It’s been a bad week.
I don’t say that as if it’s somehow news, or as if my experience has been unique. It’s been a bad week for all of us. This virus sweeping through our country, with the aid of some of the most arrogantly inept leadership I have ever seen, has claimed more than 9,000 as of this writing. It’ll be many thousands more by the time you read this. My state is in week four of sheltering in place, and I’m only going out when absolutely necessary. I haven’t had a real, in-person human interaction for weeks now.
And this is the best case. At least I am not sick. At least no one in my family is sick. At least I am not on a ventilator, alone, fighting for life in an overcrowded hospital. At least I have done everything I can do not to spread the virus to others. Isolation and loneliness is a small price to pay, and I’ll keep paying it. I know you’re all going through the same thing, and it’s strange – we’re all connected, even though we’re kept apart.
I wish we could just talk about music this week. But we can’t. Because among the thousands this virus has taken from us this week are two people important to the art form this column was designed to celebrate, and I can’t let their passings go unremarked. That both of them died on the same day – Wednesday, April 1 – is just a sad coincidence.
First is the great Ellis Marsalis, patriarch of the Marsalis family. If you know jazz at all, you know the Marsalises: trumpeter Wynton, who heads Jazz at Lincoln Center; saxophonist Branford, a tremendous bandleader and go-to session player; trombonist Delfeayo, an in-demand producer; and drummer and percussionist Jason. (Ellis had two further sons, Ellis III and Mboya, who both chose different career paths.) But before any of them, there was Ellis, playing piano with the likes of Cannonball Adderly and Al Hirt.
I should probably not admit this, but my first exposure to Ellis’s playing came through one of his students, Harry Connick Jr. Ellis played piano on Connick’s version of “Stardust,” and I was intrigued enough to start tracking his work down. I’d already become familiar with Branford’s work through Sting’s first couple solo records, and I’d taken a dive into Wynton’s more expansive pieces, like Citi Movementand In This House, On This Morning. The first Ellis record I bought was Joe Cool’s Blues, his collaboration with Wynton on music composed for Peanuts. It’s terrific.
I had no idea at that time how influential Ellis Marsalis really was, of course. Much of his career was spent as a teacher in New Orleans, showing the fundamentals of jazz to countless performers. His own records are pretty good, and his collaborations with his sons are pretty wonderful, but it was his role as a behind-the-scenes elder statesman of jazz where he truly had an impact. Ellis Marsalis was 85 years old when he succumbed to pneumonia brought on by COVID-19.
And then there is Adam Schlesinger, a songwriter and musician who has made an incalculable impact on my own life and taste. Schlesinger was one of the founding members of Fountains of Wayne, whose wry, relatable songs of human longing never failed to move me. They’re best known for a novelty song, the on-the-nose “Stacy’s Mom,” and as much as I smile when that tune plays, it doesn’t begin to sum up the depth and heart of Schlesinger’s work. Just on that album alone there’s “Hackensack” and “All Kinds of Time,” two wonderful pieces about smaller moments that come closer.
Schlesinger wasn’t just this band, though. He brought his warm, witty and keenly observed songs to several film projects, including That Thing You Do, which includes what I expect is his most famous composition. When asked to write a hit for the movie’s fictional band The Wonders, Schlesinger turned in a perfect two minutes, a song so winning that you don’t mind hearing it again and again, a song so indelible that you believe it could have catapulted this band to stardom.
Schlesinger also wrote several of the songs for the underrated romcom Music and Lyrics, including “Don’t Write Me Off,” from the point of view of a musician (Hugh Grant) who needs his partner in song (Drew Barrymore) to write lyrics for his melodies. The words to “Don’t Write Me Off” are charmingly inept, but lovingly heartfelt – the song makes the case that he needs her not just by saying so, but by showing what his songs would be like without her. It’s a tough tightrope, but Schlesinger pulled it off like it was nothing.
Man, I could go on and on listing this man’s brilliant songs. I haven’t even mentioned Tinted Windows, his supergroup with Taylor Hanson, James Iha and Bun E. Carlos. (Yes, this is real.) Or his “main” band, the atmospheric Ivy. Or the 150-plus songs he wrote or co-wrote for the recently completed Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. (Oh heck, just listen to all of these.) I’ll just say that I never met an Adam Schlesinger song that didn’t make me think or make me feel. I will miss him and his warmth, wit and wisdom terribly.
Schlesinger had been on a ventilator trying to fight off COVID-19 symptoms for a week prior to his death. He was only 52 years old.
As if that were not bad enough, we also lost Bill Withers this week. His death was not related to COVID-19, but is impossibly sad anyway.
Withers, an extraordinary folk-soul songwriter, was perhaps best known for “Lean On Me,” an immortal anthem of support and friendship. It’s a song that resonates pretty strongly in these times, when we are all leaning on each other. He scored several other hits during his 15-year recording career, including the great “Lovely Day” and the even greater “Ain’t No Sunshine.”
I first heard “Ain’t No Sunshine” on Paul McCartney’s Unplugged album from 1991 (since this seems to be a column full of embarrassing admissions). It was one of the best songs in a setlist full of Beatles classics, and it led me to Withers, whose tragically small catalog – eight studio albums and a live record – is full of gems like that one. His sound remained essentially the same throughout, and that’s what eventually led him to give up his recording career completely – he clashed with record company executives, who told him to slicken up his sound and image to sell more records. In the end, he decided he’d rather quit the industry than change who he was.
I admire that immensely, especially since Withers never went back on it. His last album was released in 1985, and save for sporadic appearances at benefits and tribute concerts, that was it. He died on March 30 from heart complications. He was 85 years old. As he once said, “I don’t think I’ve done bad for a guy from Slab Forth, West Virginia.” Indeed. Rest in peace, Bill.
And rest in peace, Ellis and Adam. What a week. As we batten down the hatches for another few months of this, I’m sure we’ll have more tragic stories like those above. We all need each other more than ever now. I will leave you with the words of Bill Withers, and I hope we live up to them:
“Lean on me, when you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend
I’ll help you carry on
For it won’t be long
‘Til I’m gonna need
Somebody to lean on…”
Love one another. Stay safe.
See you in line Tuesday morning;