Here in Western New York, we're still reeling from Thursday night's horrific crash of a commuter plane into a house in Clarence, a few miles northeast of Buffalo and about an hour's drive west of us in Brockport (see the Buffalo News and Rochester Democrat and Chronicle for up-to-date coverage). When things like this happen in faraway places, we might read about it in the paper and watch coverage on television, but for the most part, it's another sad news story to us. When it happens this close to home, though, the mere fact that you know the place and people who live nearby affects one in a way that the same event wouldn't had it occurred in Poland, California, or even New York City. Moreover, it tends to involve people with whom you might share something personal, perhaps a hometown, an employer, a passion, or even friends and acquaintances.
In my case, I grew up in a small town (Grand Island) only a short drive from Clarence, and have some reenacting acquaintances who live there (they're all OK). My son and his wife live not far away in Amherst. Jill Wielinski, whose parents' house the plane crashed into (and who, thank God, survived with her mother, though she lost her father) is a senior at SUNY Brockport, which is less than a mile down the street from my home. Ellyce Kausner, a passenger on the plane, was a Clarence native attending Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville, Florida, where my parents live. That plane was like a microcosm of society; the stories of the passengers and crew reveal that they were of every age and background, and of every station and walk of life. They were all full of dreams and experiences, and had given--and were eager to give--so much more to their families, friends, and communities.
The passing of two of the passengers, though, affected me especially deeply--and my personal connections with them were minimal at best. Gerard "Gerry" Niewood and Coleman Mellett were extraordinary musicians who played in Chuck Mangione's band, among their many other associations in the jazz world. They were flying into Buffalo to play with Mangione on Friday night at Kleinhans Music Hall (needless to say, that concert was canceled).
I first heard Gerry Niewood (a Rochester native and graduate of the University of Buffalo and the Eastman School of Music) playing reeds on the original Friends & Love concert recording with Mangione and the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra back in the early 70s, when I was still a teenager (that concert, featuring the stunning piece "Hill Where the Lord Hides", catapulted Mangione to national prominence). His virtuosity just blew me away, and I've followed him ever since. I was privileged to finally see and hear him live at the Friends & Love Reunion concert in Rochester, NY in May 2007--the greatest concert I ever saw--and he was just as incredible then (I tried to get his autograph on my copy of the original F&L LP after the concert, but he was too far to the back of the stage by the time I got there, so I had to "settle" for getting drummer Steve Gadd's signature). Go to Gerry's MySpace Music page and sample some of his breathtakingly beautiful music.
Also on stage at F&L2 was Coleman Mellett, on guitar. I wasn't familiar with him then, but as a young man, he stood out from the "old" Mangione henchmen. He played a couple of solos, and it struck me then what a terrific talent he was. I found out later that he was the husband of jazz singer Jeanie Bryson, daughter of the late, great Dizzy Gillespie and songwriter Connie Bryson. What a team they made! To sample his exquisite guitaring, go to "Coley's'' MySpace Music page.
Music is indeed the universal language and the highest form of poetry; nothing moves the soul like it, and that goes as much for great jazz as it does for the greatest classical music. When a master whose works you've treasured passes on, you feel diminished inside. The sun doesn't shine quite as brightly, at least for a while. And it's that much harder to take when the loss is as sudden and tragic as this one.
As the father of a jazz musician (Colin, standup and electric bass), I've learned what a close-knit community they are: jamming together; playing in each other's bands, formally or ad-hoc; teaching and learning from each other. It's like a big, raucous family. A loss like this pierces to their hearts and will reverberate for a long time. By the same token, Niewood and Mellett will be remembered and talked about, and their talent celebrated, as long as there are jazz musicians. How hard it is to accept that the heavenly music these men made will never be added to on this earth. We'll just have to be good and go where they've gone to hear more.