I’d agreed to do it when he called and asked. Sure I was honored- our friend Mark Richardson was to be installed as President and Dean of The Church Divinity School of The Pacific (CDSP) in Berkeley and had been asked me to play at the service.

In over 40 years of playing piano professionally I’ve played all types of gigs. Big society balls in SF and dive bars in the Tenderloin. For Presidents and pimps and whores. Gangsters, grifters and governors. Played in the window at Macy’s one xmas.

Quinceaneras and Chinese funerals too.

And I’d even played an Episcopal installation before so I figured I’d just play an Anglican hymn with a little COGIC sway to it.

No problem.

But a few days later I got a phone call from a guy who said he was a choral teacher at Berkeley High and a friend of the Richardsons and would I accompany him during the service on a piece he would sing.


Wading in The Water

No problem.

When the day came Deborah and I drove up to Berkeley and Wendell Brooks and I gathered around a spinet in the courtyard and hashed through the tune.

Wendell reminded me of Dick Gregory and I sensed that he looked at me like I was a substitute biology teacher.

So I played Wading in The Water like Ray Charles and he sang it like….like Pavarotti.

At one point we stopped and looked at each other. I don’t think he expected me to play it like that and I know that I didn’t expect him to sing it like that.

Nothing was said, we both just smiled and looked at each other. We had made assumptions about each other based on appearance and circumstance and we were both wrong.

I’ve worked very hard to not do that. It is an unattractive human condition that I have asked to be relieved of.

But it still happens.

Afterwards I learned that he was a trained opera singer who had spent 25 years living in Vienna and working all over Europe before settling into semi-retirement as a choral teacher at Berkeley High.

I never saw Wendell Brooks again. A few years later he passed away before I ever got a chance to revisit our brief meeting. The rehearsal and performance were now literally a blip in time.

And yet this brief convergence is something I’ll never forget. With all the misery being inflicted in the world today we have to do a better job with empathy. In a very small way Little Village Foundation is committed to doing that.

Happy New Year!