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From the baseball field to the broadcast booth, Jeff Francoeur is still knocking it out of the park

Jeff Francoeur
Francoeur, right, with announcer Chip Caray

Photograph by The Sintoses

Jeff Francoeur’s right leg is a hyperactive piston pumping up and down, like he’s excited or nervous or impatient. Maybe all of that. He sits at the mic in the Fox Sports South broadcast booth at SunTrust Park, thumbing through a media guide at his left, looking down at the field below, checking the monitor in front of him, turning off his mic to ask a producer for a close-up of Atlanta Braves pitcher Kyle Wright’s grip on the ball, sneaking a glance over his right shoulder at the big TV on the wall to check on the Auburn-Virginia score in the NCAA Basketball Tournament semifinals.

On the field, a grounder off the bat of Miami Marlins batter Curtis Granderson deflects off of Wright’s leg. Shortstop Dansby Swanson grabs the ball and throws to first in time to catch the speedy Granderson, ending the top of the third. Francoeur tells his TV audience, “Kyle’s like a hockey goalie out there—kick, save, and a beauty.” Commercial break.

Jeff Francoeur

Here is a man in his element, whose comfort zone is the familiar atmosphere of a ballpark, its sights and sounds and smells. But the broadcast booth took some getting used to. Francoeur says his first game as a TV baseball analyst in June 2017 was more intimidating than his debut as a big league ballplayer. Don’t forget, the homegrown phenom from Lilburn hit a three-run homer in his first game as an Atlanta Brave back in July 2005. For the next few months, he played like he invented the game, hitting at a furious pace and throwing out stunned baserunners from right field. That August, he was tabbed “the Natural” on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He was all of 21.

“Absolutely, I was way more scared my first game in the booth—no training, no nothing. I was just thrown in there,” says Francoeur, who had a memorable rookie season, four-and-a-half solid years with the Braves, and a Gold Glove award for his defense. He was traded to the New York Mets in 2009, midseason, beginning a Major League sojourn that saw him playing for eight different clubs in a 12-year career.

Fans and teammates loved his affability and hustle, his infectious smile, his defense, his power at the plate. But he was an impatient hitter, which meant too many strikeouts, not enough walks, and a low on-base percentage. He did play in a World Series in 2010 for the Texas Rangers, who lost to the Giants. “The ultimate highlight of my career,” he says. “Everybody that has been a big part of my life came to see me live out my dream.”

A return to the minor leagues in 2014 made him wonder about his future and the family life he wanted so badly. “A lot of my friends thought I’d be a pretty good broadcaster. My personality fits, and I’m definitely not afraid to talk,” says Francoeur, who has three young children with his wife, Catie, whom he’s known since the third grade. He now has the time to coach his five-year-old daughter Emma Cate’s softball team.

“Smoltzie told me, ‘Don’t ever forget how hard the game is.’”

Francoeur spent the past two seasons working a limited number of games. This season marks his first as the Braves’ lead analyst, offering commentary alongside veteran play-by-play announcer Chip Caray. Francoeur has gained confidence in his second career, crediting the support of his colleagues in the booth as well as some advice from Hall of Fame pitcher and former Brave John Smoltz, now an analyst for MLB Network.

“Smoltzie told me, ‘Don’t ever forget how hard the game is,’” Francoeur says. “When you get up here and watch the screen, you see a 90-mile-an-hour fastball down the middle and a guy swinging through it and you say, ‘How the hell did you miss that?’ But then you think, let’s go look at video of me and see how often I missed that pitch when I was playing.”

Jeff Francoeur

“The game’s different from up here,” he adds. “You go down there, sit in that dugout, and watch the pace of play, and you appreciate how difficult it is. That’s one thing I’ll never forget.”

And that’s one reason why Francoeur feels right for this gig. At 35 and only three years gone from playing, he’s fresh from the action, knows many of the guys still playing, knows their tendencies, and brings an expert’s insights and TV good looks to the job.

“So far, like he did as a player, he’s stepped up and knocked it out of the park.”

“The analyst is truly the star,” Caray says. “I’ve been around the game my whole life. I’ve never faced a 96-mile-an-hour fastball. A good analyst like Jeff has the ability to explain those kinds of things in an authentic way. He has a passion for the game, and that comes across. And he’s not afraid to go to the microphone. When that light comes on and that camera’s staring at you, you have to perform, and so far, like he did as a player, he’s stepped up and knocked it out of the park.”

He also knocked Joe Simpson out of his seat. The longtime Braves TV analyst, a former outfielder and first baseman for the Dodgers, Mariners, and Royals in a Major League career that lasted from 1975 to 1983, moved to the radio broadcast and will work a limited number of games for Fox Sports South and Fox Sports Southeast this year. Francoeur, who said the veteran broadcaster has been gracious and supportive in the wake of the lineup change, misses the camaraderie of the clubhouse but has no interest in going back to the field, as a player or coach or manager.

“Maybe when my kids are older, but quite honestly, I’m loving being a hands-on dad,” he says. “Last Sunday in Philadelphia, ESPN televised the game, which means we were off. So, I flew home to Atlanta Sunday morning, played in the backyard with my kids, cooked some steaks, had a bottle of wine with my wife, read to the kids. I love it, man. And you know when the team got back from Philly? Four in the morning. I definitely don’t miss that. So, yeah, life is good.”

This article appears in our June 2019 issue.

Remembering jazz legend Johnny Knapp and his 70-year career

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Johnny Knapp dies at 89
Johnny Knapp, photographed in his home in 2015.

Photograph by Audra Melton

The first time Jez Graham played with Johnny Knapp, about 10 years ago at the Georgia State University Jazz Piano Summit, Johnny played “Just Friends,” a jazz standard with roots in the 1930s that was later recorded by artists such as Tony Bennett, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Sarah Vaughn. Those performers all have another thing in common: They were all accompanied by Johnny Knapp at one time or another.

Bennett, Johnny used to say, wore such a cheap-looking toupee that “the boys in the band offered to take up a collection to get him a better one.” And Parker used to come by Johnny’s pad on 71st Street in Manhattan to jam and to learn simple melodies that he’d later translate into complex bebop.

“Johnny had a million stories, and he knew a million songs—an endless flow of songs,” Jez says, remembering his friend and fellow pianist, who died in his Lawrenceville home on November 9, just a few weeks shy of his 90th birthday.

Jez, a longtime musician who has accompanied many Atlanta-area artists including Francine Reed and the late Col. Bruce Hampton, says Knapp was always an inspiration. “He had an amazing work ethic. I used to ask him how he could play eight-hour gigs and he’d say, ‘I’m playing piano for eight hours. How hard can it be when you’re doing something you love?’”

Johnny was a working musician for 70 years—the key word there being “working.” He started out as an accordion player but became a versatile pianist. He mastered multiple styles, worked weddings and bar mitzvahs and inside department stores. He knew polkas and show tunes and made steady money in society bands, but he made his reputation in New York jazz clubs and later in Los Angeles. He claimed to hate rock-and-roll but played it as well or better than anyone else, particularly as he got older.

Col. Bruce Hampton, whose free-wheeling style of rock and rhythm-and-blues music sometimes delved into avant-garde, called Knapp the “Forrest Gump of music,” because he’d seemingly been everywhere and played with everyone.

Jez introduced Johnny to Bruce, who died last spring during the encore of his 70th birthday concert at the Fox Theatre. Bruce hired him for scattered gigs over the past few years, introducing Johnny to a new generation of music lovers. Johnny played that night at the Fox, part of an all-star lineup of musicians that included Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, Chuck Leavell, and Jimmy Herring. Just before Bruce went back on stage for the last time, he spoke with Johnny, who was sitting in his wheelchair offstage right.

“Thank you, Bruce. You’ve made me so happy tonight,” Johnny said. Bruce answered, “Thank you. You’ve made me happy every day.”

Jez, Johnny, and Bruce would meet every Tuesday for lunch, an event that quickly became a weekly gathering of seven or eight people, mostly musicians, consuming pancakes and bottomless pots of coffee at an IHOP in Lilburn.

“I think that I’m proudest of getting Bruce and Johnny together, and the friendships that grew from that,” Jez says.

I agree, because that Tuesday lunch is how I met Johnny.

Once Bruce Hampton met Johnny, almost everyone he knew met Johnny too, and a caring community quickly grew around the aging piano player, filled with other musicians, promoters, and writers (like me) who at first wondered how they’d never heard of this guy, and then got sucked into his orbit.

He had a squeaky Brooklyn rasp and a supportive, gentle nature. He could also curse like a sailor and be a ball-buster. He was an intuitive teacher, who seemed to know what each student needed, whether it was tough love or kind affirmations.

“He went kind of easy on me,” says Barbara Jenkins, a singer who took lessons from Johnny. “He was always encouraging. He told me, ‘Your timing is right on; it’s like you have a drummer up your ass.’”

“He was supportive and kind, but he never cut me an ounce of slack,” says Nancy Gaddy, a vocalist, comedian, and actress. “Even when I killed it, he’d have notes to make it better. [His compliments were] usually tempered with, ‘You did fine, but next time take it a key lower.’”

A few weeks ago, Nancy, Barbara, and most of Atlanta’s jazz community squeezed into 800 East Studios for Johnny’s 90th birthday celebration. His health had been declining since a heart procedure last summer, and neither he nor the party organizers were confident that he’d live to actually see his 90th birthday.

“We weren’t even sure if Johnny was going to make it to the party,” says Ed Harris, a singer and artist manager who spearheaded the extended jam session. “But he was there for five hours, listening to great music, enjoying himself.”

Johnny spent most of the party with his tired head drooping on his chest, or his eyes closed. To the casual observer, he looked terrible. But if you looked closely, he was immersed in the music. As each artist performed, I kept watching him. He played air piano on his knees and tapped his feet in rhythm. When almost everything else inside him was shutting down, he was still present with the music.

“He wanted to be there,” Ed says. “And we wanted to give something back to this remarkable man who gave so much of himself to everyone in that room.”

Johnny always felt ageless to me, like he lived many lives in the normal human span of years. But when I think of Johnny at 90, I think of baby Johnny being diagnosed with polio, and how it terrified his parents, who came to New York from Czechoslovakia and spoke very little English.

When I think of Johnny at 90, I think of him as a boy in leg braces, hobbled by polio, tied to the fire escape and playing songs on his accordion for the housewives hanging laundry below. I think of him as a young man trying to make it in the music business, and his mother getting a call from legendary jazz band leader Woody Herman, who wanted to hire her son, then telling Johnny later, in broken English, “Someone named Forest called you.”

When I think of Johnny at 90, I think of all the people he’s known, the people he’s worked with and influenced, and the people who influenced him. He knew Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong. He accompanied Billie Holiday and Barbra Streisand. He helped playwright Bob Merrill write Funny Girl and played countless Hollywood wrap parties. I think of Forrest Gump.

When I think of Johnny, I’ll always think of Dee, his wife of 50-something years. They were a couple steeped in art and music, who fell in love in the New York jazz scene at its height.

I think of how, after Dee died in February 2015, Johnny was stunned. “I was supposed to go first,” he said. I think of how he was a recent widower living alone in their house, annoyed with Dee for leaving him, and of the night shortly after she died when he visited the Velvet Note and his friends asked if he wanted to play. He didn’t, at first.

“Then I heard Dee’s voice in my head saying, ‘Schmuck, get up and play.’ Clear as hell, from the other side she’s still telling me what to do,” he said. So he played, and thought about Dee when they were young, about the dinners at her loud Italian family’s house. “So I thought, fuck it, I’m playing like she talks. Loud. That was the the best way to show how pissed off I was that she was gone. But then, just as I was finishing, in my mind I could see her dancing, so pretty. That’s why I played the tarantella at the end.”

It’s all there on YouTube, Johnny Knapp’s furious, heartbreaking rendition of “Softly as a Morning Sunrise,” his tribute to Dee, his face intense, even as he imagines his dancing wife and plays the dancing rhythm, all of it the truth.

I also think of one of his favorite quotes, a line from the poet Sidney Lanier: “Music is love in search of a word.” I think of the love Johnny spread in 70 years of playing. Jez wanted to return some of that love the last time he saw Johnny, a few days after the 90th birthday celebration.

“I played ‘Just Friends’ for Johnny, and he loved it. He was tapping his feet, and he clapped when I was finished. It was so good to see him that way,” Jez says, then pauses a few seconds.

“What makes me sad is, Johnny used to call us the Three Musketeers when Bruce, Johnny, and I started meeting for lunch on Tuesdays,” he adds. “Then Bruce died and it was just Johnny and me. Now it’s just me. Just one musketeer.”

Jerry Grillo is a freelance writer and works at Georgia Tech. He wrote about Knapp’s life and career in our December 2015 issue and written for Atlanta about many local musicians including Col. Bruce Hampton, Jimmy Herring, and Joe Grandsen.

Joe Gransden’s big band magic at Cafe 290

Joe Gransden Cafe 290

The Joe Gransden Big Band swings into Ella Fitzgerald’s rollicking blues anthem “When I Get Low I Get High,” the buoyant intro fronted by a muted trumpet. The eponymous front man, in a black blazer, white pocket square poking out neatly, grabs the mic. It’s a Monday night at Cafe 290 in Sandy Springs, home base for Gransden’s 17-piece band. Tonight’s crowd is younger than usual, thanks to the students (and their parents) from the Lovett School, where Gransden’s wife is a band director.

“My coat got sold/Oh Lord, ain’t it cold/But I’m not gonna holler/’Cause I still got a dollar/And when I get low,” Gransden sings, then asks the room, “What I do?” The audience answers, “I get high!” and Gransden adds an aw-shucks aside, still keeping time with the band, “Sorry, Lovett parents.”

Joe Gransden
Joe Gransden

Photograph by Ben Rollins

At 46, Joe Gransden—trumpet virtuoso, vocalist, bandleader—is too young to really be an elder statesman of Atlanta’s jazz scene. “He’s more like the jazz ambassador of Atlanta,” says Jim Basile, longtime Atlanta traffic reporter for WXIA-TV and V-103, who is a part-time arranger for Gransden.

Gransden is a busy ambassador, performing five or six nights a week, typically with a smaller lineup—duos, quartets, sextets. He’s a regular at Eddie’s Attic and the Velvet Note, runs a jazz camp for young musicians, gives private lessons, and keeps several standing gigs, including the Tuesday night jazz jam session he headlines at Venkman’s in the Old Fourth Ward and a Wednesday night duet with pianist Kenny Banks at Valenzia in Brookhaven. He juggles all that while holding down one of the rarest jobs in Atlanta’s (or any other city’s) music scene: big-band leader.

“He’s a great leader of people, too,” Basile says. “They used to say about Duke Ellington, ‘He’d get you to play his way and make you think you’re playing your way.’ That’s pretty true about Joe.”

Gransden and his big band headline Cafe 290 on the first and third Monday of each month. As the first generation of rock ’n’ roll dies off, this band harks back even further, to the age of Tommy Dorsey and Ellington. Even with the distractions of a digital age, the big band has found a groove that extends beyond its biweekly appearances at Cafe 290, with annual gigs at New York City’s famed Blue Note, performances with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, or at venues like the Ritz-Carlton on Lake Oconee.

Joe Gransden

Joe Gransden

Cafe 290 owner John Scatena

Photograph by Ben Rollins

“This music is timeless,” says John Scatena, Cafe 290’s owner for all but five years of its 30-year history. In a fragmented musical landscape, it seems almost miraculous that this old stuff from the greatest generation still finds an audience. Gransden and Scatena admit that it was a roll of the dice when the big band was launched in 2009. But it was based on a model that works well in New York City, where Gransden has lived and worked off and on since first arriving in Atlanta about 25 years ago. “Monday night is big band night in the New York clubs, and it packs houses,” Gransden says. “The Broadway musicians are off on Mondays, so there are jazz and big bands all over the place. We’re kind of unique in Atlanta, but it’s working. It remains fresh.”

There was a time when Gransden, who grew up in Buffalo, was more comfortable with a hockey stick in his hands than a trumpet. “The Sabres were killing it in the NHL back then, so I was really into it.”

But music is in his DNA. His father, Bob Gransden, is a pianist and singer. His grandfather, William Ashton Gransden, was a big-band trumpeter. One uncle played bass; another performed in Broadway musicals. Ultimately, though, it was a stranger who set him down his path. When Gransden was in middle school, a guest performance by trumpeter Allen Vizzutti left him “almost in tears,” Gransden remembers. “After that, music was like a drug for me.” One day, he came home from school to find a Chet Baker album on his turntable with a note from his father: “Listen to this.” “It was the first time I really heard somebody playing jazz improvisation, and my whole brain shifted,” Gransden says. “Since then, all I’ve wanted to be is a jazz musician.”

He was in his second year at Fredonia State in Buffalo studying trumpet when he got a call to audition for the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, one of the longest-running outfits in the business. Dorsey, of course, had died decades earlier, but the orchestra is like a sports franchise—same name, different owners, different leader, but still the major leagues. Gransden got the job, left school at 20, and traveled the world for a year.

“I was the youngest guy in the band,” he says. “The first leg of the tour was in the U.S., six or seven weeks straight. We’d finish the gig, jump on the bus, and drive all night. Stuffed into this space with 18, 19 people, I learned patience, how to gel with a group, how to communicate with professionals who are two, three times my age.”

After that year, Gransden moved to Atlanta (where his parents had moved) and went to Georgia State University, adding to his internal song list by learning four or five tunes a week. Today, Gransden’s band has 300 songs in its playbook, which members read off of iPads onstage.

The day after graduating from Georgia State, he drove to Manhattan to make it in “the capital city of jazz,” Gransden says. “Spent a few years there, went broke, came back to Atlanta to save up, then went back. I tell all my students who want to be professional to pack up and go to New York, crawl on your face for a while.” He returned for good after 9/11. About 20 years ago, between the New York experiments, Gransden started singing. It was a commercial decision; he’d formed a trio—piano, bass, and trumpet—that played every Sunday and Wednesday at Veni Vidi Vici, a now-closed Midtown restaurant, earning $50 and a plate of spaghetti per night.

“One night, the manager says, ‘You guys are doing a great job, but we want a singer, so we might need another band.’ So, I lied and told him I was a singer,” Gransden says. “The next week, I sang, the people liked it, and there was more money in the tip jar.”

Joe Gransden

Joe Gransden

He spent hours listening to Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and Dean Martin, “realizing the importance of the lyrics, and how when people recognize the words of a song, it brings something out of them, warms them up to you more than when you’re playing in a corner, playing notes that mean something to us but not as much to them.”

Although Gransden enjoys the greater freedom to improvise with smaller lineups, he says, “the big band is a thrill on a whole different level. I’m more of an entertainer for those shows. I play my horn but tend to sing more, and I really enjoy hearing that wall of sound behind me.”

So do his fans, which include Clint Eastwood. More than 15 years ago, a friend convinced a skeptical Gransden to randomly mail a CD to the actor. Several weeks later, Gransden got a phone call from Clint’s wife, inviting him to perform in California. Gransden thought it was a joke until he heard, in the background, Clint’s familiar voice call out, “Hello, Joe!” Now, he regularly performs at Eastwood’s private club, Tehama. And when Eastwood was here filming Trouble with the Curve, he would drop by Cafe 290.

Joe Gransden

Through Eastwood, Gransden met saxophonist Kenny G., who has become an occasional collaborator and appears on the Gransden Big Band’s just-released studio album, Go Getta. The band also released a Christmas album last month. Both that one and Go Getta were funded largely through a $40,000 Kickstarter campaign.

His busy schedule helps provide a comfortable living for his family—his wife, Charissa, is band director for the Lower School at Lovett, and they have an eight-year-old son, Joey. Both Joe and Charissa are cancer survivors. Joe was diagnosed in 2006, but he didn’t miss many gigs during his eight months of chemotherapy, sleeping in whatever green room was available for 15 minutes between sets. “Then, as soon as I got my five-year cancer-free news, Charissa was diagnosed with breast cancer,” he says. “That was tough, but she’s doing really good now. We’ve been very lucky.”

Go Getta features some of the band’s favorite covers, a tribute to the late Glen Campbell (another musician Gransden has worked with), and an original song by Atlanta artist Kipper Jones. Scatena, who has produced many of Gransden’s dozen or so records, hopes this one will be a hit.

Cafe 290 is where the musicians experiment and feel the love of a home crowd. The show is almost over, and Gransden dedicates the penultimate song, “In the Mood,” to Bob Boden, a white-haired guy sitting alone at a table in front. He never missed a night when his wife was alive, and he’s here for every Monday show. “This is for you, Bob,” Gransden says, taking up his trumpet and joining the rhythm. Bob gets up and starts dancing, bopping up and down and side-to-side in the cramped space, a party of one in a crowded room filled with a joyful noise. 

This article originally appeared in our January 2018 issue.

Preview: 7th annual Holiday Hootenanny concert will be dedicated to Col. Bruce Hampton

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Col. Bruce Hampton at the Holiday Hootenanny in 2016

Photograph by Jon Weiner

Thomas “T-Dawg” Helland keeps Col. Bruce Hampton’s number programmed in his smart phone, even though Hampton died last May, immediately following his 70th birthday celebration concert at the Fox Theatre. But that’s not so odd, especially when you consider Helland also keeps Vassar Clements’ contact information stored in his ancient phone’s memory, too. Clements, a legendary jazz and bluegrass fiddler, died in 2005.

“I can’t bring myself to delete those numbers, I won’t,” says Helland, a music promoter and the skin, bones, and pulse of TDawg Presents. “I introduced Bruce and Vassar. I’m beyond grateful for having known them. I can’t make a living doing what I’m doing, but I’ve worked with a who’s who list of great musicians. In a very real sense, this has been a labor of love.”

Helland will once again share the love and play the music forward when he presents the seventh annual Holiday Hootenanny on December 20 at Terminal West. With a lineup that includes a number of Hampton’s friends and collaborators, there already is a built-in vibe for this year’s fundraising show, which benefits Atlanta Habitat for Humanity.

“The night is dedicated to Bruce,” says Helland. “He was a big part of my development, that energy he brought around, that Zambi energy.”

“Zambi” is the mythos Hampton created, the tenets of which include, among other things, having nicknames for players in the band and encouraging those players to ignore the conventional rules of music in favor of something more precarious. Hampton used to call this the “threat of vomit”—letting go of control and allowing the notes to just pass through organically.

Holiday Hootenanny 2016

Photograph by Vincent Tseng

A lineup of some 20 musicians will take the stage—including two-time Grammy winner Jim Lauderdale, flat-picking guitar virtuoso Larry Keel, banjoist/singer Jeff Mosier, Johnny Knapp, Donna Hopkins, and Ralph Roddenberry—beginning at 6:45 p.m. Mosier and Keel will lead a “ZambiGrass Jam” around 10 p.m., and the evening will conclude with the “Zambi Jam Finale,” featuring Mosier and other former Hampton collaborators, including percussionist Count M’Butu and members of Hampton’s last band, The Madrid Express, which recently released an album, Live @ The Vista Room—Hampton’s last (so far).

Helland says he was trying to recapture some of that Zambi spirit when he launched the Holiday Hootenanny in 2011. The event is based somewhat on the Zambiland Orchestra shows—fundraising concerts that played the Variety Playhouse during the holidays from 1996 to 2001. Those shows typically featured more than 50 different musicians (sometimes all on the stage “purging” at once) from some of the top touring bands in the nation (think Widespread Panic and Phish), all of them Hampton disciples in one form or another. The show always sold out.

Jeff Mosier at Holiday Hootenanny 2016

Photograph by Jon Weiner

“The Hootenanny is Zambi, but it’s not Zambiland—it’s less vomitous, more accessible,” says Mosier, who has played in every Hootenanny and was a member of Hampton’s seminal band, the Aquarium Rescue Unit. “I like to call it a ‘basically frightened’ family event,” he says, referencing Hampton’s most famous song (and the title of the 2012 documentary film about him), Basically Frightened.

“Look at the news these days—we’re all basically frightened,” says Mosier, whose Zambi name is the Reverend. “This has been one hell of a year, and I’m ready for a new one. The Holiday Hootenanny is a great way to go out. Music is medicine we create for ourselves. We all live with the knowledge of how the movie ends, so music is a wonderful way to have meaning without being religious.”

Jim Lauderdale at Holiday Hootenanny 2016

Photograph by Jon Weiner

The Hootenanny, while small, has growth potential, says Helland. He recently signed poultry producer Springer Mountain Farms as a sponsor, and envisions a larger venue for future Hootenannys, perhaps similar to the other shows and festivals he’s produced over the past 20 years, like the two-day Harvest Festival he started in 1998. The 20th edition—now called the Harvest Family Hootenanny—takes place in April at Cherokee Farms near Lafayette, in the northwest corner of Georgia. At the 1999 Harvest Festival, Helland brought Hampton and Clements together, and Hampton introduced the fiddler as, “the king of kings.”

Helland says Hampton has been an influence in his life since he first saw the Aquarium Rescue Unit in 1991 while a student at Davidson College, and he misses his friend.

“This is the first Hootenanny without him, and it’s really bittersweet,” he says. “I miss talking with him, bouncing ideas off him—Bruce was the one who suggested this be a fundraiser. He suggested Atlanta Habitat. His friendship meant so much to me. I don’t know how I’ll be by the end of the night, but I’ll be glad when this one is over.”

The Thiokol factory explosion is a largely forgotten tragedy. Survivors want to change that.

Thiokol
February 1971, workers sift through the wreckage caused by a series of explosions at the Thiokol munitions factory near the Georgia coast. The facility manufactured tripflares used in the Vietnam War.

Photograph by Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

Jannie Everette stood up from her desk in a Camden County High School classroom and felt the earth shake. Fifteen miles away, a fire at the Thiokol munitions factory just outside of Woodbine had triggered a chain reaction of blazes, culminating with an explosion that filled the sky with flames. Students were released early so school buses could be used to evacuate survivors. In those first terrifying moments on February 3, 1971, Jannie had no idea if her mother, who worked at Thiokol, was alive or dead.

Jannie’s mother, Lucille, who is now 78, survived. But 29 of her coworkers died at the scene or later in the hospital. At least 50 others were injured. “I guess God had other plans for my mother,” Jannie says. The tragedy made national headlines, prompted multiple lawsuits, and changed how firefighters respond to emergencies.

But over the years, the incident began to fade from memory. When Jannie moved back in 2010 after a career in the Army and federal government, she learned that her nieces and nephews knew nothing of the disaster. A 500-page history of the county devoted just a few sentences to the explosion. The only physical reminder of that day is a granite marker at a county park.

In 2015 Jannie founded the Thiokol Memorial Project, a 501c3 whose ultimate goals are congressional recognition for the victims and a memorial and education center in Camden County that would keep the story of that day alive. “This is about commitment and courage,” she says. “That’s worth remembering.”

The facility was still relatively new when the explosion ripped through it. The compound was constructed in 1964 on 7,400 acres that used to be a plantation where as many as 200 slaves once toiled. Initially the plant built and tested solid propellant rocket motors for NASA’s Saturn I program. It retooled to supply the war effort in Vietnam, winning a contract to manufacture 750,000 tripflares—devices with hidden wires that, when tripped, trigger flares that alert soldiers to the enemy.

Lucille worked on the plant floor of M-132, one of 36 buildings in the Thiokol complex, where she and her coworkers, mostly women, assembled the tripflares. The fire started at a work station where chemicals were combined to form pellets that helped produce the flare’s bright-white light.

Survivors of the explosion say that small fires were an occasional hazard, but they were always quickly extinguished. “This fire was different,” Lucille recalls. “You could hear it coming down the assembly line.” The fire set alight illuminant pellets stored nearby, ultimately burning through to a room containing volatile chemicals and then consuming a room that contained more than 56,000 flares. Survivors remember two smaller explosions followed by an enormous blast.

“All we could see was fire in the sky. Flares were shooting everywhere, and the ground was shaking,” says Mamie Jenkins, who worked in another building. The blast knocked Karen Jordan Cannon, who worked in the facility next to M-132, off her seat and ripped the front wall of her building. Outside, the grass was on fire. She was pulled to safety by a group of coworkers. Annie Mae Hutchinson James was struck in the head by debris while fleeing the building then bled to death on her way to the hospital.

Dozens of children lost someone that day. Bettie Miller saw her mother, Annie Lois Williams, on TV news footage that night, strapped to a gurney on her way to be airlifted to a Jacksonville hospital. She died there. Miller, then 13, was the second oldest of six siblings. “My mother always left me in charge,” she says. “How could we know when she kissed us all goodbye that morning it would be for the last time?”

The survivors and the family members all have harrowing stories like this. So do the firefighters who came from 15 surrounding cities and jurisdictions stretching into Florida, the Navy and the Coast Guard helicopter pilots who airlifted victims, and the doctors who treated people at the scene.

Jannie wants to preserve those memories. The project has a five-year plan that includes a 50-year commemoration in 2021 at what she hopes will be a new national memorial. A majority of Congress must approve the creation of a new park. County officials want to turn the former site into a launch pad for satellites but are supportive of some sort of tribute to the victims.

Right now the memorial, museum, and the education center are without a price tag, though Jannie estimates the entire project, including the establishment of an endowment, would cost $50 million. Run by a board that includes Everette and former Thiokol employees, the organization has raised pocket change so far, mostly from individual donors, and plans to seek public funding. Jannie’s met with U.S. Representative Buddy Carter, whose district includes Woodbine. “Those employees were working to help our country during wartime,” Carter says. “It would be irresponsible of us if we didn’t do something to remember what happened.”

In 1976 the plant was sold to Union Carbide, which produced agricultural chemicals. Thiokol stayed involved in the space race. The company made the solid rocket boosters that caused the Challenger space shuttle disaster, killing seven astronauts on January 28, 1986, 15 years after Woodbine.

The Woodbine explosion led to 17 years of lawsuits, in which 25 plaintiffs argued that the Army hadn’t notified Thiokol that the flares should be treated not as a fire hazard but as an explosive. They originally asked for $717 million from the federal government but ultimately settled for less than $20 million.

Whatever comes of the ambitious memorial project, there is at least one tangible monument to what happened in 1971. Within 40 days of the explosion, the town raised money to build a daycare center in Woodbine for the children whose parents died, were injured, or witnessed the blast.

“That daycare center is still open today in the same place,” Jannie says. “Everybody came together as a community to make that happen. I’d like to see that happen again.”

This article originally appeared in our August 2017 issue.

Widespread Panic guitarist Jimmy Herring on touring with John McLaughlin and the legacy Col. Bruce Hampton left in Atlanta

For Widespread Panic‘s lead guitarist Jimmy Herring, 2017 has had more than its fair share of heartbreak. Herring was performing just a few feet away from his mentor, Atlanta music icon Col. Bruce Hampton, when he collapsed on the Fox Theatre stage during the encore of his 70th birthday concert on May 1 and died later that evening.

A few months earlier, in January, Herring’s former Allman Brothers bandmate, drummer Butch Trucks, took his own life. And less than a month after Hampton died, on May 27, Gregg Allman passed away from complications of liver cancer.

“To say it’s been a tough year so far would be a tremendous understatement,” says Herring, who played with the Allman Brothers Band in 2000 following the prickly departure of longtime ABB guitarist Dickey Betts. Throughout his career, Herring has been a sought-after guitarist–a musician’s musician–for a number of different bands, including the Derek Trucks Band and several projects with post-Jerry Garcia versions of the Grateful Dead. He’s also recorded two studio jazz albums.

But he’ll always be known by many Atlanta fans as one of Hampton’s stalwart lieutenants, breaking into the public’s awareness with the Colonel’s seminal Aquarium Rescue Unit. “I haven’t had to think about life without Bruce in it since 1988,” Herring says. “My kids have never known a world without Bruce. It’s just really weird.”

Now Herring is ready for the year’s bad luck to turn around as he launches the Invisible Whip, a five-piece blend of jazz, funk, rock, and blues featuring some of Herring’s longtime collaborators. The band began a two-month tour in July that includes back-to-back shows in Atlanta (July 25 at Terminal West), Athens (July 26 at the Georgia Theatre), and Macon (July 27 at the Cox Capitol Theatre). They’ll reconvene in November, joining one of the world’s most influential guitarists, John McLaughlin, and his latest band, the 4th Dimension, on the road, including a show at Atlanta Symphony Hall on November 22.

We recently talked with Herring about the loss of old friends, leading a new ensemble, and playing with his longtime idol, McLaughlin.

This has been a pretty tough year for you so far. You’ve lost some very close friends.
It’s been unbelievable. And there have been other deaths, too, in our little circle, people that weren’t musicians but part of the musical family, so to speak. I know at an intellectual level that death is part of life. It’s inevitable; we’re all going at some point. But this year has been a big reminder for me that what’s truly important [in life] is to take the time to tell the people you love that you do love them. They should hear that.

I know that losing Col. Bruce Hampton has been particularly hard, especially since you were on stage with him the night he died. Do you remember what you both talked about that day?
Yeah, that’s still raw. I miss him every day, and I don’t expect that to change. We spoke a lot that day. The last thing we talked about was making dinner plans for the following week–where were we going to eat, that was important to Bruce. We talked about my new band’s name—the Invisible Whip was something he always talked about, [a phrase] he got from Roland Kirk, the jazz saxophonist. [The whip is] the motivating factor that keeps us playing.

Right, like the “loaded gun” Bruce used to say was at the back of his head, compelling him to stick with music. What else can you tell us about the Invisible Whip?
Basically, Widespread Panic is taking a break from touring all of the time–these people have been touring almost constantly for 30 years and they want some time to plant a garden and see things grow. So now I get to play with musicians I’ve admired for a very long time, and I want the chance to play some music that I don’t get to play in any of the other bands I work with. It’s not all going to be jazz. I’m a rock guy, when you get down to it, so it’s going to be loud, and it’s going to feel like rock-and-roll.

But you’re also playing with John McLaughlin, a pioneer of jazz fusion who got his start with Miles Davis, then started Mahavishnu Orchestra. That’s a whole different thing from Southern rock.
Well, John’s music changed the direction of my life—and the way I hear music. He’s been my all-time hero since I was a teenager. I didn’t meet him until just a few years ago. One day I got this call from Souvik Dutta (founder of the AbstractLogix label, which represents both Herring and McLaughlin), who was on tour with McLaughlin at the time. He put someone on the line who said, “Hi, Jimmy, this is John McLaughlin.” I thought it was a joke, so I said, “Oh, hey, this is Miles Davis.” Then he said, “No, this is really John.” Turns out Souvik had been playing him my newest solo record (2012’s Subject to Change), which wasn’t even finished yet. [McLaughlin] was so cool! He told me, “Man, we gotta do some playing together.” I was still wondering if it was a prank.

You two did play together in 2015 during the Aquarium Rescue Unit’s final reunion, but this is your first extended tour with your guitar hero. How does that feel, and what can we expect?
I’m still in a state of shock that I’ll be accompanying John McLaughlin. We’re going to play our own sets with our bands, then jam together on some Mahavishnu Orchestra stuff. This is supposed to be his last U.S. tour, so I’m flattered beyond belief that he’d want me to join him and also scared to death. But I feel like as long as [our music] represents who we really are, we’ll be fine. I don’t want try and copy McLaughlin. He’s into music from many different cultures, and we’re both really into some of the same stuff–like jazz and blues—music that was born in this part of the country. Here in the South, we’re famous for Little Richard and Otis Redding, rock-and-roll. But John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie are also from the deep South. Southern music is pretty diverse, and [what the Invisible Whip] plays should reflect where we come from in some way. We’re Southern.

Getting back to where we started, Col. Bruce Hampton was a major influence in Southern music, especially here in Atlanta. What are your thoughts regarding the Atlanta music scene he left behind and what lies ahead?
I’m no expert on the current Atlanta music scene, but I do know that there are a lot of young lions coming up [here] that are amazing musicians. Many of them played with the Colonel at one time or another. Bruce viewed himself as a minor league coach of sorts and mentored a lot of young musicians. All of us who have worked with him have a special bond—and there are a lot of us still around, some young, some getting older. I think Atlanta will continue to produce musicians with something unique to say. There’s just something about this place.

How 5 Georgia Tech students helped Monday Night Brewing with a predicament

Georgia Tech Monday Night Brewing
Five mechanical engineering seniors at Georgia Tech invented the Beer Shuttle as their capstone project

Photograph by Jo Tapper

When a brewery wants to design and develop a novel, efficient machine to improve beer production, they’ll probably call a mechanical engineer. But for a small, fast-growing craft brewer with a limited budget and resources, the beer-loving college students from the nearby engineering school might just be the best resource. Heck, sometimes the students are the ones calling the brewery.

Senior engineering students at Georgia Tech are required to complete a mandatory capstone design course, obliging them to work in teams on actual industrial challenges—designing, building and testing prototypes with real-world applications. And inevitably, at the beginning of each semester, Monday Night Brewing cofounder Joel Iverson’s email inbox starts filling up with solicitous missives from eager young engineers who only want to help. And meet their graduation requirements. And work with beer.

“We probably get 10 requests every semester,” says Iverson, who owns Monday Night along with partners Jonathan Baker and Jeff Heck.

Iverson figures MNB has worked with more than a dozen teams from Georgia Tech since 2010. But until this spring, none of them had created something that could actually be used in production.

For one thing, it’s a challenge to go from concept to workable product in the span of just a semester—about 15 weeks. And untested undergrads can set impractical goals. In those circumstances, Iverson believes part of his job “is to be brutally honest with them about what’s realistic and what isn’t.

“We’ve had plenty of groups with pie-in-the-sky aspirations, like they were going to solve some crazy problem that would revolutionize brewing,” he says, “But if they come in with a good idea, I’ll help them think through it.”

There have been a lot of strong ideas, Iverson says. One group proposed a system to recover steam energy and carbon dioxide, but it was too big for MNB. Iverson actually sent the students to the Anheuser-Busch plant in Cartersville, “and they were thrilled to see it already taking place in our industry.”

And there was a group three years ago with a clever innovation for the end of MNB’s bottling line, “basically a drop-packer, a machine to place 24 bottles into a case box using a mechanical arm and conveyors,” says Iverson. “They put a lot of work into it and got about 80 percent of the way there. Then the semester ended and they went onto their careers. We still have the parts from that unfinished machine.”

Then, this past spring semester a capstone team of five mechanical engineering seniors from Tech, calling itself “Monday Night Variety Hour,” found a way to quickly, and cheaply, solve a conundrum for MNB: How to speed up the assembly of variety 12-packs.

“In most grocery stores the variety packs are the top-selling item,” Iverson says. “Craft beer consumers like variety and like trying new things. The problem is that it’s cost prohibitive for many small to medium-sized craft breweries to make variety packs because of the added labor cost.”

Small craft breweries traditionally stuff these boxes manually, which Iverson says makes it one of the most expensive labor costs. So the students developed the “Beer Shuttle,” a low-cost ($413.85), low-tech machine that speeds up production of variety 12-packs, substantially reducing the hefty labor costs.

The wooden Beer Shuttle has a hopper at the top where operators load the cans into three different chutes, one for each of the beer styles that go into every 12 pack. It’s entirely mechanical—no electricity required. Gravity does the work. Cans slide down the loader and are grouped into dozens by two comb gates, then released into boxes. The cases are packed tight and loaded by human hands before landing on store shelves. The entire machine (about six-feet long and four and a half feet at the hopper), takes only a couple of minutes to set up or break down.

“There are machines that can do this for the large breweries, but they’re too big and too expensive for Monday Night Brewing,” says James Morris, who, along with Monday Night Variety Hour teammates Curtis McPeek, Sam Derochers, Michael Dean, and Lachlan Page, designed the hopper. It used to take five employees 19 seconds to stuff a 12-pack box, or 4.2 man-hours per pallet. With the Beer Shuttle, it takes a crew of three to four operators 12 seconds per box, or 2.2 hours per pallet. Now whenever you see a 12-pack Case of the Mondays on a grocery shelf, rest assured it was assembled by the shuttle.

The Beer Shuttle was actually one of two Georgia Tech capstone projects put into play by Atlanta breweries this spring. A team of eight students majoring in Industrial and Systems Engineering also designed software for Scofflaw Brewing to help the company manage its plan to double production to about 14,000 barrels per year.

The project was a labor of love for the students, who reached out to almost every brewery in Atlanta. Scofflaw was the first one to respond.

“I love beer,” says Reid MacArthur, the student team leader (they settled on Team Scofflaw for a name). “And Scofflaw makes really good beer. We were at the brewery every Friday for data collection, so that was pretty cool.”

Ultimately, working on a solution to the sampler pack woes was the perfect challenge for the Monday Night Variety Hour team, says McPeek.

“The great thing about this project is that it was small enough that we could get it all done in a semester, and big enough to make a difference for the brewery.”

Read more: Learn why a lot is at stake with Monday Night’s big expansion to the Westside

Jerry Grillo is a science writer and communications officer at Georgia Tech and a freelance contributor to Atlanta magazine.

Col. Bruce Hampton says goodbye

Col. Bruce Hampton death
Col. Bruce Hampton performs during Hampton 70—his final show—at the Fox Theatre.

Photograph by Rick Diamond/Getty Images

I heard Col. Bruce Hampton say on several occasions that he’d probably die on stage, eventually—that he’d prefer to die there, actually. But I didn’t really take him seriously. Then, “eventually” arrived.

Even when Hampton collapsed on stage during the encore of his 70th birthday all-star jam, Monday just before midnight at the Fox Theatre, most of the 4,500 fans and friends in attendance—including the musicians around him—figured this was one of the stunts he’d become famous for in his 50-plus years of performing. In other words, we’d all seen him fall on stage before.

“The guys that have played in bands with him for years said he’d pulled some shtick like this,” said John Bell, lead singer for Widespread Panic, part of the evening’s star-studded lineup and one of the 27 musicians performing during the encore performance of “Turn on Your Love Light.”

It’s important to note here that Hampton, often referred to as the patriarch of the jam band scene, preferred the brass-infused original R&B version of “Love Light” by Bobby “Blue” Bland over the Grateful Dead version, adding his own version of the Bland signature growl to Monday night’s performance.

Col. Bruce Hampton

“I sound like everyone I’ve stolen from,” Hampton told me several years ago, when I started gathering material for a book about him. At the time, it seemed like a straight-forward proposition. How little I knew.

“Another guy tried to write a book about me, but it was insane—filled with space ships and spies and things that made no sense,” Hampton said, adding later that this was his 165th trip to the Planet Earth, “the only planet in the solar system with aluminum.”

Then he correctly guessed my birthday, and I correctly answered his baseball trivia questions, and he invited me to his Tuesday lunches, and our extended, wide-ranging bullshit sessions lasted until Monday night and will someday yield a book that now has a different and somewhat sadder ending than the one I’d intended.

Anyway, that Bobby Bland growl was the last thing Hampton (who actually turned 70 on April 30) performed on stage. Then, his back to the audience at stage right, he motioned to 14-year-old guitar wunderkind, Brandon “Taz” Niederauer, to step up and take a solo. As the young star of Broadway’s “School of Rock: The Musical” began shredding, Hampton lowered himself to his knees, arms in front of him, as if paying homage to the guitarist.

A fine athlete for most of his life (and he would have been the first one to tell you), Hampton could throw a tight spiral, or make a hook shot from half court, or pull off a pratfall without injuring himself, at least in his younger days. This wasn’t that. But as he collapsed he had the presence of mind (or a physical sixth sense) to brace himself, cradling a speaker with his left arm before lying, face down, on the stage, like he was playing dead.

He lay there, and the band played, and no one in the Fox, except perhaps Hampton, had a clue. How could we? He’d always been the great trickster, a free range artist who wrote music and poetry and drew pictures and acted and could also speak fluent hyperbole, the kind you wanted to believe.

“Eighty-eight percent of my stories are true and the rest are embellished,” Hampton warned me once. “Mythocracy is where I live. I’d rather have somebody laugh at something I say than learn the weight of an onion in Idaho.”

After the ambulance came and carried Hampton away to Emory University Midtown Hospital, a small group huddled on Ponce de Leon Avenue near banjo picker Jeff Mosier, a longtime Hampton collaborator, who said, “We’ve all seen him do this kind of thing so many times—some of us were going to get down on the stage, too.”

Everyone thought he was joking. The Atlanta music legend who cried wolf.

“Pretty quickly,” Bell observed, “it all turned very real.”

On a typical Monday night, Hampton would have been playing team trivia at the Local 7, a tavern in Tucker, instead of playing the last gig of his life, which may have also have been one of the best gigs of his life.

The stellar lineup included Chuck LeavellDerek TrucksSusan TedeschiJohn PopperTinsley Ellis, most of Widespread Panic, John Fishman from Phish, former Cy Young Award winner (and a decent guitar player) Jake Peavy, Oliver Wood, and piano player Johnny Knapp, among others—“artists that Bruce has fostered in some way,” said Leavell, who added, “he’s certainly been one of the most influential and inspirational human beings I’ve ever known.”

Col. Bruce Hampton last show
Chuck Leavell (left) of the Rolling Stones and Karl Denson perform during Hampton 70.

Photograph by Rick Diamond/Getty Images

After hanging backstage for most of the evening, Hampton came out to play for the last hour or so, with a set list that included the prescient “Fixin’ to Die” and his most well-known song, the ironically-titled “Basically Frightened.”

“The truth is, Bruce was fearless, and one of the things he instilled in all of us as musicians and artists was to be fearless, and never let boundaries get in the way of expressing yourself,” Leavell said.

The oldest person on stage was the 88-year-old Knapp, a former jazzman who started gigging with Hampton about five years ago. Knapp, who left the stage before the encore, was sitting in the wings in his wheelchair near Hampton, who was waiting to go back on.

“I told him, ‘Well, you’ve got five minutes, then it’s all over.’ And he said, ‘Johnny, I’ll be glad when it’s all over,’” Knapp said. “I thought we were talking about the concert. Maybe we weren’t.”

When it was all over, and word came to Knapp and to everyone else who waited downtown into the wee hours of Tuesday that the Colonel had died, the arc of Hampton’s remarkable story landed right where he predicted, or hoped, it would—one last show, one last note, then out.

“It hurts to say this, but there’s something sadly poetic about the way things happened,” Leavell said. “As if Bruce had already written the last sentence on the last page of the last chapter of his story.”

My son has spastic quadriplegia cerebral palsy. But there’s so much more you should know about him.

1116_grillo01_oneuseonlyMy son is a constant loop in my thought track.

My son is the boy you can hear from outside the house or from the other room, making sounds that seem to have no form.

My son is quiet, sometimes for hours at a time.

My son spends most of his time inside, in his wheelchair or on the floor, watching movies, listening to music or stories, playing with me.

Joe Grillo lives with his parents in Sautee Nacoochee, in northeast Georgia. One of his longtime companions is his cat, Fatty (left).
Joe Grillo lives with his parents in Sautee Nacoochee, in northeast Georgia. One of his longtime companions is his cat, Fatty (left).

Photograph by Matt Moyer

My son is the boy with clenched hands, held up in the air as if in protest, tight hands that close like vise grips because the part of his brain that says “let go” is on sabbatical.

My son stands out in a crowd even though he can’t stand by himself.

My son was diagnosed as an infant with spastic quadriplegia cerebral palsy, and if you’re sincerely interested in learning more, there’s a lot of great information on the internet.

My son is fine, and that’s exactly what I’ll say when you ask, “What’s wrong with him?”

Getting Joe ready for school—and for the 45-minute bus ride there—takes about an hour each morning.
Getting Joe ready for school—and for the 45-minute bus ride there—takes about an hour each morning.

Photograph by Matt Moyer

Joe’s condition means the balance of swallowing and breathing can make consuming food by mouth difficult, so most of his nutrition comes via a port directly into his stomach. His chair has been outfitted with a special iPad that serves as a communication device, controlled by a switch he operates with his head.

Photograph by Matt Moyer

Joe recently completed middle school in the special education classroom of Julie Collins.

Photograph by Matt Moyer

My son’s diagnosis doesn’t define who he is. Everyone is different and should be valued for their individuality, including people diagnosed with spastic quadriplegia cerebral palsy.

My son sometimes has scratches on his smooth and brilliant face, some of them fading, some of them fresh, because he can’t quite control his hands, and because his fingernails often are really hard to trim close with those clenched hands.

My son has a smile with no strings attached, a gigantic smile for you and especially for me whenever I enter his space, because my son, inexplicably, hasn’t tired of his old man yet.

My son can walk, with help, and for those who are willing to help, it’s time well spent. In fact, you might find yourself dancing with him once you get him up and going.

Joe has worked with Dahlonega physical therapist Terrie Millard (left) for 12 years.

Photograph by Matt Moyer

My son laughs at fart sounds and roughhousing and curse words and at other people’s laughter because he wants in on the joke, expects to be in on the joke, in spite of a world that mostly considers him an afterthought.

My son is a minority within a minority, but he doesn’t have many advocates crying out for his civil and human rights.

My son may not deserve your love, but he deserves your respect.

My son and his parents live life on the brink, and the brink is consistently being redefined or moved.

My son loves superheroes and music, especially music.

Joe enjoys live music, especially when his father, Jerry (the story's author) plays guitar.
Joe enjoys live music, especially when his father, Jerry (the story’s author) plays guitar.

Photograph by Matt Moyer

My son has good taste in music, but is patient enough to listen when I play guitar, and encourages me by singing along to whatever tune I happen to be scratching at, especially “Ripple” by the Grateful Dead. He loves “Ripple.”

My son sings out loud in wordless joy, smiling at his mother’s silly dancing, always up for a live show, always unabashed in his appreciation.

My son loves an adventure, especially if it includes a fast, bumpy ride that puts the wind in his face, which inevitably elicits squeals and delighted screams.

Joe likes speed, especially when his mother, Jane, takes him for a spin down their street (above).
Joe likes speed, especially when his mother, Jane, takes him for a spin down their street (above).

Photograph by Matt Moyer

My son cries when I sneeze, almost always, tears and everything. But he isn’t a baby, and if you respect him, you won’t speak to him like one. He is quirky.

My son is brave, proud, strong, and sincere.

My son is social, and friendly, and forgiving, and honest, and damaged, and perfect.

My son is a troublemaker, sometimes frustrating, sometimes scary, and very funny.

My son is a work in progress, like your son.

Joe getting ready for bed after a bath. People with spastic quadriplegia cerebral palsy have poor muscle control, which means their facial expressions can contort without warning.
Joe getting ready for bed after a bath. People with spastic quadriplegia cerebral palsy have poor muscle control, which means their facial expressions can contort without warning.

Photograph by Matt Moyer

Likewise, "spastic" refers to the muscle stiffness that can afflict portions of the body, such as Joe's feet. But Joe's character is distinct, like any other boy's.
Likewise, “spastic” refers to the muscle stiffness that can afflict portions of the body, such as Joe’s feet. But Joe’s character is distinct, like any other boy’s.

Photograph by Matt Moyer

My son is a teacher.

My son is wonderful company, and his company is a gift that few people seem to want or understand, but it is a gift that I can’t seem to get enough of.

My son is loved, fiercely.

My son has very few friends his own age. He doesn’t have many visitors. But if he gets lonely, he doesn’t show it, at least not in ways we understand yet.

My son always says please and thank you, without using those words.

My son hates long drives. For now.

My son is approachable and accepting, and if you really want to know him or be with him, he is within reach, and he’s totally worth your time.

My son can be a tough taskmaster. He doesn’t give his parents any days off, just like other sons.

Joe is cared for by a range of medical specialists, but no one knows him like his parents. Over the years there have been numerous hospital stays and sleepless nights. But Joe remains a happy, busy boy with loads of patience, seemingly beyond his years.
Joe is cared for by a range of medical specialists, but no one knows him like his parents. Over the years there have been numerous hospital stays and sleepless nights. But Joe remains a happy, busy boy with loads of patience, seemingly beyond his years.

Photograph by Matt Moyer

My son is unique.

My son needs me, and his needs are ever changing, and the older he gets, the more he needs me, and the more I grow.

My son would be left behind if it were not for a handful of people who are physically capable and otherwise compelled to care for him, and the bigger he gets, the harder it is to care for him, and the easier it is to leave him behind.

My son will never be left behind as long as I’m alive.

My son is a constant loop in my thought track, and I don’t plan on pressing the stop button, because he’s my son.

Bedtime rituals involve playing with Dad.
Bedtime rituals involve playing with Dad.

Photograph by Matt Moyer

Piano Man: At 87, jazz legend Johnny Knapp is still jamming

Johnny Knapp
Photograph by Audra Melton

Johnny Knapp is 87, and he feels it. He moves with a walker, his withered legs powered by wiry forearms and large hands that have flown over piano keyboards for 70 years. It’s Tuesday, and his ride is waiting.

Knapp had polio as a boy. He wears orthopedic shoes to compensate for uneven legs. He paces himself, his gait an iambic meter—one-two, left-right—past relics and mementos, past the gorgeous sculptures he rescued from a trash heap decades ago, a decision he is thankful for now because they remind him of the artist, his wife, Dee, who was never very impressed with her own talents and who died in February.

After the funeral, their son, John, asked his old man to move in with him, to Raleigh, North Carolina, but Knapp refused. “My life is here. I’d miss my friends,” he says. “I’d miss the Tuesday lunch.”

He pushes through his music room—one-two—past the grand piano, past the floor-to-ceiling shelves of CDs, vinyl records, folders filled with compositions, playbills from 1950s Broadway, and hundreds of volumes, including nearly everything Upton Sinclair ever wrote and a few remaining yoga books.

Johnny Knapp
Photograph by Audra Melton

“I gave the rest of them to Charlie Parker when he was in the hospital,” says Knapp, recalling the doomed Bird, their jam sessions, the polio-stricken piano player hosting the heroin-addicted saxophonist, the two of them unearthing and clarifying the melodies hidden within bebop’s frenzy. Parker asked him to go on the road, but Knapp couldn’t afford the pay cut and didn’t care for the drugs. “Yoga helped get me out of my leg braces. I figured it might help Charlie. It didn’t.”

This was around 1955. Knapp figured his worst years were behind him, like the discarded braces. Then he was rehobbled in a car crash several years ago, a bigger bummer than polio because it ended his driving days, making him feel crippled for the first time in his life, leaving him to depend on the kindness of friends—like Atlanta music icon Col. Bruce Hampton, today’s driver for the short trip to a Lilburn IHOP, where a core group of musicians gathers for the Tuesday lunch.

Johnny Knapp
A recent Tuesday lunch at IHOP included, from left, Col. Bruce Hampton, Knapp, Jez Graham, and Jack North.

Photograph by Audra Melton

Mostly they come for Johnny Knapp, who gigged with Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan, who ghostwrote songs with legendary tunesmith and playwright Bob Merrill, who was at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles the day Bobby Kennedy was shot, and who performed in places like the Copacabana, Birdland, Basin Street East, and pretty much all of the great jazz clubs, then moved to Hollywood to play for movie stars and class-A directors.

“He’s the Forrest Gump of music,” Hampton says. “He’s been everywhere and done everything and played with everyone. He’s a beast. There are two great jazz piano players in my mind: Art Tatum and Johnny Knapp.”

Hampton has been known to exaggerate. Knapp hasn’t done everything. But he did have his own parking space at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, thanks to a pass that mobsters helped him acquire.

“I made a handshake agreement with a guy called John the Knife to play in his nephew’s band,” Knapp says. “When I told Dee, she couldn’t believe it. She said, ‘You’ve got to get out of that deal. That handshake is for life.’ So I called the guy and tried to be funny. I told him, ‘Mr. The Knife, I’ve reconsidered.’”
The mobster sent a couple of associates to see Knapp. Not to renegotiate.

“He wanted them to break my fingers. That’s what they told me,” Knapp says. “But they could see my legs, how I walked, and I think they felt sorry for me. ‘Looks like someone already got to you,’ one of them said. They told me not to make promises I couldn’t keep and left me alone.”

Lunch used to be every other Tuesday. But since Dee died, the guys get Knapp to the IHOP every week. Sometimes Hampton drives him. Sometimes it’s Jim Basile, the longtime Atlanta morning traffic guy who plays a fine bass. Sometimes it’s Jez Graham, the piano player for Francine Reed and the guy who started the Tuesday lunch thing because he wanted Knapp to meet Hampton. “They’re living legends,” says Graham. “They had to meet.”

Johnny Knapp
Photograph by Audra Melton

Usually six to eight people show up on Tuesday, most of them musicians. There have been as few as three and as many as 20-plus, like the week after Dee died. There’s the occasional soundman, actor, or writer, and they’ve all heard bits of Knapp’s life story, his high-pitched New York rasp conjuring memories and half memories.

Here’s infant Johnny, gliding over lower Manhattan rooftops in the arms of his terrified father, fleeing the cops who wanted to quarantine the child with other polio victims, flatfoots scraping the blacktop. Here’s 12-year-old Johnny, tied to the fire escape so he can’t fall, an accordion on his lap, the voices of Eastern European immigrant women calling from below, through the flapping laundry, “Johnny, Johnny, play us a song.”

Here’s 19-year-old Johnny talking his way into piano lessons from Clarence Adler, Aaron Copland’s private music instructor. And here’s Johnny outside Birdland, calling to Miles Davis, who defies the “Crow Jim” movement—reverse segregation, when a white man had no rights in the country of jazz—and crosses Broadway to hug Johnny. “Miles didn’t give a shit,” says Knapp. “He could be gruff. But if he liked you, he liked you.”

Dee and Johnny were immersed in the 1950s and 1960s New York music scene. He earned big paychecks for society gigs and smaller ones for jazz sit-ins, enough to buy a Mercedes with cash, enough to give away hundreds of thousands of dollars to unlucky musicians—generosity he kept hidden from Dee, “because then she’d know why we’re so poor now. I’d never hear the end of it.”

They moved to Los Angeles, where he played for directors like Robert Altman and Sydney Pollack, movie wrap parties. He still flies out to the coast for similar gigs now and then, though Altman and Pollack (like most of the people he’s ever known or loved) are dead. He can’t remember the names of the directors who hire him now, and he’ll miss seeing James Garner (also dead), who usually stood by his piano and kept him company.

“I’m nose to nose with death,” he says, a little annoyed with Dee for taking her backstage pass to the universe, because 53 years together just wasn’t enough. “I know she’s in a better place. She wanted that. I’ve got to learn to be happier for her, but I can’t help being unhappy for me. If I love her, I guess it’s more important that she is where she needs to be.”

Johnny Knapp
Knapp’s wedding album

Photograph by Audra Melton

They moved to Atlanta about 30 years ago to be near his mother, who was close to the end, and he became known as a musician’s musician. Every week, still, Knapp plays somewhere, usually as a guest, though he has standing gigs at Northlake Mall and a few retirement homes.

The Tuesday lunches coincide with a late-innings career boost for Knapp, who last year finished work on a musical adaptation of Great Expectations, a project that playwright Bob Merrill left unfinished when he shot himself in 1998. Merrill’s widow is trying to move it into production. Also, Knapp is collaborating with a writer on what may or may not be a musical about the Tuesday gatherings, where every topic is fair game.

Once the subject turned to put-downs. Hampton asked Knapp about the worst criticism he ever received for a performance.

“A guy said to me, ‘You play music like you walk,’” Knapp says, laughing like a man who laughs last, because he’s still got the gig, because he’s still in demand and people are glad for it.

Following a jam last winter with Hampton’s band at Terminal West, a 23-year-old woman made him an offer he physiologically and morally had to refuse. “And then, this guy comes up to me and tells me he drove 75 miles so he could see me play before I die,” Knapp says between sips of decaf. “I told him, ‘Buddy, you made it just in time.’”

This article originally appeared in our December 2015 issue.

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