One of Buffalo’s most celebrated musicians, Jim Kurzdorfer, recently passed away, leaving behind a legacy that included playing with Thelonius Monk and Herbie Hancock, the Rolling Stones, the Who, and all of Eric Clapton’s bands. His Villa Maria College students called him Mister K. This weekend he will be posthumously granted Professor Emeritus. If you were in Buffalo in the late 1970s you would have seen the Buffalo jazz fusion group Spyro Gyra rocket to international superstardom, thanks in part to original member Jim Kurzdorfer, who has now lost his battle with cancer.
Upon entering Villa Maria auditorium for his memorial, the prelude was a medley with some of Buffalo’s greatest all-time jazz talents: Bobby Jones, Bobby Militello, Rick Straus, Paul Fadale and Jerry Livingston.
Poetry, reminisces, and musical performances were interspersed throughout. Great job by Colleen Williams, who seemed to be the main organizer of the nearly two hour memorial, along with serving as the mistress of ceremonies.
I absolutely loved hearing one of Spyro Gyra’s greatest hits, the ‘Shaker Song’, performed magically by guitarist Stu Weissman – it was like traveling in time back to late 1970s.
When Jim Beishline spoke, he mentioned breaking from memorial tradition, and had everyone rise and applaud with a “standing ovation of a lifetime.”
Bobby Jones mentioned that Jim was always the first call (an organizer’s first choice when assembling an ensemble, a great honor)…. and that Jim’s absence was much more noticeable than most people’s presence.
Before performing one of Jim’s favorite songs, ‘What a Wonderful World’, with Steve Parisi on piano, Lew Custode (trumpet and vocals) told us that Jim had once told him, “In my village my last name (Kurzdorfer) means the short villager.” Jim was 6 foot 5 inches tall.
A real treat was when, during the performance of the song, Lew changed a lot of the words that Louis Armstrong had made famous into Jim Kurzdorfer-descriptive lyrics.
Villa Maria alumnus John Shaughnessy, class of ’90, having traveled 11 hours from North Carolina, thought that one of the things that made Jim so great was that Jim, “Encouraged you to find your own voice, and not to find Jim’s voice.” Many teachers force you to find their way, not your own way.
The final song featured the same players as the prelude, with a performance of ‘Blue Monk’, by Thelonius Monk. Audience members were invited to come up on stage with their instruments, take turns soloing, and some very well did.
I leave you now with spoken word from an earlier part of the program. Sister Marcella Marie Garus, the president of Villa Maria College, blew me away and put tears in my eyes with her incredible tribute poem to Jim. Thank you much for sharing Sister Marcella Marie…:
God looked around his Orchestra and found an empty bass,
He then looked down upon his earth and saw your loving face.
He put his arms around you and lifted you to rest.
His Music must be beautiful, he always takes the best.
He knew that you were suffering; he knew you were in pain,
And He knew that you would never get well on earth again.
He saw your path was difficult, he closed your tired eyes,
He whispered to you “Peace be Yours” and gave you wings to fly.
When we saw you sleeping so calm and free of pain,
We would not wish you back to earth to suffer once again.
You’ve left us precious memories, your love will be our guide,
You live on through your music, you’re always by our side.
It broke our hearts to lose you, but you did not go alone,
For part of us went with you on the day God called you home.
Jim, may you rest in peace.