Tuesday, October 30, 2001

Fall has descended so rapidly, all wet leaves on the ground and dark by 4:30. It happens quickly this far north, I suppose. For some reason, it made me pull out a CD of Britten's Ceremony of Carols. Probably because it would have been about this time of year that the choir I sang in as a boy would have begun our preparations for Christmas in earnest.

I had a nice clear soprano when I was 10. It has deteriorated into a gravelly bass that gets even deeper if I smoke too much. No more (nearly) effortless high Cs for for me anymore, no more solos ("Dark midnight was my cry, dark midnight was my cry, dark midnight was my cra-a-ahy... give me Jesus. Give me Jesus, give me Je-e-sus! You may have all this world." - it sounds dreadfully like melodramatic and bad religion, but it was such a bittersweet and moving spiritual.) I can still more than hold my part in a group, though.

This choir that I sang in as a boy was undoubtedly the high point of my life for a good five years. It was small - 15 or so voices - but choice. And the director, oh, the director, he was my favorite adult in all the world and I loved him. Joe Brewer was his name.

He called us all "young man" and "young lady." A black man, he was rather an anomaly in the presbyterian church I grew up in. The church itself was an anomaly, situated in what was then a mostly Jewish suburb of Chicago.

He was a consummate musician and taught me how to love music, what to love about it, what good music was. We sang everything from Orlando di Lasso and Heinrich Schutz to Michael Haydn to Zoltan Kodaly.

And he also taught us spirituals wherein instead of learning the music by reading it, we listened to him sing our parts and we then sang it back to him until we got it right, and he would accompany us with a rip-roaring gospel piano.

He was my great boyhood role model - he died nearly 15 years ago or so, when he was only 50. They said it was a heart attack, but I sometimes wonder if it was AIDS, because though I never knew it when I was a boy, he was gay. He lived with his boyfriend, a trumpet player, in Lincoln Park in Chicago. The whole choir visited him there once. I'm sure my parents must have known. He came over to our house for dinner several times, including one time where my father was renovating the dining room and we had written with magic markers all over the walls. He signed his name, ''Giovanni Brewer.''

He was so interested in us, so firm and kind, so vivacious and tough, small but muscular and athletic, wearing the red sweater we gave him one year for Christmas.

Thinking of him gives me a great sense of longing and loss - the loss of my once beautiful voice, of my childhood, of him. But thinking of Joe Brewer mostly makes me smile.

- by Francis S.

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