October 24, 2020

Eulogy For A Jazzman

posted on: Wednesday November 14, 2001

Kevin Hirten

I remember a conversation I had with Reuben after a show in St. Louis a few years back. He had been playing for six hours straight with little more than a sip of water’s break. In a sweaty, beat-down, post-performance daze he told me, “Ya know why I love playing jazz?… because when I’m playing there ain’t no limit to how high I can go.” And man, could he go. When you entered the club his sound hit you. It was like a huge bird had swooped down, picked you up and sent you soaring along with him- and all you could do was move, shake and bob to hypnotizing melodies. Sometimes he would reach a note, or a moment or a thought and I would think, “That’s it. That’s the edge. That’s perfect.” But he always kept going, up and up, sometimes playing until he passed out, he would blow and blow till he had nothing left in those huge lungs of his. Men would have to carry him off stage leaving the audience wondering “What drives it, what’s behind that passion?” I’d been friends with Reuben for thirteen years and I never figured out the answer to that question. He had a fire in his belly he could never extinguish. All he could do was lessen the pain, fan the flame by moving as fast as he could. For Reuben there was little distinction between life and music. He once described life as “the most intense jazz piece ever written and we get to control the tempo.” He lived like he soloed and that’s what we all loved about him. He could have the house jumping and in a moment, in a drop, he would bring it down with a weeping, soulful beat-a single sustained note that let the listeners see into him and the other extreme of his person. The contradictions were marvelous in his music, but in life they were scary. With his exuberance came bouts of depression that could last for weeks. Our relationship was based on mutual admiration, he wanted the normalcy and I wanted the extremes. He once described his life as “nothing but a series of benders and a hangovers.” Anyone who ever spent a night out with Reuben knows that it was at the same time exhilarating and terrifying. He knew everyone in every city-all the hot spots, best restaurants, and the best jam sessions. I did things with him that I didn’t know I was capable of and I never felt as alive as I did when I was with him. He could never stay still and always felt the urge to go. Something could only be appreciated for so long until he felt an overwhelming need to “see what we’ve been missing this whole time.” Club after club, drink after drink, cab after cab, drug after drug, jam after jam-the night would blaze on. But we would always end up at the ocean. He was fascinated by water to a degree that I could never fully comprehend. Water was the perfect expression of life according to Reuben. He loved that it was always moving. He described the water as “perfectly rhythmic, but completely absent of form.” At times fierce and at times soothing; it could make a man marvel at its fury and weep at its beauty at the same time. He saw in water an answer. What the answer was I don’t know. All I know for certain is that the only times I ever saw him at peace was sitting with him down by the docks starring into the black shining water below. There were many things about Reuben I never understood. He comprehended time better than anyone. Not only in music, where his rhythm was impeccable, but in the way he lived his daily life. They say football is a game of inches. Well, to Reuben, life was a game of seconds. It was as if he knew he was going to die early and always had a clock running down the seconds of his life and he needed to make the most of every single one. This is a way of living that is foreign to most of us. We tend to keep track of the hours or the days or the weekends, but to Reuben everything was in the moment. He’s right, you know. We exist second by second too; we just don’t realize it. Every choice we make conditions the next moment of our life. We tend to lose sight of this because we fall into a routine, something that Reuben never allowed himself to do. His wild improvisations in his music reflected his ability and need to move onward and upward to a place unknown to him. His boundless spirit was free in music to explore the furthest reaches of human expression and emotion. Yet when he stepped off the bandstand, rather than return to the level of reality he insisted on pushing his body to those magnificent heights he had reached. Dedicated to Andrew Briggs (1983-2001)

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