Remembering Justice O’Connor

In all of my encounters with famous people (and what is “fame” anyway??…My favorite response to the question “Are you famous?” comes from my friend, trombonist Jim Fryer, who would look at the inquirer and somberly reply, “To those who know me.”), I’ve only been tongue-tied with one of them. My encounter with Dave Brubeck during college in 1989 led to my playing for him and receiving some priceless pointers. In 1990, I drove down from Quinnipiac College in Hamden, CT (where the great Sonny Costanzo Jazz Orchestra had a residency) to New Jersey to fetch Dizzy Gillespie, whereupon he regaled my friend and me with non-stop stories, and answered all of our questions, on the 2 1/2 hour ride back north.

In 1992, I played rallies for all three candidates for President: Republican incumbent George H.W. Bush, Independent Ross Perot, and Democratic nominee Bill Clinton, chatting with each of them. [Political purists possibly “pooh-pooh” my egalitarian attitude regarding for whom I play, but musicians agree the times that politicians of any affiliation are most useful is when they’re hosting or attending some big event that requires musical accompaniment: One can’t eat principles.] However, every time I was in Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s presence, I became a dithering idiot. My wife Anne and I visited with Justice OConnor dozens of times from 2007 to December 2022 and I never got over my dumbstruck response to being anywhere near her.

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She wasn’t tall or physically imposing in any way. She didn’t need to be. Her probing, penetrating eyes revealed a Brobdingnagian intellect while her succinct, savvy statements disclosed a nonpareil perspicacity. So overwhelming was Sandra Day O’Connor’s presence that I one time saw her silence a party of 150 people with nary a word spoken; she simply focused her gaze on the person across the room for whom she had a question and waited patiently until the tumult terminated. In under thirty seconds, all tongues had ceased wagging and all eyes were upon her. It was awe-inspiring.

We were honored to become friends with Sandra Day O’Connor. During our numerous visits we learned so much about her, and her love of jazz, and our country, and, well…life over our conversations. There are countless historical treatises on her life and legacy (the most recent being the uneven 2019 biography First by Evan Thomas) so I’ll simply share a handful of stories and facts that have not appeared anywhere else.

Anne Barnhart, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Jeff Barnhart.
(photo courtesy Jeff Barnhart)

The Justice O’Connor we knew

Early on, we learned that Justice O’Connor was a real jazz fan! Her first boyfriend, while in Law School at Stanford, played banjo and they often went out to hear the legendary Kid Ory. We learned this when two dear friends (and patrons) from Paradise Valley—one was Barker Hickox, who managed (and financed) The World’s Greatest Jazz Band for many years—arranged an evening of dinner and music in 2007. I was sat on Justice O’Connor’s left while Anne occupied the seat to her right. Luckily, she spent most of her time talking with my wife (“Call me ‘Sandra’” she insisted, and straight away Anne and she were laughing and chatting like two reunited sisters). Her initial attempts at discourse with me resulted in my offering such scintillating, conversation-promoting phrases as “Wha?,” “Erm,” and “Huh?.” After an embarrassingly awkward repast, I redeemed myself by performing an hour of music with Anne for Sandra and two-dozen others in what was one of the best performances of my life. Sandra must have thought so as well, because after the show, she invited me to refer to her by her first name; I could never comfortably manage to fill her request.

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That dinner party occurred in 2007. Over the years, Anne and I performed for retired Supreme Court Justice SANDRA (see? Now shes left us I can actually say it) Day OConnor in venues from intimate (house parties and art shows) to immense (theaters and Performing Arts venues). One highlight occurred on May 27, 2008, when we were part of an evening at the Tempe Center for the Arts called “That’s My Home,” a benefit for the O’Connor House Project. As Ivory&Gold®, we opened for an All-Star band featuring, among others, Bob Schulz, Eddie Erickson, John Cocuzzi, and Ray Templin. The 595-seat venue was sold out and Anne and I were flying high on the occasion as well as the response to our music, until I went into one of our chestnut routines where I described the next tune as having come from France in 1947, with lyrics eventually supplied by Johnny Mercer. I then rendered the seldom-heard verse to the song and paused dramatically, asking the audience if anyone could “name that tune.” Precious seconds went by, with 594 people in coughing uncomfortability, until a clarion voice from the premium box, unmistakably Sandra’s, shouted out, “Oh, for heaven’s sake, it’s ‘Autumn Leaves!’ Get ON with it!!” We hastily launched into the tune.

Over the next few years, we’d see Sandra whenever we were in AZ, sometimes over dinner and sometimes performing for her (we always joked a command performance for Sandra Day O’Connor was the closest anyone could get to playing for royalty in America). One fateful evening in early 2010, while we were dining at a mutual friend’s home, she asked “Where are you two off to, next?”

Rwanda,” Anne replied.

What on earth for??” Sandra asked aghast. “How can you be sure you’ll be safe?”

I offered, “Well, we’ll be under the aegis of the Swiss Ambassador to Rwanda while we’re there.”

Nauck

How is he going to keep you safe? And why are you going??”

He’s requested we bring ragtime to Rwanda, so we’ve agreed to go and we’re taking our friends Brian Holland and Danny Coots to play with us. We’ll be there for two weeks.”

You do realize what happened there in 1994, don’t you?” she queried.

Yes, of course we did. What we didn’t know, until she told us that evening, was that Sandra had made an off-the-record second trip to Rwanda in March, 1994 to warn the Rwandan judges and heads of state to be mindful of the potential danger threatening their country’s people and change their policies before it was too late. [Her first trip had been in 1992 and is recounted in Thomas’ book First.].

She concluded her story with a chilling message: “Two weeks after I returned to the US, I was the only person still alive who had been in that room in Rwanda that afternoon.”

A Supreme Court Justice doesn’t beg, but she strongly requested that we reconsider. We did end up going in the end, and that story will be for another day.

Because we made it back from Rwanda alive

Another time I received a right telling-off from Sandra at the magnificent Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, AZ. Anne and I had performed there as Ivory&Gold® in 2012, and, a couple of years later, our AZ friend requested we accompany Sandra as part of her small entourage on a tour of the facility. We wandered through the many exhibits of this seminal museum while never straying too far from our hostess.

As I perambulated in intense conference with the head curator, we happened upon the “Kitchen Steinway,” so named because in 1836 it was the first grand piano built by Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg (who changed his name to Steinway upon arriving in America) in the kitchen of his home in Seesen, Germany. The seldom-mentioned fact is that once he built it he had no way of getting it out of his kitchen! From such humble beginnings, a piano dynasty was born.

The curator and I were marveling at the instrument, while Sandra, who was using a stylish walking stick, had moved further onward. We were startled when we heard her stamp her stick and command, “You two! We’re late! Walk and talk! Try it; it works!” She then, with a little smile, turned round and continued on her way. I was used to her straight-forward (sometimes blunt) delivery, but the curator was quite chagrined. I looked at him and chuckled, “Well, can you think of a better person by whom to be scolded?” He relaxed and the rest of the afternoon went flawlessly.

The next morning, as Anne and I checked in at the airport to return to CT, we entered the United Club to find Sandra sitting in the far corner. How lovely to see our dear friend before heading eastward! I walked briskly toward Justice O’Connor calling out, “Imagine finding you here this early in the morning,” and came face-to-chest with a hulking guard who stepped in front of her. He was the smaller of the two government agents assigned to protect her; the guy standing in the adjacent corner of the room she was in had a neck as wide as my torso. I might’ve been thrown into the Arizona State Prison Complex but for her calling out, “No, it’s OK, I know him.” She might as well have commanded “Heel!” They faded back into the faux-woodwork and she, Anne and I passed the time until our respective flights were boarding.

For those who’d like to learn more about Justice O’Connor’s deep connection with jazz, if you’re a print subscriber, simply search “Sandra Day O’Connor, Wynton Marsalis, Jazz.” For those online subscribers, the links are provided for you to click.

The Sandra Day O’Connor Institute For American Democracy lives on, promoting Sandra’s wish that civil discourse can triumph over factionalism. Our country has never more needed this message.


Wynton Marsalis and SDO “Democracy”  (14 years ago)
Wynton Marsalis and SDO “American Art” (14 years ago)

Jeff Barnhart is an internationally renowned pianist, vocalist, arranger, bandleader, recording artist, ASCAP composer, educator and entertainer. Visit him online at www.jeffbarnhart.com. Email: [email protected]

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