The Saint Mary's Gardens retirement home sits on the corner of Market and 10th Street, a large, well-kept series of buildings in the heart of West Oakland. Last Thursday a group of upbeat Berkeley Community Choir members milled around the entrance, waiting to be buzzed in to perform a holiday concert for about thirty elderly residents.
Once inside, the singers gathered around the big Christmas tree in the cozy expanse of the rec room, tested the ol' pitch pipe, and began to warm up. Then they sang, and it was lovely and peaceful. Before each song the choir leader explained the history of the tune, a scarf draped rakishly over her neck and shoulder as she lightly bounced in her Birkenstocks. Like most volunteer choirs, every member had that odd sort of perkiness reserved for high-school drama geeks and madrigal singers, matched only by the excitement of the gathered residents who regularly let out an "Amen!" when a particularly sentient note was hit, or a "Beautiful!" at the end of an entire song.
Saint Mary's was the home of eighty-year-old Taswell Baird, Oakland's hundredth homicide victim this year. Baird was returning in his wheelchair from the store down the street the evening of November 5 when someone attacked him, threw him out of his chair and beat him, then stole his money. He was just a hundred feet from the front door of the retirement home. An employee who'd just finished work and was heading to her car saw the whole thing, and Baird was rushed to the hospital where he later died of his injuries.
"He was a nice man, very polite," recalled Mrs. Campbell, an ebullient resident with a faint Caribbean accent. "Such a tragedy!" she added, her mouth taking a dramatic downturn, to the nods of agreement from her neighbors.
"None of us feel safe. We never go out alone, and never after dark," added another woman in a pillbox hat.
The residents of Saint Mary's were horrified that the outside neighborhood's problems have taken one of their friends, but they were also surprised to know that the quiet man they knew was a legendary jazz musician, a trombonist of the big band era who played with Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker, to name just a few.
"We didn't know that he was well-known," says Mrs. Campbell. "We knew he was a musician, but we had no idea."
Well-known isn't exactly the right word, but Taswell Baird was renowned among jazzphiles. Oakland resident Lee Kennedy was Baird's friend for 25 years, after the musician moved here in the late '70s. "He had photographs in his apartment to show that he'd played with these different people," says Kennedy. "But if you look in the history books you probably won't find his name very often, because a lot of the history books do not give the personnel of a lot of the bands back in those days. Jazz was something that was sort of frowned on, in its early infancy. It wasn't a thing that everyone wanted to aspire to."
Kennedy, a musician himself, describes Baird as an old-fashioned jazzman, more likely to talk about the music than himself, personifying the art form instead. "I've known a lot of very outstanding musicians," he says, "including Thelonious Monk, Dexter Gordon ... all those guys, we used to hang around those guys when I was growing up to learn. They didn't sit around and talk about themselves, they talked about the music. It's just a standard thing. I don't know if you know too many musicians, but I don't think you are going to get too many of them to talk about themselves." (He's obviously never hung out with rock musicians.) But this humble jazz zeitgeist may explain why Baird's neighbors at the home never knew his past.
Even Baird's daughter Meredith was unaware, according to Kennedy. "From the indication I got at Taswell's funeral," he says, "she wasn't really around him too much, because she didn't know that he was as renowned as he is. She mentioned that she had heard that he was a good musician, but that she didn't know ... you'd have to talk to her about that." Clair did call Baird's daughter, who was indisposed and unwilling to talk at that time.
It's possible that Meredith could fill in some gaps in Baird's history. Kennedy says his friend, like so many other musicians, was a former drug abuser -- a possible explanation for his debilitated state later in life. But still, the man lived to be eighty, so he must have done something right.
Baird was born in St. Louis and of course migrated to New York in his heyday. Finally, he came to Oakland, eventually settling on Market and 10th Street, and crossing paths with an eighteen-year-old truant who tailed him from the store to the corner. A boy whose letters to his parents from the staff of McClymond's High School went unanswered. A boy who, according to the cops, alternately played the tough guy and then broke down crying during his questioning. A boy who is looking at a lot of time.
"Amen!" claps the joyous woman in the pillbox hat, after a rousing "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing."
"Beautiful, beautiful!" says Mrs. Campbell. Coffee, cake, and hot cider are passed around and the choir members mingle with the residents. "It's so nice here," the old lady adds, smiling warmly and forgetting -- momentarily -- the sadness of the outside world.
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