Essay By Al Sutton
Chris was a magical guy.
I first met him in Chicago, where I was in med school. I went to the Gate of Horn, where Joe Segal organized jam sessions. Chris was blind and on crutches because of fragile-bone disease, and was helped up on the stage, where he played the piano. I was mesmerized at the beauty of his playing. We spoke between sets, and the next time I met him, a month later, he was a patient at University of Illinois for treatment of a leg fracture. We remained in touch, thereafter. I returned to New York City in 1960, and ran into him again at the Five Spot, where Thelonius Monk was playing. Chris had just finished a tour with Dinah Washington, and decided to stay in New York. We rejoiced at meeting again, and from that time on, we had an uninterrupted close friendship until the end, Feb 1, 2008.
Chris had a number of challenges which he met with aplomb. Standing on an icy street corner in Harlem at night in the freezing winter waiting for a connection is difficult enough. Try it without sight and on crutches. He survived those nights, and seemed to come out stronger for it. Jimmy the Greek would have given great odds against Chris surviving, but he did a lot more than that!
When Chris showed up for a gig with Sun Ra at the Vanguard, he asked him: “You are playing the electric piano; what is my job?” Sun Ra answered: “Your job is to create!” And create he did, for the gig and for all his life!
There was a good deal aristocratic about Chris; it would irritate him when I said that.
Chris knew how good he was, but he never bragged. Nor did I ever hear him denigrate another musician. He often recorded at home, and when he was satisfied with a particular tune, he would save the tape in his pocket and hand it over to me. “This one is for the archives!” he’d say, with a chuckle. The ‘archives’ is alive and well, with perhaps fifty hours of his playing, solo, duos, trios,now digitized,
Chris was blind, but he ‘saw’ more than most people. We’d watch TV together; on one occasion a TV movie showed a boat burning. I told him what was going on onscreen. “No, he said. “It is a film within the movie of a boat burning,” he insisted. Sure enough, it was so. I asked him how he knew that, and he said, “It was obvious; there was no music.” We went to a movie theatre to see “The Devil’s Disciple”. At the end, the woman is seen going off with one character, which I described to Chris. “No,” he insisted. “It can’t be! She must go off with the other character.” Sure enough, at the last minute, his prediction is borne out.
Chris was very stoical about his challenges. While he was living around the West 70’s, he fell down a flight of stairs because a cellar cover was left open, and he ended up in St. Vincent’s Hospital. “I lucked out!” he said. I only broke two ribs and my left shoulder.”
He preferred to laugh at the way bad things happened. I once told him a joke, that became his favorite, about a man who had all this bad luck, and finally looks up to the heavens and asks, “What have I done to deserve this bad treatment?” The deep voice from the sky says, “ I don’t know what it is, but there is something about you that pisses me off!” Chris just went off on that joke, laughed for a good ten minutes. “He can’t even say what it is that pisses him off!” Chris would repeat, and then go off into peels of laughter.
Chris was a master of harmony. Where most musicians would only improvise a single line, Chris also improvised harmonies, taking remarkable adventures, always able to find his way back. The notes were his friends; he knew how they sounded. Once he was dissatisfied with a recording he had done, feeling it sounded too tentative. I dared to suggest that he plan ahead, so it was more set. “What?!” he said. “Half of the fun is not knowing where I am going!”
Chris wanted to arrange “A Time for Love” for the Clifford Jordan Big Band, and I was his scribe. It took some time, as it we did it by hand, and we were almost finished writing it when I got a call from Chris at 3 AM.
“What is it?” I asked. He said, I can’t sleep.”
“What“s the problem; are you okay?” I asked.
“I was playing it back in my head. In the 2nd chorus, in the 7th bar; we have the 2nd tenor playing an A flat.
“It’s killing me! It’s just wrong. It’s keeping me awake.
“Well, we can get to it in the morning,” I say, sensibly.
“Get the score now,” he insisted.
I obeyed. “Okay, Chris, I got it.”
“Change the A flat to an A natural.”
“Okay, I did it,” I said.
“Whew,” he said. “Now I can sleep.”
Chris was forgiving of others. When his friend Flip stole his winter coat, he merely shrugged. “He must have needed it,” he said. On one occasion, when he was unfairly accused of using drugs, I asked why he didn’t defend himself, he said, “Well, the next time I might be using.”
Chris was a great advocate for human rights. In 1970, 100,000 students mobilized in Washington to protest Kent State shootings, but no attention was paid to the shooting of black students in Augusta. The SCLC was planning a march from Macon to Atlanta. I told Chris about it. “I guess I’m supposed to march with the SCLC in Macon to protest,” I said tentatively. “Yes, you are!” Chris commanded, and I went. After all, he was on crutches, and couldn’t march.
Chris had courage to stand up for himself, even against odds. Once, after using too much amphetamine, Chris began to act crazy. For his safety, I had no choice but to have him admitted to Kings County Hospital, where they misdiagnosed him as paranoid schizophrenia, and shipped him off to Pilgrim State Hospital, perhaps for the rest of his life. He called me, and complained about his situation, and that there was a conspiracy against him involving the CIA, the FBI, and the President of the United States. I told him that I might not agree with the conspiracy, but that if he ever wanted to get out of that place, he would act as though there were none. He answered: “I’ll consider your advice. I don’t always believe you, but I trust you.” The next day, I received a call from the social worker at Pilgrim State.
“We have a patient, Mr. Anderson, who carries the diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, yet he appears perfectly rational,” she said. “Can you help explain this?”
“They made a mistake in the diagnosis,” I said. “His symptoms were related to drugs, and the drugs must have worn off.”
“Well, that makes sense. I will recommend discharge,” she said. “Will you take responsibility if we send him home?”
I agreed. Chris later related to me that the next day a group of physicians came to his bedside, and asked him: “Mr Anderson, do you hear voices?”
“Well,” said Chris. “As I am blind, if I didn’t hear voices, I would be in a lot of trouble.— but if you want to know if the voices I hear are real, I can assure you they are, because when I put my hands up to cover my ears, they go away.”
They discharged him that same day.
Chris was a remarkable person, and he wanted to share with others his message of beauty.