In second grade during our usual morning service before classes, Father Moore announced, “Today is Good Friday! Let us pray!” He was wearing the fancy set of robes and with arms widespread, he had veritably bellowed the words, implying that a “Hallelujah” or “Rejoice!” would be soon to follow.
It was my first year in parochial school, and I seriously entertained the thought that we might well be in store for a day dedicated entirely to recess to help usher in all the Good wrapped up in that Friday. I think I may have muttered a slightly audible “AMEN,” because our teacher, Miss Wright, had turned and was eyeing me.
Then Father Moore paused, dropped his arms to his side, and in a hushed and somewhat rushed cadence that could easily have begun with the words, “This just in,” gave a very unexpected, jarring, graphic and, for my 7-year-old tastes, a horrific accounting of Jesus’ death. I had never heard the details, or at least had never really listened before.
Jesus was whipped and beaten, a “crown of thorns” jammed on his head. He was forced to carry a heavy cross through the streets. People made fun of Him when he fell. Then, “they nailed his hands and feet to the cross.” When he spoke those words, Father Moore paused and looked slowly around the chapel. “Nailed” his hands and feet, for Christ sakes.
He was stabbed. He died a tortuous death, “hanging for hours in agony on the cross.”
And this was a good Friday. I couldn’t imagine what made up a bad one.
Miss Wright, in her amazingly insightful and compassionate way, leaned over, put her hand on my knee and asked if I was alright. I whispered the news to her that she had obviously missed, about Jesus’ last day (or third to last, depending upon your beliefs).
“They nailed his hands and feet!” I whispered to her somewhat urgently. Father Moore was mentioning two other people hanging on crosses when, with Miss Wright gently holding my left had, I raised my right one and squeaked out a question to the good Father.
“Why do we call it Good Friday?”
After he pinpointed me in the second grade pews, he answered.
“Because, Christ died for our sins.”
I can hear his answer to this day and still don’t have a clue what he was talking about. I raised my hand again and rephrased the question in true second grade form.
“Why do we call it Good Friday?” I had emphasized “good” to put a finer point on my point.
I imagine he was tempted to repeat his first answer, but after a pause, he said, “Good Friday made Easter possible.”
Miss Wright gently intercepted my hand as it rose for the third time, and whispered to me that “Black Friday” would have been a better name.
Forty seven years later, I still think she had the best answer. And as I ponder Black Friday and Easter from the sidelines of Judaism, Jazz, and Vedic meditation, I find myself reciting an old Robert Service poem I memorized some 20 years ago. Aside from fond childhood memories of Easter Sundays, large rabbits, fancy hats, and happier stories from the pulpit, it’s all I really carry with me anymore of Easter and Black Friday.
But it carries it well, and it captures for me the truth of a day that had practically chased me into Miss Wright’s lap so many years ago.
A Rusty Nail by Robert William Service
I ran a nail into my hand,
The wound was hard to heal;
So bitter was the pain to stand
I thought how it would feel,
To have spikes thrust through hands and feet,
Impaled by hammer beat.
Then hoisted on a cross of oak
Against the sullen sky,
With all about the jeering folk
Who joyed to see me die;
Die hardly in insensate heat,
With bleeding hands and feet.
Yet was it not that day of Fate,
Of cruelty insane,
Climaxing centuries of hate
That woke our souls to pain!
And are we not the living seed
Of those who did the deed!
Of course, with thankful heart I know
We are not fiends as then;
And in a thousand years or so
We may be gentle men.
But it has cost a poisoned hand,
And pain beyond a cry,
To make me strangely understand
A Cross against the sky.
In January of 1985, my west coast jazz sextet, Night Music, somehow finagled its way into opening a concert for Dave Brubeck and his quartet. The gig was at the Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco.
The day before the concert, KJAZ radio hosted a 3-way radio interview with their DJ, Dick Conte, me and Mr. Brubeck. About half way through it, Dick asked me how it felt to be playing keyboards on the same stage as Brubeck – playing his piano, no less.
I said, “It’s like presenting a paper about religion to GOD.”
The next day, after our sound check, Dick Conte called me backstage and introduced the two of us.
“Ed Manning, meet Dave Brubeck.”
I was standing there with a massive grin on my face holding his Jazz Goes to College LP that I had brought along for him to sign.
I held out my hand to him. When I did, he slowly reached out, and with a huge grin of his own, he gently laid his hand on my head and said, “Bless you, my son.”
L to R: Nate Pruitt, Dave Silliman, Rick Vandivier, Bob Johnson, Ed Manning, Skylark
I channeled a bizarre combination of an aging Katherine Hepburn and a highly caffeinated Pee Wee Herman as I began to speak at my Godfather’s memorial service in September. My hands shook so vigorously that they rendered the 12 point font of my notes completely indecipherable. And when I began to speak, my mouth opened, but the words, struggling to clear the massive lump in my throat, quivered to such a degree that the first word I actually squeaked was, “hymed.” I’m hoping, given the erudite crowd my Godfather generally drew, that people instinctively assumed that I was leading with a Middle Eastern prayer greeting of some sort.
In fact, it was simply my choked up rendition of “hi, I’m Ed.”
With my salutation leaving a number of people reaching to fine tune their hearing aids, I reverted to what in my head anyway, seemed to be roughly 37 minutes of complete silence. My plan to improvise and my faith that the right words would find me was giving me a “no service detected” message. I squinted at the trembling page in front of me for a prompt, but the only word I could make out, staring up at me in a large bolded font with exclamation points on either side of it was !!!!!REFLUX!!!!!. For the life of me, I had no clue what I had actually written as a headline, and I had the sudden mortifying thought that I had somehow grabbed my 80 year old mother’s pharmaceutical shopping list instead of my own notes.
I put the page down on the podium, and the blur once again became words. I took a deep breath and saw the actual headline I had written.
!!!!! RELAX !!!!! Read more…
Some background on “The Lesson”:
On a Saturday in April ten years ago, I was driving home from the gym in San Rafael, CA grinning ear to ear as the local jazz radio station played a cut from my friend Smith Dobson. Not only was it Smith, but it was a track from his Smithzonian album, released by none other than my jazz label, Night Music Productions. I beat my chest lightly waiting for the light to turn.
Two or three lights later, they segued from Smith to Smith, this time from his Live At Garden City album, also from Night Music Productions. In my head, I started crafting my resignation letter to the technology world and pondered my broadly celebrated reemergence to the jazz and record production scene.
By the time I parked in my driveway, I was listening to the close of a third song – Smith again (different label). Back to back to back Dobson. What a hoot. I thought birthday. I thought promo for a concert. I thought “interview,” and actually sat in the car convinced I would hear Smith’s voice at the close of the tune.
There was, of course, no interview. An emotional D.J. quietly mentioned his tribute to “the late Smith Dobson, who died last night in a solo car accident.” He was 54.
That night, I wrote a short piece in the form of a letter to God. It was taken from the same letter I wrote to God after my father died, less two words:
A few weeks after Smith’s memorial service, I put my thoughts together in a slightly more articulate fashion. Outside of a letter to a couple of friends, it’s never seen the light of day. So I thought I would post it (a little late, given he died on April 20th) as my digital version of a Yahrzeit candle.
It’s been ten years. I still miss him. I still miss his music. The world was a better place with him in it.
Eleven years ago Smith and I made a deal. We bartered a piano lesson, for a surfing lesson. On a spectacular calm May afternoon, we consummated the first half of the deal, waxed up a couple of boards, and drove to the 42nd Street break in Santa Cruz. I gave Smith a 15-minute beachside tutorial, an 8-foot long board, and then we paddled out. The break was gentle, small, and glassy, smooth as a Miles ballad. It felt like summer – a perfect day for learning.
We sat in the line-up for a couple of little sets, and then I paddled into a waist high swell, shouting out the steps we had gone over on the beach. I rode it 50 yards or so toward shore and then pulled out, eager to get back and ease Smith into his first wave. Then, just as I started paddling back to him, the fickle Pacific experienced a mood swing, jumping from ballad to Strauss’ overture to 2001. People whistled from the cliffs behind us, tympanis boomed, apes began jumping, and three or four double overhead swells bore down from the west.
In unison, the dozen or so surfers that were out, lay down and paddled, stampeding for the horizon. It was as if some big cat had appeared at the watering hole, and the herd was hightailing it for safety. And Smith was the calf that had been culled from the herd. He sat on his board waving and giving me two big thumbs-up. “Look mom, a leopard!” I remember thinking that I should have loaned Smith a bigger more buoyant board – maybe a life vest. I also remember thinking that I should have taken my lesson first, before I set Smith loose in the majestic Pacific.
On Monday afternoon, with significant tooth pain, skyrocketing anxiety, and a gap in my teeth you could drive a banjo through, I found myself sitting with two other men in the lobby of the urologist’s office. As is natural to our species, the three of us were randomly seated as far apart from one another as possible, not talking. We looked like frightened strays at an animal shelter, heads down, laptops between our legs.
As we waited, I distracted myself by running my tongue through the great divide between my teeth, where half of a tooth had dropped out Saturday. I would like to report that it happened on a rigorous bike ride, in the weight room, or during a struggle in which using only my courage, a heavily worn snow shovel, and my teeth, I had subdued two armed terrorists. As it turns out, and as a humbling precursor to turning 53, I lost half of my upper right molar chewing on a soggy, reheated cheese quesadilla.
At first, I thought the hard thing in my mouth was a piece of the plate that had somehow chipped off. But about a millisecond later, I realized what had actually happened as a hot piece of cheese wedged itself against the newly exposed section of my tooth, which I then frantically tried to dislodge with a swig of ice cold water. Welcome to Guantanamo Bay, home of water boarding and the cheese quesadilla; tell us what you know.
Naturally, the urologist’s office is populated with nothing but female nurses in their 30’s. One of them popped her perky head out and called for a Mr Walter, which snapped me out of my dental reverie and shot Mr Walker clean out of his chair as if someone had sent a charge through his reproductive network. Saying “Go-kay,” (which must have been a cross between “good” and “O.K.”) at a decibel level that would suggest either he or the nurse was deaf, Mr Walker then marched into the exam room, leaving his laptop, briefcase, jacket and phone on the chair where he had been sitting. Fifteen seconds later, looking extremely sheepish, he was back collecting his things before the nurse reeled him back in.
Nothing to it. No big deal. Man up. This is the only way I have heard a vasectomy described by the few friends of mine who even bother to talk about it. These Stepford Husbands all seemed to have left the doctor’s perfectly programmed. Ho-hum. Snip snip. It’s off to work we go. I never bought it, and the little voice in my head has always been quick to highlight a few key facts, which when taken together, rank a vasectomy high on my “things to be traumatized by” list just above a root canal, self immolation, or placing your head in a running wood chipper. To be specific, bellowed the little voice, this doctor, some guy who still gets carded at local bars, who I have “known” for all of ten minutes, will have a scalpel in one hand and one or both of my testicles in his other. Where is the calm in that math? Read more…
Since I posted the piece below a few days ago, I have received an amazing (surprising) number of comments, questions, and a few other anecdotes. Thank you.
I don’t know of any piano duo albums of Shearing. However, to get a taste of his voice, his humor, and joy for the music (in a more personal sense than from his CD’s and the various You Tube videos), I can suggest this link to one of Shearing’s interviews on NPR’s piano jazz with Marian McPartland. He is not quite as loose as he was on the day I saw him in San Francisco, but he gets close as he and Marian toy with “God Save the Queen,” especially when he gives a hoot when Marian tries her hand at it.
For those of you time challenged (I’m referring to those of you with busy schedules, not drummers), here are a couple of points of interest. At about 17 minutes into the interview, he and Marian perform a duet (I’ve Got You Under My Skin), which gives you a glimpse of the way he could ( and would frequently) weave classical into a standard. But at 50:45, Marian thanks Shearing for being on the show and then they break into a version of “Indiana.” Listen carefully (he’s the piano on the right speaker/headphone), and you hear her sigh as they kick it off, frequent laughter behind the music and again at the end of the tune.
That’s the spirit and swing of what I had the unbelievable good fortune to hear up close a few lifetimes ago in that room in San Francisco. A musical frolic, and, by George, I’m grinning all over again.
Of all of the people George Shearing ever met, I am one of them. And while he might have had some vague recollection of my name (my father’s), I am quite sure he would have no recollection of me. But meeting him was my first serious kiss with jazz, and true to the form of my actual first kiss, it was a mortifying combination of tremendously awkward and life altering.
“Say ‘hello’ to Mr. Shearing.” I was about nine, and I was careful to look directly up at him, because my dad’s next question would undoubtedly be, “what color are Mr. Shearing’s eyes?” That was dad’s ruse to get my brother and me to look people in the eye when we spoke to them. He didn’t ask that day, and the only reason I remember the event at all is that later he explained to me that Mr. Shearing was blind, and that he was a famous piano player. I wasn’t falling for it (kidding runs deep in our family) and it took my dad playing me one of Shearing’s records before I opened my eyes to the whole blind piano player thing. I have no idea what the record was, though I remember the song “Nola,” because my Grandmother (New England Conservatory) used to play it all the time. Apparently being blind could weave some serious magic into a tune, swinging even that song into something you actually wanted to hear.
When I was 14, we met a second time. That was “the moment,” not just for the meeting, but for what led up to it. I was sitting in the corner of the main room at a men’s club in San Francisco, having been smuggled in by my dad on a late and mostly deserted afternoon in December. He needed a few moments to meet with someone before we were to rendezvous with my mother and brother for some Christmas related outing. I sat reading, trying to blend and disappear into an enormous couch, until at the far end of the room (which was about the size of a football field), two men started playing two grand pianos. Moving as inconspicuously as a 14-year-old could in a room filled with about a dozen men all somewhere between 60 and 105, I went from my couch to the 50, the 30, the 20, the 10, and ended up standing a few feet behind and to the right of George Shearing.
Two things struck me. The music – sounds I had never heard before (get thee behind me Satan), and to an even greater extent, his spirit. He was having a ball, I mean smiling, grooving, praising the other pianist, and actually laughing out loud every now and again when something in particular struck his fancy. It was infectious, and even the 105 year old guy seemed to regain a pulse. The other pianist was phenomenal as well, but he was working quite a bit harder, flipping through Shearing’s arrangements almost as fast as Shearing was improvising them beyond recognition. At one point Shearing ribbed him and said, “You’re working too hard, I can do this with my eyes closed.” Read more…