Saturday, December 8, 2007

Blues for Rick

It is the autumn of 2001 and we have our biggest gig to date – an open air performance in front of hundreds of people at Kikar Ziv in the high tech area of Tel Aviv. I am performing with a tenor sax, which I had just started to play (instead of the alto on which I learned to play sax originally), and am pretty nervous. After the first set, someone familiar from the jazz scene comes up to shake my hand. "Hi. My name is Rick Birman. I really enjoyed your first set."
I went into apoplexy. Rick, a famous Tel Aviv jazz pianist, in fact one of the people who brought swing to the City of Spring, is in the audience, enjoying the show. Yipes!! I am even more nervous during that second set!

Rick and I exchanged phone numbers and became fast friends. He introduced me to some great female singers (Rick was always in the company of females, especially vocalists), particularly Marina Blumin, who was 14 at the time. He was having heart problems, and, I being on the medical faculty of Tel Aviv University, was determined to try help him. He needed heart surgery with stents that cost several thousand dollars a piece (!). I was unable to make any headway with the hospitals, the importers, the manufacturers, everyone wanted to make money. So that summer I organized a special evening in Rick's honor at Simha's place on the beach. We even recorded a demo, together with Marina, featuring "Blues for Rick" which I had written for him.

"If you're over and out, count on me…"

Over 300 people came that evening, the performance was electric, with some of the most famous jazz people of the country playing in his honor, and together with him. We raised about 7000 shekels (almost 2000 dollars) which I gave Rick for his operation. It turned out that he needed three stents, so we had raised only about a third of the money. I think that Rick was also reticent about having further heart surgery.

That fall he was very slow walking, but whenever he sat down at a piano, sparks flew. Rick had an amazing swing that you can't teach, and you can't learn. To paraphrase Ellington "You can't play a thing if you ain't got that swing…."

Well Rick had that swing. He liked to play songs in only two keys, G and C. I don't know to what extent he had learned to read music, but within his own framework he was great, so we indulged him in this respect.

One day I told him that I was going to sell my alto sax. I even had a buyer. "Take it to the club on Wednesday. I want to hear you play it before you sell it." I did. Rick was adamant. "No way you're going to sell that sax. Actually, you should be playing more of that alto."
Today, four years after his death, I am playing more alto than tenor.

Rick lived in squalid conditions and had little if any money, but was an extremely generous and giving person. We talked every day over the phone, and he would come to our performances, and sit in for a couple of numbers. I still have a play list he wrote me out. Rick would write little notes which he would fold and give you, I still have a couple, particularly a lovely one which he wrote me the night of his benefit. .

Four years ago, the day before Christmas, Rick phoned and invited me to hear him play at a gig that night in Tel Aviv. I was on my way to perform in Haifa. So we set a date to meet the next day at 1 p.m. at the Tel Aviv Cinemateque. He had promised to explain something to me concerning bossanova rhythms.

That night Rick was invited up to the stage, played an amazing solo (so I am told) and then lay his head on the piano and called it a day.
No stents, no surgery, a gentle passing of a gentleman.
The next morning I got a call from my pianist Tamir Miller. "Rick is not going to make your date at the cinameteque." I understood at once.

Rick was one of those exceedingly rare people that you're lucky to meet, luckier to befriend, and never ever want to forget. So every December we have a jam session in his honor, featuring many of the female vocalists he loved and loved hearing. Our next one will be on Dec. 16th, at Shablul jazz club, the Tel Aviv harbor. To order tickets, phone 03-5461891.

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