John McNeil's Backbone
McNeil practiced this way, ritualistically, for two years. And just when his facial muscles were getting back into shape, he suddenly lost control of his right hand. McNeil's response was to have the trumpet-maker he endorsed, Kanstul, build him two left-handed instruments. But he had to learn to play with his left hand.
When jazz musicians improvise, they try to play what they hear in their mind's ear. So often, McNeil had to learn to hear what might be possible for him to play given his physical limitations. Over the years, his ordeals have also demanded he approach the instrument in every way possible, in fact, in ways that perhaps no other trumpet player ever has, said Russ Johnson, a Brooklyn-based trumpeter who counts McNeil as a mentor.
"His physical limitations have helped a lot of trumpet players," he said by telephone. "His trumpet book had you practice difficult passages with the left hand so that they're easier to do when you switched back to your right. It forced your brain to work to work a different way."
McNeil made a record, Fortuity, left-handed. He also started to take daily doses of human growth hormone, which combats muscle wasting. It brought his right hand back to life. But his back had also started to bother him.
"In '93 basically my spine disintegrated," said McNeil, who was then experiencing insufferable pain, and the feeling that his legs were either crawling with bugs, or on fire, or both. Doctors at the Hospital For Special Surgery in New York determined that he had neuropathic spine, a condition related to Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease. Two upper vertebrae had dissolved, internally exposing his spinal cord. Doctors told him a wrong move could bring paralysis, even death. He was asked if he had his will.
Collapsing a lung to gain access, it took doctors 13.5 hours to reconstruct his upper spine using bone from his ribs and both hips held in place by screws, and metal rods. Before the surgery McNeil asked if the screwdriver used in such a sophisticated procedure might be "special." The surgeon said, "No."
McNeil's surgery was a success, making him 1.5 inches taller despite having had two discs removed. As he recovered, he began again to exercise and build muscle tone. He also increased his growth hormone dosage, which now costs him and Bienenfeld between six and eight hundred dollars a month. McNeil railed against a bill sponsored by New York Sen. Charles Schumer, a Democrat and Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, a Republican, which aims to curb the abuse of growth hormone among professional athletes and others by classifying it a controlled substance. Doing so, McNeil said, would make it more difficult to obtain for the sick people who really need it.
"I'm not trying to hit home runs, I'm trying to climb stairs. Without growth hormone, my career would be over," said McNeil, walking briskly back to his apartment, fortified also by caffeine.
The last few years have been especially productive for him. His records have garnered critical acclaim. He's led his own week-long engagement at the Village Vanguard, the same club where he was once set straight by Thad Jones.
"Take the body away, you can think about music, but nobody can hear it," he said before ascending to his third floor walk-up.
John McNeil/Bill McHenry, Chill Morn He Climb Jenny (Sunnyside, 2010)
John McNeil/Bill McHenry, Rediscovery (Sunnyside, 2008)
John McNeil, East Coast Cool (OmniTone, 2006)
John McNeil, Sleep Won't Come (OmniTone, 2004)
John McNeil, This Way Out