Joe Ascione and His Brave New World

Dr. Judith Schlesinger By

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My immediate goal--I'm 43--is to be 50, and still be able to walk, and still be able to walk to a drum set, and still play —Joe Ascione
Author's Note: All About Jazz is sad to report the passing of spirited drummer Joe Ascione who battled Multiple Sclerosis for 20 years. In this encore presentation of a 2004 interview, Joe talks about the challenges of his new reality and shows his courageous determination to fight through them.

Joe Ascione is a first-call, universally-respected drummer who has been on about 70 records to date. In one of their frequent bizarre choices, the All Music Guide to Jazz omits Ascione, while including Fred Astaire, but the Penguin Guide says "his CV has stretched from Cab Calloway to Donald Fagen, and he seems at home in any style from swing onwards." A player full of energy, joy, and imagination, Ascione is also a very bright and funny guy.

It's good that he's so resourceful, since he's now faced with the challenge of his life: in 2000, Ascione was diagnosed with MS, or multiple sclerosis. He talked about this and other things in our recent interview, as we floated somewhere in the Caribbean Sea. Ascione was playing on the jazz cruise, with a busy and taxing schedule, but he carved out the time to sit down and chat.

Since he can be such an absorbing delight to talk to, I neglected to turn on the recorder when we first started. So we resume the conversation, already in progress.

AAJ: You were in seminary??

JA: Yes, when I was 29. So 15 years ago I spent a year in a seminary, and it was a fabulous experience. I went in thinking "aaah...priest/drummer? Priest/drummer?" It gave me a perspective shift, and just clarified more of the person, the individual—and every part of the individual: intellectual, physical, sexual, psychological—all the aspects.

AAJ: Well, not sexual, when you're a priest...

JA: Yes, but how does one practice sexuality within the absence of? You can have intimate relationships—not physically intimate relationships, but deep, meaningful encounters with people. So that was fascinating. I came out of there a lot more peaceful, just as a person, and a lot more whole. It was a great experience. And afterwards, I stopped thinking priest/drummer, priest/drummer—it was more like I'm Joe, with a lot more clarity. But the point is after all of the opportunities in that year in the seminary, voluntarily, in the past 10 or 15 years, I've gotten together with different counselors just to chat, and it's wonderful. Just from that—that was the impetus to check it out. Fascinating. I learned about Maslow, and Skinner, and all these fun people.

AAJ: Psychology is like the blind man and the elephant.

JA: Exactly. Where you grab—that's what an elephant is. The trunk, the back...

AAJ: Yeah. And everybody thinks they know the essence of the elephant, but they've only got a piece of it.

JA: You know, Freud and Jung for years stayed in Ascona, Switzerland. That's my original family heritage—I think my name is a corruption of Ascona. When I was a kid my dad said yeah, we're Italian, but on his side, we're really Swiss-Italian.

AAJ: Well, I do want to get into the MS.

JA: Sure.

AAJ: So... how did you find out, and how has it changed things?

JA: I found out about the MS in about 1997. My fingers were numb, and I thought I was getting carpal tunnel. Something wasn't right. I took some electrode tests—they wanted to test reactions and nerves—and I went where the New York Jets and Rangers and Giants go, to some sports therapy place in Manhattan. I'll be damned if I can remember the name of it—I probably blocked it out—but they tested me for EVERYTHING and they said, "No, you're fine, go for a couple of months of therapy."

And I did. It felt good, but nothing happened. One day I woke up and now my hands were numb. So I got really scared. That ruled out carpal tunnel. And I don't know what made me do it—probably, you know, whoever's bigger than we are put the little thought in my head—and I called Dr. Bob Litwak, who's a drummer in New York City, and also head of cardiothoracic at Mount Sinai.

He's a friend of mine, so I said, "Bob, find me a neurologist," because my logic was, maybe I have a brain tumor. Or a tumor on the spine was hitting nerves. Something with the nerves, because these other people had checked it out and it wasn't muscles.

There were about six or seven major tests for the MS. And it took me eighteen months to accomplish them all, because I was traveling and recording. Then they messed up the spinal tap, and I had to go back, and...

Anyway, I was taking these tests—sure, put the dye in the brain, yeah, go ahead—and I failed every one of them. And when I went to the neurologist's office, I thought he was going to say it's probably no big deal... But he said to me, "Well, you either have cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, lupus..." He went for the top band of neurological problems. Then, when we did the tests, he said, "it's MS."

It was weird. I couldn't actualize it because, aside from just the hands at the time being numb, I was fine. I was still running, playing handball, acting like a knucklehead. It was hard to hear that serious abstract sentence, and taste it. But I had felt it for a couple of years, and then I was diagnosed in the summer of 2000.

AAJ: I hear there's no definitive test for MS. How did they...?

JA: They're getting better at pinpointing it quickly. It wasn't like you go in there and they check your blood or your heart and OK, there it is. It's like a mosaic: they put all the pieces together, and they map it out.

So... multiple (many) and sclerosis (scars). Multiple scars, many scars on the brain. When you look at the brain, there's like—if you make gnocchi, you make these tick marks. I have four of them, they look like little jellybean scars—dink, dink, dink, dink, four—and wherever the brain is scarred, those are the nerves that get debilitated. The myelin sheath gets worn out, and it's a synapse thing, where you're not getting the message from point A to point B. It's like a short circuit.

[ Note: myelin is the fatty covering that insulates nerve cells, or neurons; it facilitates the transmission of impulses throughout the body. Synapses are the gaps between neurons where electrochemical reactions send a message from one cell to the next ]

Then I went to a specialist, one of the top three in New York, about a year later. There are different types of MS, and I wanted to find out what type I have. Turns out it's a less common one—maybe 10 or 15% have it: "primary progressive."

It starts slowly—the fingertips, the hands, the feet, now the arms, and the legs, and other weirdness. My torso had a band of numbness, my optic nerve was seeing double, and then the fatigue, and the wobbliness, and the numbness and the tingling, and all the little fun things that go along with it. My type starts slowly, and you just keep getting worse. Slowly. And it never feels better. You never get better.

Another type is much more common—about 70% have something called "relapse remitting." God—they—it's almost like a convulsion, where they get their ass kicked. They could wake up a week later in the hospital, or they can wake up and their legs are crippled, they're on crutches or in a wheelchair. Then it remits, like after a tornado—you can see the damage, but it's sunny out. And they feel a little better. But some damage can be done.

Consequently most of the drugs out there, the Western drugs, are trying to stave off any of those (smacks hands together, WAAACK!). They wanted me, just for the hell of it, to go for beta-interferon injections, but the jury was still out on my type of MS. Now they're saying yeah, it could help. But I can't rationalize sticking my legs with needles and giving myself the hard-core drugs for the rest of my life, every week. And there are side effects: bone thinning, calcium depletion, hair loss, cognitive problems. And it doesn't make you feel better, and it doesn't cure it—they just hope it slows something down, or you don't have an episode. But since I don't have that type, I'm still not convinced to take the drug. That's why I go to a biochemist, and take 70 food supplements a day.

AAJ: 70???

JA: Seven-zero. Sometimes up to 90, all types of different food supplements. Because people with MS have low B12, we have less calcium; we need many things that the average person might not. So he's always checking my urine, my blood. He has an electron microscope, he's got the screen in his lab, and I spend two or three hours with him, we work together. He's keeping me healthy, and he's trying to help me neurologically, so I take a lot of flax seed oil and essential fatty acids, all the omegas, primrose oil, a lot of stuff.

I'm trying other things. Maybe I'll try electromagnetic therapy, where they basically plug your brain into a Tessler coil and light you up like Frankenstein.

AAJ: You would probably like that (smiles).

JA: Yeah, I think I'm going to get a kick out of that (smiles back). And they want to do bee stings: you get five live bees a day, and you sting yourself, because that gives off natural cortisone. Maybe that can help. I tried synthetic steroids last January, which is how I got so fat (slaps stomach). I blew up. I gained like 15-20 pounds and I can't get rid of it. So it's not just regular fat. It makes you feel good, it's like Popeye eating spinach, but it doesn't fix anything, and it's horrendous for the system.

So I'm trying to keep everything natural right now. Will there be a point where I think I need DRUGS, maybe? I hope not. But I'm also a realist. We'll see. I'm not convinced yet to take them.

AAJ: And the changes in you?

JA: It's made me confront anger more, it's made me not sweat the small stuff. It's made me pace myself, take a day at a time. Musically, the comfort level is really not what it was. If you speak to any musician, whether it's a horn player, or a guitarist or drummer—when the instrument and you feel one, you feel comfortable, and you're in it. It feels good to execute a play, it's very fulfilling musically. I never have that anymore, because it never feels comfortable to me, holding the sticks.

AAJ: Is it like a detachment, or separation?

JA: Yes. Because how do you play? When you hold a drumstick, you don't squeeze, but there is pressure. So I'm holding onto the stick and I guess the motor skills are such that, after doing it for many years, that I know the pressure.

AAJ: But you don't feel it?

JA: I don't feel it. I hold the stick, but it's not comfortable in my hand, so I won't twirl it. Little things—if I go to a cross-stick, back to the traditional riff, I'll place it there, rather than just flip it and do it. Because I can't feel. Sometimes I put my hand in my pocket and I don't know if it's the drum key, a quarter, or a pack of Juicy Fruit And when I grab, I grab like a baby—you know, you get whatever you grab. So when you're paying the toll at the Midtown Tunnel, they want their money quickly, and I'm there scuffling.

So I have to plan everything accordingly, and map out my time in doing the simplest things. Tying my shoes. Getting ready for a gig. I'm trying not to wear collared shirts—we'd both miss dinner if I had to button this right now—I can't feel to execute it.

And sometimes I still can't believe it. Like if I'm in my room, and I forget about it, and then I go to do something and I see I can't, I'm like, "Oh. Yeah. Wow, that's MS. That's something." So it's revealing itself in many ways.

I can ride a bike, I can balance that way, but I can't run, literally can't make the strides. Walking in New York City, because the roads are bumpy and there are a lot of potholes...and the sidewalk...that's difficult because balance is a problem, and the lateral motion. You know in New York people come at you, and you gotta negotiate your way, and I can't step to the side quickly because I'm off balance. So a lot of little things mess with me. But I would take all the physical problems with the MS if I could feel normal when I play drums.

AAJ: But you sound normal.

JA: Thank you...thank you (quietly). It doesn't feel that way. Normally I'd be able to get into something musically, any gyration, and technically be able to pull something out. But now, I think a lot of my playing is challenged. I'm a function of my mistakes. If I feel something slipping up, it challenges me to execute something I hear, so whatever comes out (claps), that becomes the new musical idea. So to me now, playing is constantly negotiating and re-negotiating.

AAJ: Patching up what you just did, and making it work?

JA: Yeah. Patching up, and making it work, and keeping my relationship to the music and making music. I still try to stay in the moment, and create, but I'm much more aware of things I would normally do, that I can't.

A lot of drummer friends have said, well, you're fortunate that you have so much facility as a drummer, so if some of it's not there to your liking, it's not noticeable. You get by. And I tell all my musician friends, if you hear me starting to sound poorly, let me know. Either it's just a bad day—everybody has bad days, musically—or...

But the day I know that I can't do what I need to do, I wouldn't do it. Because the joy gets ruined. That's what happens. And ask any jazz musician—we don't do it for the money.

AAJ: That's for sure.

JA: We do it because we love music, and we love the interaction with our instrument. I have a pamphlet I keep with me—the title is "But You Look So Good." A lot of symptoms they call "invisible MS," because you can't see my numbness, you can't see the tightness. It feels like I have wax all over my body, and tourniquets that are tightened. That's what it feels like, constantly.

AAJ: Ow.

JA: It's not painful, but it's like Chinese water torture: it's uncomfortable. So that's real, it's very real, and the reason why I take time to rest, and to keep my head together. If you do party, and get that lack of sleep, then you don't have the mental strength to cope with it, and that's how it can get to you.

I have to really...watch. And I'm a pretty sensible person. Just like when I knew we were getting together, I had to finish the gig, come down, get a grip. I have to always stay focused and stay in the moment to keep it together, much more than I normally would. That's what the MS is, in a nutshell.

AAJ: Wow. That's quite a nutshell.

JA: Yeah, it is. But there's blessings in it too, because—it sounds so damn cliché—you really see what's important. And I get such a kick out of...whether it's being on a bank line, and people are trying to hurry up, or coming off the elevator on a cruise, and somebody doesn't get on, and they get upset. Little things are so insignificant.

And you see how resilient the human body is, and how fragile—the juxtaposition of those two things. They say when you conquer your biggest fears, then you conquer death. So when I first found out, I had a few fearful, panic-attack-like things. I didn't know anything about it. Am I gonna die? Am I gonna play drums? Oh...what's going to happen next week? Next year? Two years? After being on the other side of that now, there's more breadth and space and years in front of me.

My immediate goal—I'm 43—is to be 50, and still be able to walk, and still be able to walk to a drum set, and still play. That's my immediate psychological goal.

AAJ: (we clink water glasses to that thought)

JA: Mazel tov. I can tell that year to year, it's getting a little worse. I can see it progressing.

AAJ: Yet I'm seeing someone who's come to terms with it, and has it mapped out. I'm not seeing the person who's just heard, and is freaking out.

JA: Right.

AAJ: So of course I'm very impressed with the way you're handling this.

JA: What you just heard me verbalize is what I'm continually aspiring to. But I forgot who I was just telling—Frankie Capp, I think—every two or three months I go to my drum studio in midtown and I don't beat the drums up, I beat up the drum cases. Literally. I think of it as a relief valve, because sometimes I get so angry and frustrated that it just gets to me. So I allow it to. I won't cover it, I won't mask it, because it's bigger than I am.

When my—pardon my French—when my nuts are twisted, and I'm at that point—if I disappear, it's because I'm in a funk, and I gotta deal with me, with it, by myself, and get through it. And I let that black cloud come, and I deal with it, and just like any colored cloud comes, they go. So I go to my drum studio and I beat up my drum cases, And I beat 'em up.

AAJ: Not the one from Buddy Rich's snare?

JA: Not that one. The flight cases, 'cause they can take a pounding. And after about an hour and a half of cursing and kicking and screaming, I get it out of my system, I sleep it off, and the next day is a better day. Then I'm good for a couple of months.

But every time I'm ready to feel sorry for myself, I see someone in a wheelchair, or someone who can't walk. Like my grandmother used to say, "I used to complain that I had no slippers...then I met somebody who had no feet."

AAJ: Yeah. (laughs, a little)

JA: There's always something to shake you out of it, and say OK, stop doing any kind of pitying thing. While I allow myself to get frustrated, I still have to negotiate the anger, because 100% of me is not admitting the reality of it. But I'm seeing, day to day, month to month, year to year, the slowly debilitating situation, and it's cause for concern. It's real. It's very real.

But I digress. I aspire to what I quote, mapped out, but I'm constantly working to keep it together. It takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of energy, and you put it on every day. You don't see people for weeks and months and they change haircuts, and marry and divorce, this, that, and the MS is still there, and you're dealing with it. It's a constant. So you have to be in it for the long haul.

AAJ: What choice have you got?

JA: You don't. That's probably the best choice: to just pace yourself and cope, and learn how to negotiate. But you know what? The MS doesn't have me. I still have my brain, I still have my sense of humor. It just has one aspect of the neurological situation.

AAJ: I suspect you have a lot of friends...

JA: Yeah. I have great friends, I have great family. A day at a time. Then you hear about guys like Brian Ogilvie—he was in Scotland last month, 47 or 49, and he died. He went over for a jazz festival, played his music, and he died. So...like. ta-DAH! It's crazy, you know? Or look at James Williams. That made me sick when I heard that. So it's all perspective; you don't know what's going to happen.

AAJ: I just had a crazy thought...in some ways, it's almost fortunate, in the sense that you know your destiny...

JA: Yup. You know what? To some extent, I'm not afraid of death. I know what it is to be scared enough to feel like you're gonna die. Probably that's where those panic attacks came from.

AAJ: Could be, sure.

JA: In other ways it's a blessing because I meet a lot of wonderful people, I can share some stories. And I have such empathy for, let's say, someone who physically is not getting along well. I have great patience now for that. So it's shown me those lessons, and that's pretty neat.

AAJ: Are you working less?

JA: No. The Frank and Joe Show started a tour across America on September 30. We did 14 concerts in 14 days on the road, 14 cities, and we wound up in Los Angeles. I took a red-eye back after the last concert, went into the studio with Jay Leonhart and Eddie Higgins, and did a record ( Christmas Songs ). For two days, we did that, and then for the next three days The Frank and Joe Show recorded their second record. And then right after that we did three days in DC and Virginia, I came home, and then flew to Florida to do this.

AAJ: Oh, my...

JA: It's literally been a marathon since September 30. It's been non-stop. So I haven't worked less, I'm not working less because of it, but I am being smarter, and I'm pacing myself. I'm blessed that I'm able to do that. And it will serve me well in the long term. That's the way it's changed me. Otherwise I'd be much more carefree, and just...go.

I think I have a fun personality, and I like to have a blast. I always like to goof around and have fun. And I still do that, but as soon as the light goes off in my brain that I know I have to get through the rest of the day, that's on my mind, and all of a sudden the comedy stops.

AAJ: Well...you need to have great discipline to be able to play as well as you do, so maybe you're just using that... Fortunately you didn't have to develop it.

JA: Right. Now I use it for management of the day.

AAJ: So when is the new Frank & Joe coming out? I'm drooling.

JA: That excited, huh? (grins) The spring of 2005, around April, Disk #2 will be out on Hyena. This one...it's like you went to a fat farm, and you stepped out the new you... Now the band is a year into the project. For the first one, Frank and I literally did all the tracks with a few bass players, besides the wonderful guests. Then we spent a year playing with steady gigs —Sweet Rhythm every Sunday night, everybody there has been great to us. And now we've done a bunch of tours, so the band has really gelled. We went into the studio a couple of weeks ago, and just shredded that place.

I'm really excited about this record, because I don't think it's going to be a part two of the first one. The band has matured, now there's more band sound, there's a lot of original material that's been written. At Hyena [Records] they say that by the third album there will be a great definition of what "this" is—that we're all on this journey together. It's fascinating, it's growing.

AAJ: For all the people who say that they can't categorize you, you've got the core of jazz—thats spontaneity, and seeing what happens.

JA: There are boundaries, and there are rules, but you hopefully learn them and they become automatic, and then you create in the moment.

So "The Frank & Joe Show, Disk 2" will be out in April. We'll be in Japan in the fall —actually before, in the winter, we'll be in Switzerland, and in Europe, a few spots in February and March, and then April is a big tour, and June is a big tour. So we're really excited about where it's going. That's been taking up a lot of my time, willingly so.

AAJ: Is the first one selling?

JA: Yes. I would say, give or take, probably about 200 disks a week on Sound Scan. So yes, people are appreciating it.

AAJ: Yaaay!

JA: Yaaay! Well, it's nice.

AAJ: Finally... something good is actually making it. I'm so used to the elevation of mediocrity. You almost begin to say well, that's the way it is—that's the way it has to be...

JA: It doesn't. And Frank and I appreciate each other musically, so we're always upping the ante. It's not stagnant, it's always moving. It's very dynamic.

AAJ: What happens when you can't play anymore? Are you going to teach?

JA: Well, I teach now. It's funny you mention that, because when I first got diagnosed, a lot of dear friends wanted to give me money to document my drumming, and put it down in volumes and videos and a series of books on this and that, but it was disagreeing with me tremendously. And I realized, that's not the way I'm looking at all of this.

What I'm doing is like a flame—it's lit, and when it burns out, it just burns out. I'm not going to try to keep it going, I'm not going to force it, I'm not going to try to manufacture it.

AAJ: ...or take a video of it?

JA: If I do a video, it's because I'll wake up and say, hey, I want to do something in a video, and I'll do it for that reason.

AAJ: But you must video The Frank & Joe Show.

JA: Well, there's going to be a DVD.

AAJ: Good!

JA: Yeah, in the not-too-distant future. But I teach now, I don't know what I would do. I'm not thinking about that right now.

AAJ: Um...that was a stupid interviewer question—like I didn't hear anything that you've said to me...

JA: ...for the past forty minutes! (we laugh)

AAJ: Sorry, I'll take it back (makes sound of tape running backwards).

JA: That's OK. Part of me does enjoy teaching; I'm on the faculty of the New School. And I was chatting with one of the drummers on this cruise ship. We were talking about some different rhythms, and we sat down—it was almost like a lesson, we were just chatting like this—and I enjoy that. I don't think of teaching as you're a teacher and there's the student, but that you're a transmitter of information.

And if they didn't get it, you didn't use the right language, because everybody learns differently. You have to paint a picture, or write it in text, or apply it in the "real," or they have to read it in theory. You have to also discern how a person learns. I know how I learn, so I can't just assume everyone learns that way.

AAJ: How do you learn?

JA: I learn by doing. I'm a hands-on person.

AAJ: Me too. You see this? (holding up black leather case)

JA: What is that?

AAJ: I have a brand-new digital camera.

JA: Yeah, and you haven't opened that book yet. You push the button, see if it goes on, and then—oh look, I just zoomed in!—OK, that's what that does. Yeah. That's the way I do things. Now some drum students I've had are very, very cerebral, and they need things written out, and they'll take it home, work on it methodically, and come back with that completed. So I'll transmit the information that way.

Joe Ascione, Dr. Judith Schlesinger and Tom Kennedy

Another person: "OHHHHHH! It's like when the stars are shining!!" OK, Mr. Abstract. Sure. Let me see what the color yellow is on the drums. And they get it. So that's how that person learns. It's a trip.

AAJ: It's so much fun when you see the light go on in somebody's eyes...

JA: ...when they get it. 'Cause you want them to share the fun and joy that you have. They say misery loves company—I think joy loves company.

AAJ: But misery sells newspapers.

JA: That's why I don't read the newspaper. And if you put the news on, I'd rather they say, "Little Johnny got a 97 on his test today. Yaaaay! Aunt Marge won the cake bakeoff. Yaaaay!" Why do I have to read about the bad things? Life is a challenge in itself.

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