As I write this on the longest day of the year, I feel like I’ve just lived through the longest week of the year. We’re just coming off several days of weird smog from wildfires up north, when normally the air in this neighborhood is crystalline if not sweet. The mood, instead, is bittersweet.
There was entirely too much death among beloved musicians in recent weeks. It’s been shattering, as each old friend departs. None of these departures were astonishing but they were all unwarranted, coming as they did in a cluster. Bad things don’t just “happen in threes.” They happen when it’s time for them to happen. Unfortunately, June was that time.
Max Morath was the father of the whole ragtime revival. I can’t find words to express my sorrow at his no longer being here. In recent weeks we listened to his albums. I had the privilege of speaking to Max on the telephone, with profound thanks to our mutual friend Larry Melton. Max read and liked this publication, which is the highest praise it could receive. Max, after all, helped produce the early issues of The Mississippi Rag and appeared on the cover of the first one. I was in awe of him. We are indebted to him for our ragtime and our public television. His name resonates like those of George Washington, George M. Cohan, and Irving Berlin (whom he knew).
I am deeply grateful to Larry for being able to provide his loving remembrance of Max on extremely short notice. On June 19, when I heard that Max had passed away, I had the July issue almost laid out. I was able to juggle articles and make the needed changes.
One musician who left us in June stirred some long-forgotten memories with his passing: George Winston. I heard his name for the first time almost 35 years ago. My girlfriend had his Windham Hill albums, and played them frequently. I have recently heard those records described as “background music,” but there was more to it than that. Any music can be background music. Winston was a conscious and contemplative artist with a virtuosic technique and a command of the tonal possibilities of the piano. It is necessary to listen to hear and appreciate.
Yet this appreciation does veer into nostalgia with its concomitant seasonal elegies. I was 35 years younger than I am now and having the time of my life. I was in love. Winston’s music was the accompaniment to that, which might bias my assessment. All of which one might consider if George Winston were not a demonstrably magnificent musician.
I had the great good fortune to get third-row tickets to a George Winston concert at the Stanley Theater in Utica. That night I discovered that he was also a stride pianist of the first order. He played a small suite of his own compositions inspired by baking bread, one section of which was called “Cold Oven Blues” (reported by the half-deaf critic of the Utica Observer-Dispatch as “Hold On Blues”). It was a fine piece of stridesmanship—and in the late 1980s all the stride players I knew were on shellac or otherwise not within earshot.
The late 1980s also lacked that which we all take for granted now—the internet and its abundance of choices. Being plugged in to the web has allowed me to hear, communicate with, and meet the most excellent stride players ever to live. I could begin listing names and finish my column with them and have others left over. Winston videos lurk on YouTube, and he still shines. His accuracy, touch, and articulation are unparalleled. Search for a stridey bit of fluff called “Cat and Mouse” and prepare for to be astonished. And just a year ago he recorded several selections on video, including “Blues for Ukraine,” which reveal that, though ailing, he still had the gift.
It’s fitting that I find myself wandering, lost in the smog of recollection and foggy with grief. There are too many sad coincidences, and I find myself cross-indexing them. Two of the finest trad clarinet players, Noel Kaletsky and Kim Cusack, died within three days of each other. Max Morath died on what would have been my old girlfriend’s 61st birthday.
Smoke makes an appearance here, too. Dare I go on? First let me say that I cling as fiercely to reason as others do to mysticism. I do my damnedest not to open my mind too far, but some things do happen for which I have no explanation. My wife and I were sitting in our living room on Christmas 2012 and we both smelled cigarette smoke. That would have been impossible. I even made a joke about how my MOTHER was coming back to visit us on Xmas. A full year later I discovered that my old girlfriend had died on December 19, 2012, at the age of 50—and yes, she was a smoker.
Personally, I can’t see why the dead would have anything at all to do with us. We’re a pretty sad, slow lot. Some of us can play piano but we get weepy over things and people that aren’t here anymore.
If thoughts of the near and dear departed get to be too much for us, we should consider the young musicians featured in this month’s paper—those at the Cincinnati Jazz Festival and the Denver Jazz Club All Stars—who will keep playing, we fervently hope.
The world is an increasingly slippery place and too many of us are falling off. Ask not for whom the banana peels—just watch your step and we’ll reconvene here next month.