I labored up the steep stairway, lugging my saxophone to my first session with Dick Griffo’s Saturday morning jazz workshop in Wheatfield in 1996. I was revisiting music I had loved as a teenager, dusting off the saxophone that had been incarcerated in a dark closet for 30 years, while I struggled mightily to become the best doctor I could be, even at the expense of art and love.

Now older, wiser, and with more time to myself, I was resuming what I had left unfinished, although with knees shaking in breathless anticipation. Could I really do this? Was I too late to re-live lost pleasures?

If you’ve ever visited the Buffalo Musicians Club on Broadway in downtown Buffalo, you’ll know what the stairway to Dick’s bandroom was like: impossibly steep, built before codes became ergonomic, unforgiving for aging muscles. Like I do every time I’m at the Musicians Club, I think about those legendary jazz musicians – Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Dick Griffo – who went up steep stairs, one riser at a time, on their way to stellar success.
The bandroom on that first day was lit with sparkling sunshine, a kaleidoscopic spectrum of boys, girls, carpenters, housewives, school teachers, and doctors, identified by the horns they played rather than by their degrees or salaries. And there to greet me was Dick with his John Wayne huskiness, always on the verge of a mischievous smile behind Santa Claus eyes.

“Hi Don!” he said with convincing hospitality, “Pull up a music stand and settle in.” Recognizing my tenderfoot fright, he said, “We’re here for fun -- Don’t sweat it!” 
No money was exchanged, not mentioned or discussed. What brand of generosity would allow a weekly workshop for a couple dozen students without any support payments at all? I guess this could only come from a man who long ago concluded that life and music were far beyond pricing.

My fellow musicians watched me as I entered, not like an interloper, but more like a cousin back from forced exile. I sat down next to a wispy little girl, maybe age 14, with a glistening baritone saxophone around her neck, a longer horn than she was tall, like Lisa Simpson riffing on her cartoon sax. This little Supergirl showed her balding neighbor what tunes to play and when, exhibiting authority beyond her years. 

Those of us learning music live in constant fear of mistakes, but Dick made it clear repeatedly and humorously that the road to excellence is paved with mistakes, best thought of as “stepping stones to success”.

As I progressed with my music lessons, I began harboring the notion that I could arrange tune’s for Dick’s band. When I asked him about this, he took me aside to explain: “Keep it simple, double up parts from different sections, and make sure no one player feels indispensable”. That way, the strong help the weak, and the Group sounds more like its better players than like its neophytes.

Dick’s policy was always “no player left behind”, no matter your deficiencies. He honestly believed that any of us could do great things if given the chance, and even if we never did, at least we would appreciate hanging out together. When I told him I was considering vocal lessons, he said “Go for it!”, and when I planned an audition with the Philharmonic Chorus, he said “The worst they could say is no, and it’ll be fun trying!” Recently Dick helped me choose a new mouthpiece for my saxophone. “That’s your sound!” he said, the only one I know with the sensitivity to make such a personalized distinction.

Then, like a Western brush fire, the news spread that he had pancreatic cancer, already metastatic and unbridled. A tsunami of concern and support came from former students and innumerable friends. In talking with the many who loved him, I realized I wasn’t alone in thinking that Dick liked each of us the best, as if we were all Daddy’s one and only favorite.

A quickly-organized fundraiser at Iris Restaurant attracted Buffalo’s best and kindest jazz musicians to play, sing, and cry together. Dick was too weak to sit through the whole day, but he visited at the start and the finish. When I saw Dick that day, we hugged unselfconsciously, even given my notoriously non-hugging personality. I’ll never forget that hug: relaxed, unconcerned, more give than take, even in death’s shadow. It was a hug like no other, outside finite time, in a rhythm, and eternal.

Days later my cell phone peeped a voiceless text: “Thought you should know, Dick passed at 4:30 this morning”. A wave of vertigo washed over me, a collage made up of Dick’s smiles, his reliable belly laughs, and his gestures of concern and empathy. Such a kind soul! I suspect he’s heading to a special place where love reverberates and sweet tunes never end.

Don Copley,
Cardiologist from Kenmore,
But more importantly, Dick Griffo’s Student




Thoughts About Dick Griffo - 5/30/2012