A birthday note from Wynton Marsalis

Wynton Marsalis shared this essay, which was read by DJ’s brother Wayne at the celebration of DJ’s 60th birthday:

DJ: a sitting prince in the spiritual aristocracy of the world. He raises the soul quotient of a room by merely entering. He has led a rich and passionate life and remains deeply engaged with the sweet and sour facts of life. Having known him for over thirty-five years, I have to say that the intensity of his optimism and activism has increased with the same velocity that he has outpaced the life expectancy of someone with Morquio Syndrome.

Photo of Wynton Marsalis and DJ Riley

DJ catches up with his friend Wynton Marsalis.

Of the many and best salutations that he has received this evening, I would like to second and third them and add that he is all of the best of what has been observed and even more, because of his beliefs and of his belief, not because of, or in spite of, his physical limitations. DJ’s greatest achievement is himself. What he has overcome to achieve the depth of personhood that we all celebrate and cherish has nothing to do with any disease. He has manifested such deep personal growth for such a long time because of the size of his heart and, because he is willing to grapple with uncomfortable internal problems until they are resolved.

You know, a disability can be a smokescreen for all types of things. Well, it’s understandable because we all wear masks that play to our strengths and cloak our fears. It could be a suit, a car, clothing that shows off positive attributes, makeup, a fancy home, a clannish way of speaking, tattoos, all kinds of stuff. We think we can protect ourselves with the make-believe armor of style or with a cultivated group of like-minded friends. But underneath it all, we are only spirits that animate the bodies we are born into. The spirit is the largest and most definitive part of who we are; that’s why people always seem so tiny in the casket. DJ wears no mask. For those of us who are fortunate to know him, he is as ubiquitous, free and affirming as the wind. I just love him and love knowing him and having known him.

At the risk of boring you, let me conclude with a story. In the late 90s our orchestra played a swing dance a few hours from LA. DJ came to check us out. The dance was well under way, but people, being shy and not really knowing how to dance the style, were just standing around looking at the empty floor. Here comes DJ breaking out there cutting values with his electric wheelchair, and absolutely doing his thing with so much joy and insouciance. It was unforgettable and absolutely for real. Next thing you know, here come people onto the floor. He got’em out there from a wheelchair!

Damn! We talked about that for years.

After the gig, as we laughed and joked about his dancing style, I asked, “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.” And that’s what he does. Makes stuff happen while also talking a pile of shit. Sixty! Damn!! His old ass shouldn’t even be here. What a blessing for all of us. Happy Birthday, DJ. Whatever greatness is, you are it.