You and I don’t believe in heaven or hell but we do both believe in wind. Which makes it sadly ironic that you would pass for the lack. Still, while I don’t give much credence to mysticism or even spiritualism, I truly hear you rustling around. I feel you swirling around me and expect you always will. I might not have all the time sequences accurate, but the following experiences are true to the bone.
During the last year of your life we spent a fair amount of time talking about what we had brought to the world. You always concluded, “At least I was able to give pleasure to people through my music.” That was money, but just the beginning of a whole lot more.
You were incredibly important to my life—though it didn’t start that way. You were about ten years older when I hung around Roselle Park with your brothers, so I was just the little cousin. Occasionally you’d have one of your friends punch me in the stomach to prove how good I could take it. Of course you and your brothers, Frank and Jeff, never remember that happening. Hell, why should they or you? I was the one getting hit and struggling with every bit of energy not to fall and let you (or myself) down.
Just a couple of years later I was holding you in awe. You were a musician, a saxophone player, the only real artist in the family. You honked with a band AND eloped with a Christian, Barbara, the band’s singer. A definite first for our family, met with slings and arrows. I thought it an act of bravery, a serious sacrifice for love, much the same as I viewed your work as a musician. When the group (I think it was The Escorts at the time) was scheduled to play on the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, and they kept pushing the group back later and later, I remember begging my mother to let me stay up to watch. Finally, when you came on the wavy black and white, Barbara sang the first song and then you sang the next. I think that shocked everyone because no one knew you could sing—but you sounded fine. Even through those tinny TV speakers.
My recollections of your life during my preteen years are sketchy, but I did know you never stopped blowing your horn. Night after night, year after year. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, this was a significant lesson about what it took to become really good at something.
And I knew you were good. When you played in New York, you’d tell your brothers and me you’d get us into the bar and we’d be okay. The place was rowdy, but even from the bandstand you kept an eye on us to make sure we weren’t hassled. More than that, I remember how you sounded with Barbara’s singing. I didn’t know anything about music then, but I knew I was listening to something special. Your fingers were a blur and the richness of your saxophone was nothing I’d heard on any records. Barbara’s throaty voice was the perfect offset to your style. There was a song called Sorrento I’d never heard before going to The Wagon Wheel, but when you played your long, lightning fast solo I’d jump and cheer. You must have noticed; every time I saw the band you made a point of playing that number.
You had become my role model. Someone willing to go against family conventions, took on a world where a living was dicey at best, but one that you loved and willingly entered head on. There’s no way I would have, could have, made the life choices I did, had you not led the way.
We lost track of each other after I went to college, but I knew you had moved to Florida and were still playing night after night. Eventually I realized I too wanted to get into the arts. I hadn’t yet realized I was a writer, so I did what seemed natural. I wrote you a letter and asked, if I gave you the money, could you choose and send me a decent sax. Instead, you sent me one of your altos with a note saying you weren’t playing it anymore. Looking back, I imagine you chuckled at my request. You knew I hadn’t the slightest idea of what a decent saxophone cost, which is why you gave me your Buescher with its New York Meyer mouthpiece.
Well, life had other plans that took me into counseling for decades. But throughout all those years the sax was left out in plain sight. The next time the arts called loud enough, I was drawn to writing, which took another dozen years of my time. Then, during my next job as a trial and jury consultant, the Buescher kept whispering its siren song, soft and low.
By that time you had moved back to New Jersey, diagnosed with COPD, and was slowly on your way to emphysema. I called and asked if I was crazy to even think about starting to learn music at 50 years old. “Keep your day job but go for it,” you answered. “It’s never too late to learn something that interests you.”
We kept in touch and after about a year of lessons, my terrific teacher suggested I join his teaching ensemble, though he warned me I’d be its worst player. Still, he felt it would add to my music education. So I called you again and asked if you thought it a good idea. You laughed and said, “Playing with other people is different than playing in your room or with your teacher. And playing with better musicians is the best way to get better yourself. Just be prepared to be humiliated. You’re strong enough to take a punch.”
Years later, at a family occasion, I mentioned I’d bought a tenor. You told me sit tight, drove to your nearby home, and returned with the mouthpiece you’d gotten from your friend King Curtis. You told me it was the last of your musical instruments and you had confidence I’d do it justice. I’m not sure you’re right about the justice thing though I treasured that mouthpiece, but sadly realized you were saying an official farewell to music.
Then the emphysema started to really hit and you moved in with your daughter Cheryl, her husband Eddie, and Emily, your granddaughter. Our irregular contact stepped up into regular. We spoke on the phone, sometimes about music, but mostly about baseball. You were a rabid Yankee fan and my team was the Sox. We bought MLB.com so we could watch each other’s game. When they played each other we’d talk between innings, and when talking took too much out of you we’d text. We both got pretty good pushing those tiny damn buttons.
At some point I realized that I hadn’t actually seen you in forever. At first you objected to my driving to Forked River. I think you were concerned about how much weight you’d already lost, though you’d always been a skinny son-of-a- bitch with a metabolism I’da killed for. We worked it out and this visit started another part of our relationship. I still remember Cher and Emily peeking into your room while we laid on your bed watching one baseball game on the TV and another on the laptop. I supposed we did look a little strange.
Then a week happened that, for the rest of my life, will always bring a smile. Cheryl wanted a family vacation and needed people to cover. Brother Jeff and his wife Michelle did the first weekend, then I came down to hang. As usual you bitched and moaned but we had a terrific time. You turned me onto Jimmy Dean breakfasts, though like idiots we microwaved ‘em in their plastic package. (This after I’d fought the vinyl chloride industry for ten years).
In fact, that week we caught a lucky break. Your emphysema really backed off so we were able to go to your breakfast joint a couple of times instead of the microwave. You told me that sometimes you’d start to feel well enough to go there late in the morning, but knew they were closing in about 30 minutes so you didn’t. “Why make ‘em stay past their working hours?” Well, however limited your visits had become, when we walked in the door those two mornings, everyone would call out their greetings and never asked for your order. They knew.
We were also able to go out to lunch at another favorite place where brother Frank from New York joined us for hours of talk. You were even strong enough to drive and hang at the car dealership where you’d been the customer rep since the COPD stole your music. And goddamn, if everyone from the owner on down didn’t stop by the room where we were hanging. Dave, the repair manager, regaled me with stories of the hijinks you and he played. I laughed my eyes out and you your breath, until we finally went home.
During my last visit you weren’t as strong, but even then but even then the wind whistled and baseball was on the tube every day. Brother Jeff visited and the two of you schooled me on auto racing. I’ll never be a rabid fan, but I no longer think it’s just a fast left hand turn.
What I really want you to know is it’s true that you gave people enormous pleasure with your music—but you gave even more than that. You gave those connected to you a loving, warm embrace. And there were a lot of people connected to you. You really cared.
And you gave me permission to have an artistic life.
I know how much you loved your family and I’m proud to have been a member as well as a friend. I know how much you loved Cheryl, Eddie and Emily and how much they loved you back. And I know how much the rest of the family and your friends loved you, respected you.
If we were both wrong and there is a heaven and hell, I know you’re making great music with the best of the best. And when I get there I’ll be in the audience shouting, “Sorrento, Sorrento!”
Dare to be strong and courageous. That is the road. Venture anything. Sherwood Anderson