Back on Oct. 7, soprano saxophonist Bill Kirchner performed at New York's New School, where he teaches. Bill was accompanied by singer Holli Ross, singer/bassist Jim Ferguson and pianist Carlton Holmes. It was an extraordinary evening—so extraordinary that I wondered whether anyone was recording it. It turns out the school videotaped the concert and has made it available at YouTube. Before I show it to you, a few words about Bill and why he's such an inspiration. In addition to being a terrific editor and friend, Bill has always been on the cutting edge of orchestral and small-group jazz. Then 20 years ago, something happened. [Photo above of Bill Kirchner by Ed Berger]
Here's Bill explaining his condition in a terrific interview with pianist-composer Ethan Iverson at Ethan's blog Do the Math...
Ethan Iverson [above]: Tell us about your illness.
Bill Kirchner: Well, 20 years ago I started getting numbness in my right hand, I started limping slightly and wondered what was going on. So I went through months of tests, went to a couple of chiropractors—one of whom was trumpeter-composer-arranger Mike Mossman’s wife (now ex-wife), and she kind of saved my life. She deduced that there was something going on that was beyond chiropractic and sent me to a neurologist. And so after months of tests, I was told in February in 1993 that I had a non-malignant tumor in my spinal cord that was on my breathing nerves and if it was not removed it would kill me. So I went to the hospital and had two major surgeries, had the tumor removed but the procedure left me permanently damaged, with my right hand screwed up.
"I have no feeling in my right hand and only two working fingers. I also have a pronounced limp and chronic pain, so my career as a player came to a screeching halt for a while. I had been playing nine different saxophones and flutes and clarinets but after that, the only one I could still play was the soprano saxophone. After a few years, I started playing tentatively again. Sean Smith [above], who is a wonderful bass player, would come over to our apartment and do duets with me just to kick me in the ass and get me to play again.
"Eventually, I had the soprano redesigned and rebuilt with alternate keys by a gifted repairman named Perry Ritter [above], with a major assist from a wonderful trumpet player named Danny Hayes, who was a mechanical wizard and one of the best jazz trumpet players you’ve never heard. He died in 2004 of brain cancer. So I started again with the soprano, I have alternate keys and I have limits to what I can do; I’m not 100% functional with that, just because my hand is screwed up. But at the same time I can go out and play gigs.
"As long as I have say over what tunes we’re playing and if I can fudge certain notes and not have to play things literally note-for-note perfect, as far as playing melodies, I can go out and fool some people. I’ve done two records: Everything I Love with Eddie Monteiro and Ron Vincent and Jackie Cain [on Evening Star Records] and then the duo record with Marc Copland were both done after that."
I asked Bill about his unusual soprano saxophone...
"It's a 1970s Couf Superba II [above], manufactured by Keilwerth. It was originally redesigned for me in the late 1990s by New York woodwind repairman Perry Ritter, who came up with a set of alternate keys to compensate for the limited function in my right hand. After that, I started to play in public again. But there still were problems. So I started to work on the horn with trumpeter Danny Hayes (1946-2004). Danny was a mechanical wizard. We spent hours at his apartment trying things—including putting wires on the horn to facilitate movement. After we found what was needed, Perry did additional work to make the improvements permanent.
"Since I have no feeling in my right hand, I need to watch the keys to make sure that my hand is doing what my brain is telling it. Luckily, the soprano was always my favorite, so maybe the universe was doing me a service and forcing me to focus." [Photo above of Bill Kirchner by Ed Berger]
Here's Bill in concert. If you don't have time to watch, let it run in the background as you work on your computer. Achingly beautiful music by a great player and composer who proves that doing what you love can be done no matter what setbacks you face. An inspiration for us all...