Gentleness is the quality of being kind and careful. The noun gentleness is perfect for describing the way someone acts when they are soft and calm and sweet to other people.
Gentleness is usually easy to see. Look toward a truly strong man or woman.
When I was growing up my mother would describe someone as being “the sweetest man/woman”. I didn’t get it. Chocolate chip cookies were sweet. Adults were big and threatening. Now I get it, and I long to spend some time around a sweet person. I have learned that the gentlest people also are usually those who are the strongest. They never have to pose as being strong. Gentleness on its own is a strength. Our species has prospered by uniting together to stave off threats, to hunt and to conquer. This required our predecessors to learn to shed their instincts to savage their neighbors even when their neighbors acted badly. They figured out that they would need all their neighbors when they had to slay the large beasts surrounding them. Forgiveness has been a valuable tool in man’s survival. Our strength continues to be our gentleness and unity.
JOHN LEWIS, A GENTLE MAN 1940 -2020
David Remnick started his piece for the New Yorker on John Lewis with these paragraphs.
“John Robert Lewis was born in 1940 near the Black Belt town of Troy, Alabama. His parents were sharecroppers, and he grew up spending Sundays with a great-grandfather who was born into slavery, and hearing about the lynchings of Black men and women that were still commonplace in the region. When Lewis was a few months old, the manager of a chicken farm named Jesse Thornton was lynched about twenty miles down the road, in the town of Luverne. His offense was referring to a police officer by his first name, not as “Mister.” A mob pursued Thornton, stoned and shot him, then dumped his body in a swamp; it was found, a week later, surrounded by vultures.
These stories, and the realities of Jim Crow-era segregation, prompted Lewis to become an American dissident. Steeped in the teachings of his church and the radio sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr., he left home for Nashville, to study theology and the tactics of nonviolent resistance. King teased him as “the boy from Troy,” the youngest face at the forefront of the movement. In a long career as an activist, Lewis was arrested forty-five times and beaten repeatedly by the police and by white supremacists, most famously in Selma, on March 7, 1965—Bloody Sunday—when he helped lead six hundred people marching for voting rights. After they had peacefully crossed a bridge, Alabama troopers attacked, using tear gas, clubs, and bullwhips. Within moments of their charge, Lewis lay unconscious, his skull fractured. He later said, “I thought I was going to die.”
And so there were times when Lewis, who died on Friday, at the age of eighty, might have felt the temptation at times to give up, to give way. But it was probably his most salient characteristic that he always refused despair; with open eyes, he acknowledged the darkest chapters of American history yet insisted that change was always possible.”
“DO NOT GET LOST IN A SEA OF DESPAIR. BE HOPEFUL, BE OPTIMISTIC.” —JOHN LEWIS
John Lewis’ parents raised 10 children on a small farm outside Troy, Alabama. They were too busy to notice that one of their sons was becoming too curious for his own good. His questions made them nervous. His eventual activism made them fear for his safety. They probably didn’t set him on the course that led him into becoming the conscience of the congress. His moral compass and innate goodness may have come from his time taking care of the family’s 60 chickens. They were his friends and when he first entered the darkness of the henhouse he spent time talking to them. He saw injustice in their condition and tried to bring them some grace. As he grew into a young man his resolve to bring justice to all just grew stronger. He never quit talking and doing, even when his life was at risk . He tirelessly worked in seeking freedom for all Americans, and he was always eager to give guidance to the justice fighters who stood on his shoulders.
As a self proclaimed disciple of Dr Martin Luther King Jr he never wavered in his rejection of violence, despite the hateful treatment that he endured throughout his life.
John Lewis spoke softly, simply and directly. The force of his words came from knowing he never backed down and he never complained. Knock him down and he got right back up. When he got up, he got up stronger. Knock him down again, and a giant emerged. This is man we saw, powerful yet gentle.
I met John Lewis in Ann Arbor when he spoke at a political event. I had created a poster with a painting of Barack Obama and someone had given a poster to John Lewis. When he asked me to sign it he added a request for a portrait of himself. I shot a few photos for reference as he was leaving. I used one of the shots to paint his portrait, which I gave to him later.
Before I painted this portrait I read his book Walking With The Wind where he tells us that when he was a boy he lived in a small wooden house with large cracks that let the wind come through. I decided to go to his hometown of Troy Alabama and get some old wood that I would use as a canvas or frame. When I got to Troy I asked around for some info on John’s early life. I went into the local drugstore which had a sandwich counter. No one seemed to know who John Lewis was. Then a group of professors from Troy State looked up from there coffee and cleared things up. John had lived on a farm a few miles away near another town. They gave me the name of the town. I headed out and while pumping gas I asked the guy at the next pump where this little town was . He asked what I was up to. I told him about John Lewis’ wooden house with the holes in it. He replied that it wasn’t wooden it was a brick house now. I asked him how he knew that. “I am his brother Sam”, he replied. Samuel Lewis still lived near that brick house. He smiled with pride when he talked of his brother. It turns out that Eddie and Willie May Lewis weren’t so busy that they didn’t teach their ten children the power of gentleness.
John Lewis spoke up in public so that we could hear.
“We are one people with one family. We all live in the same house… and through books, through information, we must find a way to say to people that we must lay down the burden of hate. For hate is too heavy a burden to bear.”
“When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to say something; you have to do something.
” Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
“To those who have said, ‘Be patient and wait,’ we have long said that we cannot be patient. We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now! We are tired. We are tired of being beaten by policemen. We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again. And then you holler, ‘Be patient.’ How long can we be patient? We want our freedom, and we want it now.”
“It was very moving, very moving to see hundreds and thousands of people from all over America and around the world take to the streets to speak up, to speak out, to get into what I call good trouble, but to get in the way. And because of the action of young and old, Black, white, Latino, Asian-American and Native American, because people cried and prayed, people will never, ever forget what happened and how it happened, and it is my hope that we are on our way to greater change.” —on Black Lives Matter protests following George Floyd’s death
“I was beaten, left bloody and unconscious. But I never became bitter or hostile, never gave up. I believe that somehow and some way, if it becomes necessary to use our bodies to help redeem the soul of a nation, then we must do it. Create a society at peace with itself, and lay down the burden of hate and division.”
“I say to people today, ‘You must be prepared if you believe in something. If you believe in something, you have to go for it. As individuals, we may not live to see the end.”
Freddy Cole was a great athlete. He excelled at baseball and football. He chose not to play professionally but to make music instead. He had a distinguished jazz career sometimes in the shadow of his older brother Nat King Cole. ”I can’t help it,” Freddy would say. ”Most brothers voices sound alike.” The situation never produced any resentment, but it was unmistakably something he had to overcome. This was in this gentle man’s genes. Like John Lewis this powerful figure overpowered oppressive racism with a loving nature.
With his charming, relaxed baritone and an efficient touch at the piano, Freddy would put me at ease. Sometimes when I was down in the dumps and needed something soothing the best cure was a shot of jazz. I got a quick fix when Freddy Cole was in the house passing out his magical elixir . Freddy used his voice and a piano as a delivery system. His spare piano and incredibly rich singing voice would get inside my body and mind.
This gentle man passed away at his home in Atlanta, Ga. He was 88.
RANDY NAPOLEON, A GENTLE MAN 1978-
Randy Napoleon is a jazz guitarist, composer, and arranger who grew up in Ann Arbor. Randy, by example, shows us what someone going gently through life looks like. He always reminds me that life is good and everything will be alright. He works sitting down, often with a smile on his face. His job is playing the guitar and teaching others how much fun it is to play jazz guitar. Randy’s guitar is an extension of his calmness and joy. Randy’s temperament is a gift to all that come in contact with him.
I first heard Randy play live at the Dirty Dog Jazz Café when he was living in New York and touring with the legendary singer/pianist Freddy Cole. Freddy Cole’s naturally calm but sure, gentle but strong approach to life perfectly matched Randy’s. I had a chance to spend time with both of them in the club’s green room, which became a no conflict zone with their presence.
Randy and Freddy were gentle men and it showed up in everything they did. Sometimes I would watch the two of them glancing at each other in the middle of a song. Smiles would creep up at the corners of their mouths. It made me smile too.
I recommend that you read this moving tribute Randy wrote to his friend Freddy Cole.
“I knew Freddy from his records first. When I was younger, I would have said Nat was my favorite of the Coles, but as I listened deeper, I became transfixed by his youngest brother, Freddy. Freddy has the class and poise that is the Cole signature, but there is something else there as well. Freddy has an incredible, loose beat and groove that I’ve never heard any one, short of giants like Billie Holiday or Louis Armstrong, match. He captured the feeling of the blues in a natural and conversational way. Freddy’s conception as a pianist reminds me of a trombone section in a big band. He played the most clear, direct and swinging figures to support the rhythm section. It was so much fun comping or soloing with him because he made it easy to connect. He wasn’t trying to trick you or confuse you, he put the chords where they were supposed to be. It always made sense.
In a bigger sense, that’s how Freddy was as a person. Very direct, unguarded and honest. There was never any pretension, Freddy was the opposite of a Diva. Freddy called himself the “last of the rounders”; he loved to hang around. When I first joined the band, I remember being worn out trying to keep up with Freddy’s late hours. When we were on the road, Freddy would always find the after hours hang, and we would be the last ones to leave the joint. Freddy was the most social person I’ve ever known, he made friends with everyone and would slowly sip his signature Merlot until we were forced to leave. Often we would have a very early morning lobby call the next day so eventually I got a little bit better sleeping on planes. The old man had more stamina and endured the hard travel days better than you could imagine. Freddy almost never complained. He was tough as nails.
I met Freddy in 1999 when I was playing with Benny Green’s band. This was my first year in New York and also my first chance to be able to go see many of my heroes live. I made sure I went to hear Freddy every time he was in New York and he became someone I would seek advice from. In 2006, I finally got the chance to join Freddy’s band as a full time member.
My first gig as a member of the band was a four night engagement at a club in Georgetown called Blues Alley. For a month leading up to this, I didn’t do anything besides study Freddy Cole’s music. Elias Bailey gave me four hours of live tapes from Freddy’s gigs and I learned every chord Freddy played. I turned down gigs to study; I wanted this to work out so badly. After I checked into the hotel, Freddy asked me to meet him for lunch.
I can’t remember where we ate, but I remember we had a slow walk up a hill. Freddy was 72 yrs old and still loved to walk around. We barely spoke on the walk to the restaurant, which made me a little bit nervous. While Freddy loved being around people, he was often quiet. Any who knows me, knows that I am RARELY quiet so this was one of the first things I learned from Freddy: how to find comfort with space and the practice of patience. Over the next 13 yrs, I spent more time with Freddy than without him. I got to know him, Curtis Boyd, and Elias Bailey better than anyone I’ve ever worked with. Curtis retired in 2013, but in those 7 yrs, we were on the road 200+ days a year. It truly was a second family to me. I was so fortunate to travel with these guys: the three most loving and best people I know. Elias is very similar to Freddy in a lot of ways, they are both calm and easy going, with never a bad word to say about any one. Curtis calls me his “Gemini counterpart,” and the similarities between us are deep. We are both intense, highly animated, and have silly senses of humor. There are other weirdly mysterious similarities. I remember one moment when we both stopped to tie our shoes at the same time. Side note: I’d like to share two stories from my wedding to illustrate my relationship with the cantankerous and loving Curtis Boyd: 1. Freddy, Curtis and Elias played a beautiful ballad for Alison and my first dance. Just under the music, I could clearly hear Curtis muttering, “I told that boy to learn how to DANCE! Bloody awful!” 2. Who was the first person to start crying when we were taking our vows? You guessed it, the big hearted Curtis Boyd. Curtis was the taskmaster of the band, always pushing us to do better. He told me to learn twenty different ways to approach each song.
Freddy had a profound influence on me. His calm and relaxed disposition helped me become more forgiving of myself and of others. As embarrassing as it is to admit to a cliche, I’m a bit of a tortured artist type. I’m perfectionistic and very emotional. Freddy would tell me, “Randy, no one is goof proof!” He was the most patient person I ever met. I think about him every time I teach because I want my students to feel they have the room to make mistakes and to feel loved and supported. Of course, needless to say, I learned thousands of tunes from Freddy. I’ve never met anyone who knows more songs.
We used to do long tours in the south in a rental van. Oftentimes Elias and I would fly to Atlanta the night before we left and stay in Freddy’s basement. Freddy kept his CD’s in the basement, so I would raid the collection for the drive. Before one tour, I swiped the complete capitol recordings of Nat King Cole. We listened to 16 cd’s straight and Freddy sang along with every song, never missing a lyric. He was the greatest student of song in the world. He loved lyrics, often he would remark “you can just picture someone writing these words, it’s just so believable.” He would make us all believe the story of the song. Freddy loved standards and also more contemporary songs from artists like Bill Withers or The Isley Brothers. I did arrangements for the last six records I did with Freddy, and sometimes I would be surprised by the songs he would request. I didn’t always recognize the value of the selection until I heard Freddy sing the song. He found a way to make the stories his own. His selection of material was part of his special genius.
After Curtis retired, Quentin Baxter and later Jay Sawyer inherited the chair. Also, Henry Conerway frequently subbed for Quentin. We had frequent guests with the band, most frequently Harry Allen or Houston Person. I had some amazing times with these great cats as well. During these years two things had changed for me. I was now a father, and I had moved to East Lansing to start teaching at Michigan State University. The upshot was, I wasn’t able to travel as consistently with Freddy. Freddy was amazingly supportive and flexible in allowing me to stay in the band. I remember when my daughter was born, after I called my parents, I called Freddy who said “I love you like a brother.” Freddy always encouraged me to prioritize taking care of my family. After his wife Margaret died, Freddy was never the same.
My last gig with Freddy was last August at the Chicago Jazz Festival. Freddy was physically very weak, but somehow the emotional power of his singing was stronger than ever. This was a large concert, maybe 10,000 people in an outdoor amphitheater. Freddy did his magic trick where he turned any venue into an intimate night club. When Freddy sang ballads that night, you could hear a pin drop. The last time I talked to him, He was clearly deteriorating and I could barely understand what he was saying some of the time, but he ended the conversation by saying “I’ll let you know if there is anything going on,” which was what he would always say regarding upcoming gigs.
There will never be another Freddy Cole. This is the end of an era. With that said, the young people give me hope. What keeps me from despairing is the feeling I get from my students, who love the music and are committed to keeping it going. I believe, like Freddy used to say, they will “Keep hope alive, keep Jazz alive.” My deepest condolences to the Cole’s and the Jones’s (Freddy’s in-laws) who have always welcomed me like family. I love you Freddy. Thank you for everything and I will never forget you.”