The G.K. Story was nearly 10 years in the making, since Japanese native Yasuo Ishikawa moved to Colorado to begin his alto saxophone studies with George Keith. Keith was an incredible jazz musician, composer and teacher from Denver, who began his music career in the 1950s, playing with legends like Charlie Parker. Though Keith and Ishikawa planned to record a CD together, the project never came to be, before the teacher succumbed to cancer in 2006.
Seven years later, with many new compositions of his own, Ishikawa accomplished his dream of recording the CD with The SoBo Four. The four members came together in a jazz ensemble at the Broadway Music School on South Broadway in Denver. Saxophonist Yasuo Ishikawa has been performing around the Denver area for about a decade, and is joined by his former ensemble members, Derek Woodbury on bass and Brian Mixon on drums. Justin Adams, the band’s guest pianist for the recording, was their ensemble conductor and is an accomplished, international jazz performer.
The G.K. Story is dedicated to George Keith, my mentor and a great musician
Memories of George By Yasuo Ishikawa
My New Life as George's Apprentice
One day, I made up my mind to pursue music and become George’s pupil, even without asking him. Up to that point, my pursuits had been totally unrelated to music, which meant that I couldn’t read music and knew nothing about the saxophone. Though I was an absolute beginner, I said to George, “I have an ambition to release my music CD someday. Let me be your apprentice.” He must have thought I was a strange Japanese man, but he kindly accepted my request.
Back then, I had a stereotyped image of jazz musicians as cool performers who were heavy drinkers and smokers. Between late-night gigs and partying, I imagined they returned to grungy apartments and collapsed into shabby beds. However, when I visited George’s house for the first time, there were no shabby beds, and everything in his house was kept clean. Though I was prepared to study music in the worst conditions, I felt so relieved to see that wouldn't be necessary.
George’s favorite treat was eating ice cream before going to bed. On Sundays when he didn’t have lessons, we drove about 15 minutes away to Sam’s Club and got ice cream in a huge bucket-like container. It must be hard for everybody to imagine that cool George loved ice cream. Seeing him with a big smile in his pajamas enjoying his ice cream was very humorous. I had to try hard not to laugh when George was eating ice cream.
One day, when George was showing me his old photos, one of them caught my eye. In the photo, George was performing with a cigarette between his fingers. He said, “In the old days, saxophone players performed while holding a cigarette. To keep the cigarette from dropping, their fingers had to be held tightly together and close to the saxophone keys. This helped them perform better because keeping the hands close to the keys provides better control.”
I thought this would be a good way to practice. The very next day I bought a carton of cigarettes, not to smoke but to hold between my fingers while practicing my saxophone. At first, it was difficult and I dropped the cigarette many times, but finally I could play with a cigarette kept between my fingers. It made playing the saxophone easier than before.
George's Final Days
In October 2005, George was informed by his doctor that he had pancreatic cancer. The doctor said George's cancer was terminal, and he was given six weeks or less to live. For many months before that, George had experienced severe back pain and had gone to the doctor for examinations many times. It really bothered me that he was suddenly diagnosed with terminal cancer when the doctor had never found anything before. The doctor just said to me, “Pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect, so it's often beyond a cure when detected.”
In December, George replaced the phrase, “When I get better…” with “Before I die...” or “After I die..” when talking about the future. He murmured, “Before I die, I want to go to Japan one more time.” So, I decided to take him to Japan even though everybody around me tried to convince me not to.
Loaded down with morphine, oxygen bottles, a wheelchair, and so much that it gives me a headache to recall, George made his final trip to Japan in the middle of winter. Even with many peoples’ help, it was a struggle. George was in severe pain and having difficulty breathing. But, he still managed to smile and play with my 9-month-old son, joke with my family and friends, and even perform on his saxophone in a Japanese club.
When we returned to the States, George's condition deteriorated quickly. A few of us who had been George's students rotated shifts to care for him 24 hours a day for several days. We didn't get much sleep and were all exhausted.
At around 5 a.m. on January 5, 2006, he fell into a half-sleep, half-awake state, blurting out difficult to interpret names and phrases to us through a thick fog. When some of us lifted him up to take him to the hospital, he spoke his last words to me, “I see Yasuo… I see Yasuo…”
Back with George Again
Lately I have been listening to the cassette tapes that are piled up high in my storage. Many of my lessons with George were recorded on those tapes. In addition to his instruction and my practicing the same musical phrases again and again, I can also here George’s cheerful voice, his laughter and our private conversations. Listening to those sessions makes me feel like George is right here beside me again.
George, thank you! You've helped me fulfill my dream. We're releasing my CD.