The Passing of a Giant

Octobre 1998 : Réagissant au décès de son ami, le saxophoniste David Liebman livre un texte poignant dans l’édition d’automne de Jazz Changes, et qui souffrirait difficilement d’être traduit correctement sans en perdre l’émotion.
Janvier 2007 : Pour la publication de son texte en ligne sur ce site, David Liebman a rajouté le commentaire suivant : « JF was the best all around bass player I knew. He could play anything from free to highly structured. He could bow with the best of them. He could swing and he could REALLY solo. Plus, he was a truly humane person, interested in what was going on around him and in people in general. A special guy whose passing created a space that cannot be filled. Miss you bro!!« 

In Ancient Greek drama, the word ‘tragedy’ implied the intervention of fate, resulting in an unhappy ending. We in the jazz community, and especially in Europe, have recently suffered such a calamity with the passing of bassist Jean-François Jenny-Clark, more commonly known as JF. For a man like this to be struck with cancer is indeed a turn of fate beyond the comprehension of us mortals. Most jazz musicians are by nature not religiously inclined, at least in the formal sense, but are almost by definition spiritually sensitive. When an event like this occurs, it does tend to make that side of us seek some answer to the burning and obvious question of why him, why now. You find yourself saying how could this happen to that wonderful human being, that giant of all people.

And JF was in all senses of the word, a giant of a man. He was among the kindest and gentlest of souls, a rare quality in the macho atmosphere of jazz. He was a considerate person who always asked how you were doing, how was your family, your life. He rarely spoke about his trials and tribulations, even when the illness struck. His work for the Humanistic Movement was something he never discussed, yet he was one of the only musicians I have known who thought about the bigger picture and took some action related to it. He cared about the way the world worked, the injustices that we witness, the indignity of it all. He was by nature a sensitive and caring person, a pleasure to know regardless of his musical abilities.

And what musical abilities!! I know it is frowned upon to judge someone as a musician to be the best around. But I must admit to you that I have felt this way about a musician or two over the years, beyond category or style. For my taste and experience, JFJC was the best all-round bass player I ever heard or was privileged to play with. Apart from his impeccable musicianship, which included the bow, reading, chord changes or free, swinging time or rubato, what I thought made JF so remarkable was his soloing, which was never predictable. JF played in a way that captures what I feel is the essence of an improvised art like jazz, which is the ‘being there’ element. First you have complete control of the music and your instrument, then you abandon it to the spirit and the moment. He embodied that principle.

To say he was cut off early would be an understatement. The disease, a form of lymphoma, struck a few years ago and put everyone who knew him in shock. How could this happen to him of all people! It reminded those of us who knew JF of our own mortality. Here was one of us fighting for his life. And fight, is what he did. All of his peers will recite how they saw him just recently and he was doing very well. About how he was playing and recording a little, how good he looked and how confident he was. When he spoke of the disease, it was like it was some little pest that he had to wipe off his sleeve. He didn’t give in to it and he paid some horrendous dues these last years in the battle. I wrote a tune simply called JF dedicated to him and when he heard it at a club in Paris, his smile and glow spoke volumes. It is hard to believe he is gone.

When there is a loss like this, one thinks of the close friends who have been his associates for years: the remaining members of the greatest trio of the past decade, Daniel Humair and Joachim Kühn, his fellow bassists Jean Paul Celea and Bernard Cazauran, who along with his lady of years whom he married in the weeks before his passing, Anne, were there for him all the time during these years, and all the other French as well as European and American musicians who were lifted up by his playing.

But we are lucky in the music world. We have his presence on tape for ever. As I wrote him in the last days, his memory will be with those he touched until the end of time and beyond. A man like JF, a spirit as large as he was, an artist of that immense talent lives on through the ages and his sound will always be there for us to hear and feel. We all meet anyway in the great jam session in the sky, so ’til then, mon ami, have a glass of wine and that beautiful bass of yours ready because we will be looking for you!

D. Liebman – Jazz Changes – autumn 1998

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