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John McNeil's Backbone

Ben Waltzer By

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Like many trumpeters, John McNeil has a unique brand above his upper lip where flesh meets metal. It looks like a setting sun, and was visible from up close, as he removed his instrument from his mouth, rose steadily from his stool, and grasped the microphone.

"This is the part of any jazz gig where the band plays a blues and one of us talks over it. That's how you know it's jazz...I think," said McNeil, 62, to the audience spread out on the lawn before the gothic Connecticut State Capitol in Hartford. McNeil's voice was deep and rich, like a morning-drive deejay's. "Our drummer, Jochen Rueckert, just flew in from Germany where he lives in his ancestral castle...He has people killed for his amusement," he said, deadpanning.

Typically droll and self-deprecating, McNeil reaches for humor, often of the dark sort, whenever possible. (Recovering in the hospital recently from a staph infection that only a single type of antibiotic could kill, he said, "It's showing signs of becoming totally drug resistant, at which point it'll be like the 19th century, like, 'Bye.") But beneath his conviviality lurk strains of disharmony. McNeil is struggling. He always has.

Chill Morn, He Climb Jenny (Sunnyside, 2010), doesn't show it. New York Times critic Ben Ratliff called his recent playing "astonishing in its harmonic acuity." This wasn't always the case, and not for lack of talent or skill. McNeil has Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a painful genetic disorder of the peripheral nerves that affects muscle control.

As if concocted to beset trumpet players, the degenerative condition has, among other complications, attacked his diaphragm, integral to blowing air through the horn; his facial muscles, which help produce tone and timbre; his tongue, which controls articulation; and his fingers, needed to work the trumpet's valves. The recurrence of Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease —it comes in waves—has forced McNeil to quit playing altogether several times since he came on the jazz scene in the mid-1970s. At times, he's had to use a laundry rack to support his trumpet while practicing. He had a dental bridge built to refocus his embouchure. He learned to play with his left hand, to give him an alternative when his right hand won't cooperate. And in an art that prizes timing, the degeneration of his reflexes has demanded he play slightly early so the notes arrive on time.

Now, his performing career is on the upswing again. But he remains on guard, because as long as he can remember, his body and his soul have been enemies.

Some, though, just know him as a master of the music.

"The thing about John is that you can't separate his personality from his musicianship. He's extremely funny and witty, and as a musician he's an exemplary, studied cat. He's a great teacher, somebody who can communicate, perform, and hand it down to others," said Dave Liebman, 62, the renowned saxophonist with whom McNeil worked in the 1980s, in a phone interview. "He is unheralded, unrecognized, in the trenches taking care of business, constantly growing. He deserves any kind of recognition that he gets."

Liebman was unaware that the night before they were to record McNeil's 1983 live album, The Things We Did Last Summer, the trumpeter was suddenly unable to move the fingers of his right hand, or to get enough air through the horn to produce a clear tone. According to McNeil, he scuffled through that concert, but soon after decided to take a hiatus from recording and performing to fight the Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease. He couldn't afford to sound bad. It was a battle he'd long been familiar with.

"I might ramble, it's the drugs talking," said McNeil, as he sat down for coffee near his apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn. He takes daily doses of Oxycodone for pain (Oxycontin is the time-release version of the same drug: "When I need it, I need it now," he said). Over the years, Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease has attacked his body from so many directions that it has left him with the posture of someone frozen in a dance to unheard music.

McNeil was born in 1948, in Yreka, Calif., in the shadow of Mount Shasta. When he was found to have problems with his legs as a toddler, it was assumed he had muscular dystrophy like his disabled uncle. McNeil's father, a grocer and the town's mayor, had already lost his first son, Daniel, to cystic fibrosis. He encouraged McNeil, who could hardly grasp a pen, and lived for years in various braces for his legs and twisted spine, to fight the disease.

"Back then doctors expected you to live only to twelve or thirteen," said McNeil, passing the crooked fingers of his left hand over half-shuttered eyes and a white goatee. "The attitude was, 'Don't worry about it, you're not going to be around.'"


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