Melissa Collard sent me a copy of Brad Kay’s loving, funny, and beautifully-realized piece about the late Jeff Healey, and it is reprinted here with Brad’s permission. If Brad’s name is not familiar to you, he is a wizard cornetist, pianist, jazz scholar and researcher, and composer — someone you should get to know! It’s also obvious that he is a splendid writer, too.
I will miss Jeff Healey. He was as singular a human being as has ever lived. Our every encounter was, for me, an exercise in amazement. Others will speak of his great heart and humanity, his unique musicianship (with which I collaborated on several occasions), his modest, “just folks” demeanor, his dry, acerbic wit and sheer intelligence. I would like to speak mostly about his nervous system.
It took knowing Jeff only a short time (starting in the early ’90s) before I concluded that his blindness was not a handicap, but an enhancement, which endowed him with almost supernatural powers. Neurologists have shown that when a person is deprived of sight, the visual cortex – fully one-third of the brain – does not lie fallow, but its functions are redistributed to the other senses, especially hearing and touch. Nobody ever demonstrated this kind of synaptic recycling more convincingly than Jeff, whose remaining senses were heightened – and combined! – to a colossal degree. Coupled with his immense and unfailing memory, he seemed to be the very embodiment of human potential, a forerunner of how our species could evolve.
Ironically, he fueled these exotic sensibilities with the worst junk-food diet imaginable – McDonald’s, Pizza, Wonder Bread, Coke, Jo-Jo’s, Twinkies – a cornucopia of dreck. I witnessed this. In hindsight, I’m surprised he lasted as long as he did!
Jeff and I encountered each other most frequently on the bandstand playing jazz, and in various listening rooms, with our venerable 78-rpm records.
He could identify records by touch alone, abetted by his immaculate, eidetic memory. One night, on a visit to Los Angeles, he flabbergasted Steven Lasker and me with his shellac-detecting prowess. When I handed him a certain 78, he palmed it, probed its edge and surfaces with his fingertips, and said, “Hmm. It’s an acoustic Victor – Let’s see… number 18457. It’s the ODJB – ‘Ostrich Walk.’ Nice condition, too.” A distinct hurl of the gauntlet, this. Steven and I took turns at this new game of “Stump Jeff,” pulling increasingly obscure and anomalous records off the shelf. Nothing fazed him. “Well … this is obviously a Columbia product… about 1930, I reckon – but with this matrix — it’s got to be a Clarion. It’s “Blue Again” by Ben Selvin, as ‘Ford Britten and his Blue Comets’.” … “Hmmm – Nice late Paramount – lousy condition – you sonuvabitch! When did you get a Charley Patton?” It went like this for over an hour, until, in a final spasm of esoteric perversity, I pulled out a fabulously rare, freak Gennett Champion release of a Brunswick master, “Cho-King” by the Dixie Serenaders. Jeff palpated the shellac, and cogitated. “Must be a Brunswick.” “It’s NOT! I crowed, exchanging evil grins with Steven. “Not a Brunswick? This is odd indeed… Are you sure??” “Yep!” More evil grins. A pause. Finally: “Hmmm… Okay. I’m licked. What label is it?” “It’s a CHAMPION!” “Oh, of course,” said Jeff, not losing a beat. “It’s the Dixie Serenaders doing ‘Cho-King.'” He retired undefeated, leaving Steven and me blubbering incoherently.
The speed of his thinking kept me in stitches. Another 78 story: Once on eBay, I scored the jazz record find of a lifetime. It was a copy of the incredibly rare 1924 “Naughty Man,” by Fletcher Henderson and his Orchestra, featuring Louis Armstrong, on the scarce Oriole label. To boot, it was a different take from the three other known copies, making it unique. Of course, I had to phone and tell Jeff, who had just co-produced a three-CD set of the “Complete Louis Armstrong with Fletcher Henderson.” The finding of this record “un-completed” it. I craved to keep Jeff dangling on tenterhooks, to savor stretching out the story in excruciating detail. Our actual conversation was:
Me: (excited) “Hey Jeff! Guess what? I won this album of Oriole records on eBay, and…”
Jeff: (instantly) “You’re going to tell me you got a copy of ‘Naughty Man.'”
Me: (rattled) “Er, well …yes.”
Jeff: (half a beat pause) “You sonuvabitch.”
Me: (deflated) “Uh, there’s more…”
Jeff: (annoyed) “What!?“
Me: (sighing) “It’s take 2.”
Jeff: (another half-beat) “You sonuvabitch.”
End of story.
I visited Jeff in his Mississauga home in 1999 and we spent several days bumming around together. Walking the streets of Toronto with him exploded any idea I had of mincing my steps to match the pace of a blind man. I had to run to keep up with him! He barely touched his cane to the pavement as he hurtled ahead. He even warned me of an oncoming truck, which might have flattened me otherwise. Fame pursued him everywhere we walked. Person after person, on foot and from cars, greeted him as if he were an especially benevolent mayor, who had recently distributed free money. “Hey JEFF!” “We love you, Jeff Healey!!” “Yo, HEALEY!! You RULE, Man!!” The air was thick with goodwill.
One night, there was a gathering of the Toronto 78-collecting Mafia in his basement, with its thirty thousand records. Jeff’s records were not kept in sleeves – there were five shelves of naked 78s stretching thirty feet from wall to wall, looking like five branches of the Trans-Canadian oil pipeline running through his basement. When you requested a tune, Jeff would go to a section of pipeline, and in a fluid motion, run his hand across it, and yank out the precise record.
There were nine of us in the basement that night, but only eight chairs. After almost everyone had settled in, Jeff blinked quizzically and said, “Somebody doesn’t have a place to sit. Just a minute…” He bounded up the stairs and returned a moment later, brandishing a metal folding chair. Without breaking stride, with inches to spare either way, he marched between the two rows of us who were seated, and placed the chair directly in front of the lone standee. Nobody (but me!) was even slightly alarmed about possibly being clobbered by this reckless blind guy. They had seen Jeff in action too many times to be concerned, or even vaguely impressed, by this demonstration of borderline ESP.
Our last encounter was in September, 2006, when, with Dan Levinson, we played in a benefit concert for the ailing Richard Sudhalter, in New York. Though Jeff was now in treatment for cancer, he was the same fun-loving, serene, brilliant, unflappable guy. He was in great musical form that night, playing hot trumpet and his unique “piano style” guitar. I felt sure this disease was a temporary annoyance and he’d be around forever. At this juncture, I’m glad he was around at all. I will miss Jeff Healey.