A Series of Fortuitous Events
Sometime in the early eighties I was booking some gigs through Big Bear Productions. Big Bear was Terry OBrien. Terry had some other things going on outside of the music business. He was doing some kind of data entry thing for a plastic surgeon’s office converting their files to digital.
He called me one day and offered me a temporary job 3 mornings a week cleaning and sterilizing six examination rooms as well as refiling the hard-copy files he had finished digitizing (I would be filling in for a nurse on pregnancy leave). I took it. I think he knew I was struggling to raise my kids and pay the bills.
Man, I saw more before-and-after boob-job pictures than you can imagine. Thanks, Terry!
Unfortunately, I was somewhat jaded by that time due to playing for strippers and wet t-shirt contests so it wasn’t as exciting as it should have been.
One of the reasons I was hired was because the surgeon, Dr Chandler, was a jazz fan. Whenever I saw him he always asked me questions about music and musicians.
This was during my time of studying with John Elliott (I studied with John 1979-1986). One day during my lesson I casually mentioned that I had taken a part-time job working for a plastic surgeon named Dr Chandler. John's face lit up!
"Dr Chandler!" He exclaimed. "That man saved my career! Here, take a look at this!"
He rolled up his sleeve (I think it was the right one) and showed me a scar on the interior side that ran from his wrist to his elbow.
He told me that he started having this problem - keep in mind he was a pianist; after playing for 30 or 40 minutes his ring and pinky fingers would go numb. He went to many specialists all over the country and nobody could diagnose what was wrong.
Through a series of referrals he wound up back in Kansas City at Dr Chandler's. Chandler didn't know what was wrong either, but convinced John to allow exploratory surgery. I think John thought he had nothing to lose, he wasn't going to be able to keep going the way things were.
Chandler opened up his arm and found an extra band of muscle that most people don't have.
So what was happening was that as John played, after a little while that muscle engorged and pressed on a nerve in his carpal tunnel, thus causing the numbness in the ring and pinky fingers.
Chandler simply cut out that extra muscle and sewed him back up. 3 weeks later John was back on the gig like nothing was ever wrong!
The next time I saw Dr Chandler I mentioned that I was studying with John Elliott. His face lit up!
"John Elliott!" He exclaimed. "That man got me into the textbooks! Look at this!"
He took a very thick book off the shelf in his office and opened it up. There, in all its gory glory, was a picture of John's arm flayed open like a gutted herring, with the skin pinned back so the musculature was front-and-center!
Dr Chandler talked for the next 5 minutes about how unusual this was and he had never seen anything like it. It had not been discovered before then. It turns out that there were a dozen or so musicians around the world, mostly classical musicians, whose careers had been sidelined by this very same thing. It was Dr Chandler who had discovered what the issue was, thanks to John Elliott.
Well, I was in a unique position, to say the least; completely by a quirk of fate, I'd heard the story, first-hand from both parties, unbeknownst to each other.
The year was 1969, John was 42 years old and had put himself on a "self-improvement program." Besides teaching private students from 11:00 to 7:00 six days a week (that's 96 students a week!), he was the house pianist at the Playboy Club in Kansas City, which was open from 1964-1972. John's tenure at the Playboy Club is well-documented. He was there for most of those years.
So, in spite of being a sought-after educator with a year's waiting list AND playing six nights a week at one of the plum gigs in town, he decided he wasn't good enough and started a practice routine for a couple of hours every morning. 12 hours a day of teaching and playing the piano just wasn't adequate so he added a couple of hours, you know, to get better!
Turns out he could do 12 hours a day but 14 hours a day was too much! I had a similar experience myself, but that's another story.
In his capacity as house pianist at the Playboy Club he performed with many of the big names that were on the Playboy circuit.
Gary Sivils was a well-known trumpet player around Kansas City. He was a bandleader who employed and had a major influence on a young Pat Metheny. He had this to say about John Elliott,
"John is a genius...Pat Metheny went through the John Elliott theory course, all of those guitar players went through his school, look how they play now. Not only that, but he could play, he had monster facility. He could play anything, and he could read fly specks. The singers who came in through the Playboy circuit worshipped the ground he walked on. They paid him to write charts for them to take with them. I learned a lot just by working in a jazz group with him, how he voiced his chords and all that." (https://www.masterguitar.com/sivils-on-elliott)
"The singers who came in through the Playboy circuit..."; so we're talking Tony Bennett, Diahann Carroll and Mabel Mercer. Vic Damone and Johnny Mathis worked the Playboy Circuit as well. John's trio likely accompanied these, and many others.
For the sake of brevity I will refrain from giving more quotes from many of John's students including Karrin Allyson, Bobby Watson, Steve Cardenas, Danny Embrey, Larry Williams and many others. Take a look at the links - many of these folks are multiple grammy nominees/winners who are worldwide in their career activities and influence.
Pat Metheny alone has won 20 Grammy Awards in 12 different categories including Best Rock Instrumental, Best Contemporary Jazz Recording, Best Jazz Instrumental Solo and Best Instrumental Composition. The Pat Metheny Group won an unprecedented seven consecutive Grammys for seven consecutive albums.
All of these people studied with John after 1969.
Pat Metheny has said,
"I also studied with, and occasionally played with John Elliot, the "dean" of KC's jazz educators. I think everyone studied with John at one point or another. He was very important to me in terms of opening up my ears to a wider palette of harmony." (https://www.patmetheny.com/qa/questionView.cfm?queID=38)
"I think that all of us who ever got to study with John Elliott share something special and recognize how lucky we were to get the opportunity to be around him." - Pat Metheny (https://www.masterguitar.com/jam-tribute-to-john-elliott)
So you can see why the coming together of John Elliott and Dr Chandler was so fortuitous. The career that was saved back in 1969 continued for more than 20 years and maybe a little beyond that as far as John's teaching was concerned (John died in June of 2013 at age 87).
I don't know if John's perfectionist attitude changed much after the surgery (I doubt it). I met him in 1979, 7 years after the Playboy Club closed, and 10 years after his surgery. He was still gigging quite a bit, but not six nights a week.
One day late into my time of studying with him (maybe 1985?), I went into my lesson and John said,
"I will never play another nightclub again as long as I live; it's just too stupid!"
I think he did play nightclubs now and then subsequent to that - maybe up to about 1990, but he had less tolerance for it as he got older, obviously.
Anyway, I'm glad Dr Chandler and John found each other in 1969 because the stuff I got from John a decade later I continue to use every day of my life. To a great degree, he has enabled me to make a living with the guitar and for that I am immensely, eternally grateful. I consider it providential that his path and mine intersected. I have benefited enormously by having known him.
I would venture to say that Dr Chandler felt the same way. After all, John got him into the textbooks.
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