It’s 7:30 pm on Sunday evening. I’m sitting at my computer and the news has just come to me in an e-mail bulletin. Jeff Healey dies in a Toronto Hospital.
I’m blank. I can’t believe it. It simply can’t be true.
It takes a few minutes for this to process itself to my brain. I’m in something of a daze. I walk downstairs to tell my family but I just can’t say the words, and I don’t think they could possibly understand what I'm feeling. I walk back to my keyboard and start typing. It’s all I can think to do.
I could write an elegant article detailing his impressive career in spite of the challenges he has faced with blindness and his frequent battles with cancer, but I fear I would be but a small faint voice in a vast chorus. There is so much I want to say about how much Jeff Healey’s music meant to me…yet mere words seem cheap.
What I want to express the most is that beyond being an amazing musician and artist with an encyclopedic knowledge of music, Jeff Healey was just such a decent human being. I think the only way I can fully explain that is by telling you a small, and perhaps in the grand scheme of things, somewhat insignificant story. A story about my 36th birthday, and the night I met Jeff Healey.
I’d been a fan of his from his earliest days of rockin’ blues to his recent prowess with boisterous hot jazz, but I had never had the opportunity to see him perform. Even though I only live an hour from Toronto, I never made into town to go to Healey’s (the original little basement blues venue that I still think was the best and most unpretentious bar in Toronto) to catch a set, nor had I ever seen him in concert. I’m a busy working mother of two young children, so I don’t get out of the cave much. But that year, my birthday was near the date of the fifth anniversary of his famed club, and I was determined to spend my 36th year rockin’ out to some live Jeff Healey blues.
I hesitate to keep telling you this story, because I don’t exactly come off sounding all that great, but I feel the need to express what a kind and considerate man he could be. Determined to catch the anniversary show, I e-mailed the club and phoned several times trying to secure tickets. Of course, night clubs don’t generally answer the phone during the day, and after a few days I was no closer to obtaining tickets. A little irritated and nervous that I would miss the show I sent (I’m ashamed to admit) a somewhat frivolous e-mail complaining about how I just wanted to celebrate my birthday watching Jeff Healey play and couldn’t anyone help me?
Two hours later, my telephone rang and a friendly, gentle and very familiar voice asked for me. I very nearly dropped the handset when the caller said, “Hello, Nathalie. This is Jeff Healey.” I was stunned, shocked, absolutely stupefied. I never expected him to get the message, much less take care of it personally.
But it was no joke, I recognized his voice, and it was indeed Jeff Healey. He apologized profusely that I was not attended to immediately and put me on the guest list for said evening. We spoke on the phone twice to make the arrangements. The show was, of course, fantastic. My big night out on the town was even better than I had hoped it would be.
By the end of the night as Jeff walked through the club greeting his fans and patrons, I approached him to thank him for his kindness and generosity. I didn’t even get the chance to finish introducing myself; I just got out the words “Hello Mr. Healey” before he immediately extended his hand to me and said, “Nathalie, I’m so glad you made it. How’s your big night out going?” I was once again utterly stunned. Just two brief phone calls weeks before and he recognized my voice and made me feel like some old friend he was thrilled to meet.
For my part, I froze. I felt sheepish and shy and had no idea what to say. I just blurted out a few words of gratitude and went back to my seat. I didn’t even think to ask him how he was feeling performing again so soon after surgery.
That is what made Jeff such a tremendous human being. Despite the fact that he was the great Jeff Healey, he was the most humble and kind soul you could hope to meet. Jeff, it seems, rarely thought of himself and his own discomforts. He was far more concerned for everyone else, even a selfish and silly fan who really wanted to see him play on her birthday.
Thank you, Jeff. These mere words can’t begin to encompass the gratitude I feel for all that you have given me through your guitar, your trumpet, your passionate voice, and your indescribable greatness of spirit and vast generosity. I know the memories will live on through the notes that you played and the words you sang, but for me the world is a somewhat diminished tonight. The stars are less bright and the air feels less free.
With all my heart I shall miss you. Good bye and thanks for the melodies and the memories.