We’re all so fragile, although we don’t like to talk about it.
The magnificent, understated pianist, arranger, and composer John Sheridan has left us. I don’t have more details except that he had been ill with cancer for some time. I knew him, off and on, for more than fifteen years, and this comes to mind: a performance from 2013 at Jazz at Chautauqua:
John’s playing was so steady, so trustworthy, that he didn’t get his due, except from close listeners and the musicians he worked with. Oh, he could make the best brilliant romping noise at the keyboard — his stride was infallible, and you can find his performances of Bob Zurke’s EYE OPENER should you be tempted to pass him by as insufficiently flashy. But his tradition was the steady swing of Teddy Wilson and Jess Stacy more than pyrotechnics, and he had a deep romantic heart — his ballads were so very touching, and he got to the heart of the song.
We’re all complicated as well as fragile, but I both loved John and approached him with caution. He was definite about everything — no meandering, no ambiguity. He wasn’t loud, but he spoke in boldface. It was fortunate for me that he understood that I understood — certain things, anyway. I didn’t follow football; our politics were so separate that we wisely steered clear of any reference to the non-musical world. But I, too, loved Benny and Jess, and I would listen to John without offering dissent. I see him now in my mind’s eye — perhaps we were at the San Diego Jazz Fest? — late at night, at a cafe table, John drinking black coffee and being wooed into having a piece of cake because I was. There was a time we had fairly regular long phone conversations, where John could talk about how things were at home and I would offer consolations, and then the conversation would shift abruptly to the wonders of some Goodman airshot, John’s current pleasure, and I would listen, because he heard deeply and always was insightful.
When I wrote “caution,” above, I had reason. Through the kindness of Mat and Rachel Domber, I wrote a number of liner notes for the glorious CDs created by Arbors Records. I’d written one for a Sheridan Dream Band session, and had been privileged to attend the sessions at Nola Studios in New York — pretty heady pleasures. John liked those, and wanted me to write notes for the next one. I think I was over-enthusiastic and mentioned too many dead heroes as touchstones . . . X’s trumpet coda is reminiscent of Berigan, and so on, something I avoid these days. I don’t know how I found out, but John disliked my notes. I emailed him and said, “Let me know what you don’t like, and I’ll fix it.” Silence. I was paid for my time — Mat and Rachel were and are gracious — but John refused to speak to me, and this went on until the next time I saw him, or perhaps I got a chilly greeting at the next festival. Finally, I got him aside and said to him, “I’m very fond of you, and you got pissed off at me. Do we have to keep on doing this?” and he relaxed and we settled it, as if we’d been in feuding pals in a Warner Brothers film c. 1940. Of course he never explained to me how I had sinned . . . but we moved on.
I had emailed him a few months ago asking his permission to post some videos of his performance, and he called me to say yes, sounding older but still cheerfully declarative. And now he’s left a Sheridan-sized hole in the cosmos.
It’s on days like this I wonder if I should have stuck to collecting stamps (a hobby I had for about a week as a child) because I wouldn’t feel so grieved. But then again, I would have missed the uplifting happiness of hearing John play.
Swing on, Brother Sheridan, in your new neighborhood. You will be missed, and for a long time. You increased our happiness considerably, and your sounds will continue to work their magic.