"The human race is in a protracted state of adolescence." -William Connell
The first time I met Will, or Brother Starcharts as I called him online, was in the basement of the Westbeth houses. We were both headed to the same rehearsal, but I can't remember what the event was. Before I knew his name, he was telling me he had just been through some rough medical stuff, and wasn't sure he was going to make it. There he was though, ready to make music when he should have been home recovering. I quickly tracked down a record he made with Steve Swell and Lou Grassi on CIMP. I found Will to be a hardcore alto player, who would bring that high energy. I found out later about the flute, clarinet, and bass clarinet. Sabir Mateen told me about Will's history. Core member of the Horace Tapscott community and the copyist on Ornette's great orchestral work Skies of America. Boom.
I would continue to see Will around the scene. We ended up talking about Astrology. Will shocked me when he told me that western astrology was all a big hustle, and if I was down with that, I was just fooling myself. He said he could straighten it out for me, and would make copies of stuff for me to study that he would give me whenever I ran into him. I asked him if he would practice around Horace. Will told me about an incident when he was in a room with all his Astrology books out when Horace entered and slammed a big book shut that Will was studying.
"No words were needed or said." said Master Will.
Will and I got to play together now and then, more often in large ensembles with Steve Swell, Warren Smith, and Sabir Mateen if I recall correctly. One time Chris Forbes had us both playing at University of the Streets together in a quintet, a personal favorite. Every time I saw Will I would hope for another story. He was very generous with them. Two of his favorites:
Will was at a community center of some kind, playing a jam session. The whole stage was lined up with tenor players. Everybody was playing full bore, going for their ultimate music as if Trane were in the house listening. It was then that none other than the great Rahsaan Roland Kirk arrived.
Rahsaan walked on stage with his tenor. He went up to the first player and listened to what he was doing. He then started playing the guy's music right back at him, but at a higher level. He was able to absorb the style and concept instantly, and then improve upon it and play it back better than the guy who was playing it. Rahsaan would play what the cat was trying to do. Eventually, the other musician would stop playing, and Rahsaan would move on to the next cat. Same thing. Same result. Then a third cat. No matter what anybody played, in or out, Rahsaan could turn it around on them and elevate it. He went down and did this to the entire line. Finally, he was playing all by himself. Nobody could touch him.
Next was one time when I saw Will at Sam Ash around Christmas time. I asked him if he was celebrating Kwanzaa, betting he would tell me something that I didn't know about.
"Don't get me started on Kwanzaa man."
Will told me a story how two sisters invented Kwanzaa at a community meeting, I think in Philly. They did it just to show they could pull it off, but never meant for it go that far. Whenever Will came in after that, I would tell him he gets the Kwanzaa discount, which would always get a smile and hearty laugh from him. I must have done that for him at least ten times when he came through for reeds.
I think a great example of just how supportive Will was, was that every time I would see him, he would never talk about himself, but he would ask about brother G right up front. (The notorious Giuseppi Logan for folks not familiar with my prose here at Fat E-Flat). Will insisted that all G had to do was contact VH1, and their music cares program. I eventually took that shot for G but was met the most barren of responses. VH1 made it quite clear that they couldn't care less about brother G. Will and I always talked about different ways we might be able to help him out. Will explained that G had too much pride to ask directly for help in most situations but that he should bite the bullet. Will was a survivor himself. When Sandy flooded out the Lower East Side, he watched the water rise right up to his apartment. On the brink of destruction, the water subsided.
The last few weeks Will was in an upbeat mood. He had acquired a residency at the Stone. He kept saying over and over that with his luck, he gets a residency during Christmas week when the place is either closed or nobody was in town. He was still greatly inspired by this and plunged in to arrange some Horace Tapscott music and add some new pieces. In a great honor for me, Will said he wrote a whole piece to feature my flugelhorn. Now a third master has let me know that the flugel is my clearest voice. One of the other cats being master TAZZ, seen playing above in a photo with Will and myself. Sabir was the first to tell me this. I have always had great respect for the elder cats that blazed trails before me. My respect for master Will was boundless. Will was a truly humble cat, who brought it musically, every time. He was stone cold serious when it was music time. A New Years Eve concert comes to mind featuring Will, Sabir, and Roy Campbell. Will burned on this occasion. I'm betting he was inspired by Sabir and Roy, whom he greatly respected. Will considered Roy to be one of the greatest trumpet players of all time. You know the staff here at Fat E-flat agrees.
One thing I just can't shake is how death operates. Even the greatest spiritual masters of Earth can't get a bead on death. People look at astrology charts after someone dies and say it all makes sense, but nobody, nobody knows when death is going to make his move, and why. Clearly, we have to accept that higher forces have made a decision that trumps anything we think is happening down here that might be important. I mean, Will's birthday was just a few days later on the 22nd. (Demonstrating vast spiritual power via the 22). Plus, Will had this great residency coming up. Couldn't he get a chance to play that music? The other thing was the COLD. Just like when Roy died, there was this bracing cold just causing pain everywhere you looked. When Death is near, does the temperature just drop like that? I will brazenly question Death's method. It just doesn't make any sense the way his timing works.
Say what you will.
Death is no angel.
But brother Will Connell may just have very well been one.
Peas and Lub brother Will.
Peas and Lub.
For Will Connell, who signed off his emails Peas and Lub. One of the last emails I received from Will after a concert a few months ago said in bold, big letters: CATS! THERE ARE NO WORDS. THANKS FOR MAKING A WAY OUT OF NO WAY.