Written by Ned B. Johnson
As told by Hank Freyman
Hank Freyman is a long-time lover of jazz and has been active in a jazz/vocal ensemble in New York City for some time. The group enjoys performing at hospitals and nursing homes whenever they can. One such outing recently took them to a nursing home where one of the patients was Chris Anderson, a jazz pianist originally from Detroit. Chris had suffered a major stroke about a month before, which reduced him to a near vegetative state ever since. He was completely unresponsive to both word and touch.
At one point someone suggested that they wheel him up to the piano and place his left hand on the keyboard. He just sat there motionless. After a while, they just wheeled him away. Later, after the vocalists had sung a few tunes, they brought him back and repeated the process. Still nothing. But then a woman came up and began singing. Then they noticed some movement in Chris’s hand, and soon he was playing along with her. It seemed like a miracle, but Chris was just warming up.
Next, one of the musicians sat down at the piano and began playing. Chris soon joined in, and before the tune was over, he was playing all the right hand parts while the other musician played the left hand. But he still wasn’t done.
The female vocalist sang another song, and this time Chris accompanied her with both hands. I was not there myself, but I can hardly imagine a dry eye in the house. As Hank told me later, it was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I’m sure everyone will remember forever. I know I certainly will, and I wasn’t even there.
Of course, it was also the most effort Chris had expended in quite a while, and it tired him out. So he was wheeled away from the piano, whereupon he resumed his profoundly passive state. But there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Chris Anderson, of whom Herbie Hancock once said, “After hearing him play just once, I begged him to let me study with him,” was still alive and filled with the spirit of jazz that had dominated his long and productive life.
Is this the story of Chris’s last performance? Or was this just the first movement of a symphony that will continue to grow? None of us, perhaps including Chris himself, knows. But one thing is for sure: once the magical spirit of jazz enters the soul of a true musician, it cannot be easily extinguished. Such is the power of music when coupled with an indomitable human spirit.
Thank you Chris Anderson for showing this to us so beautifully, and thank you Hank and friends for setting the stage for the performance of a lifetime. May we all be as true to the music.