Haunting music

Thursday, April 8, 2010

April 8, 2010

Dear Leslie,

When my brother Scott was in high school, he and some musician friends planned to drive to a city an hour away for a concert by the jazz trumpeter Bill Chase. Then my grandfather died, and my brother couldn't go to the concert because the visitation was the same night. As our family and friends sat in the funeral home that October evening, gasps began erupting and word began spreading that three of the four boys had been killed in a car accident on the way to the concert.

Some people were shocked when my brother walked into the Pizza Inn, a local high school hangout, later that night. They'd assumed he was among the dead.

They'd been close, as musicians who play together awhile are. To be teenagers enthralled with jazz at the beginning of the rock 'n' roll 1970s was unusual. Their high school stage band had toured Europe the previous summer and recorded an album. Some were prodigiously talented.

Phil Cloud was already playing professionally as a drummer. Rick Samuel, a tenor saxophonist, was playing professionally too and sounded ready for bigger stages. In junior high school he used to rehearse the rock band they were trying to form in our dining room. They must have figured out early on that they didn't have rock 'n' roll hearts.

The third boy killed, Derek Proffer, had moved from California to live with his grandparents in Cape Girardeau just to play in the stage band he'd heard in Europe the previous summer. The fourth boy, Don Wilson, survived because he was thrown out of the car.

These memories surfaced last weekend at the Sheldon Concert Hall in St. Louis. The jazz concert reunited three musicians who grew up together in the St. Louis community called University City. Before and after the concert, a slide show of them performing and rehearsing together as boys flicked on the back wall. Then they were junior high schoolers born about the same year my brother's friends died, just having serious fun playing music.

The repartee from the stage and the warmth in the audience suggested many in the seats remembered those days well. The performers' smiles did too.

All three have top-drawer collective pedigrees -- Julliard, performances on all the late-night TV shows and concerts and recording with Wynton Marsalis, the saxophonist Joshua Redman and the bassist Christian McBride.

The pianist Peter Martin has performed with the symphony orchestras in Berlin, Sydney and New York and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. He moved his family back to St. Louis after Hurricane Katrina. He tours with jazz vocalist Dianne Reeves and teaches at Northwestern University in Chicago.

Trumpeter and vocalist Jeremy Davenport, doubtless as irrepressible in the seventh grade as he is now, still lives in New Orleans and holds forth at the Ritz-Carlton every weekend. He spent awhile touring with Harry Connick Jr.'s Big Band after training with Ellis Marsalis, Wynton and Branford's father.

The bassist Christopher Thomas has straddled both jazz and pop, including a stint as Macy Gray's music director. As a recent graduate of St. Louis' L'Ecole Culinaire, he could be readying for a new career.

Adding drummer Ulysses S. Owens Jr., the band played brilliantly, starting with "Moonglow" and ladling on music by Thelonious Monk and Billy Strayhorn and Hoagy Carmichael's "New Orleans."

"Just a Closer Walk With Thee," a traditional New Orleans funeral dirge, honored Davenport's drummer "Bunchy" Johnson, who had died unexpectedly the previous week at 57. Then a rollicking tune Davenport wrote for Bunchy that told the audience Bunchy still lives.

My brother has had a career as a country music keyboardist, playing with Joe Stampley, David Allan Coe and others. What Phil, Derek and Rick might have brought the world is unimaginable. Their loss is still haunting.

Love, Sam

Sam Blackwell is a former reporter for the Southeast Missourian.

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