Coda: Responding to the Changes

Jack De Pietro
Jack De Pietro

Funny thing about the changes and the ebb and flow of life. Often we end up in places or situations we never imagined we’d be in. That’s as true for our lofty ambitions as it is for what we may initially interpret as a disaster. I’ve experienced times in my life when things were going really well, and then suddenly everything changed and I needed to embrace new priorities. I’ve learned that successfully fighting life’s unexpected battles requires tailor-made strategies and determination. After the smoke of the battle begins to clear, we see that victory has a different face than the one we had imagined. In hindsight, we see that there is a sweetness to overcoming difficulties and that we are comfortable in the new landscape of our lives.

I came to Berklee from Nyack, NY, and lived in an apartment on St. Stephen Street behind Symphony Hall. Back then, Michael’s Pub—a small bar around the corner that I frequented with my roommates—reminded me of my father’s place, the Office Bar. One day I convinced the owner to let a few of us jam there on Tuesday nights. Each week we drew more students from the surrounding colleges, and before long it was a huge success. Ultimately Michael’s became a full-fledged jazz club with many Berklee folks and well-known musicians performing there.

A Detour Ahead

Things were going well for me until I encountered my first major roadblock. I was in my final semester as a music education major doing my student teaching when I received word that my father had suffered a heart attack. My parents were in their seventies, and their only means of support was the Office Bar. My mother panicked and wanted to sell the business. I tried to convince her to wait until I finished college, but she was in a bind. So I quit school, to return home and run the bar.

By that time, many of my Berklee friends had moved to New York City and wanted work experience. I invited them to come jam at the Office, just as we had done at Michael’s. We couldn’t pay much at first, but as my business grew I remembered the players that were there from the start. A patron of the bar who loved jazz gifted $10,000 to the club, which was enough to build a stage and buy a Yamaha grand piano and a sound system.

During the late 1970s, jazz was thriving, so the timing was perfect. In New York City, there were jazz clubs on every corner, but the Office was the only jazz club in Rockland County. Soon bands were playing there five nights a week. I formed the Officers, a sextet of Berklee alumni. Even Pat Metheny, Lyle Mays, and Mark Egan, (before they were officially the Pat Metheny Group) joined me one snowy weekend in December. I got to play with many of my former professors—Bill Molenhof, Dave Samuels, John Scofield, and others. I was putting together the rhythm sections to accompany jazz greats like Joe Farrell, Ron Carter, Stan Getz, Chet Baker, Zoot Sims, Cedar Walton, and others. Arnie Lawrence, who lived in the area, introduced me to lots of great musicians from the Tonight Show Band.

As a jazz club owner, I dealt with different personalities and egos. An unintended consequence was that I began to reflect on my life and ask myself how long I wanted to do this. Some of the musicians I had gotten to know had sad lives. They spent little time with their families or had no family life at all. The overwhelming majority had paid their dues, yet they were frustrated about not receiving the recognition or monetary rewards they felt they deserved. Some had addictions and other problems. Witnessing such was a major factor in my decision to sell the business in 1987 after a successful 12-year run.

During the early 1970s, I got a real estate license, and after selling the bar, I had some money to invest. One property led to another and I found myself in a fascinating new world. I assembled a recording studio and recorded my first solo project. I wrote all the songs, played multiple instruments, and featured guest artists John Hall, Mark Egan, Warren Bernhardt, Gary Burke, and others. I quickly recorded four more CDs and was selling them at gigs and on CD Baby. I also started composing jingles for local businesses in the Hudson Valley. I teamed up with a former advertising executive, and we took on bigger projects. We ultimately wrote music for a country album recorded in Nashville by recording artist Clay Davidson.

Then my wife and I bought a property in New York City. It’s very expensive to live there, especially with two children in school. The prosperity of the 1980s was over. The jingle business was dead, everyone had a home studio, and live gigs had virtually dried up. I went into real estate in Manhattan and soon became a managing director at the global real estate firm Grub & Ellis. One of my first deals was with George Ross of the Trump Company (as in Donald Trump).

I was in the shark tank and feeling the pressure when 9/11 happened. I lost friends and clients in the towers that day. That changed my feelings about continuing in such a stressful job. I was turning 50 and wanted another life change.

I started my own landscape design business, and it became successful. That work is seasonal, so I got to spend my winters writing music and recording. My children were finishing college, and life seemed perfect!

Another Roadblock

That’s when I encountered another major roadblock. While on vacation, I suffered a debilitating stroke. I spent seven days in Jersey Shore Medical Hospital receiving daily exams as well as physical and speech therapy. I had a droopy mouth and left-side paralysis, but that was minor compared to what was happening in my brain. I couldn’t think clearly, had lost my memory, and tears ran down my face like rain. Upon my release from the hospital, I continued working with cardiologists, neurologists, physical therapists, and nutritionists.

I was going broke making the copayments for the seven medications I was taking. But money wasn’t my biggest problem: I couldn’t remember how to play my instruments. As well, my vocal cords had atrophied. It was a challenge to speak, never mind sing.

I started drumming again, though at first it just sounded like banging. I watched YouTube clips every morning and just kept clicking from one video to the next watching in complete awe.

I would watch someone play something that would strike a nerve, and I would walk over to the drums and try to play it. Eventually I found clips of Tony Williams and other great drummers that set off a chain reaction. The more I clicked, the more I remembered. Synapses were reconnecting. As I began to relearn my instruments, I noticed my whole approach and style had changed. Relearning brought me new skills.

The brain is like a computer that stores many folders. The stroke caused my folders to become harder to access, but they weren’t erased. I struggled to perform basic tasks, such as operating the microwave, stacking a woodpile, using an ATM, and driving a car. Playing the piano was my most difficult challenge. My left hand was completely atrophied. I thought I had practiced a lot at Berklee, but now I was spending 10 hours a day trying to get it all back.

Over the past three years, most of my memory has returned and I continue to do intense physical therapy. I walk three miles a day; play two hours of drums, piano, and guitar; and play basketball and tennis every chance I get. I grow a lot of my own food and watch my diet. Poor diet as well as genetics contributed to my stroke.

Today I am off all prescription drugs. I’m working with two bands, managing my health, and doing everything I love to do. Life is good again.

I’ve learned that when you hit a curve in life that causes you to downshift and re-evaluate your plans, it’s your response to the changes, coupled with your will to survive, that enables you to reach new heights.

Jack De Pietro is a New York-based songwriter and performer and has released his music through CD Baby and iTunes.