Ode to Willie Tee: "It was like driving a Cadillac through the sky"
New Orleans funk and soul master Wilson "Willie Tee" Turbinton died yesterday - you can read the short news report here.
And if you do so, I highly suggest you scroll down and read the sweet and sad post "Willie Tee is Dying" by Steve Allen, a saxophonist who evidently played and recorded with him.
If you've ever read nola.com before, you're well aware of the ridiculous crap that frequently makes its way into the comments and blogs, so I don't need to point out what an uncharacteristically kind and well crafted message Steve Allen has left us with
If there was a permalink I missed it, so I'm reposting it here:
Posted by SteveAllen on 09/11/07 at 11:29PM
Willie Tee is Dying
Last night around half time of the Saints season opener I left the house and went to Touro Infirmary on Prytania Street. When I got there the guards at the desk told me visiting hours were over at 8:30. It was about 9:30. I persisted and they wanted to know if the patient was near death and if the hospital had called me. Yes, near death in the oncology ward, that's cancer, and no, no call. I told them I was his sax player, that he was Willie Tee, Teasin' You, Wild Magnolia producer, many other 'comebacks' and reinventions, a name that it would have been impossible for even a jaded New Orleans security guard not to have known. The officer went in the back and came out and asked what Willie Tee's real name is, which is Wilson Turbinton. He let me go up to the room.
This month's Offbeat magazine has an obituary for Earl Turbinton, Willie's brother in it. Since Katrina, Earl had been in a long term medical facility, first in Memphis and lately in Baton Rouge, because he'd had a couple of strokes and lung cancer apparently according to the obituary. Willie and he had an album several years back called "Brothers for Life", and now it looks like they will become brothers in death as well. Earl passed away and his service was 4 short weekends ago. Willie visited his brother daily in Baton Rouge. They were very close, in every way, bearing a very pronounced resemblance to each other, working together on and off for their entire careers, even starting a music academy for young people years back which evolved into NOCCA, The New Orleans Center For Creative Arts High School. It was something Willie never mentioned to me, having happened many years before we met. When we were together there was only time to talk about music, the music we were working on in the right now frame of reference. Improvisational ensemble music, as free and spontaneous as possible at all times, anything goes, and as little structure as possible. That was what playing with Willie Tee was for me. Just follow him, anywhere, 20 minute medleys, change keys, change feels, pick up different horns, constantly searching for new keyboard sounds, writing new grooves on the bandstand... the most challenging and fun musical experience I've had maybe ever. And we communicated so instantly and the flow just laid itself out in front of us so easily, it was like driving a Cadillac through the sky.
And now that ride is over? Willie looked small in the hospital bed. He was knocked out on pain medication, heavy stuff that Hospice can supply, which is the point at which a patient gets no treatment for their disease, just to be made comfortable until the end. I know about this intimately. Juanetz and Jack, my mom and dad both died within 3 months of each other. They were old and very sick, and ready to leave this world. Willie Tee however is 63. It would seem he has plenty more to give. He was invited to be an Artist in Residence at Princeton for a year after Katrina. Handy, since his home near City Park had been destroyed by the storm. Princeton did well by it's students, having the street genius around to exude musical knowledge in it's purest most direct form, no academic filter composed of 'concepts, theory, reflection and words words words, just the pure spark of creativity. Let the academics sort it out and theorize it in the past tense, if that's all they can do. Creation happens in the eternal now, and that's the only place it happens. You see the difference, yes?
Willie said pray to the Lord for me. On this subject I must watch my step not to hurt the feelings of my fellow humans who need every bit of hope and comfort they can get. There is a God, and God is all powerful, and miracles do happen, things that can't be explained in conventional physics. Sometimes the Big Guy seems interested in what we're going through, other times not so much. And I know from our perspective, living in this world, there could very well be a great deal we can't and couldn't understand, even if we could see what's on the other side. So it's probably is best not to come off cynically on this subject. Yet I find it hard to keep some thoughts to myself. Will it change anything, no. Am I registering a complaint, absolutely. Willie Tee just deserves some free and easy time right now. He should be sitting at the piano somewhere singing, not lying in the gown breathing through plastic tubing. That should be later, much later. Why now? Why is the spark being extinguished so suddenly and abruptly? I don't mean to challenge your faith, but can you explain that?
I went by the Hospital again yesterday afternoon and there was a hand written sign on Willie Tee's room that said NO VISITORS. I had just seen Paul, the owner of Sweet Lorraines, where we had played so many great sets, and he hadn't gotten in either, but he had spoken to Marilyn, Mrs, Turbinton, and she said they were making arrangements move Willie to a Hospice off of St. Charles somewhere near by. Marilyn didn't even come out of the room to talk to me, the nurse said she was upset.
And today, September 11th, while I was setting up my studio at my house, the radio announcer on WWOZ said they wished to extend their love and sympathy to the Turbinton family, and that Willie Tee had gone to join the Ancestors. I'm happy for him that he didn't have to just lay there in the hospital bed and suffer. He didn't say much to me the night I visited him there. Just "I feel terrible, I'm dyin', pray to the Lord for me, and I've been thinkin'." I told him when you get there tell 'em we're not too happy about this. Well he's there now. I have to say, I feel like there is a 'there' there. It is and always will be the BIG MYSTERY to us on this side, but I feel feelings and hear voices that come from there, my parents in dreams mainly and now Willie Tee too I'm sure will visit me. I'll sure be glad to see him and I hope he sends me some inspired sounds from time to time. In fact I know he will.
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