For about one and a half hours after the gig in San Diego on Saturday night, I stood on the sidewalk outside the backstage area with about sixty high school age students, their band directors and chaperones, signing autographs, taking pictures and fielding questions about everything from, “Should I whip my younger brother’s behind for x, y and z?” to “How many hours did you practice when you were my age?”
As the group wound down and I got into the car to leave, there were three sixteen year-old kids (they looked about that age) that asked for a picture. There was one who was very deeply engaged and he asked, “What does it take to be a really good musician?” I thought for a little while before answering, giving him the impression that I would provide some unknown and highly valuable key and said “You have to WANT to be.”
He searched my eyes for a second as if to say, “Man, are you messing with me?” Sensing his skepticism I said “No, lil’ brother. If you really want to be that good, you will figure out whatever you have to, to be what you want to be.” In the moment I tried to think of some analogy or story to help make the point more simply, but I couldn’t find a good one.
Little did I know that the next day as we pulled into the hotel in Northridge we would be greeted in the lobby by DJ Riley.
DJ is an intellectual of the first order. He is a connoisseur of culture, has been a good friend of JALC from the very beginning and is a purveyor of deep-rooted soul. He suffers from Morquio Syndrome, and has been in a wheelchair with very little limb movement since childhood. You wouldn’t know it by how much smack he talks, but I know it was a challenge for DJ to be here today. He lives in LA, and it takes a lot of planning for him to get around.
He is a broad and long-term thinker, who gives unerring and aggressively positive advice. Any opportunity to hang with him is to be cherished. So far, he has outlived his life expectancy by about 25 years.
I start out by saying to him, “Man, I wish you would have told me you were coming.” And he asks “Why? So you could convince me not to come?”
We talk about everything from the hood to Putin to education reform. He is a true blues man: “Yes, stuff is messed up out here but: Everything gon’ be alright this mornin’. Everything gon’ be alright.”
I’m reminded of a dance the LCJO played in the late 90’s out here in California. It was well attended and well under way, but still the people were just standing around being too shy to get out on the floor. Suddenly, DJ breaks out there scooting around with his electric wheelchair, doing his thing. It was the damnedest sight. Truly poetic. He actually got people out on the floor from a wheelchair.
After the gig as we all laughed and teased him about his dancing style, we asked him, “Why did you do it?” He said, “Man, I came here to dance. That’s what I wanted to do and that’s what I did. Y’all was swingin’. Herlin man! He was playing those drums.”
Yeah, DJ and I laughed thinking back on it. And I remembered that teenager from the night before who was looking for more out of my answer. I should have told him about DJ.
It’s now 4:00 pm and time for DJ to leave and for us to go to sound check. He only speaks in a whisper, so he signals for me to get close enough to hear. “When y’all come around Los Angeles, just assume I’m coming.”
That’s what I should have told the youngster.