(photo courtesy Lee Bey)
When you walk down the busy streets of Chicago, you encounter people, thousands of other people - over a lifetime, hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions. Many of them you've probably seen dozens of times before, without ever really recognizing them. They form a backdrop for your life, just as you do for theirs
That impersonal crowd, always moving, dares you to create a life for yourself in its indifferent surge. The people swept up in it, like you, are each obsessed with their own concerns. Falter seriously out of step, and you can get flushed downstream without a second thought. When a city works, though, the stream becomes a weave, and we find ourselves connected to others in ways we might never expect, and encounter experiences we never could have imagined.
That was what is was like, that first time, walking down Michigan Avenue on a cold winter day, invisible to the rest of the passersby making up the stream of the moment, and hearing, in the distance, the sound of the opening notes of Meistersinger, being played on a tuba, breaking through the dull nothingness of the commonplace.
That was Aaron Dodd, playing his tuba on a street corner, with a tip jar consisting of a plastic bucket. He died last Thursday at St. Francis Hospital in Evanston. He was only 62.
It's probable that Aaron's largest audience was all those people who passed him as he was playing. Some thought of him - or wrote about him - derisively, just another freak on the street, who just happened to be playing a tuba, but as William Lee's obituary in the Tribune indicated, Aaron was a lot more than that.
He was accomplished jazz musician, a founding member of the group 8 Bold Souls, which released four highly regarded albums from 1987 to 2000. You can check out and buy three of their albums on iTunes.
Before that, as a very young man, Aaron was part of the session group for Chess Records. In 1967, he joined the Artistic Heritage Ensemble, led by cornet player Phillip Cohran, and can be heard on albums such as 1968's Armageddon, and, from the same year, The Malcolm X Memorial (A Tribute in Music). He later recorded with the soul/jazz/funk group The Pharaohs, with drummer Maurice White. (Check out Aaron's solo at about 5:53).
Aaron, like a lot of us, went through some tough times, but his tuba was his lifeline. I remember him lugging his 35-pound horn onto the bus on the way to the day's gig. I remember how he always had a smile and a warm greeting that brightened up the day. He told me of taking lessons with the CSO's great tuba player Arnold Jacobs, and he would have tears in his eyes telling me how Jacobs looked past the color of Aaron's skin at a time when race-based barriers were still very real, barriers without which Aaron's career might have taken a very different turn. I remember how proud he was showing me his new tuba, purchased for him by the brass players of the Chicago Symphony, among the best in the world. Once, in the First National/Lake Shore Bank on Michigan Avenue, he introduced me to his mom, and I remember how broken up he was a couple years later telling me of her passing.
Aaron started using a wheelchair. He told me it was for transporting his tuba, but it was clear he was depending on it, too. According to Lee's Tribune piece, Aaron, who had obstructive pulmonary disease, was finally told by his doctor that "his lungs were too diseased for him to play." The end came not long after.
Aaron wasn't a marquee name, like a Daley, or an Oprah. To most people, he was a nameless oddity; to some, a nuisance. But he had depths not immediately apparent. The uniqueness of his presence subverted the generic anonymity of the impersonal stream.
In the music of our city, some key notes have just gone missing.