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Homage to Merv and Max

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What do Merv Griffin and Max Roachhave in common? Aside from the fact that they both died this week, very little. But connections are often very personal, and the thing that links them for me is that I met them both when I was a teenager and have always remembered those meetings as moments of great significance.

I met Merv Griffin in 1980, when I was 17 years old and a guest on his talk show. I wasn't a talking guest -- that honor was reserved for Marvin Hamlisch, Rupert Holmes, and Dizzy Gillespie, who was my reason for being there. I was in a high school all-star jazz band that was backing up Dizzy, one of those great opportunities for young musicians that seem to be disappearing now. My bandmates and I didn't get a chance to talk to Merv before the show. He was sitting in the front row of the Vivian Beaumont Theater, busy with business and with a young woman whom I recall sat on his lap for a while. We chatted instead with Jack Sheldon (he of "Schoolhouse Rock" fame) and Merv's regular bandleader, Mort Lindsey. But after the show, being 17 years old, we all crowded around Merv for autographs. When one of the trumpet players joked to Merv that he ought to hire us to replace his regular band, he looked at me and said, "I saw you up there. I'll remember."

To a young musician, this felt like being singled out by God. It made me certain that I would succeed as a musician.

It didn't turn out that way. But ever since then, I've remembered that moment when Merv looked me in the eye and promised that he'd remember me. There was something powerful, fascinating, captivating, and utterly affirmative in the glance he gave me. He is the only person whom I have ever met who could genuinely, profoundly twinkle his eyes.

Merv was a tubby man by physique, not graceful, a good, but not great singer, and by the standards of that day, a competent, but hardly exhilarating or probing interviewer. A man of solid, but not overwhelmingly impressive gifts. Yet within three seconds of direct, personal interaction with him, I understood his great gift: this ability to twinkle his eyes.

In those three seconds, I felt fortunate, understood, uplifted, and reassured. It must be a gift similar to what Ronald Reagan had -- another man of underwhelmingly moderate gifts, who nevertheless achieved spectacular success that his gifts, by themselves, could not seem to explain. I never met Reagan. But people I know who did -- and these were not fans of his, by any means -- still report that he had the power to charm.

Merv, too, had the power to charm, let's call it twinkle power. There were better singers, better interviewers, better businessmen, and more attractive people. But Merv was a genius of the twinkle, and for him, that seems to have been a gift more valuable than any other.

I met Max Roach only once, as well, a year later. It was just a handshake, and he did not overawe one with his personal presence. He was a quiet, very gracious and seemingly good-hearted man. A mensch. But I was overawed anyway, because I met him just minutes after he had given one of the greatest, most astonishing performances I ever heard.


He was an artist-in-residence at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston while I was a student there. In the regal, baroque concert hall at the center of the school, Jordan Hall, where I'd heard the Guarneri String Quartet play the complete Beethoven cycle, Max Roach took center stage one night for a solo recital.

Solo performances by a drummer were something of a signature for Max Roach, but they were new to me at that time. I was used to solo recitals by pianists, violinists, guitarists, and even trombonists. But two hours of music without melody seemed like a great risk. I confess that I entered the concert hall somewhat skeptically.

No melody? On the contrary, Max Roach brought out every quality of tonal variety from his drum set, and drew out mesmerizing lines of melody, counterpoint, with polyrhythmic subtlety and euphoric, heart-rending sweetness. But it was the encore that really demonstrated his genius. Dispensing with all of his drums, he pulled his stool and the hi-hat to the very front of the stage, sat down, and played a simple rhythmic figure. He paused, then repeated it. Again, but this time with a slight, almost imperceptible variation. Again, now expanded, and again, with an echo, a comment. Without ever losing the clarity, the immediacy, or the shape of that initial figure, he expanded a set of variations that lasted 10 minutes or more. In my experience, only Bach's "Chaconne" equals the inventiveness, the variety, the depth and sheer musical power of that improvised solo on hi-hat.

When I shook Max Roach's hand later that evening, my hands were already shaking. To this day I feel the resonance of that performance, and I feel privileged to have met the man who gave it.