Monday, January 21, 2008

Love and Bebop

On Sunday night, Aviva and I went with her brother and sister-in-law to the jazz church, St. Peters, on 54th and Lexington. We went to attend a memorial service for Cecil Payne, a legendary baritone saxophonist who influenced a generation of musicians. Cecil was a dear friend of Aviva's father, and very close to her whole family. Aviva always spoke lovingly about him and I am sad I did not get a chance to know him.

The memorial service was organized by the Jazz Foundation of America, in honor of Cecil's memory and included performances by a number of prominent jazz musicians, including Cecil's cousin Marcus Belgrave, Joe Farnsworth, Ronnie Cuber and a number of others.

When we arrived at the church, people were milling around outside the sanctuary, waiting for jazz vespers to wind down and the memorial to start. We met up with Aviva's parents, Bucky and Tanya, and soon entered the sanctuary and sat in the seats reserved for Cecil's family and friends. I had often looked at this church when I passed it on the street, thinking it was an oddly shaped building and wondering what it looked like inside. The central room was beautiful, a tall, tetragonal chamber covered with wood paneling. Glass and wood dividers, granite floors and comfortable wood and cushion pews filled the room and focus attention toward a simple stage and a huge organ in one corner.

Cecil was much beloved, and we listened to a number of family and friends tell us about him. How he was always ready with a smile and a joke. How he was stubbornly independent. How he never complained and always saw the bright side of things. And much how he loved his music.

And people also spoke about that music. They pointed out the legendary musicians in the audience who had known and been inspired by Cecil and whom had come to honor his memory. They spoke about how much people like Cecil meant to the youngsters to whom they were role models. How much they influenced African American culture. And how important they were to the development of todays music. Brooklyn Bebop, Cecils kind of music, was a seminal part of the jazz we now hear everywhere.

Avivas' father Bucky, a dear friend of Cecils for 20 years, spoke eloquently, showing his love and loss and relating a number of the stories Cecil had told him over the years. My particular favorite was a story about a time Cecil met Sarah Vaughn,

Cecil walked into a crowded elevator and, as one does in such an elevator, immediately turned around and faced the door. From behind him he heard a voice, saying, "Cecil, aren't you gonna say hello to me?" Cecil was flustered and turned around quickly. Seeing Mrs. Vaughn, he said, without thinking "I am sorry Sarah but I did not recognize you because you got so fat." Cecil would then relate, "She would not talk to me for a year." After a year, Cecil met Sarah again at a recording studio, and walked up to talk to her but became flustered again and said, "Sarah, last year I did not mean to say you were fat. I meant to say I did not recognize you because you looked so much like my aunt." Sarah Vaughn replied, "I look like your aunt!" Cecil would then say, "She did not talk to me for two years!"

And then there was the jazz. Distributed throughout the speakers were a number of amazing jazz performances. I cannot do them justice by saying the names of the musicians, and there were so many I couldn't name them all even if I wanted to. Musicians played numbers that they had played with Cecil or wished they had played with Cecil. The musicians I mentioned above and many, many more. All playing the type of music Cecil inspired and helped to create. It was an incredible set of performances, and a worthy memorial for an amazing musician and an incredible human being.

The last jazz number was particularly memorable, sort of a legends in concert type group effort with Marcus Belgrave, Danny Mixon, Randy Weston and a number of other jazz legends bringing Cecil home.

Love and Bebop, Cecil Payne. The world will miss you.

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