I’m feeling very sad today and writing a paragraph on Facebook just isn’t going to do it for me. Today would have been my buddy Jon Hendricks’ 99th birthday. We collaborated for 25 years. Jon taught me how to enjoy life to the fullest. He exuded joy, and even at my worst moments, being with him made me feel happy just to be alive. It didn’t matter what we did—sharing a bandstand, writing songs together, eating in the best restaurants, trying on every article of clothing in Century 21—it didn’t matter, we laughed and thoroughly loved each other as much as two men can.
We met at Jazz at Lincoln Center and immediately hit it off talking about Duke Ellington. Before I knew it, I was writing arrangements and helping Jon produce his magnum opus with a cast of thousands, Freddie Freeloader. While we were mixing the CD until 5 AM each night, Jon would solve the New York Times crossword puzzle in ink. When I pulled out my pencil, he informed me that just committing to pen and ink would force me to be right the first time. P.S., I’ve never used a pencil since.
My favorite experience with Jon was when Bill Clinton invited us to the White House for a jazz party. There were all kinds of jazz stars present, many of whom performed. The President sat in with one group and played a blues on tenor. As he left the bandstand, a big group of people descended on him. I didn’t want to add to the President’s dilemma of shaking a thousand hands, so I turned to go in the opposite direction. No sooner did I turn, but there right in front of me with his hand outstretched was The Comeback Kid. I had to shake his hand, so I said, “Mr. President, I just want you to know that you play the saxophone way better than Nixon ever played the piano.” Everyone laughed except Mr. Clinton, who had a puzzled look on his face as he turned to walk away. After two steps, he turned back to look at me with his trademark smile.
So this was a fun night hanging with Joe Williams, Wynton, Herbie Hancock and the like. Jon and I had come to DC together and were staying at the same hotel. We had cabbed it to the White House. By the time he and I were ready to call it quits for the night, everyone was gone—we were the last to leave—just me, my date, Jon and his wife Judith.
As we walked outside, it dawned on me that there were no cabs to take us home. There was however an incredibly long exquisite white limo parked in the now empty parking lot. Jokingly, I said to our group, “Here’s our limo.” With that, Judith walked up to the driver, said a few words, and returned to us, saying, “He’ll take us.” I asked her what’s it going to cost. She said, “Nothing. He just wants an autographed CD of Jon’s.” We were living like Picasso.
I’ve written songs with many lyricists, but Jon wrote lyrics like a true jazz musician. Although I could write the music first or last, Jon only wrote lyrics after the music was written. So I would sit at his piano and play my tune about 20 times, and then he would close his eyes for a moment. A smile would come on his face, and he would start scribbling away with his pen. After a few minutes he might break out in laughter at a phrase he just wrote, or he might ask me to play the middle part. Either way, in a matter of minutes, he was done—truly improvisational and inspired. I was excited just to feel the energy in the room. I feel excited now so many years later just thinking about Jon’s aura.
A few minutes ago, I heard that my old friend Stanley Crouch died today. He’d been very sick for quite a while. I kept meaning to go visit him, but I’m ashamed to say, I never got around to it. It’s been about five years since we’ve seen each other, and before that, it had been a few years. I’m not sure how or why we drifted apart. It’s just like that sometimes.
I first met Stanley at St. Peter’s Church. The occasion was a Duke Ellington Society meeting with a special guest author who had written a seriously flawed book on Ellington. When I walked in the door, I was amazed to see hundreds of people in the audience, many of them jazz musicians including Jimmy Heath, Jimmy Owens and a bunch of others that I knew. The guest showed up about 20 minutes late and proceeded to give a very short talk about how he wrote the book before opening up the meeting to a Q&A. I raised my hand and was called on first. As I walked up the aisle to the microphone, Stanley, who was sitting on the aisle, leaned over to me and said, “Go get him, Berger.”
I was the first of many to skewer the author, but what I couldn’t help thinking was: why did Stanley, this famous writer I’d never met, talk to me as if we were buddies, and how did he know that I was out for blood? My comment was fairly short, condemning, but polite. Later Crouch got his turn at the mic and lit into the guest, descending into name-calling. Everything Stanley said was true, but I must admit that I did cringe a bit. This was the famous passion that Stanley was known for. Fortunately, he did stop short of nose punching.
At the end of the meeting, we went to a nearby Italian restaurant and talked about jazz into the wee hours. This was the first of many lunches and dinners. When Stanley was writing a piece on Ellington, he would call me to discuss. I could hear his typewriter clicking while I spoke.
In 1987 I got a phone call from Alina Bloomgarden at Lincoln Center. She wanted to produce a concert of Ellington music at Alice Tully Hall with Wynton Marsalis. I knew Wynton slightly from years before, but it was Crouch who recommended me. We set up a meeting with Crouch and Wynton. Wynton asked me what my approach to the music would be. I said that I would transcribe Duke’s scores faithfully, but we would hire musicians who knew this music and would treat the music like Duke just wrote it for us last night. I guess that was my audition. Wynton asked me who we should hire—anyone in the world—we’ll get them. I said, “Joe Henderson, Joe Temperley, Norris Turney, Roland Hanna…” Crouch said, “We’ve got to have Marcus Belgrave.” This was a dream.
Shortly after this meeting, Alina invited me to lunch with Albert Murray. Al was Stanley and Wynton’s mentor. I’ll never forget that lunch. I never felt so ignorant. Al was talking about ballet, all kinds of music, fiction, non-fiction. I thought I was fairly literate, but I was wrong.
After lunch Al invited me to come to his house for lunch. This was the first of many lessons around the dinner table where we talked bout all the arts, race, and America and listened to records. Afterwards, he would always hand me a book and tell me to come back when I’d finished reading it, so we could discuss it. This was Al Murray University.
Al joined us at Lincoln Center and became our mentor and the godfather of what was to become Jazz at Lincoln Center. We all began to spend time together, in pairs, threesomes and foursomes. To say that this was intellectually stimulating for me doesn’t do it justice. Our Ellington concert that next summer was a success and jumpstarted the program. There was no turning back.
Stanley was consulting and writing wonderful program notes for our concerts. We talked on the phone for hours. He would come over for dinner and to our parties. Once he showed up for dinner with an unannounced guest, which initially freaked out my then-wife (she had just prepared enough for three people). In typical Crouch fashion all was forgiven and forgotten within minutes.
What I liked most about Stanley was his fierce intellect and his fearless honesty. He told you what he thought whether you wanted to hear it or not. He loved controversy and learning through battle. He could be a great teacher. When I was first starting to write about jazz, I asked him to read a short piece of mine. He said, “This doesn’t sound like you. Write how you talk.” Thank you, my friend. Rest in peace.