Song for My Father

A son remembers his brilliant father, as man and musician

Julian and Larry Coryell (photo courtesy of the artist)
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Julian Coryell (photo by Katja Livingston)
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Larry Coryell's 11th House (from left): Julian Coryell, Larry Coryell, Randy Brecker, Alphonse Mouzon, John Lee (photo courtesy of Silverlake Media/Savoy Jazz)
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When the guitarist Larry Coryell died on Feb. 19 at age 73, he left much in his wake: a fiery album by his band 11th House, titled Seven Secrets and released June 2; a legacy as a fusion pioneer whose musical curiosities knew no bounds; and a large and loving family. Just a few days after Coryell’s death, his family, friends and fans gathered at the SGI-USA Buddhist Center in New York, to grieve and reflect on a radiant life that nevertheless saw many personal and professional challenges. Among the most moving tributes was a eulogy by his son Julian, the L.A.-based guitarist, singer and songwriter. An edited and condensed version of these remarks originally appeared in the July/August issue of JazzTimes.

Whether we know it or not, we all have calculated a personal number that corresponds to the final age of someone we love. It’s the number we expect them to reach before they depart, and you’ll find that that number exists for those you love most (and for yourself). It’s a wonky equation based mostly on emotions and wishes—a number that allows us to feel like this time on Earth is equitable and fair. I had a number in mind for my father. I can tell you, it wasn’t 73.

We had a memorial service in New York a few days after he passed. The grief was so palpable then. Having lost my mother, I know time takes you through many stages of loss. In one way, the mitigation of that pain is proportionate to the amount of time that passes. But in another way, you learn time doesn’t exist. You learn that time is just a human construct to try and cope with the inevitable and the unfathomable and the terrifying.

Still, in the space between Feb. 19 and today, my perspective has shifted. Today I can see my father lived a very good life—by rights, perhaps a longer one than expected.

When I was a boy, he was on a destructive tear, locked in a battle to see what could be greater, his art or his demise. Back then, his destiny seemed clear. I often felt raised by wolves. But then one day he miraculously changed. And once he did, he never looked back. He became an altogether different man—a very good man, but different from the one I called Dad.

Sometimes we must give up certain things to get others. Everything shifted when he finally made those major lifestyle changes. As one friend put it, he learned to replace a whole lot of destructive behaviors with constructive ones. And from then on, my father’s unwavering commitment to this contrary path is the force I credit with him living as long as he did—along with, of course, the music and his family. That radical change we saw in him cannot be denied by those who knew him before and after. No doubt he was complex. But somewhere in that layer cake of all things hellish and holy was a very, very pure nugget of his higher nature. And when he accessed that, he was finally able to transcend the lower world that had shaken him for so long. It added years to his life, especially considering how recklessly he once lived.

So in that light, I suppose it was a pretty fair span. And he did live, for the most part, a wonderful and extraordinary life. He accomplished things most only dream of, and never stopped dreaming of things to accomplish.

We almost lost him last summer, then he magically bounced back, and I got used to the idea that he’d be around for a while. For that reason, his passing still feels unexpected and painful. I’d just begun to enjoy the luxury of being able take his presence for granted, and I really loved that. I loved getting too many phone calls about nothing. I loved Sunday-morning Skype sessions with the grandkids. I loved talking of future plans—of gigs yet to be played, new musical projects, new mountains he set his sights on climbing. And I really loved talking about music with him. I wish I could give you a window into how unbelievable it was to have your hero be your father. To ask Superman how he flies … and then have him show you. I will miss that the most.

On the bad days, the hurt is very much connected to the shock of his sudden departure; on the better days, I can truly see what a full and complete life he had. Selfishly, I just wanted more.

One of his friends said to me, “He came here to do what he needed to do.” And he did it. Yes, yes you did, Dad.

It’s human nature to normalize the deepest hurt once enough time gets in front of it. It’s the only way we can go on. But he deserves more than that. I have the rest of my days to speak of his passing in succinct tones and platitudes. Here, there’s space to laugh and smile and celebrate the life of an extraordinary individual; but also to cry, wail and grieve. And I must. Because time has a way of taming our courage and vulnerability with earthly comforts and failing memory. Ofttimes the most authentic thoughts can only come in the immediate aftermath when something like this happens. With that in mind, I will share the eulogy I wrote for his New York memorial five days after he passed.

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I look at my father through three lenses. There’s the lens of a fan: He was a god to me, a man who could do anything he wanted on the guitar. I’ve never known anyone else like him in that way. His technical ability was matched only by his vision. He had no boundaries, no prejudices. I think his only goal was to take a piece of something he liked and find a way to recycle it that was original. He was fearless on his instrument. He used it to destroy expectations and genres. As a fan, I always got a certain kind of voyeuristic thrill watching him play. The intimacy he shared with his guitar, and his ability to never let a roomful of strangers interfere with that, still leaves me in awe. Whatever eccentricities he acquired were earned. No one put my face on magazine covers or wrote about me in history books. But they did for him. He was a test question on my History of Jazz final at Berklee! (I got that one right, by the way.) I’ve often wondered what it must have felt like to fly so close to the sun so young, only to spend the rest of your life fighting gravity—gravity that brings you ever closer to this world. And he’s left us. But this world remains. I will look to the sun the rest of my days and wonder, “What must it be like up there?”

As a peer I know all too well how fragile most musicians are. We’re awful people in a way. We lock ourselves in a room for years and hope one day we’ll get to come out when we’ve made one tiny part of ourselves flawless. But still … did you ever really listen to Larry? On the good nights he had no equal, and on the bad nights he fell on his ass so spectacularly you loved him even more! He made all the phonies shake in their boots because he didn’t give a fuck. So authentic! So in the moment! God, I admire that! Such courage. (I don’t see enough of that in young musicians today.)

I feel endless gratitude I was lucky enough to be part of the family business. I had unparalleled access to such a rare level of excellence, expertise and artistry. Many guitarists have transcribed his solos. I did too, but when I had a question, I could walk into the next room and ask him how he did it! One time I had a student who played one of Dad’s solos for a jury at his university. Unbeknownst to him, Dad was watching on Skype. When the kid finished I turned the phone around and Dad told him he did a pretty good job. Poor kid turned white as a ghost!

As a peer he set the bar impossibly high. Perhaps one day I too will try my hand at Rhapsody in Blue or The Rite of Spring on guitar. Perhaps I too will one day be the architect of a genre. And eventually, maybe I’ll also write entire operas based on the works of Tolstoy and Joyce. Fuck! I’m still trying to figure out how to play “All the Things You Are” correctly. As a fan and a peer I share the same feeling many do that Dad was often on the edge of something. He was brave enough to try things first that others refined later and, maybe not surprisingly, had more marketplace success with. I cannot count the times famous guitarists I admired conceded to me privately that they had copped more than a few ideas from him. But that is my bitterness more than my father’s. In the end he didn’t seem to care much about the glory. Don’t get me wrong; he was human. But when prodded about it, he’d always sort of shrug his shoulders and say, “Who cares? Lemme show you what I’m working on now!”

On the flight to New York I was watching a movie, going in and out of grief. At some point I got lost in whatever I was watching and thought, “Dad would like this movie.” I wanted to call him, then remembered picking up the phone was no longer an option. And that was my relationship with him. I called him Peter Pan because he was always flying away—always just out of reach, even when we were in the same room. In many ways, he never grew up. No one could make me feel old like my dad, if that makes any sense. To this day, when I really think of who he was, I’m reminded I’m not so old, and that life can and should be a jam, and that no matter what, things are never as serious as you think.

He was a pretty kooky dad. No football in the yard. But when I wanted to know how to play “Joy Spring” at 8 years old, he was Johnny-on-the-spot. From a certain point of view I could say he lived a dualistic life, a “do as I say, not as I do” kind of life. But from another angle his consistency resided in his need to be authentic in each moment. He lived as he played: guided by his muse, beholden to very little and prone to capricious shifts, apropos of seemingly nothing. And yet, like his music, I can tell you he taught me to integrate, to love everyone and everything, to have no prejudices save only one: Avoid low-quality experiences at all costs! Failure is necessary for growth, but steer clear of wasted energy. Know when it’s time to turn the page. And when you go, go big or go home, even if home is forever changing.

After my mother passed, I realized forgiveness and harmony are paramount in all relationships. And while it’s true that if you don’t hold someone accountable they can get away with murder, in a way, they also can’t hurt you. I learned to keep my father in my life by asking very little of him, and I was rewarded with his company from time to time. That’s all a boy really wants, just a little time with his dad. But he belonged to so many. He belongs to the world. I squeezed the juice out of the lemon that was our relationship, made it as sweet as I could. I learned to make him laugh, to praise him and even, occasionally, to impress him.

When we almost lost him last summer, I’d made peace with his seemingly imminent departure. How incredibly lucky we all were to get an encore these last few months with the man we loved!

Larry the man is gone. But Larry the artist is immortal. Any of us, at any time, can press a button or click a link and be with him once more, with his genius, his excellence and his soul. I hope you never forget that. In my childish mind, I make up that Dad and Mom are together again now. Mike Brecker’s there too, and so is my uncle Alphonse Mouzon, and Victor Bailey and “The Count,” Steve Marcus, and that list goes on and on. And they are playing, mom by his side. She’s beautiful, inspirational, happy and singing … out of tune. But these are the sentimental wishes of a little boy.

As I’ve grown older and become more accomplished on the guitar, I’m occasionally approached by someone telling me I’m giving Dad a run for his money. Well, that’s kind of like saying my kid’s better at using the iPhone than me. But you know what? My dad invented the iPhone.