This is a guest post by double bassist Jean-Yves Bénichou.
A few months ago, the Internet allowed me to reconnect after 30 years with my old friend and classmate, Joe Russo. We both studied with Homer Mensch at Yale University in 1975, unaware of future that lay ahead of us. Luck did smile upon us, enough to give us a reasonable head start to seek enriching careers as bassists. However, destiny had another itinerary planned, not as fortunate, for one of Joe’s long lost friends, Nathaniel Anthony Ayers. This former 1972 Mensch student from Julliard had ended up living in the streets of Los Angeles for a number of years, sometimes playing on a 2 stringed violin, with all of his worldly possessions packed into a shopping cart. He was recently rediscovered by Steve Lopez, a well known columnist for the L. A. Times, who decided to write a book about this miraculous encounter that changed both of their lives. April 24th marks the official release date of “The Soloist”, a film on Nathaniel’s life, starring Jamie Foxx as Nathaniel Ayers, and Robert Downey Jr. as Steven Lopez, and shall be playing in a theater near you…..
How can I talk about Nathaniel without first mentioning Joe? Our phone conversation back in Sept. was full of talk about the good old times back in New haven, Conn., and we also spoke about our former acquaintances and recent musical activities. How surprised I was to find out that Joe the bass player had also become Joe the composer! The scope of his 20 or so works ranged from Oboe sonatas, brass quintets, to string and choral pieces, and even a Symphony. His pieces were being performed regularly throughout the country and now, thanks to the Internet, even in Germany. A brass group from Hannover had heard about his “Concordance” for double brass quintet, and decided to program his work in their upcoming Nov. concert under his direction. The town of Strasbourg where I live is only 4 hours away from there, so we decided that he arrive a week beforehand to catch up and celebrate the many years that had separated us.
During those few days of festivities, I learned more about Nathaniel and was stunned to find out that he had been diagnosed many years ago with schizophrenia. This explained part of the reason why such an excellent musician and former bass player, ended up playing the violin, cello and even the trumpet on the street. The bass was put aside, too cumbersome to carry under such awkward conditions. Strangely enough, Nathan felt right at home playing to his heart’s content at the entrance of a noisy traffic tunnel in L.A. or under the statue of Beethoven, the source of his inspiration. Sometimes, he’d write down the names of his long lost good friends on walls, and or any other writing surface, and Joe’s name was always there scribbled amongst his favorites. This was where Steve saw the name of Joe Russo and used the Internet to find him and his website. This resulted in a new and close friendship between both of them. The many things that Joe pulled out of Nathan’s past were worth their weight in gold, so Steve devoted the entire chapter 8 to Joe!
To me, reading this book made me come to the conclusion that every man has his hour in life, and Nathan’s time had come now. The chances of 2 men, one homeless and one not, being pulled together through the sound of a violin in a rush hour tunnel, were undoubtedly written in the stars. Through articles, a book and now a film on Nathan, Steve helped uplift a poor and abandoned part of society to a rank that it never imagined nor asked for, but morally deserved. The Internet is indeed capable of connecting and reconnecting people in the present, but only music can magically, throughout time, open the doors that connect all of us to one another
To get a glimpse of Joe and I, including more bits and pieces of this tale that I wish to share with all of you, click on the link below:
Click here to see pictures of Joe, Nathaniel, and Steve Lopez, along with the principle actors of the film:
“The Soloist” (published by Berkley Books, N.Y. 2008), can be found in any book store, but I suggest that you read the first of Mr. Lopez’s 10 articles, written exactly 4 years ago, which led to its publication:
Jamie Foxx as Nathaniel Anthony Ayers:
Finally, please watch the 60 minutes video special on Nathaniel where you can see him play:
This is a guest post by double bassist Jean-Yves Bénichou. Benjy is bi-national, being a citizen of both the United States and France. He has lived in France for the past 30 years and has been a member of the Strasbourg Philharmonic since 1985. He studied double bass at Temple University with Edward Arian and at Yale University with Homer Mensch, as well as additional studies with Roger Scott and François Rabbath.