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Loss and Grief in the Jazz Community

From the coronavirus pandemic to the storming of the Capitol, the events of the past 12 months have left the jazz community—like the rest of the world—mired in deep pain. How can we cope with it all?

Kenny Werner
“The motivation was stronger than any I’d ever had”: Kenny Werner (photo: Alessandra Freguja)

When Kenny Werner’s daughter Katheryn was killed in a 2007 car accident, the pianist had been commissioned to write a piece for the MIT Wind Ensemble. As he and his wife Lorraine grieved the loss, she asked Werner repeatedly when he would call to cancel the project. He continually delayed, unsure whether or not to proceed; it was during an escape to Puerto Rico that the composition that became No Beginning, No End began to take shape.

“The trip to Puerto Rico was the first time we were alone [since the accident],” Werner said, “and the first night we thought, ‘Boy, was this a mistake.’ We went to dinner and everybody there was on vacation. We’re the only two people grieving. But there are times when you transcend the physical reaction and move into a transcendent state. Somewhere along the way I woke up one morning in one of these states and I wrote a poem which [expressed] my understanding of death through my faith tradition. That’s when I knew that I had a piece to write.”

The experience of writing No Beginning, No End was a unique one in his prolific four-decade career, Werner continued. “The motivation was stronger than any motivation I’d ever had. I’d never felt much motivation to write a piece of music except that everybody like and respect it. Let’s face it, composing in a less-than-pop venue is mostly a vanity project anyway. But this was so driven that from that point on I started writing day and night. I really felt like I was expressing something with music rather than just writing music. I honestly couldn’t write anything for a long time afterwards because I missed the passion that I had to write this piece.”

Pianist Falkner Evans is still navigating the early stages of that process. On May 19, 2020, two months into the lockdown, Evans’ wife Linda Huntington succumbed to her longtime struggle with depression and took her own life. For the initial period after her death he found himself unable to focus on music in any form.

“When you go through something like this, the first 10 days to two weeks are just crushing,” he said. “I would sit down at the piano and could only play for five or six minutes; my attitude was, ‘This is what I’ve done all my life and it will come back to me.’ Then I was visiting Linda’s brother and he had a beat-up old upright piano in the basement. I went down and played for three and a half hours and liked what I heard… I’ve been working on a solo record for her, and I feel a lot better because I feel like I’m making something positive out of the situation.”

One of the close friends that Evans turned to for emotional support was drummer Matt Wilson, who lost his wife Felicia to leukemia in 2014. A musician and educator herself, Felicia had been close to the members of Wilson’s several bands. So when it came time to commemorate her, the drummer felt the most fitting vehicle would be a celebration that convened all those musicians as a single ensemble, Big Happy Family. The result was the joyful and embracing 2016 album Beginning of a Memory.

“It was such a great experience,” Wilson recalled. “Just to gather all those characters; there was nobody there who was there just to do the date. They all knew that it was a special gathering. I remember people telling stories and reminiscing, funny stuff. We went into it with minimal arrangements, just people being together and playing, letting the spirit guide them. I think she was the central bond that allowed that to happen, symbolically and realistically.”

“What I’m feeling in my work is an expression of solidarity, of helping each other and knowing that people have it worse than you do, even though we’re all locked down.”—Dave Douglas

It took drummer Jeremy Cunningham nearly a decade to conceive a piece of music that would tell the story of his brother Andrew, who was killed in a 2008 home-invasion robbery. Released early in 2020, The Weather Up There combines interview snippets with Andrew’s family and friends with a vibrant collage of music crafted by some of Chicago’s finest improvisers, including co-producer Jeff Parker, Makaya McCraven, Mike Reed, and Jaimie Branch.

“I’ve been trying to figure out how to write music about and for my brother for a long time,” Cunningham said. “I wanted to wait until I felt like I could do his memory justice and honor him properly. I wanted to tell the story because I thought that it was important to let people know what it feels like to have this happen to you. We see these things so often in the news cycle, but I don’t think a news story can quite convey the impact. It ripples out and affects so many lives. I felt like there was a way to combine personal narrative with music and get this emotional feeling across to people whether they knew me or not.”

Deaths related to gun violence inextricably link personal grief with political conflict. The tensions roiling the country in recent years only intensified in the leadup to and aftermath of the 2020 presidential election, while the turbulence of protests over police brutality and the visceral reactions to the Black Lives Matter movement have only added more stressors to the months lived under lockdown.

The balance between the personal and the political was one that Cunningham had to confront throughout the creation of The Weather Up There. “I think it’s pretty sad that this has become a political issue,” the drummer lamented. “I understand why people fight so ferociously to maintain their rights to bear arms, but it just doesn’t hold water in the modern world. So I wanted to make a statement, but my main motivation was to tell my brother’s story. I do hope that if people who are on the fence hear my record, it might push them to start to take some political action. But I needed to do this for myself, I needed to do this for my family, and I needed to do this for my brother.”

As Greene explained around the release of While Looking Up, music can express frustration over contentious issues like gun violence while also offering an escape from such worldly concerns. “I can talk about my personal journey through our family’s tragedy, and I can also look outside of myself and see the chaos that’s become normalized in our society and our country,” he said. “In both instances we can walk away feeling angry and disillusioned, and in many ways hopeless. But I’m always reminded of a quote from my pastor, who said, ‘If I’m not able to find strength or peace by looking inward, or [by] looking outward to my immediate surroundings, I have to look upward.’ Music at its best transforms us and transports us to somewhere else. You need some time where you’re not bombarded with the harsh realities of this world, where you can temporarily lose yourself in something that’s beautiful and impactful.”

After suffering the loss of two family members in a short period of time, trumpeter Dave Douglas released two very different albums processing those emotions. He commemorated his mother through the soulful hymns of Be Still in 2012 and dealt with the shock and anger over the sudden passing of his brother on 2015’s Brazen Heart. And while he recognizes the parallels between his grief in that period and our current situation, he feels a vital difference that’s directly related to the political activism that has driven his music in recent years.

“Those projects were forced on me by life circumstance,” he said. “In having put them out and toured the music, I felt like they brought me closer to the person they were dedicated to. I feel like this is a different sort of grief because it’s so universal and we’re all sharing it… What’s being called from us is to be in community, to be a movement, to make the work have a greater purpose. We have to make the music have more of a message as a survival mechanism.

“Rather than this being a time for expression of grief, what I’m feeling in my work is an expression of solidarity, of helping each other and knowing that people have it worse than you do, even though we’re all locked down.”

Shaun Brady

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture, and travel. Brady contributes regularly to the Philadelphia Inquirer and JazzTimes and Jazziz magazines, with subjects ranging from legendary artists to underground experimentalists. His byline has appeared in DownBeat, Metro, NPR Music, and The A.V. Club, among other outlets. He studied filmmaking at Columbia College Chicago and continues to spend too much time in the dark.