Stories proliferate when a figure of some stature passes, but I hope you won't mind if I share a tale I've never told before. What follows is not an obituary by any stretch; for that you'll want to read the very fine Associated Press obit. This is nothing more than a personal memory I hadn't recalled in many years, until tonight.
Sometime between 1997 and 1999, when I was working for Third Floor Media on behalf of Branford Marsalis's Columbia Jazz stable, I was tasked with escorting Gato Barbieri, his band, and a small crew from New York City to Washington, D.C., for a BET on Jazz taping to herald his latest release, Qué Pasa.
Almost from the start, things were rough. The weather turned miserable, resulting in our flight from La Guardia being canceled. I managed to get everyone back to Manhattan and we caught a train to D.C. Barbieri kept his distance, but seemed concerned about something. Eventually, someone whispered to me that he'd accidentally forgotten a prescription medication, and it was shaking his confidence. My stress level went off the chart then and there, and I redoubled my efforts to make the quiet, aloof star comfortable.
We got through the taping - the players were all pros, no concern there, and once Barbieri stood up at the microphone, he was fabulous. The music was his latter-day idiom, all smooth cruising and low heat, but it was really moving that day.
Here, as always, he had That Gorgeous Sound.
Aside from an initial greeting, I never exchanged any words with Barbieri. But after we all got back to New York and the band disappeared into the night, his handler (a manager? an agent? I can't recall) took me aside and said that Gato had been very pleased with how I'd handled everything - and had authorized him to invite me to become his tour manager.
Even in declining, I tried to express how truly honored I felt. For a while I even wondered what it might have been like.
So tonight, on hearing of his passing, I salute Leandro Barbieri, the Argentine Cat in the Hat, by sharing my one true story - and by listening to what's still my favorite of his albums: The Third World, his 1970 Flying Dutchman debut, recorded with Roswell Rudd, Lonnie Liston Smith, Charlie Haden, Beaver Harris, and Richard Landrum. Listening to this - and to the early Jazz Composer's Orchestra stuff and Escalator Over the Hill and Don Cherry's Complete Communion - I hear the passionate young firebrand I'd read about in Chasin' the Trane, the early Coltrane biography that had such a huge influence on me, years ago.
Vaya con Dios, Mr. Barbieri.