Music dresses wounds at death's final chord

April 11, 1999|By Paul Delaney

DEATH, Redd Foxx sagely joked, is nature's way of telling you to slow down. A poet suggested defiance -- "Death, be not proud" -- and another noted that death is the "great leveler."

We all share natural, common reactions and responses to death, but each of us also has our own personal coping mechanisms.

When artists of note die, I console myself by reminiscing about good old times. If they are performers, as was jazz singer Joe Williams, who died two weeks ago, I think back to the last time I saw them in person, or I drown myself in their recordings.

Endless response

That kind of response is endless: When something reminds me of Arturo Toscanini, like Beethoven's birthday, almost by rote I grab his complete symphonies of the German genius and gobble them up again.

Some memories are painful. When my father keeled over and died of a heart attack at 45, I was in a state of shock although he and I were never really close. He was an aloof man. We never played ball (he didn't care for sports), he didn't pass along wit and witticism (he was very quiet) and we did not hunt or fish (too urban for that).

But, he was a hard worker, the undisputed head of the household at a time when my mother's place was in the kitchen: his place was at the head of the table where the six children ate breakfast and dinner together every day, and Sunday supper was always something special, the glue that held us together.

I have now lived longer than he did. Yet, even without close, father-son ties that make great tales, I nevertheless wept that August Sunday night he died, and to this day I associate the Eddie Fisher song, "Oh, My Papa," with my father.

Some deaths are confusing. When Franklin D. Roosevelt died, I was too young and immature to appreciate the significance of the occasion, to understand why a lot of black people were weeping in the streets, as they they had lost a relative.

Other deaths were national tragedies. On Nov. 22, 1963, I was a reporter with the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News accompanying a group of high school students on a visit to auto plants in Detroit. John F. Kennedy's death hit so hard that the youngsters decided to cut their class trip short and return home, in a funereal daze as the bus wended its way south on Interstate 75.

The assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy only deepened the depression of that undecipherable, lost decade.

As I said, when musical heroes die, I take solace in my stereo and leap on a roller coaster of mixed emotions. I still play Sam Cooke and recall the last time I saw him live, at the Royal Peacock night club in Atlanta, same place I saw Jackie Wilson. I last saw Prez Young in Columbus, Ohio, and Dinah Washington in Cleveland. I listen to their recordings frequently.

Some performances were truly memorable. Standing-room-only events by Muddy Waters at the Ritz in New York, Marian Anderson in "Aida" at a public park in Bordeaux, France, and Sidney Bechet also in Bordeaux. Blues singer Charles Brown at Tramps in New York, whom I first heard on 78 rpm breakable records when he was a teen-age pianist-singer with Johnny Moore and the Three Blazers.

Lowell Fulson's death a few months ago sent me to my record archives to pull out a few of his old blues numbers. His earliest were "Reconsider Baby" and "Blue Shadows." However, the world will remember his, "Everyday I Have the Blues." But not by him. Just as Aretha Franklin made "Respect" her signature, although it was written and first recorded by the late Otis Redding, Joe Williams recorded "Everyday" with Count Basie and made it bigger than anything Lowell Fulson could have dreamed.

Thanks to the technology of recording, the works of great artists are allowed to live forever. I go to my record machine and groove on Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, George Szell, Bill Evans, Jimmy Reed, Frank Sinatra, John Coltrane, Charlie Mingus, Chet Baker, Leonard Bernstein, Lightning Hopkins, Arthur Rubinstein, among many.

Magic of art

The list is quite long. Thankfully, I have a large collection since, as you can gather, my taste is eclectic, if not eccentric. But, to me, that is what art is all about. How can life be complete without the magic of art?

I have a mix of compact discs, albums and cassettes to enjoy my favorites, many of them long dead. It seems as if they reach from the grave so that we, the living, can enjoy uninterrupted benefit of their contributions to life. (And, mind you, I appreciate living artists and demonstrate it by seeing them in person and buying their works when I can.)

Joe Williams has joined the illustrious greats who have passed this way. Today, I am listening to him with a bit more reverence and sadness, but with great joy and satisfaction.

Paul Delaney is a Baltimore writer.

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