbreak that accompanied each new poem with which he fell in love along the way. (Adele passed away just over two years ago, may she rest in peace.)
Seeing that, I remembered feeling that same sense of warmth, that same familial bond, every time he read my writing. He is a keen editor, too—his aesthetics of prose and editorial tricks of the trade have stuck with me to this day. (His most frequent advice: “Split that sentence into two! State your ideas succinctly, one at a time.”) But what has stuck with me even more—and what I imagine, perhaps, one of the aforementioned jazz prodigies might feel when his dad is in the audience and the band is in top form—is the quality that is so often caricatured in sappy father-son flicks: the “I’m proud of you, son” feeling. It’s the sense that, in some deep, cosmic way, I am on the earth doing something that my father knows he was put on this earth to put me here to do (if that makes any sense). It’s not just that when I write something good, I feel like I’m doing something right, and he sees that. It’s that through writing, we see each other in a way that is both completely unique to us, and (I like to imagine, at least) at the heart of any father-son relationship: through a common sense of purpose.
My father never encouraged me to “be a writer,” but he sure encouraged me to write. (He never encouraged me to be a jazz musician, either—go figure.) That encouragement, accompanied as it is by unconditional paternal love, is one aspect of my life for which I will always carry profound gratitude.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad.