One of John’s earliest memories is her singing voice, sweet and pitted and gravelly. Not in a deep, growling, Louis Armstrong kind of way, but in the way that water washes over sand—gentle, and just perfectly blemished by a pocked, rushing sound. Her voice, once beautiful and robust, was ever-after spoiled by a childhood bout of asthma, she said. But it was his mother’s voice that read to him every day. It was her voice that pushed him forward when he languished. And it was her lovely, flawed voice that sang him the English “ditties” that filled his head with the melodies and harmonies that would form his life.
Times were lean, but the family made the sacrifice to ensure that their children would be blessed with access to music. John started on the clarinet with weekly lessons and a seat in the school band, while Benny Goodman slowly lost a popular following. But John’s clarinet served him well until the day that his father dared him to make some money with this music business. For his next birthday John was gifted a saxophone, and, after changing his weekly clarinet lessons for sax lessons, he started his first dance band. They quickly enjoyed local notoriety, earning eight dollars for a three-hour gig.
It was a way to earn some money, sure. But it was more than that. It was intoxicating. Delicious. And it was just the opening number.
John rode the bus with two blue suits, a finely honed sense of duty, and five other untested missionaries to the Spanish-American mission. Three months later his saxophone followed by post.
John’s jazz arrangements became his supplementary gospel discussions. He orchestrated elaborate dances designed to foster unity between the Spanish-speakers and the “Anglos” in New Mexico. He baptized the family members and sweethearts of those participating in his celestial 7-piece combo. Of course, the weekend gigs put some money in his pocket, too.
The branch in Las Cruces was especially in need of some fine-tuning. So John, as District President, transferred himself to the small town just north of the Mexican border. Joan was the first member he met. She had green eyes, a tall, slender frame, and a biting wit, brash like Dizzy Gillespie’s horn cutting through a well-behaved wind section. It shocked John at first; this playful, attractive woman making lunch for the missionaries seemed in complete dissonance with her caustic sense of humor. During that lunch appointment John insulted Joan’s cooking. Then, when trying to casually sit on the countertop, he accidently turned on the stove-top and burned a hole in his pants.
Joan was a self-taught pianist, but what she lacked in formal training she made up for in gumption. So when John needed a pianist for the Las Cruces arm of his mission-wide dance band, she heartily agreed. Members and investigators alike waltzed and trotted and swung around the dance floor to the music so skillfully lead by John and so enthusiastically accompanied by Joan.
That night he wrote in his journal, “I seem to have found my wife here in Las Cruces.”
He immediately transferred out of the area and didn’t return until two years to the day that he had entered the mission field. Four months after that John made his solo a duo.
John was in the room the day his granddaughter came home from fourth grade announcing that she wanted to be in the school band. He handed her the small black case—a flute that Joan had bought from a thrift shop and taught herself how to play in the later years of their marriage. The red velvet lining of the case was worn bare in places, and the flute itself was tarnished from disuse in the years since Joan had been diagnosed with four different cancers. The outside of the case was cold and dusty from being stored for almost a year since she had died. John showed his granddaughter how to tighten her lips and blow over the hole in the instrument’s headpiece. It made a low, hollow-sounding tone that first time, but both her tone and skill improved as she played that flute for the next eight years.
One day, John brought out another small black case. He handed his granddaughter a book of music. They sat down together on a piano bench and he pulled out his old clarinet, wetting the reed as he taught her how to swing her notes. He gave her a downbeat and they read through the arrangements of “Satin Doll,” “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” and “Five-foot Two.” They played on Sundays after church and on weekends at her high school band fundraisers. They played at family gatherings, and when everyone was together he would even get out his saxophone and a stack of old, yellowing scores, tattered with use. Sometimes they pulled together a five-piece band. Other times it was just a duet.
The February before John died, his granddaughter visited home with her husband and two kids. John’s hair had thinned from the chemotherapy, and his chops weren’t as strong as they used to be, but he still opened the music book. Together, they sat at the piano and swung through “Satin Doll.” He was a little slower than he used to be. A little quieter. His tone was marked with static and intermittent squeaks—a result of his weakened embouchure. But it was that lovely, flawed tone that sustained his granddaughter a few months later at his funeral. The final, lingering notes of a song.
A husband, two kids, and a new pregnancy meant her flute had grown cold in the year since her grandfather’s death. But one day “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” came on in the car. She felt a jump, low and deep in her belly.
A life quickening to the Duke’s swinging ivories and the sultry sound of a jazz saxophone.