The last time I went to an event at the Wayfarers Chapel in Rancho Palos Verdes was in the '80s, and I didn't make it. My cousin was having a nighttime wedding. It was winter, about this time of year. Along the coastal highway, the darkness was so complete--sky, rock wall and ocean were indistinguishable--that it was all I could do make out the divided road and stay in my lane. As the hour of the wedding came and slowly went, I gave up looking for the turnoff sign. I made it to the reception, though I always regretted what I'd missed; I'd been to a million church weddings, but that one I wanted to see.
Last Sunday, I finally made it to Wayfarers for an event. It was a brilliant afternoon, not evening, and the drive around the peninsula was spectacular, the myth that California is made of, except that the myth is sometimes real. The scenery almost made up for the fact that this time I was going to a memorial. My friend James Lee Forward died of cancer last month, a week before Christmas. He was 51. The cancer was terrible when it surfaced a year and a half ago, too entrenched in the body to retreat in any meaningful way.
The odd but wonderful thing is that I really only knew James in the last year of his life. In some ways we paralleled--we were both black, born and raised in South Central, products of local public schools. He was familiar when I met him.
But James was entirely unique. He was a conductor. That meant he had to study the entire classical music canon and various instruments intensely before he settled on conducting. It's tough, specialized work for anybody, but for a black man in the rarefied world of classical music and the even more rarefied world of conducting, it was nothing less than a mission. James taught at various places, including Crossroads School in Santa Monica; at the memorial, his friends and former students performed what amounted to a concert of Bach, Mozart, Barber. The sounds that filled the glass chapel last week were lovely and sublime, truly transporting.
Yet that's not the James that I knew. From the beginning of our brief relationship, we didn't talk music; we talked about workaday politics, life, food, the pitiable state of black folks despite the ascent of Obama. We talked about health care reform, which animated him because despite his talents and hard work, he was one of the millions of freelancing Americans without employer-based health insurance. Trying to get quality, long-term care for his condition through the county hospital--the only real public option--was laughable. Sometimes James did laugh. But even at the height of his indignation, he had a warmth,humor and evenhandedness that never left him.
For all his accomplishments in the classical music monde, James' biggest dream was to bring the joy of his music to South Central and the inner city--not for a day or for a concert, but for a long time. Forever would have been nice. He wanted not merely to spark imagination in the place where he grew up and still lived, but to institute it, seed it.
James' life came and went. But the singular beauty and hope of it is still here, unmoved and unchanged by daylight or dark, by life or death itself. Thankfully, it is very easy to find.
Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday at 2 p.m. on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.
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