My friend died today. My mentor. Someone who has meant so much to me as a musician, a man, is no longer with us in body. I don’t know what exactly to say about the death of someone that I’ve been so intimately entangled with for so long. He was a partner in the truest sense of the word, someone who for my entire adult life has been present and willing to traverse the rocky terrane of my personal development. He showed me love. He showed me compassion. He invited me into his life with a kind of openness that I have rarely experienced. Bob shepherded me through breakups, recordings, rehearsals, triumphs, sorrows, death, my education as a composer and a human – the list really goes on and on.
I started studying with Bob at the tender age of eighteen. I went to Boston because Bob was there. I studied with him for four years, until he left New England Conservatory for heath reasons the summer before my first year in graduate school. I think he still owes me a couple of lessons, actually. The photo up top was following my second Jazz Composer’s Orchestra concert at New England Conservatory. I wrote a floaty piece that was very derivative of Maria Schneider, though at the time I don’t think I could have acknowledged that. My first lesson after the show he told me he was proud of me but it was time I graduated from “pretty,” and started writing lines. I’ve never stopped.
Bob insisted I be an individual. He insisted this of all his students and could be quite obstinate about it. He knew that I was never going to be Maria Schneider (who he loved!), no matter how much I tried. And I really, really tried. He knew a lot about me as a person, and spent an amazing amount of time with me investigating who I was and what my sensibilities were, be they political, musical, etc. He knew I was kidding myself writing what he lovingly referred to as ”vanilla-fudge.”
Through his prodding and guidance I came to realize that I had been writing in a style that was easily liked and externally validated; it was pretty, light, meandering, and sensuous in its own way, but it wasn’t me. He gave me the confidence to eschew “an easy get,” as he used to say from the audience and search for something more intrinsically myself. He taught this by example, as his own music’s arc demonstrates. Bob introduced me to Kurt Weill, who I have been imbibing passionately ever sense, a decade long love affair and still going strong. He held meet and greets in his Jordan Hall studio with Bartok, Ligiti, Earl Brown (who had been a mentor of Bob’s), and countless other composers who he knew I would gravitate towards. I did. All of them, actually, to my surprise in many cases.
To that end, Bob also – this time literally – introduced me to my other great mentor, teacher, life-model, Vince Mendoza, who I contacted at Bob’s behest. Once my association with Vince began, Bob always asked after him when we spoke. I’m not sure if they were close but their mutual respect for the other’s craft was apparent in every word the two spoke of one another. I think the word Vince used to describe his feelings towards Bob was genuflection, a new and strange and entirely exotic word for a non-Catholic to hear and understand fully, but one that I now see as a bit of eunoia. Bob was a kind of priestly figure in our art. The introduction to Vince’s sound world was game changing for me. Bob knew I would love Vince’s music. I did. I do.
Bob took the time to know me. Not what I wore as a mask, but the marrow. Through all of this he provoked me into being original. He fought me and I him, but in the end I was able to see into myself in a way that had previously eluded me. He showed me who I was. He lifted the veil. Every time I sit down to write, I compose more earnest music than would be possible had he not taken the time to know my core, and champion my own intrinsic value. What I learned from Bob was less about music and more about honesty and the cultivation of an accurate sense of self. He had both of those things in spades. He was deeply honest.
When I got the news I was writing an arrangement for a concert coming up in January. A few minutes before I heard of his passing, I finished a section of the tune where I had written some very prickly counterpoint and had remarked to myself that “Bob would approve.” It is strange to think that now that “would,” which occasionally floats into my mind while I’m writing will now be a would’ve. The idea of shifting from present to past-tense is jarring and scary. It is just so sad, loosing him, and I can’t help but think he will remain very much in the present-tense in my mind moving forward. How could he not?
I want to share the letter I sent him on his eightieth birthday, which I think has a clarity that I am currently unable to muster in my current state. His reply was so Bob. I got an email back that said, “I did all that? Feeling very warm. A very happy birthday indeed! Love, BB.”
On your eightieth birthday I can’t seem to find the appropriate words to express the ineffable impact you have had on my life. I can’t imagine what being on this planet for eighty years feels like, but I would imagine that, as the years progress one might begin to look at their time on this world in a more reflective way than in one’s youth. And to that end, on this day in your life, I would like to share a few thoughts about my experience with you, and really, of you that has helped shape my world in a positive way.
In no particular order I think you should know that you: taught me to own it; cared for me; guided me; challenged me; let me challenge you; hugged me; showed me what it means to be engaged; shot the shit with me; told me I was wrong; told me I was right; gave me your time; broke bread with me; shared your life’s history; made me feel welcome in your life; let me just be; accepted my faults; developed my core; lead me through rough spots; acknowledged the smooth ones; let me feel satisfied with myself; asked me why; made me do it over and over and over again; reminded me why I do what I do; encouraged me; and most importantly you gave me something of yourself that has made it’s home in my art.
I can’t thank you enough for these things and while this letter fails to communicate my appreciation of this short and less than complete list, I hope you take from it that you have given me something special by giving me something of yourself these last seven years. So, happy birthday. Enjoy the cake and be well.