Still Young At 95
or How I learned that to Give is to Receive
In 1976 I made two decisions which shaped the course of my life for the next 20 years. These decisions were not fully conscious; they came about from the inertia of who I thought I was.
I was living in Buffalo, New York at the time, studying musical composition at the University, and devoting most of my energies to playing and learning jazz piano. One evening I was listening to Tommy Schuman, then Buffalo’s wonder-child of jazz piano, and a member of the band Spyro Gyra, in a solo performance.
The thought entered my mind, “I could do this. I could be up there on stage making incredible music and being successful.” Another thought followed immediately; “people will be jealous.” At that point I decided that the pain of other people’s negative feelings directed at me would be too high a price to pay for that vision to be fulfilled, and a hopeful part of me retreated into a safe, sad place.
A few weeks later I was up on that same stage playing with the house band for a jam-session night. This was the best venue in town and I was happy to have been hired. All went well until two conga players sat in with the band. The band leader miked their drums in such a way that I could hardly hear the piano. As this was my first night in this situation, I was afraid I’d rock the boat if I said anything. So I kept my mouth shut and played harder. Soon I was playing at my peak limit of strength and speed and starting to feel stress in my tendons. On top of this an electric guitarist sat in, setting up his amp under the piano, right in front of the piano mic. After this, in order to hear myself at all I had to use all my strength on each note. By the end of that set, I was playing in great pain.
My friends in the audience had no idea what was going on and were extremely impressed by my playing that night. As for me, I went home in a lot of pain.
The second decision was to get back together with an old band and to move out to the midwest because the bass player had a house and a day-job there. I was reluctant to go since opportunities were happening for me in Buffalo, but with the pleading of the guys, I agreed to give it a try.
I went to Evansville, Indiana with the band and it didn’t work. The bass player didn’t have much time to practice, because of the pressures of his job, and the one night-a-week gig the band had ended with bad feelings all around. The pain in my arms continued to return whenever I had to lift heavy objects (like my keyboards) or play the piano, and I decided to return to Buffalo.
Back home, my girfriend left for Boston to study jazz piano at the Berkley School of Music, and I moved back in with my parents in Niagara Falls. My fear of other people’s judgements had brought me to a place of pain and loss, and I even got to the point of fearing the pain so much that I took a leave of absence from performing for two years.
I continued to spiral downwards. My girlfriend, following her own heart found a new boyfriend, and I became almost immobile in my grief, finding almost no consolation, except for walking, which helped me feel a little better, and my daily doses of Star Trek and Hee Haw.
My parents took this all in stride, attending to my physical needs. When I got to the point that I could no longer drive, my father drove me once a week to a psychologist at the University of Buffalo. He had just retired, and always the scientist, created an elaborate checklist to monitor my progress. When the phone became too heavy for me to hold for very long, he rigged up the handset on a cupboard door so I wouldn’t have to lift it.
My mother intuitively knew that I had been following everybody elses heart but my own, but I was too closed down to understand these things and she simply did her best to take care of me as she had done for her arthritic mother as a young woman.
It was December and things were pretty bleak. In November I had contemplated contemplating suicide for a couple of days, but fortunately, my psychologist was able to turn me around by reminding me of my love for nature.
My father also reminded me of another love I had; the love of music. Since I couldn’t play the piano for more than a minute without pain, he set up my keyboard on the floor so I could pick out melodies with my feet. He even volunteered to write the music down on paper for me.
Even with all this, I continued to be bitter about the loss of my performing and my girlfriend. I desperately needed to turn around from my self pity.
My father brought me the opportunity. He announced one day that we had been invited to his father’s 95th birthday party, and suggested that I write a song for the occasion. “Grampop” was a feisty character and I loved the stories he would tell; the way he had sold $100 worth of newspapers on a street corner in Baltimore the day the Spanish-American War started, and the time he sold a vacuum cleaner to the Vice President’s wife.
I really didn’t want to be seen in the condition I was in, but I loved my grandfather, and I realized that I could make him happy and me happy at the same time. Picking out the notes on the keyboard with my feet, a happy little jazz tune began to be born. The first phrase fit perfectly with the words “He’s still young at 95, It’s a miracle for heaven sakes alive.” My favorite part was the bridge which said, “He walks, he talks, and acts like he’s only seventy.”
Writing and singing “He’s Still Young at 95” was a turning point for me. I learned that I could do something to make myself and other people happy, as opposed to focussing on the idea that someone will be unhappy if I’m doing what I love. By doing what gives me the greatest joy, there’s a better chance that if I’m with another person, we’ll both be happy. I can’t, nor do I want to, control anyone elses mood or actions. But I now give myself permission to follow my heart, and to speak my truth; and I welcome anyone who is willing to share my joy, whether it be through music, personally, or in spirit, to meet me in that joy.
In 1978 I began to play in public again and the warm Buffalo jazz community welcomed me back. I recorded “Still Young at 95” in 1980, then in 1985 on a solo piano album entitled ‘Solo Flight’, and again in 2008 on the jazz trio album “Sky Jazz.” I have continued to produce recordings, following my heart to the best of my ability, to this day.