In June I moved to Vancouver from Prince Rupert, but a frustrating search for work threatened to destroy a sun-filled summer.
Being a saxophone player, and not wanting to hustle for a living on a congested street corner, blowing notes while inhaling fumes, I headed for the more serene surroundings of Douglas Park and set up shop on the smooth, closely cropped grass of the cricket green.
There, in the heat of the afternoon, as sprinklers whirred nearby, I provided impromptu concerts. I played my own compositions as well as old standards to a varying audience of joggers, pensioners, soccer players and sunbathers — even a city paving crew. Occasionally cars would pull over to the curb, drivers pausing to listen. I was told by an electrician on his lunch break that the sounds carried a block and a half.
Children were my greatest fans and gave the most genuine response. Younger children were mesmerized by the saxophone’s glimmering tube of brass and peered into the bell, puzzled by all the levers, pads and plumbing. Older children approached me tentatively when alone, boldly when in groups. One boy decided I was a jukebox. “Play something happy,” he insisted. I played a rousing rendition of “In the Mood.” Satisfied, he then said, “Play something sad.” So I played Billie Holliday’s “God Bless the Child.” “No, no,” he interrupted, “play something happy again.” So again I played “In the Mood.”
As I began “In the Mood,” picking up the beat, some of the children rose up as a group and began bebopping their way across the playing field. Swallows swooped and darted in the early evening light. Suddenly the children began chasing them, squealing with delight, children and swallows crisscrossing in a wildly syncopated pattern, all accented by the tones of the saxophone.
Another afternoon I was lying in the shade taking a “lip break.” A beautiful little girl wheeled over to me on her tricycle and, with a broad smile, said, “I like your music.” Then she turned around briskly, heading back to the sidewalk to join her mother.
The most poignant moment occurred on a dog day afternoon. The playing field was empty and I was a solitary figure with my saxophone and jug of water. I noticed that a man had pulled his car over to the curb, in the shade of a tree, and was listening intently to my music. There were two other people in the car.
After a few moments the man got out of the car, opened the trunk, took out a blanket and stretched out on the grass, lost in reverie. I was a bit taken aback and honored by this sudden, appreciative audience. I hunkered down, carefully attending to each note. I played song after song, and the man with the dapper mustache, in his late fifties, dressed in shorts and sandals, never lost his concentration.
Finally, I too stretched upon the grass. After a few moments he walked over to me. “I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your music,” he said. “Would you mind coming over and meeting my son? He’d like to thank you for your music. He, ah, has cancer.”
I walked with the man back toward his car. In the passenger seat was a handsome young man in his early twenties, his body withered, his hair fallen out in splotches from chemotherapy. He spoke haltingly, his voice lethargic from drugs and disease. As he labored to talk, his wife, eyes radiant, massaged his shoulders. Compassion filled the car with a tangible presence. He was dying; but it seemed to me they had all come to terms with it. All three of them had accepted the inevitable, and each moment together was precious. Neither I nor my saxophone would be forgotten.
We talked about my music, and I told them about my travels. I once played on a remote beach in the Queen Charlotte Islands; it was morning and the air was still, the water placid; across the inlet two Haida boys were collecting octopus from among the rocks and they could hear me — five miles away.
And I told them about my newfound, open air studio — the city park — about the sunbathers, the joggers, the kids. I told them about the little boy who had requested a “happy song” then a “sad song.”
The father was very taken by my tales. He asked that I play the “sad song.” So I returned to the center of the field and started playing “God Bless the Child.” Barely able to contain my grief, biting hard upon the reed, controlling my breath, channeling my emotion into every note, I finally finished the “sad song.”
Then I played the “happy song” — “In the Mood.” They waved and drove away. And I remained in the center of the field, moved by the realization that music at its simplest and most profound was a salve for the soul.
The preceding story was written last October from notes scribbled that hot day in August when I met the young man with cancer.
In the middle of November I received a call from his father, who had kept my phone number. He told me that his twenty-four-year-old son had succumbed to the disease and that before he died he had requested that I play my saxophone at his funeral.
Honored and awed, I accepted. I was aware of the responsibility. You can’t be hip or cool at a funeral. There can be no frills or flourishes — every note has to ring true.
I learned that the dead man’s first name was Stuart — the same as mine — and I learned some things about his brief life.
At first there had been hope for him. But after major surgery and extensive treatments, the cancer worsened. Within two years he was transformed from a young, easy-going athlete — a kick boxer and windsurfer — into a wizened man barely able to walk, then bedridden, finally motionless. Even his lips could not move. But his eyes were alert and riveted on those around him.
The memorial service was at Saint John’s Shaughnessy. About 350 people were there. There was an organ prelude, then a hymn was sung, a psalm was read and the Bible quoted. There was a pause, then Stuart’s father stepped forward and introduced me to the congregation. From the back of the church I began playing “God Bless the Child.”
As I started, I felt my fingers tremble with stage fright. Then a shudder passed through me. Suddenly I felt calm. My breath was full, assured. I became transported, moulding each note in total concentration. Sensing the joy within the sorrow, I finished on an E-flat, carefully expelling the air to sustain the note, and it rebounded against the stone walls of the cathedral and wavered over the congregation.
There was silence. I slumped into a pew, exhausted. I thought of the black jazz bands in New Orleans at the turn of the century, marching to the cemetery playing “When the Saints Go Marching In” in a slow, mournful cadence; then, when the funeral was over, strutting back to town, playing the same song in a jubilant, triumphant tempo. And their notes would carry for miles across the delta marshland.
First the sad song, then the happy song.
Another version of this story previously appeared in The Province, a newspaper in Vancouver, British Columbia.