It’s finally my summer vacation
My saxophone sings with elation
Forty years’ decompression
Has found an expression
I don’t need any more inspiration
It is an early summer day in Barrow, Alaska and I am performing with a small band for an audience of forty-five.
Behind us, three hundred yards on the other side of the double-pane windows, the ice that had covered the Arctic Sea has broken up, leaving ice floes drifting south in front of a north wind. Above the ocean with white ice floes, white clouds scud across the deep blue sky.
We are playing for the annual hospital staff barbecue, an audience of doctors, nurses, pharmacists, x-ray techs, lab techs, maintenance and clerical workers, administrators and their assistants. The housing adjoins the hospital. We call the exercise area at the right angle juncture of two hallways the Knuckle. A rowing machine, a treadmill, an elliptical trainer and a stationary bicycle stand under a vaulting ceiling while the crowd mingles and eats.
We let three of the apartment complex kids, age 7 to 9, sing with us. We run through Itsy-Bitsy Spider, When the Saints Go Marching In, and It’s A Small World. At the insistence of the kids to do one more number, we allow them to read in on a Johnny Cash number, Folsom Prison Blues, and enjoy the irony.
I am singing well, I fit in with the guitarist and our leader, Mac, the trumpeter/vocalist. The fact that I am singing in public yet people aren’t fleeing still makes me smile.
We send the kids away for All Blues, a Miles Davis song with lyrics that talk about the sky, the water, and ‘her’ eyes as “all blue.” I am intensely conscious of the sun flooding the area, and the glorious context of where I’m playing.
When the guitarist finishes Mac turns and drawls, “Let’s do Summertime.”
I start frantically leafing through my loose-leaf binder. I protest, “I can’t find the music.” Mac says, “Steve, you don’t need the music.”
With the way he says it, I know he’s right. In the month that I’ve been in Alaska I have brought proficiency back to my playing. In sudden realization, I know that all I have to do is have the opening note and I’ll be OK. I put my soprano sax to my lips and I start on a B natural. I play from the heart.
The last time I played this number in public I was part of another trio; we had a drummer and a pianist and in the summer of 1968 we were sure we would make musical history. We lacked the knowledge of basic economics and its application to the world of music. We made solid jazz that needed maturation, but the reality of a world in turmoil caught up with us.
From that summer till this, for becoming and being a doctor I have not had a real summer vacation. I let the decompression of forty years carry notes and riffs that I hadn’t imagined till just now. I am making beautiful music in a spectacular setting and for an eternal few minutes my consciousness enters a different level.