Stafford: Gifted friend will never know how much he was valued

A week ago Saturday, on a day I should have been reading a Facebook notification asking me to help Jason Hurst celebrate his 51st birthday, I instead stood with others in a room at the V.F.W. Post on East Main Street in Springfield remembering his life.

Like most obituaries, the one I’d read online a few days earlier listed some of the essentials.

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It included his birth, Dec. 2, 1966; that he graduated from South High School and Cumberland College in Kentucky with a degree in music education; that he was a very gifted musician; and that he was a person whose “passion was his music and whose music was his voice.”

As nicely as that last phrase was turned, it didn’t prepare me for the sentence that followed – one that, perfectly expressed the essential thing about him: “Jason was a bright beaming light (who) never truly knew how he energized the lives of everyone he touched.”

Part of me wants to quibble with the notion that he “never knew” how he energized us, including those of us who lost touch with him years ago.

Someone funny enough to harness the power of another’s laughter in a way that causes an adult beverage to eject from one’s nose in mid-swallow surely must be aware he possesses a power none of the Avengers has.

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I suppose it’s possible that he mistook that power as a mere skill and didn’t see its connection to the brightness at the core of him, the rest of us didn’t miss that. Even after his passing, that brightness shines from his eyes in the picture that ran with his obituary.

Those eyes were ever alert for a chance to make a naughty quip or to drop a musical phrase from “Scheherazade” into the middle of a saxophone solo of a funk tune. Although the reference to “Scheherazade” gives a nod to his sophistication, he was as capable of dropping the flatulent low tone of the Muppet’s sax player to entertain lowbrows like me who sometimes feel we’re watching life in the balcony seats next to Waldorf and Statler.

His mind seemed always on in a playful way, always alert to the life scape or soundscape passing in front of him, and by talking in the normal way or with his sax, gave us glimpses of what he saw.

I was just beginning to play a drum set in adult life when I was drafted into Blues Monkey, a band that featured Jason Hurst on sax. He was, far and away, the best musician in a largely motley crew. But he liked the blues on the set list, and despite the limitations of those around them, made the music come alive.

He told me early on that I was different from other drummers he knew in a particular way.

“You actually listen,” he said.

Playing rose, to try to support him as he flew above us, to ease back down as his tone softened and settled back to earth.

As our band, Blues Monkey, declined for lack of good work habits, Jason spent more of his time in another of his bands, High Strung. And it’s thanks to members of that band that I was able to spend some time a week ago Saturday in the presence of the Jason Hurst I remember but hadn’t talked with in more than a decade.

The video featured his guitar playing and singing. He was capable at the first and more than capable at the second. But it was, of course, his sax solos, whose soaring sounds seemed somehow to have hardwired into my soul that brought him back to life in my mind.

I don’t know for sure how he became separated from that essential self.

I don’t know how he fell out of love with what he seemed to so love doing.

When last I talked with him, he hadn’t played in more than a year.

I probably have no business speculating about such things. But there’s part of me that can’t help it because there seems to be a black hole in my soul where he used to be. I suspect it’s the same thing that led the obituary to say “he never truly knew how he energized the lives of everyone he touched.”

It’s another way of saying he never truly knew how the rest of us valued him.

A few days after the memorial gathering, I heard a voice that offered a reasonable explanation for what I was feeling.

The voice belongs to Red, the Morgan Freeman character and narrator in “The Shawshank Redemption.”

He’s speaking at the point in the movie when he receives an unsigned postcard from Fort Hancock, Texas, on the Mexico border. Knowing it’s from Andy Dufresne, Red smiles knowing his long wrongly imprisoned friend is free.

He then says: “Those of us who knew him best talk about him often. I swear, the stuff he pulled. Sometimes it makes me sad, though, Andy being gone. I have to remind myself that some birds aren’t meant to be caged, their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up does rejoice. But still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty that they are gone.”

He then says what I and others who knew Jason Hurst are trying to say: “I guess I just miss my friend” – one whose playing and being at one time so energized my life.

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