Years After Newtown Massacre, a Father Plays Through the Pain
By PHILLIP LUTZ AUG. 26, 2016
Jimmy Greene preparing the music before an Aug. 16 set at Birdland in Manhattan with the trumpeter Randy Brecker. Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times
The saxophonist Jimmy Greene and his wife, Nelba Márquez-Greene, lost their 6-year-old daughter, Ana, in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown four years ago. Mr. Greene has had success in addressing the loss musically — a tribute to Ana released in 2014, “Beautiful Life,” earned two Grammy nominations — but the pain endures.
“I still think of my little girl every moment of every day,” he said.
Yet Mr. Greene, 41, is moving the needle artistically, and perhaps psychologically. This month, he completed studio work on another, more animated recorded tribute and spent five nights as a sideman at a club in New York City. Next month, he will lead bands at clubs in New York and Stamford and at a concert hall in his native Hartford, where he will draw on the new music.
“It’s extremely helpful dealing with the complex emotions that the grief process brings on,” he said of the activity.
Sitting in his studio at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, where he is an assistant professor of music, Mr. Greene, a big man with a ready smile, said that, in recent months he had become physically stronger and better able to focus. He credited the good wishes, and occasional largess, of family, friends and colleagues.
Prominent among them is the pianist Renee Rosnes. The only musician recruited for both “Beautiful Life” and the new album, Ms. Rosnes, who like Mr. Greene is a fixture in the jazz mainstream, said she had noticed a change in him.
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“He’s a great talent who would have developed into the musician he is today regardless,” she said. “However, I believe that there might be a certain intensity in the way he plays that is directly related to what happened to him.”
That intensity was evident on a Tuesday night this month before a packed house at Birdland in Manhattan, where Ms. Rosnes led a quintet through the songbook of her former colleague and an influence of Mr. Greene’s, the saxophonist Joe Henderson.
Offstage, Mr. Greene focused intently on Isaiah, now his only child, who sat with him at a side table. Onstage, with Ms. Rosnes lending moral and musical support, Mr. Greene’s solos revealed a wide emotional range — his low notes, big and round, seeming to plumb the depths of despair; his high notes, light and looping, reaching heavenward.
Back in his studio, he spoke with a low-key sense of urgency about the new album. It grew, he said, out of a critique offered by a young friend of Ana’s during a performance of music from “Beautiful Life” at the university in December 2014. The friend told Mr. Greene’s wife, a marriage and family therapist, that the songs were slow and sad, but that Ana was anything but. Mr. Greene quoted the friend as saying, “Ana would like something she could dance to.”
Mr. Greene playing his saxophone. Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times
“I really appreciated that insight,” Mr. Greene said.“So this album is a much more lively, danceable, rhythmic expression than the last one.”
For the album, which does not yet have a name, Mr. Greene did not use the children’s choir, the string section and the small army of jazz musicians who appeared on “Beautiful Life.” In their place are two agile combos, one of which includes the players who appeared at the December 2014 concert: John Patitucci on bass, Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums and Ms. Rosnes.
The band, which will join Mr. Greene at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford on Sept. 23, is called Jimmy Greene’s Love in Action. The name reflects the message that Mr. Greene said he is keen to put forward: “Love is a set of actions.”
Mr. Patitucci’s presence should help advance that message. Beyond his great skill on the bass, he is known in the jazz community for his joyous mien and his adherence to his Christian beliefs — traits, he noted, that he has in common with Mr. Greene.
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“He’s a spiritually deep person, with a huge faith,” said Mr. Patitucci, who reached out to Mr. Greene after Newtown. “That’s something we share. When I hear his music, I hear the kind of beauty that speaks to the beauty of the divine.”
Mr. Patitucci cited “Ana’s Way,” a restrained exercise employing the choir from Ana’s former school, the Linden Christian School in Winnipeg, Canada, as music from “Beautiful Life” that moved him. He also mentioned “Last Summer,” a quartet number that Mr. Greene was reworking for his large ensemble, the Big Jimmy Greene Band, which will appear at the 9th Note in Stamford on Sept. 10 and at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in Manhattan on Sept. 12.
That piece tempers its pathos with a rhythmic kick, foretelling the brighter approach on the new album. At its extreme, that approach is expressed in what Mr. Greene called “comical, silly” material like “Stink Thumb,” which derives its title from Ana’s fascination with thumb-sucking and its odorous aftermath. The album, suffused with South American and Afro-Cuban rhythms, reunites Mr. Greene with the Brazilian percussionist Rogério Boccato, who taught at the Hartt School in Hartford. There, as a student, Mr. Greene made contacts that gave him entree to the top ranks of the jazz world.
As a globe-trotting artist and educator, he took a job teaching at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. He returned to Connecticut only months before Ana was killed.
The impact of that decision was not lost on him. But after receiving condolences from places far and wide, Mr. Greene — born in Hartford, raised in East Hartford and Bloomfield — still finds it comforting finally to be living and working close to home.
“It’s always nice to see familiar faces in the audience,” he said. “You feel there are people who know you and understand you already out there.”