A little while ago I went home to spend a few days with my mom and dad. At 85, Dad's been dealing with Alzheimer's for several years now, and Mom is dealing with the fact that her man and best friend of more than 60 years is slowly slipping away. Before I even got there, she warned me that the disease had been progressing.
"He doesn't even put his music on anymore," she told me over the phone. "He just isn't interested, it doesn't register."
For Dad, that's indeed a significant change. Music in general and jazz in particular has been a big part of his life. Joining the Air Force out of the hills of West "By God" Virginia had opened up the world to him, exposing him to people, places and cultures that he never would have experienced otherwise. The years that he was stationed in Kansas City, with its then-legendary jazz scene, were of special importance.
But that too has slipped away.
On my last day there, Mom asked me to do a couple of home projects. I began digging into Dad's toolchest, stored in the back of a closet and long untouched, and began pulling out the tools I would need. Drawn by the commotion, Dad appeared at my elbow, watching but saying nothing.
A few minutes later, I was standing up on a ladder and realized I needed a screwdriver. I started to climb down but Dad stopped me.
"Whatcha need, boy?"
"Uh, a screwdriver."
"OK. Phillips or standard?"
I looked at him, a little surprised.
"Phillips," I said, and sure enough, he reached into the toolbox, pulled out a Phillips-head screwdriver and handed it to me. I was a little surprised, and my mind flashed back to those years as a kid, handing tools to my father as he stood on a ladder or lay beneath the family car.
As our work continued, Dad got more and more engaged. He was always ready with the next tool I would need, and a couple of times he made suggestions on how to do something, and damned if he wasn't right. It was pretty amazing.
"Hey, you know what we need?" he said at one point. "We need some music!" He shuffled over to his stacks of CDs and made a selection, and a minute later the house was filled with music again.
Mom walked into the room with a big, befuddled grin on her face. She looked at her frail, thin husband bouncing to the rhythm, and at me up on the ladder.
"Did you do that?" she asked me.
"Nope. He did."
She looked at Dad, eyes shining, and her smile grew even bigger.
Dad smiled back, knowing that he must have done something good, even if he wasn't quite sure what it was. "Get out of here," he finally joked to her, a little embarrassed. "We guys got work to do."
We went back to work, and the music played on.
Anyway, here's a cut from the album that Dad played that day, which not coincidentally serves as a tribute to the greatest couple I know:
As that probably demonstrates, Dad had come of musical age in that awkward era after World War II, but before rock 'n roll took over the world. In that brief window in time, "The Four Freshmen" had been kings of the American music scene, topping the charts week after week. (Dad told me once that he didn't think much of the Beatles as musicians, but "boy, they sure know how to write a good song." That revelation came to him after jazz musicians had begun to reinterpret the Beatles songbook. )
And if the harmonies of the Freshmen sound familiar for some reason, you have a good ear. A kid growing up in California around that time by the name of Brian Wilson found their sound fascinating, tearing apart their arrangements and harmonies until he understood how to do it himself. From that, came the Beach Boys.