After a couple of successful high-tech startups in Silicon Valley, Bob Abrams had become a multi-millionaire. Unlike most other entrepreneurs, he cashed in his chips and didn’t try to pyramid his millions into billions. Instead, he returned to his first love—jazz. He decided to launch a record company to preserve the work of aging jazz musicians.
He lived in San Jose, but most of the musicians he wanted to record were on the East Coast. So he called some New York contacts to locate active musicians. One contact was Mike Baker, a former classmate at NYU, who now lived in New Haven, Connecticut. Mike pointed out that Connecticut also boasted some great jazz musicians, including Bob’s favorite sax player, Sam Wilson.
After a few days in New York, Bob visited New Haven to check out a recording studio Mike recommended, and to listen to some of the local jazz talent. Mike suggested they have dinner at a club called ‘The Ninth Note’, which featured a weekly jam session.
The session started with just the rhythm section led by multi-talented Nick Biello playing organ. When Sam Wilson arrived, he was wearing shades. Bob hoped that didn’t mean he’d become a junkie. The group launched into a slow blues, and Sam played beautiful long flowing melodic lines—unlike the choppy riffs of less talented musicians. Then they switched to a ballad, ‘The Nearness of You’. On this one, Sam demonstrated his versatility by tearing into a fierce double-tempo solo.
Bob was impressed. When the musicians took a break, he walked over to Sam and explained how he was lining up musicians for recording sessions. He handed Sam a sheet of music and said he’d like Sam to solo on the song (a slow blues head arrangement) for one of the recordings.
“Okay. Give it to Nick, and have him play it on keyboard so I can learn it.”
“But I thought you could read music.”
“I could read music, but I can’t see it anymore. I’m blind.”
“What happened? Did you have some sort of accident?”
“No. My eyesight just slowly got worse from year to year.”
“What did your eye doctor say? Is it cataracts, retinal damage or what?
“I can’t afford health insurance.”
Bob, a liberal among entrepreneurs, went into an extended rant about how the US should have single-payer universal health care like civilized countries. He finished with, “There are none so blind as those who refuse to see.” When he calmed down, he decided to deal with the problem.
“Mike, do you know any good eye doctors here?”
“My guy is an excellent surgeon. He did my cataract surgery and checks regularly for retinal damage. But he doesn’t take Medicaid. He came here from Canada because he couldn’t make enough money there. “
“Okay, take Sam to see your guy. I’ll give you a check for $3000 as an advance. If he needs any more, just call me.”
Sam had cataract surgery for both eyes. A few months later, he was back at the Ninth Note. Bob grabbed a front row seat for that. But Sam’s playing style was completely different and it sounded terrible. Instead of flowing lines, he played short, hesitant, phrases that didn’t seem to fit together. Also, his intonation sounded harsh. At intermission time, Bob asked Sam why his playing style had changed. Sam felt terrible, because Bob had paid for his surgery, but now he couldn’t deliver on his side of the transaction.
“When I was blind, I would get into a trance-like groove while I was playing. My solos seemed effortless. But when I got my sight back, there were too many distractions. I wanted to watch movies and read books, so I wasn’t getting enough practice on the horn. And when I’m playing, I’m distracted by anything that moves. Now I understand why Sonny Rollins got into yoga.“
“Apparently, what’s good for the musician is bad for the music,” Bob groaned.