That NEW Adage

A pressure-relief valve about God, and just about everything else.

When God’s will and mine, serenely intertwine

I have three sisters. No brothers. ALWAYS wanted one.

My father, who was raised as an only child and found out at age 35 that he was adopted, had three sisters and no brothers. One of them had died when they were in high school.

That is a long, good story that Kathy insists I write down.

I have a cousin whom I first met back in the late eighties. He and his wife, Shelene, own a martial arts training studio in Pasadena, Ca. Were he alive now, he would be in his early sixties and would look maybe 38.

He made a profound impact on me from the first. When I did a series of  gigs out west back in ’92 (during L.A. riots), he came and got me and showed me the sights and introduced me to family who treated me like a visiting dignitary. I will NEVER forget that. A few years later, he did the same thing, taking me to Venice Beach, his studio, Rose Bowl stadium, and many other places. We almost hit Kareem Abdul Jabbar when he pulled out in front of us.

He was a multiple-degreed black belt martial artist in many different disciplines, and trained with Bruce Lee. He trained English Mastiffs and Rottweilers to respond to hand signals! Very impressive! And with all of this, he was the most mild-mannered, peaceful dude you’d ever seen!

He and Shelene met Kathy soon after we were married at a family reunion that I missed because I am known for not missing gigs. (I missed out on a lot of things because of that. I’m going to change.)

They swept her up and made her like one of their own! But Kathy has a personality that will do that to you…

A couple of years ago, they said he had cancer. But when I talked to him, he said everything was fine. Never thought I would never see him again.

His death hit me harder than anything I had ever felt. I have been blessed to have all my cousins, both parents, all but one uncle, and all of my aunts still here. My mother’s father died when I was a child. I was grown when my grandmothers died, but one was in her nineties and afflicted with Alzheimer’s, and the other… long, tough story.

I could not go to the funeral. It was in L.A., and I couldn’t afford a ticket, and I had to work. But really, I just couldn’t bear to see my cousin not alive when I still had so many things to learn from him. The funeral was broadcast online, and while Kathy watched it and said how beautiful it was, I couldn’t do it. I lay in the other room — in earshot — and cried so hard my head hurt. All day. Between bouts of vomiting because Max had gotten me sick when he threw up all over me three days earlier. (And I had to go to work.)

His name was Steve Hearring.

 

I don’t think anyone in this entire world loves my daddy as much as I do. And I know he’s flawed. Who isn’t? But, as with God, my cousin, and all my heroes, I admire strength and power. That’s why leopards, bulls and rhinos are my favorite animals. And my father epitomizes strength and power.

Despite the rough time I had growing up (which is a positive story in light of the way things turned out between us) I always sought his approval and respect. I heard the stories about the things he did as a boy and as a man, and I wished I could be as tough and as calm. Indulge me one story…

Back when he was in his twenties, as a high school coach, he and his team had an Away game against a heated rival. My mother, known for her tactlessness in awkward situations, was — according to her — talking some trash in the stands.

Apparently, one of the guys behind her took offense. Someone pointed him out and whispered to my mom that he had a gun and ill intentions toward her. When the game ended (Home team won), my mother made her way to the locker room with the guy following her through the crowd. When she got to the locker room and walked in sheepishly, my pop, who was mad about the team losing and in no mood for foolishness, asked her what she was doing there. She NEVER went back there.

Out of fear for the OTHER guy(!) she refused to say. He made her tell him. Mom pointed the guy out still lurking outside the locker room.

Daddy acted out for me what he did next: Ma had an umbrella — the kind with the point on the end. He, unarmed otherwise, took it from her and went to find the dude.

The thug had his right hand in his pants pocket and Pops figured he was holding the gun. He went up to the guy, grabbed a handful of wrist and pants (He almost sprained mine acting this out. Adrenaline…) so he couldn’t get the gun out!, shoved the umbrella deep up into the soft meat under the guy’s chin and proceeded to threaten his very life with well-chosen words that I can’t repeat! He held the guy until the cops got him, and there was indeed a gun in his pocket!

It was all so unbelievably smart and strong! Even with his finger practically lifting me from the ground, I was smiling HARD! “That’s MY Daddy!” I thought! “Did I inherit any of those guts?” My daddy was like a cross between 007 and Jim Brown!

I’ve got a bunch of those stories — all true — and he won’t even tell me any more. He is so understated and modest about it all, saying that he was just crazy.

He was the biggest, the strongest, the toughest, the bravest, and the fastest, according to those who grew up with him. Yet he stressed reading and learning with my sisters and me. As did my mother. He took pride in figuring things out, he loves brain teasers and The Discovery Channel.  He got up every day and went to work, sometimes spending too much time working his players. They would have basketball practice at 5 AM before school AND after school. But he single-handedly turned them from chronic losers to winners.

He never called in sick, he taught me how to use wrenches and how to box. He taught me stuff that I don’t have the heart to do unless my life is threatened. He made me do push-ups, lift weights, run track, and fight when scared.

He hated, I’m sure, when I focused more on model cars and cartoons and being in the band than trying out for teams, but he loves it now. He was hard! Hard as steel.  Scared me to DEATH!! But he changed.

He learned and I learned. And from the first time I knew what it meant, I always said that I wanted to name my son not after ME, but after him! His name is Horace.

My wife had a very bad time as a child with her father. She says he wasn’t really one at all. From the moment she met my parents, she loved them to death. She raves about how great her in-laws are. But she loves my daddy to the point that I sometimes feel that I have not a wife, but a fourth sister as it relates to him. She sees him as HER father, and is not ashamed to tell it.

 

I love Diana more than my life. But when Kathy got pregnant this current time, I prayed hard for it to be a son. I never had that brother I longed for, and I wanted Max to have someone with whom to stand back-to-back in this sickening world. I wanted him to have that thing that brotherhood means.

I wanted Diana to have two boys to keep the fools at bay! I wanted to be a little bit like Jacob with all those sons.

And I wanted to give my father that legacy. I wanted his name to continue.  Since he was adopted, he was the only Williams. And until I got married and had Max, it was looking pretty bleak for the team! But God apparently said otherwise…

Now we can be sure that there will be more Williamses.

My sisters all named their kids after their maternal grandfather — which is cool! But what about my daddy?

And Kathy, having loved Steve so much for the same reasons I did, saw this as an opportunity to honor what she described as two honorable and strong men. She has already said that the new baby has the pressure of keeping that great name clean!

Two weeks ago, in a dark room, God granted our sweated prayers! We are having a boy. And it means so much more than just having somebody to throw to and wrestle with and teach about girls and smoothness and heartbreak and fidelity (although it is all of that, too!). It means that God actually DOES know me, and LIKE me, and that He does actually act in my life. He is faithful and true!

And if this minor thing is real, I shudder at the thought that He DID create the universe and that He meant — means — all that stuff in the Bible! He is not an illusion or a figment. He is my friend. In every profound way. I am undone.

With that, we await the healthy arrival of Steven Horace Williams!

I’ve got so much to tell him!

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August 31, 2009 Posted by | Babies, Baby Names, Birth, Childhood, Children, Christ, Christian Life, Christianity, Faith, Fatherhood, Fathers and Sons, God, Heroes, Jesus, Kids, Parenthood, Parents | 2 Comments

Wailin’ like Whalum!

In what field do you work? What activity do you wish you could make a living doing? Is there someone you admire in a particular arena that is the epitome of skill and expertise?

Are you a sports fan who admires A-Rod, or Jordan, or Peyton Manning? Are you a painter who loves the work of Rembrandt, or Picasso? Are you an aspiring actor or playwright? Do you work in the restaurant business, or the automobile design industry, or the cosmetology field?

If you think about it, every one of you has at least one person who is the icon of your admiration in a given area. I am a musician. By profession. I am of a blessed few who get to do the one thing I LOVE for a living, meager though it is right now. This means that the person I most look up to in the entire musical world does both what I love and what I do.

I am a saxophone player, and hopefully not a hack! I am not a poseur. I don’t walk around town with my horn on my shoulder, and I don’t dance when I play. I MOVE, though… For me, it is about getting better on that horn, and the musicians I most admire are serious about their discipline. My two favorite singers are Sam Cooke and Nat King Cole. My favorite female singer is Lalah Hathaway. Or maybe Sarah Vaughan. It’s pretty close. My favorite piano player is Phineas Newborn, Jr.. My favorite trumpet player is, I think, Clifford Brown. My favorite guitar player is, maybe, Wes Montgomery. My favorite bass player is Marcus Miller. I don’t have a favorite drummer.

There are a million sax players in this town alone. I love that the Lord gave me that instrument to play! It is so complex and so expressive. There are so many who play it well; Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Stitt, Coletrane, Joe Henderson, Grover Washington, Wilton Felder, Branford Marsalis, David Sanborn, Eric Alexander, Phil Woods, Paul Desmond (Take 5), Kirk Whalum, Bird, Stan Getz (Human velvet), Dexter Gordon, Chris Potter, Johnny Griffin, Kenny Garrett, Gerald Albright, and scores more.

The thing is this: Of all the singers I like, but didn’t mention, and all of the other musicians whom I just love, the ONE who is my favorite– out of all who have ever sung or played a single note– is Kirk Whalum. You can agree or disagree, you can argue and present your case for the brilliance of Bird or Trane, and you can cite the mastery of Sarah Vaughan and Stevie. You can talk about Jimi Hendrix and Marvin Gaye and Brother Ray. You can plead the case for David Ruffin, or Billie Holliday, or Wynton Marsalis, or Sinatra, or Donny Hathaway, and you will have some valid points. But for my money, the one who resonates with me is Whalum.

He has the ability to convey pure, raw emotion in a single note. His horn sings and cries and shouts and growls. He is at once soulful, and harmonically competent. Not many can say this. They are usually one or the other. It is an awful thing to hear a straight-ahead cat (musicians say “cat”) try to play some soul! And vicey-versey. He is the leader among guys who can make a sax sound almost human.

The moment I first heard him in a Denver record store way back when guesting on a Bob James record, I immediately asked the store manager who it was. I was hooked. That was how I wanted to sound! It sounded like he was wringing the notes from a wet towel! Every note was urgently played. I thought that if I could play like that, I would be able to tell girls with music what I was too scared to utter with words.

A year or so later, I heard him on a Luther Vandross album, and this one song, “Anyone Who Had A Heart, ” by Bacharach, repeatedly put me in the saddest mood. Beautiful! I have followed his career since the first day, waiting on album releases, and buying every record I saw his name attached to. Some of them were duds with the songs he soloed on being the only ones I dug.

Somewhere in there, I decided that I wanted to do what he did. I wanted to drop out of architecture school and become a musician. It was the only thing I felt that I could really do and do well. I wanted to make people feel whatever emotion I felt when I played a song or a solo like Kirk Whalum did. I had a long, long way to go. (I only have a long way to go now.)

I started from scratch, not having any guidance. I began to teach myself licks, and turns, and scales, and phrases. And most of all, I worked on my TONE– the way I sounded. I gigged with my friends who were grass-green like I, and we used to play at family house parties with just a piano amp, and no gear for no money. I graduated from there to playing for a gospel artist for no money. But we had gear, though.

After a year of that, I got a gig with blues singer, Denise LaSalle. I was on my way! I was making money, but the gear was AWFUL! I continued to teach myself by practicing the solos of Whalum, and my other “teacher,” Grover Washington, as well as any other artist that inspired me. I played lead vocal melodies, piano solos, guitar solos, and everything. The main thing, though, was to always be soulful. And to have that pretty tone.  

Friends would tell me (they still do) to be more of a showman, to walk into the audience, or to wave my hand like Dave Koz does. I just couldn’t. “I just wanna get better on this horn,” I always reply. If I am feeling what I am playing and move accordingly, sincerely, that is honest. For ME, it felt phoney to use gimmicks to get a response. I was trying to please musicians! If THEY dig you, then you know you’re doing something. I may be wrong.

Now, from time to time, I get the comment that I “sound like Whalum.” What was to be expected? I had played, really, millions of Kirk Whalum notes! Now, though, I have to find my voice out of all that emotion and wailing! There is already a Whalum. It’s hard to be discouraged by hearing that, though. I kind of get the same feeling as when someone tells me I LOOK like my father. How can I not like that? My pops is the MAN!

So… my question is this: How would you, as a golf fanatic, like to play a round with Tiger, or Ernie Els? How would you, as a basketball player, like to be on Jordan’s team? How would you, as a real estate person, like to spend time with Trump? Singer– Stevie Wonder? Cook–Emeril, or Rachael Ray? Actor– Hopkins, Hepburn, or Denzel? How would you feel if you, an average citizen, were called upon to perform with or for your greatest hero? How would you feel if, out of ALL the people in the world, the ONE person you most admire watched you do what HE does? And what if that thing that he does is not just your recreation, but your VOcation? How would you feel?

Well, today, at the church at which I play, the musical director said at the last minute, “Hey, let’s play that Whalum tune we closed with last week!”  That being the song from his just-released album that we sort of butchered up last week. At that very MOMENT Kirk Whalum and his wife walked in!!! Ohhh Lorrrd! I pride myself on not being scared of a musical challenge. How can I call myself worthy of being a contemporary of the masters if I am scared to do what I can do musically?

I was as scared as my little son, Max, when those guys in the hamburger suits come on the teevee!

Tim, the m.d., was like, “man, whass wrong witchu? I ain’ neva seen you like this!”

“I ain’ neva been like this,” I said, knees sounding like dice about to come up snake-eyes. “I ain’t prepared. That song has a crazy pattern that’s hard to follow wit’out a chart!” It was 9:57. Church started at 10:00. No time to practice, and I couldn’t punk out. So, I prayed, and we played. It was okay. Only minor mistakes. I do this for a living. But I didn’t want to sound like a scrub with the icon of my artistic life sitting 20 feet away! There was a problem, though, and that is the reason for this post.

The service was about GOD. What about GOD? Isn’t HE a greater audience than Kirk Whalum? Kirk, being a Godly man would say, “yes.” (I know this because I have met him a few times, and he occasionally comes to my church. More pressure?!) All I could think of during the musical portion of the worship was, “Don’t mess up, Kirk’ll think you’re a scrub. Play that flat 5 lick right here, Kirk’ll think that was cool. Don’t overplay, ’cause Kirk’ll think you’re into your self. I wonder what Kirk thought about that tag I put at the end of that last song?” I mean, I was in the same room as my hero, and I was playing HIS song, his style, his instrument! It was too much.

And I was so ashamed of myself. I kept apologizing to God for making Him ride in the back seat so Kirk could sit up front. “I’m sorry, Lord,” I kept saying, and I kept shifting my focus back from God to man.

“I wonder if he heard that bad note? I wonder if he heard me play that cool run? Oh, Sorry, Lord.”

My wife consoled me, saying tht the Lord understands, that I’m only human. True, but that fact didn’t keep Him from holding us accountable for the fact that we sin. Without Jesus, we still suffer the repercussions of our actions. Humanity is no excuse for faults.

I know God forgave me, but the thing is that we need to be aware that God is always sitting on the front row. For every scene. Good AND bad. We should conduct ourselves according to the fact that the One universal Celebrity requires us to serve, worship, praise, and perform for HIM. And He deserves it. Look at all the stuff He did. All the things He made…

Kirk Whalum is not an idol of mine in the sense that he occupies God’s throne of glory. His skill and talent, as are ALL of ours, are a sign of what God can do. That is why God gets the praise for the made putts and three-pointers, the Grammys and the Oscars, the pictures and the sculptures.

At the end of service this morning, as we played the benediction music, I felt someone come up from behind the chair in which I was sitting and grab me, choke hold style, around my neck.

“You blessed me, man! You really blessed me by playing my song!” Imagine Jordan telling you that you played well… Imagine that you felt that he meant it… That made my WEEK! And I thanked GOD!

I wanted to ask him a thousand questions… about mouthpieces, and horns, and chords and solos, and sessions, and about helping me make records. But I didn’t get to. I don’t like to crowd celebrities when I see them. They have lives. People are always trying to get something from them, and I feel that if I am good enough to do this on a higher plane the time will come when God says so. If I really CAN play, he, or someone, will give me my shot.

So what I have is the memory of his gratitude. And my OWN gratitude to God for being so cool and merciful and Beautiful. And for inventing the saxophone and putting it in my hand.

October 8, 2007 Posted by | Art, Christianity, God, Heroes, Jazz, Kirk Whalum, Life, Music, Saxophone | 2 Comments