Some background on “The Lesson”:
On a Saturday in April 2001, I was driving home from the gym in San Rafael, CA grinning ear to ear as the local jazz radio station played a cut from my friend Smith Dobson. Not only was it Smith, but it was a track from his Smithzonian album, released by none other than my jazz label, Night Music Productions. I beat my chest lightly waiting for the light to turn.
Two or three lights later, they segued from Smith to Smith, this time from his Live At Garden City album, also from Night Music Productions. In my head, I started crafting my resignation letter to the technology world and pondered my broadly celebrated reemergence to the jazz and record production scene.
By the time I parked in my driveway, I was listening to the close of a third song – Smith again (different label). Back to back to back Dobson. What a hoot. I thought birthday. I thought promo for a concert. I thought “interview,” and actually sat in the car convinced I would hear Smith’s voice at the close of the tune.
There was, of course, no interview. An emotional D.J. quietly mentioned his tribute to “the late Smith Dobson, who died last night in a solo car accident.” He was 54.
That night, I wrote a short piece in the form of a letter to God. It was taken from the same letter I wrote to God after my father died, less two words:
A few weeks after Smith’s memorial service, I put my thoughts together in a slightly more articulate fashion. Outside of a letter to a couple of friends, it’s never seen the light of day. So I thought I would post it (a little late, given he died on April 20th) as my digital version of a Yahrzeit candle.
Despite the years, I still miss him. I still miss his music. The world was a better place with him in it.
Years ago Smith and I made a deal. We bartered a piano lesson, for a surfing lesson. On a spectacular calm May afternoon, we consummated the first half of the deal, waxed up a couple of boards, and drove to the 42nd Street break in Santa Cruz. I gave Smith a 15-minute beachside tutorial, an 8-foot long board, and then we paddled out. The break was gentle, small, and glassy, smooth as a Miles ballad. It felt like summer – a perfect day for learning.
We sat in the line-up for a couple of little sets, and then I paddled into a waist high swell, shouting out the steps we had gone over on the beach. I rode it 50 yards or so toward shore and then pulled out, eager to get back and ease Smith into his first wave. Then, just as I started paddling back to him, the fickle Pacific experienced a mood swing, jumping from ballad to Strauss’ overture to 2001. People whistled from the cliffs behind us, tympanis boomed, apes began jumping, and three or four double overhead swells bore down from the west.
In unison, the dozen or so surfers that were out, lay down and paddled, stampeding for the horizon. It was as if some big cat had appeared at the watering hole, and the herd was hightailing it for safety. And Smith was the calf that had been culled from the herd. He sat on his board waving and giving me two big thumbs-up. “Look mom, a leopard!” I remember thinking that I should have loaned Smith a bigger more buoyant board – maybe a life vest. I also remember thinking that I should have taken my lesson first, before I set Smith loose in the majestic Pacific.
I pointed toward the incoming set. Smith looked, gave me another thumbs-up, and scampered after the herd, slipping off of the board every third or fourth stroke. I’m not sure if his mouth or eyes were open wider as he neared what was becoming a truly monumental set. As he charged, he shouted loudly, “Here we go Eddie-boy. Here we go.” It was then that I realized that Smith wasn’t thinking “retreat.” He and that crazed grin of his had visions of riding the first wave of the set, hanging ten, and rocketing down its face like it was some sort of up-tempo blues. He was going to own this wave and with a little luck, the cover of Surfer Magazine.
As Smith began to disappear in the shadow of the first wave, I shouted detailed instructions.
“PADDLE! … PADDLE OUT,” with “out” being the operative word.
Smith heard me, waved, and pointed up to the wave in case I hadn’t noticed it. Then, he angled the board toward the beach and started to paddle with intense ferocity as he began slipping up the face of the wave, rising rapidly, assuming about a 60% angle to the horizon. With one huge stroke, Smith pulled himself half way off of his board just as the wave began to peak. It was like watching the Hindenburg line up for its final mooring.
The wave lurched, crested with a loud crack, and launched Smith straight toward the beach. From peak to trough neither he nor his board touched a single drop of water. Clinging to the board with his left arm and completely airborn, he resembled one of those little plastic surfer models you stick on the dashboard of your car – perfectly inverted, descending grin first, feet up.
Every surfer in the vicinity grimaced as a few tons of Pacific green landed squarely where Smith’s nearly splashless entry had been. Then it was a melee of white water with no sign of Smith, then a leg, foot, arms, white water, head, nothing, and then all of Smith still – miraculously – holding the board. He bucked and bounced along in the white water with amazing speed and violence and then, with a lateness and anticlimax usually only associated with drummers, he actually pulled himself onto the board, got to his knees, and leaped into a standing position. He stood bolt upright as if he was going to pound his chest, then pitched backwards off the board, into the froth.
Smith popped up near the beach. A stream of sand trickling from his right nostril and a single piece of kelp stuck to the left side of his forehead. He was not only alive and unhurt, he was laughing.
“Hey, Eddie-boy,” he shouted. “I got up.”
He hooted as if he had shot the tube at Pipeline. Without a second thought, he pulled himself back on the board and headed back out. As he paddled past me, he looked over his shoulder and called to me.
“If I die, man, say something nice at my service.” He was cracking himself up.
My lesson with Smith took place in a small studio in San Jose about a month later. Smith had two baby grands side-by-side and sat noodling at one when I walked in. He was goofing around with an impromptu rendition of Ain’t Misbehavin’ that would have held a paying crowd captivated. After ogling unnoticed for a minute or two, I knocked on the doorframe.
“Hey Eddie-boy,” he practically shouted as he turned. “Come over here man and play me something.” It was like being greeted by a golden retriever puppy. He tipped his head toward the other baby grand as if it were a ball sitting on a lawn just waiting to be thrown.
“Play me something man. Maybe we’ll play a duet. Sit down, sit down, man. Sit down.” He nipped at my heals and started spinning around in circles. You’d have thought I was Art Tatum returning from the grave for a quick jam.
We talked – a beachside tutorial. Smith lauded my band. The guys in it. We talked about gigs. The lack of gigs. Musicians we both knew who needed gigs. Musicians we knew who got gigs, and we couldn’t understand how. And then Smith got back around to wanting to hear me play something. He actually rubbed his hands together in anticipation.
“Play me a ballad, man. Play me Lush Life.”
To this day, I have no idea what compelled me to say, “Sure.” It would have been easier for me to fake fluency in Mandarin. So I turned, looked Smith in the eye, and to my absolute dismay, reiterated my totally absurd assertion. “Sure. Lush life.” Then astounding myself, (though I think my intention was to buy time) I buried myself even deeper by adding, “I love that ballad. It’s always been one of my favorites.” (Which was true; it was just that I had never played it solo.) Smith sat at the other keyboard, folded his arms across his chest, closed his eyes, and bowed his head with that classic beatific grin he wore.
In the silence that followed, I started sweating heavily, having no clue where to even begin. From Smith’s peaceful look, I imagine he interpreted my silence as some well-seasoned personal ritual of preparation. I gritted my teeth, pressed my hands into the keys, and like the Titanic charging into the Atlantic night, played on.
The depth of the stink I laid on that ballad almost defies description. I struck only enough of the melody notes for the tune to be recognizable without needing dental records. The chords I concocted gave the ballad a disarming far-eastern ¼-tone feel, akin to a sixth grade string quartet practicing outdoors on a hot day. And the tempo lurched in fits seemingly set to the tortured rhythm of a dog coughing up a hairball. I had struck the musical equivalent of loudly passing gas during the first kiss on a first date. I had hit bottom and was digging frantically, replaying the agony of my 5th-grade piano recital that began when Madeline Worsely – the first of twelve students – played four bars, then froze soundlessly for about 15 seconds before violently vomiting on the keyboard.
Smith never changed his posture. But his expression went from beatific, to confused, to a look that seemed to suggest he was trying to pass a toaster-oven. When I detonated the final note and chord – separate moments unfortunately – there was a blessed stillness in the room, like the peace that follows a fierce firefight – before the wounded start to moan. I stared hard at the keyboard avoiding Smith’s eyes, unbelieving of the carnage I had unleashed on this once lovely Standard. I thought to myself, that there were other ways to make a living besides playing piano.
I snuck a glance at Smith after a few moments. He was in the same position, grimacing now only slightly. I imagined he was thinking that there were other less painful ways to make a living besides teaching.
Then, eyes still closed, he played. Just four bars of the bridge, just as I had played them. He played it a second time, and then stopped for a moment. “Hey Eddie, what made you choose those chords at the bridge?” I had no idea. I only remembered grabbing anything that would float as the ballad was taking on water.
“I’m not sure,” I answered.
As he played the changes again, he went on about how they had caught his ear – a great interpretation, a wonderful shade he hadn’t thought about before.
“Hey man, can I steal it?” he asked me, straight faced with nothing but sincerity.
I smiled at Smith’s unrelenting humility. I told him that a little baking soda and warm water would get the smell right off the keyboard.
“No, man,” he said. “It’s all there, just let yourself hear it.” He put his hand on my shoulder and shook his head, as if he had somehow learned something truly profound.
He told me he had definitely gotten the better part of our deal.
I could not fathom the number of people that came up to Smith’s wife at his memorial service and led with the question, “how are you?” What compels anyone to ask such an intensely stupid question to the bereaved? A man dies at 54, tragically and unexpectedly, stunning an entire community. “How are you?” I could imagine the response that went through her mind. Devastated. Sleepless. Unbelieving. Confused. Frightened. Emotionally adrift. Angry. Grief stricken beyond description for myself and my two fatherless children. Otherwise fine, thanks.
The pastor at the service said that in all of her years, she had never seen the chapel, foyer, and overflow rooms filled to capacity and beyond – an hour and a half before the service even began (something to the tune of 200 people). In fact, people flooded the patio and spilled into the parking lot, many sitting on the hoods of their cars listening to the memorial on the speakers that had been set up outside.
I was going to say nice things at your memorial, Smith. I lined up to speak with your family and rehearsed in my head how I knew that your humility was profoundly genuine. That you were a brilliant musician who had an even greater talent for living, with a generosity of spirit that was boundless. That I had splattered the carcass of a ballad all over your baby grand but uplifted by your comments, had gone home euphoric. That I knew today, as I stood at the threshold of the chapel listening to the words and music, watching the hundreds that had come to pay their respects, that I had only glimpsed the magnitude of how much we all had lost and how blessed we had been to know you.
I gathered my composure and crafted the words as I suddenly found myself standing in front of your family. I stared tearfully at them, not sure how to start.
“How are you?” I asked.
After the reception, I drove 10 minutes to the break at 42nd Street. It was 4:30 when I paddled out. It was another spectacular May afternoon, calm, glassy, and feeling like summer. There was a perfect four-foot swell running, only about a dozen surfers out, and not a breath of wind. It was another perfect day for learning. I surfed until it was almost dark and then sat on the beach.
I meant to say nice things at your service, Smith. But I didn’t need to. They got it. And for the record, “buddy-boy,” I got the better part of our deal.