Those of us who play in bands joke about "musicians' paranoia." But on a certain day in 2005 when a Canadian drummer named Karl Watt felt worried, it was no joke.
By "musicians' paranoia" we refer to aspects of the profession like our common compulsions to be critical of ourselves no matter how well we play, to fret about what a band leader might be thinking when he looks at us, or to worry whether or not we'll get that next gig. But Karl's situation was a lot more serious.
Karl played in many bands, but on that certain day, he and my husband Dave were both in the rhythm section of the Louisiana Joymakers. After a set of music during which this most talented drummer seemed to be having a little trouble doing his job, he took Dave aside and showed him the weird thing going on with the muscles in one of his legs; they jumped around involuntarily. Karl didn't want anyone else to know. He just wanted to be able to play music without messing it up, and he worried that if he did, it would affect the whole band. Karl asked Dave, "What do you think? What could cause this?"
That question would haunt all of us for a while. Karl wondered if it could be MS or some kind of nerve damage. He decided to try an all-organic diet. He tried everything but nothing helped, and early test results gave no answers. It became more and more difficult for him to play drums, and that upset and depressed Karl because he loved drumming more than anything and had since he was a kid.
After years of making a name for himself in rock and roll, Karl discovered traditional jazz through two wonderful friends and musical mentors, Bob Erwig and Simon Stribling. Soon he amazed everyone with his ability to quickly grasp, and joyfully execute, a totally different style. He studied old recordings they suggested, captured every nuance of the sound, and gave every band he played with a lift and drive with that solid, tasteful beat of his. The future looked bright for Karl Watt. Or it did, that is, until a diagnosis three words long took his dreams away: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. ALS. Lou Gehrig's Disease.
We saw Karl at a jazz festival where he watched from a wheel chair while the band played, and it broke our hearts. We knew how much he wanted to be back up there on stage with the rest of the guys, to know again that indescribable thrill of being the heart of a rhythm section all perfectly in sync, flying forward, skimming along on the groove, controlled but on fire, setting the front line free to go wild. It took courage for him to show up at all, and he would need a lot more courage to get to the end of his ordeal after 4 1/2 years.
My husband still has his emails from Karl, whose sense of humor remained as healthy as ever. The jokes flew back and forth between his house in British Columbia, and ours in Tacoma, then finally began to slow down, until one day in November of 2009, this message came: "Don't know how much longer I'll be able to type. Thank you all for being my friends."
I've wondered whether or not, at the end, Karl still dreamed about drumming. There in bed at the age of 44, with his hands and feet stilled, his musician's soul trapped in a body that would no longer work, it ended up that his own heartbeat was the only rhythm he could play. At 1:55 am on July 20, 2010, even that last solo came to an end, and Karl Stephano Watt was finally set free. We will never, ever, forget this wonderful man, his loving and loyal friendship, his sense of fun and joy in living, his smile, his laugh, and the way he could play those drums!
Karl, dear friend, you'll always rock.
Please take a few minutes to listen to Karl Watt play drums with Simon Stribling's Society Seven jazz band, in this video. You'll be glad you did.
MORE MUSIC! This addition example of Karl on drums has just been posted on YouTube by Bob Erwig.
Donations can be made to the ALS Society or the Karl Watt Trust Fund, through the Friends of Karl Watt. A celebration of his life will take place on Wednesday, July 28, 2010, at the Yale, 1300 Granville St., Vancouver, B.C. Tickets are $40 and proceeds go to ALS research.
Contents of this blog post are copyrighted by Candace J. Brown 2010
Photo courtesy of Nancy Honeywell