Monday, January 01, 2007

Keni Washington

Keni Washington (see photo above) is the coolest 60 year old I know--and I know a lot of cool 60 year olds!

We first met in October of 2003 on a United Airlines flight from Indianapolis to San Francisco. Wearing a black turtleneck and carrying a tenor sax, he stood out from the throng of business travelers and Midwestern moms. He looked intelligent and intense in a gentle sort of way, and I thought to myself, I hope that man sits next to me. And to my delight, he did.

As soon as we settled into our seats, we began talking and didn’t stop until the plane landed. We chatted about politics, philosophy, and music. I told him about the book I was writing on late bloomers; he told me about his own midlife career change.

In May of 2005 I traveled to Indianapolis to interview him. His story merits a full telling, but here's an abbreviated version:

At 21, while still an undergraduate philosophy major at Stanford University, Keni married a brilliant and beautiful fellow student named Charlotte. In 1967 they had a son together. A year later, his jazz quintet Smoke was invited to perform at the Berkeley Jazz Festival. Rolling Stone magazine reviewed the concert and gave a nod to his performance. That same year, he put out his first album. He was only 23 years old.

The following May, he produced his own festival. Duke Ellington and Herbie Hancock were on the bill. Red Foxx was the M.C. The next month Charlotte was killed by a drunk driver in a tragic car accident. (Even now, almost forty years later, Keni's eyes well up as he describes what happened that day.) He was left with his grief and an 18-month old son to raise alone. Unable to work nights and go on tour, he stopped playing music altogether.

Eventually he re-married (more than once) and had another child. For the next two decades, he focused on supporting his family, first working in electronics and later in real estate development. Then in September of ’88, he traveled to his hometown of Indianapolis to be with his dying grandmother. He hadn’t lived there since ’64 and only planned on staying a short while. But as his grandmother lingered on, he settled in, leaving his business partner in San Francisco look after his real estate interests.

During those months at his grandmother's, he picked up the tenor sax again. One day he looked in the mirror and thought to himself, Keni, you’re back. The musician self that he'd abandoned when Charlotte was killed had reemerged. Deciding to stay in Indianapolis, he called his partner to break the news that he was opting out of their real estate ventures.

In 1989, at the age of 43, Keni Washington came back onto the jazz scene. When he first starting playing sax again, he didn’t think it would possible to make up the twenty years he’d lost. “If someone had told me I could, I wouldn’t have believed it,” he said. But that’s exactly what he did. Today he leads the Keni Washington Quintet and the Omniverse Jazz Symphonia.

Here’s what Nancy Ann Lee, writing for Midwest Jazz, says about Keni's album Eronsonata:

Saxophonist, composer, producer Keni Washington thrives on long-term visions, big projects that require time for careful development. From concept to studio, he and co-producer, classically trained violist Donna Lively Clark, worked on Erosonata over three years. Their perseverance paid off. This romantic "eight-tune" collection is a wonderfully unique jazz session. Lyrically fresh, sweeping arrangements of classics such as "Invitation," "Body & Soul," "Prelude to a Kiss," "The Bad and the Beautiful," have you believing you're hearing these tunes for the first time.

Besides playing music, Keni is a social activist and past president of the Indianapolis Center for Peace and Justice. But that's another story for another posting.

"Life isn't a rehearsal for something else," Keni once said to me. Wise words from a wise man.

NOTE: I'll be out of the country for the next week a half and won't be blogging. I'll post again when I return.

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