Doc would sit me down, like an old friend, and go over the basics. He’d teach me how to release the spit valve, purse your lips into the mouthpiece, and blow into the trombone with your diaphragm… not your throat. I remember him being all about it… and then sometimes referencing my playing as to that of a dying cow. What else do you tell a 9 yr. old just learning a brass instrument for the first time- any instrument for the first time. He wasn’t obligated to pat me on the back, tell me “great job”, and split with his hourly teaching rate. The guy was my grandfather. I look absolutely nothing like him, and dragging me out in public could’ve possibly gotten him arrested- seriously, silver-haired old white guy dressed like Arnie Palmer, walking around with a brown kid dressed in Kmart special-everything. You’d think he abducted me with a ransom agenda before you’d ever guess we were related. I was new in town, didn’t know any better, what’d I know…
Either way, Windom Open Middle School ran out of trumpets and I was forced to take up the trombone… like my grandfather. Donald Washington bent over backwards to teach us the basics of major scales, jazz, improvise, Hot Cross Buns, etc. He sweat every practice, and most times snapped at a moment’s disrespect from the 4th and 5th grade audience of students. Again, like Doc, this guy was a pro- he didn’t have time to smile, congratulate you, speculate on the inches progress you made… na, either you get it or you don’t, and Mr. Washington had damn little time for you to tinker with the training wheels before you could play along with the rest of the Windom Open Middle School Wind Ensemble, without him having to write the slide positions on your music chart. Swim or get the hell out is how I took it.
These old guys- I had no clue why they latched on so hard to their music principles, laws of progress, lack of patience. Spencer Austin, by no means an old guy, would always lean in to me when auditioning a new member for our band, and say, “Hey, we’ll check’em out, but if he can’t hang… he can’t hang.” From the first day I understood what that meant, but could never prospect it in middle school with Washington or Doc. Basically, if the musician can’t run at our pace… let’em go.
Donald Washington and my grandfather were in positions to have to get everyone up to speed. Looking at it now, making money from music, you have to say, “wow, what a selfish pack’a assholes we are”. To that I say, “Agreed. “… with a smile. Money is money at this point, and as long as a group has a long term goal in mind, nothing should come in-between them and the goal. Compromise is always human, but not so much that you have to kill the momentum and give a tutorial. Tis what it tis…
Over a decade later… I haven’t heard from Donald Washington since I left high school. I heard his son is an amazing drummer, Donald played on a local hip-hop artists album, and that’s it. As for Doc, well he’s passed. And the reason why I started typing this is because I’ve been thinking about his exit more than his time with me as a kid. This’ll tie back, I promise, but Doc passed away from ALS (also know as Lou Gehrig’s Disease). It’s a degeneration of the muscle… a slow degeneration. The best a doctor can do for you, when diagnosed with ALS, is put a clock on the table and give you the amount of time you have left.
… and I was thinking, could you say Doc was lucky to have that clock- to have the opportunity to lay on his death bed and know what was to come? Or would it be more comforting to leave this earth in an untimely instance? Whatever the answer may be, it was the way Doc went out that intrigues the hell out of me more than anything. I remember him being somewhat of a grouch, a little out of sorts, kind of forgetful (brain muscles degenerate as well with ALS). It didn’t disturb me in the slightest. By this time, I’d visited numerous patients in bed, death bed, temporary hospital bedding, or what have you. My mother’s been a clinical oncology cancer nurse since I’ve been able to read, and being a single parent sometimes required to bring along my sister and I to her work (Hennepin County Medical Center)… so in short, the smell of the room, the look of life leaving his body, and tick of the tubes and machines exiting and entering his skin… didn’t bug me. Again, it was his attitude… the way he was before he left his body.
What he obsessed more than anything, more than food, more than television, was his trombone mouth piece. He’d gripe for it from my grandmother and demand he be able to blow into it, just give it a buzz. To the untrained, a mouth-piece is a mouth-piece you blow into, whereas a musician knows if you blow correctly… the mouth piece buzzes. He obsessed to make the piece buzz… until his last breath.
As irrational and ridiculous it may seem for someone to take stake in making sounds with an object apart from themselves, could quite be what makes the most sense to them than anything else in the world. Doc spoke through the trombone, he made story through the trombone, he translated his soul through that thing and when it came time to let go- when he found that he could no longer make the piece buzz like he used to… he turned to my grandmother.
From what Carol, my grandmother, tells me; Doc would profess his love for her, hold her hand tight and thank her for how much she’s helped him through everything (no need to quantify that, we take on the weight of the world everyday, part of that whole being human deal.)
He was apologetic, thankful, grateful, and most of all loving. It’s not to say everything was Dinsey-picture-perfect with f’ng butterflies fluttering in the background. My grandfather lead a hell of a party filled with it’s share of broken glass, spilled beer, epic arguments, and dysfunction… seriously, who’s family hasn’t;) I’m simply saying that on the bed, the man didn’t repress anything. He emoted everything- let the words flow through him, no filter.
Uhh, it’s so a-typical to preach it, but that’s what I’ve been thinking lately, living by- walking with lately. These kind of shpiels aren’t manhood-builders or emasculating in any sense of the word… but I’ve submitted, jus a lil bit;) I’ve gotten absolutely no where in life wandering away from the place Doc was in on his death bed, and have gained a luxury of knowledge by simply surrendering.
… and I’m still thinking about it- haven’t generated a concrete opinion about the whole thing.
It makes me smile though. I’m proud of that guy. I’d be lucky to live up to half the greatness Doc accomplished while he was around. However, in the end, I'll be living up to myself... I'd just like to think that he'd be proud of me too. Well, this is me... getting there...