A funeral is supposed to comfort the living. It's a time when friends and family can bond together in their pain and sadness, and resolve anew to live their lives to the fullest. We acknowledge death in this ceremony, but we do so by celebrating the life of the deceased. You never feel so keenly aware of being alive than at a funeral, and you should never leave one sadder about someone dying than you are happy that the person lived at all.
The last thing you expect to happen at a funeral is for somebody to die on the premises. Tragically, that's just what happened at Houston guitarist Kinney Abair's jazz funeral at the SHAPE Community Center in the Third Ward on February 19.
During the service, friends and family were invited to give three-minute eulogies, and a number of them gave speeches in Abair's honor. Then saxophonist A.J. Murphy had his turn. "He got up and he was talking about how he and Kinney were like brothers," says local blues/soul singer Sandy Hickey, "and how they were in this comedy group together called Ebony Lunatics that they claimed the Wayans brothers stole from them and went to Hollywood and made In Living Color out of. Anyway, before he started talking, Gloria Edwards got up and left the room."
Murphy said his piece -- something to the effect that life should be lived to the fullest while you still have time -- and then walked to the back of the room, where he remained standing. "Then all of a sudden you hear this thump and all of this commotion -- 'Is there a doctor in the house?' -- and all this," says Hickey. "This pastor was talking at the lectern and he kinda stopped, and everybody's crowding around Murphy and doing CPR and then they're calling the paramedics. When they got there, this other guy -- this promoter guy -- was trying to save him. The paramedics said, 'Hey, we got a man dying here, we need some space,' but this guy wouldn't do it. So the paramedic finally just said, 'All right, we'll just have to throw you off.' So he grabs him. This guy's dying and they were trying to revive him, and this guy's just being a dick. Anyway, next thing you know the paramedics are shocking the guy and sticking needles in his chest. He was not getting revived. I just knew he was gone. I guarantee you he was dead in the ambulance."
About an hour later the funeral continued. "What else can you do?" Hickey wonders. "A lot of people" -- Joe Hughes and Trudy Lynn, who attended Phyllis Wheatley High School with Murphy 40 years ago, among them -- "left because they were freaked out."
Local singer Gloria Edwards, whose mother also died at a funeral, had an eerie premonition as Murphy walked to the podium. "I felt the presence of what happened before it happened," she says. "I was sitting right on the end when A.J. walked past me. It was as if the presence walked right along beside him. It was not a friendly presence -- it was a fearful presence. I caught the fear of it and I jumped up and ran out to the restaurant area and I started praying. I just prayed and prayed and then all of a sudden I heard all of this noise and [my husband] Nelson [Mills] came to the doorway of where I was praying and said, 'Call 911! A.J. just passed out.' "
Friend Maria Williams told Edwards she had a similar feeling of foreboding. "She was all the way across the room and she said she felt the same thing when she saw me spring up," Edwards says. "She said she felt the hair just rise up on her arms, and she didn't know what was wrong with her. And then she came to me later outside and asked me if I felt that presence and I said, 'Yes, I did.' "
Edwards survived one of the worst disasters in the history of American nightlife, and she says this reminded her of that awful night in 1981. "I have viewed death before," she says. "I was in Kansas City at the Hyatt when that walkway crashed down on all those people. We were sitting across the lobby, but I had a view, like a movie. This was like a repeat of that to me."
Rumor has it that there had been bad blood between Murphy and Abair. "I didn't get a chance to hear what [Murphy] had to say, because I had to exit before he started talking," says Edwards. "I don't understand why I did that, but this friend of mine called me last night and said, 'I know the reason that you got up and left. What you felt was Kinney's spirit telling you that A.J. was up there lying about his relationship with Kinney, when he knew he'd done him wrong ' I tell you that was just the scariest thing. I went home and went to bed and stayed there the remainder of the day. It was just unbelievable."
Murphy's death marked the end of an eventful couple of weeks since Abair suffered a massive heart attack on February 6. On February 10, KPFT prematurely leaked word that doctors at Memorial Hermann Southwest Hospital were "pulling the plug" on Abair's life support; Abair lingered in a coma for another five days. Numerous benefits to defray medical/funeral expenses were announced: One took place two weeks ago while Abair was still alive; the second and third benefits were last Wednesday and Sunday at Silky's and Mr. Gino's, respectively.
Murphy, a former protégé of Grady Gaines's and most recently the leader of the Houston All-Stars Revue, was buried Tuesday, February 25. His dispute with Abair was allegedly the result of a record deal gone bad. Word was that the two had buried the hatchet, and every musician who spoke to Racket agreed that Murphy was in a positive phase of life. In his younger days, he had battled a drug problem, and in recent years he continued that fight, but as a drug counselor. He also helped found the Montgomery County Friends of the Blues and was active in educating people about the music he loved.
Meanwhile, at Abair's Wednesday benefit, nearly three quarters of the 50-person crowd were musicians. Like Abair's music, the performances ranged from blues to jazz to funk and back again without prejudice. Guitarist Gary Dorsey gently strummed the jazz chords, while fellow six-stringers Adam Burchfield, Oscar O'Bear, Teri Greene and Lowdown Brown got down and dirty with some gutbucket blues. Guy Schwartz sat in on bass, and one of Abair's friends -- Jabari, a tall, bearded guy who looked like he might be a member of the Sun Ra Arkestra -- delivered a Gil Scott-Heron-style rap before taking a solo on blues flute. Abair's son Juan took a turn behind the traps for a funk-fueled set of groove jazz. Sandy Hickey and Jennifer Fitts took turns belting out soulful blues standards.
The night was a reflection of Abair's kaleidoscopic life. Abair was an actor (on stage and on the silver screen) as well as a musician, and once co-wrote a play about his father's good friend Lightnin' Hopkins. To Abair, like so many others in Houston, blues was just another color of jazz. "Kinney was a jazzman with a blues troubadour's soul," says former collaborator Sonny Boy Terry. "I don't think he ever got his due as a jazz guy because he didn't always live under the best circumstances. He really lived the blues life. He had enough talent where if he had the right circumstances -- if had lived in New York -- he would have thrived."
And as Sandy Hickey noted from the Silky's stage, Houston wasn't always as supportive of Abair as it could have been: "It sure is nice having all of you here tonight. Of course it would have been better if more of you had gone to his gigs at the Red Cat "
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Actually, Hickey was lecturing the wrong audience. This was a crowd of musicians, half of whom probably have gigs at some other empty bar in town. Sadly, packed houses are too often reserved for memorial concerts.
"He would have never expected something that special for him," said Hickey of all the events in honor of Abair's life. "But all they did was put him where he belongs."
Sadly, Abair and Murphy weren't the only two musicians to die suddenly in the last couple of weeks. Lead singer Anthony "Twisted Tony" Harless of the Pasadena metal band S.I.N.I.C. was stabbed to death in a trailer park on February 16. Harless was 34 Houston is again benefiting from the annual South By Effect, the phenomenon by which we get to see on our own turf a good portion of the bands that will be at the big schmooze. Even better, we get to see them in longer sets than they're allotted in Austin, and without all the industry types like Racket hanging around looking jaded, cadging free booze and chatting at the bar about Joe Millionaire. Let's take it club by club: The Proletariat will fill Ted Leo and the Pharmacists' prescriptions on March 15, and the next night, chamber popsters the Aislers Set showcase their new album, How I Learned to Write Backwards. Bobby Bare Jr. and the Red Elvises get wicked at the Continental Club on March 11 and March 14, respectively. The much-anticipated Godspeed You Black Emperor/Bardo Pond show will rev up at the Engine Room on March 12. Fans of straight-no-chaser rock should dust off their shot glasses for the Dirtbombs/Forty-Fives/ Whirlwind Heat triple bill at Rudyard's on March 15; the same pub will host psychedelic rockers Brian Jonestown Massacre on March 15. Best of all, two of Racket's fave bands in all the land, Clem Snide and Calexico, will be at Fat Cat's on March 14. If you miss that show, you'll have to lie about it later. (And of course Racket will, as duty forces him to Austin for South By )