Martin Luther King Jr. and men like him started a ripple…
Martin Luther King Day meant more to me this year than ever before.
What was so different about this year for me? Last July, I lost someone very close to me who completely altered the course of my life for the better. His name was Gary Brown, and even though we weren’t the same age, or the same color, or from the same bloodline…we were family. I can say with 100% certainty that my life would not be what it is, had he not been a part of it. Without the work of Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders of years past, I don’t believe we would have had the foundations necessary to impact each other’s lives. That work started a ripple that enabled Gary to enable me.
In order to illustrate the reach of this ripple, let rewind to about 12 years ago…
How I met Gary Brown
I was 19 years old and thought I was awesome at guitar. Not only awesome, but destined to be the next blues guitar god. I mean, I could solo SO FAST. As a 19 year old, I thought that was what mattered most. As a matter of fact, I really didn’t know any chords, or how to play through the form of a song. All I had practiced was playing riffs. Real fast riffs. I had very low confidence in pretty much every other area of my 19 year-old life, so guitar was kind of my thing. Looking back, I 100% was guilty of arrogantly bragging about how awesome I was at playing guitar…pretty much all the time…to everyone.
There was (and still is to this day) a truly awesome, special, and potentially brutal open Blues Jam in Tampa every Monday night at 9pm at a place called The Green Iguana on South Westshore Blvd. I had gone and watched about half a dozen times but had never played. It was run by a Hammond B3 organist named Dean who was quick witted, and wouldn’t hesitate to knock arrogant young guitar players like me down a few notches if they weren’t holding their own.
But that couldn’t happen to me, right?! I mean I was already awesome! I was SO awesome that not only had I decided to go there and play for the first time, not only had I invited like 10 people from work, but I also invited this girl I really liked. 19-year old me had decided that once she saw me melt faces with my blistering licks she would fall helpless in to my arms.
Today, as a fairly seasoned musician who‘s primary source of income for 7 years was playing live music, let me tell you what SHOULD happen when you play at a blues jam. You go up, somebody counts off the tune after calling the key (if you’re lucky), you play chords (or comp) while they play through the head, THEN after a verse or two has been sung or played people start taking solos. Even when this happens, you need to watch the band leader and other musicians to see when they are throwing to you, ESPECIALLY if your new to the group. Then even when they give you a shot on a solo, you may get as little as 12 bars (that’s maybe 30 seconds-ish) which was WAY less than the 9-minute guitar solos I was practicing unsupervised at home.
With that said, let me tell you what I did.
The band counted off the tune. Before the count was even over, before the tune had even started, a couple beats before ONE NOTE had been played by anyone, I proceed to break out ALL of the big guns (or what I thought were big guns back then). I played pretty much every note that exists as fast as possible, in the most tasteless, sporadic bursts you could imagine.
The worst part? I’m SO obliviously full of my 19-year old guitar god self that I’m REALLY impressed with myself while I’m doing it. The band shoots each other looks that 100% to everyone else in the room translate to “What the f#@k is wrong with this kid?” but that’s not what I see. Oh no. I interpret their looks as “Dear sweet lord this guy is amazing!”. Even when I heard Dean laughing out loud I thought it was like “HAHA! Hot damn he’s awesome!” type of laugh, when in reality it was a “This is so sad its funny, I’m laughing AT you” type of laugh, which just to be clear was 100% justified. Dean stopping the band was the only thing that broke the spell of the opiate like haze of my guitar fueled narcissism.
It all became clear when the band stopped. I was not the rock god I thought I was. Most of the people in the room were laughing at me and cracking jokes. My eyes drifted over to my friends who looked embarrassed for me and avoided eye contact. My eyes scanned the room for even one familiar face that looked supportive. I didn’t find one.
Until I noticed Gary. I had never talked to him, but I’d seen him play a handful of times and thought he was one of the best I’d ever heard. There he stood, a sharply dressed 6 foot-something bluesman sitting next to Bobby Roq who played bass in his band. Gary gave me the type of scrunched-lipped, stern-gazed nod of reassurance that says “Hey, you gave it a shot. You’re not there yet, but keep trying.” Then he started a slow, deliberate clap while looking around the room. It caught on and I at least ended up with some pity applause.
It still didn’t stop me from making a break for the door, playing it off like I was just eager for a smoke.
Gary found me outside a bit later and casually struck up a conversation. I started making excuses.
“Hey man, thanks for the clapping, but what sucks is that I’m actually really good, it’s just my guitar was messed up.” I rattled off a couple other back to back excuses.
Gary calmly said “Young man, you got a lot to learn and making excuses won’t get you where you want to be. You played a couple cool little licks a bit too fast, but there’s a lot more to it than that.”
How Gary impacted my life
Boom. Truth. It cut right through my 19-year old ego and suddenly I wasn’t sad, but hungry to know what I missed.
He continued… “You know, we got a blues jam over at the Blue Shark in Ybor city every Wednesday. It’s not as busy as this one, you should come by.”
And I did. Every Wednesday. At that time Gary was playing with an awesome group of guys. Bobby Roq on Bass, James Brown aka “Rat” on drums, and Cherry on the Hammond organ. I’ve never heard tighter blues and soul until this day.
I not only started playing at Gary’s open mic, but he invited me to his house for lessons. He heard me play the piano and recommended I give the organ a shot. He started teaching me how to play a “baby B3”. I’d go to his house sometimes 2-3 times a week. We would talk about music, life, women, cars… pretty much everything. He had awesome stories, and started taking me through the fundamentals, the very basics of playing music.
I’ll never forget the day that Gary asked me to play my first gig with his band. I KNEW I wasn’t ready. I KNEW I couldn’t do it. He acted like I was crazy for thinking I couldn’t. Before the first gig I ever played with Gary, he took me shopping. We both knew I still had to look down at my hands while playing, so Gary got me my first fedora and taught me how to flip it down just right. Not only could they not see my eyes looking down at the keys, but I couldn’t see their eyes looking up at me. Plus, he said it looked cool.
I played with Gary for 2-3 years. He taught me how to be confident on stage, how to talk to girls, and that shrimp and grits is f@#king delicious. Beyond all that he taught me to never set a ceiling for myself. He used to say “Think about it Bryan. Think of any bad thing that’s ever happened to you. No matter what it was or how bad it was, when you look back now it’s just a memory right?”
I agreed. Then he said.
“The older I get, it isn’t the things that I DID that I regret, it’s the things that I didn’t. The things I look back and wonder ‘what if’… The more I look back, I think it’s better to dive in and DO the things you care about, don’t worry about what happens if it goes wrong. The older I get most my regrets are about things I didn’t do, not the things I did.”
After some time I was offered a job to play on a cruise ship. It was terrifying to leave everything behind, but I followed Gary’s advice. I was able to travel the world growing my craft of music. When on that ship I met a beautiful violinist and fell in love, I knew I would regret not trying to do whatever possible to be with her, so I married her and moved to Poland. While in Poland I needed to work, so I earned my Cambridge Teaching Certificate to teach English.
All this combined with my degree in Multi-media I found myself an entertaining, technical, teacher and took my first Microsoft role in the Holland America Digital Workshops. Now I get to build awesome demos, work with innovative people, and get people excited about the future. None of this would have been possible without Gary.
Throughout this entire process I kept in touch with Gary. Whenever I was in Tampa we would have lunch. There was always lots of talking and laughing. He always had a genius one liner packed full of more wisdom than I could comprehend.
Last July, in Orlando, I delivered one of the largest keynote demos I had ever done. I was on stage in front of 15,000 people and received a very positive response. After the keynote, I had a moment to reflect on just how much Gary had taught me. As a kid who grew up relatively poor I had travelled to over 90 countries and just finished a highly technical keynote demo presentation to a packed arena of 15,000 people.
None of this would have happened had he not went out of his way to mentor me after my catastrophic guitar catastrophe at the blues jam. None of this would have happened if he hadn’t coached me on how to own a stage. None of this would have happened if we never saw past the color of each other’s skin.
I had a couple days between events, so I decided to drive to Tampa and say hello, only to find that Gary was in the hospital. Upon arrival I was relieved to hear that it wasn’t life threatening, and was only a minor procedure. I sat with him in his room and told him thank you. For everything. The confidence, the mentorship, the friendship, and the guidance throughout the years.
He told me something that surprised me, but I guess he knew that would be my reaction…
“Bryan we are family, and it may surprise you, but everything I have taught you has taught me even more along the way. Seeing you use all the skills we worked on in ways I wouldn’t have thought of or imagined has brought me a lot of happiness. You’ll see when you’re older.”
This 100% surprised me. I always looked at Gary kind of like a blues saint that for some reason went out of his way to help me and teach me as a kid. It never occurred to me that he was getting something out of it too.
I left St. Joseph’s hospital that day feeling really good that Gary and I had talked and not knowing that would be the last time I would ever speak to him. After finishing up an event in NY in late July, I was driving down to another engagement in the Poconos. I received word during the car ride that Gary had passed away. It hit me hard, but I felt so lucky that I had the rare opportunity to tell him everything I wanted to say, not even 10 days earlier. I feel even LUCKIER that I was born in a generation built on the work of men like Martin Luther King, that put us both in a place to learn from one another and see more than skin color.
Wrapping it all up
Whenever the club used to get packed, Gary used to love it when we would play something upbeat that would get the whole club dancing. He used to say, “Color doesn’t matter when there is good music on!”, and he was right. People would stand outside waiting to get in and not say a word to each other, but once the music dropped everybody would just dance and have fun.
Life is our “good music” and it’s way more fun to dance on a crowded floor than alone.
Black, Brown, Tan, White, Male, Female, Gay, Straight, no matter what package they come in, every SINGLE person on this planet knows something you don’t know. By focusing on that universal truth and transcending our surface level differences, we create ripples we can’t imagine yet. The same kind of ripples that eventually shaped the world in to a place where Gary and were family.
I leave you with two questions.
If not for MLK and others like him, what dances would you have missed?
If not for YOU, what is someone in the future going to miss?
Thanks for reading.