Jan has done it again. She was moved by this letter, as was I. But it’s so much more than a son’s letter about his father. Jan sees it in the wider context.
By Jan Warrington
I didn’t cry until I read Wynton Marsalis’s love letter to his father Ellis, the great jazz pianist, who had died the day before, on April 2, 2020, from COVID-19. That was the same day when the body count in this country had risen to 6,098. The body count now stands at 14,262, six days later. If I check again in a few minutes, I’m guessing that count will have risen.
I’ve always known that Wynton was a great jazz trumpeter, but I never really knew his depth as a person. He wrote of his father: “His example for all of us who were his students (a big extended family from everywhere) showed us to be patient and to want to learn and to respect teaching and thinking and to embrace the joy of seriousness . . . ”
Grief, I’ve learned, is as much yearning as it is sadness. We want what used to be. I yearn for the way things were not long ago — weeks, really — the days when I fretted about a bad haircut or the carryout order without the extra pita bread. Today, they may seem embarrassingly trivial, but still, they were part of the fabric of my life.
I’ve felt a little teary for days. I felt teary on hearing of the death of my niece’s dear friend Ali’s grandmother from the virus. Ali is a continent away, and can’t come East to be with her family. And my aunt, an hour or so away, fell and broke her hip a couple days ago. She had to have surgery and has to stay in the hospital at such a scary time.
There are countless stories like these; you may know them first-hand. We see these painful stories each day in the news. I hope that those of you who are reading this can validate what you’re feeling — anger, sadness, frustration, confusion, or some combination of all of them — and know that those feelings are normal. And if you need to cry, please go ahead and cry. Crying is a great release, and it doesn’t mean that you’re weak. We can put a great deal of energy into trying to stop those tears from flowing, but guess what? Eventually they’ll pour out.
I urge all of you to read the full letter that Wynton Marsalis wrote to his father. (Frank has attached it at the bottom.) There is so much, much more in it than that one excerpt I quoted above. My brother-in-law Al once met Wynton and said to him, simply: “You’re a national treasure.” I don’t think I quite grasped that Al was speaking not just to Wynton’s musical talent but to his humanity. Can you imagine anyone ever saying of Donald Trump that he was patient, wanted to learn, was respectful of teaching? Embraced the joy of seriousness?
Now, I may laugh.
If research on the phases of grief offers any indication or comfort, like many of my fellow Americans I’ll be zigging and zagging between anger and sadness for a long time to come. Each day doesn’t so much bring a struggle with denial as much as with acceptance of what is happening to our beloved country and its glorious citizens. The anger and the sadness? They abide.
Here is Wynton Marsalis’s letter about his father:
My daddy passed away last night. We now join the worldwide family who are mourning grandfathers and grandmothers, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers— kinfolk, friends, neighbors, colleagues, acquaintances and others.
What can one possibly say about loss in a time when there are many people losing folks that mean so much to them? One of my friends lost both her mother AND father just last week. We all grieve and experience things differently, and I’m sure each of my five brothers are feeling and dealing in their own way.
My daddy was a humble man with a lyrical sound that captured the spirit of place–New Orleans, the Crescent City, The Big Easy, the Curve. He was a stone-cold believer without extravagant tastes.
Like many parents, he sacrificed for us and made so much possible. Not only material things, but things of substance and beauty like the ability to hear complicated music and to read books; to see and to contemplate art; to be philosophical and kind, but to also understand that a time and place may require a pugilistic-minded expression of ignorance.
His example for all of us who were his students (a big extended family from everywhere), showed us to be patient and to want to learn and to respect teaching and thinking and to embrace the joy of seriousness. He taught us that you could be conscious and stand your ground with an opinion rooted ‘in something’ even if it was overwhelmingly unfashionable. And that if it mattered to someone, it mattered.
I haven’t cried because the pain is so deep….it doesn’t even hurt. He was absolutely my man. He knew how much I loved him, and I knew he loved me (though he was not given to any type of demonstrative expression of it). As a boy, I followed him on so many underpopulated gigs in unglamorous places, and there, in the passing years, learned what it meant to believe in the substance of a fundamental idea whose only verification was your belief.
I only ever wanted to do better things to impress HIM. He was my North Star and the only opinion that really deep down mattered to me was his because I grew up seeing how much he struggled and sacrificed to represent and teach vital human values that floated far above the stifling segregation and prejudice that defined his youth but, strangely enough, also imbued his art with an even more pungent and biting accuracy.
But for all of that, I guess he was like all of us; he did the best he could, did great things, had blind spots and made mistakes, fought with his spouse, had problems paying bills, worried about his kids and other people’s, rooted for losing teams, loved gumbo and red beans, and my momma’s pecan pie. But unlike a healthy portion of us, he really didn’t complain about stuff. No matter how bad it was.
A most fair-minded, large-spirited, generous, philanthropic (with whatever he had), open-minded person is gone. Ironically, when we spoke just 5 or 6 days ago about this precarious moment in the world and the many warnings he received ‘to be careful, because it wasn’t his time to pass from COVID’, he told me,” Man, I don’t determine the time. A lot of people are losing loved ones. Yours will be no more painful or significant than anybody else’s”.
That was him, “in a nutshell”, (as he would say before talking for another 15 minutes without pause).
In that conversation, we didn’t know that we were prophesying. But he went out soon after as he lived—-without complaint or complication. The nurse asked him, “Are you breathing ok?” as the oxygen was being steadily increased from 3 to 8, to too late, he replied, ”Yeah. I’m fine.”
For me, there is no sorrow only joy. He went on down the Good Kings Highway as was his way, a jazz man, “with grace and gratitude.”
And I am grateful to have known him.