An inspiration from my cousin Jay Madewell.
I really didn’t know my cousin Jay. Well, actually he was the son of my cousin, so I guess that means he was my second cousin. I never professed to master all the terms of lineage.
Jay was 16 years younger than me, and we never interacted as adults. The only thing I can remember about him was leaving a family event at my parents' house and Jay repeatedly running off the porch into the hedges. I don’t mean running and jumping off of the porch, I mean running full speed off of the porch and falling headlong into the juniper and yew shrubs. I told him he could get hurt and he should stop doing this. He didn’t.
Forty-plus years later I found myself driving to a memorial service for Jay. At fifty-one years old, his death was tragic and I wanted to show some compassion and support for his parents, and siblings. His folks had always been caring and helpful to my parents, and his sister has been close to my daughter. She and I have stayed in touch over the years. Losing my brother a few years ago is still an open wound. I simply wanted to offer a hug.
I knew Jay had been involved with music as a young adult, but I didn’t really appreciate the level of activity and devotion he had focused on performing arts. Reading his obituary and assorted Facebook posts I rapidly gained some insight into his engagement and presence in the southwestern Ohio music community.
The event I was driving to was being hosted at a Dayton music venue as a gathering of friends and family. I didn’t know if his parents would be there because it was being held at a tavern. Some of my family have very strong feelings about alcohol, and I had read that a subsequent service was being planned for a later date at a church.
When I arrived, there were already hundreds of people there, and I was happy to see Jay’s parent were in attendance. I got there just before memorials were shared by two of Jay’s closest friends and I am glad that I got the hear them.
From the time I had heard about his passing, to the instant I was hearing these shared recollections and thoughts, I had come to realize that Jay was indeed an artist and had devoted his life to this calling. He was a drummer, founded several bands, was a music promoter, and a DJ. He had owned a record store in Oxford, Ohio, and was involved with several film projects. He had clearly touched the lives of countless people. I heard stories of his mentorship to friends and protégés, financial help he had provided to artist in need, and the endless emotional support and encouragement he had given to others.
People joked about being in Jay’s Lunch Club, a circle of people that Jay would occasionally take to lunch and share his thoughts on things they might consider doing differently, and the Room-mate Club, folks that showed up at his door when they needed a place to stay for a few days or a few months.
I not only heard about his passion, and his pursuit of excellence, but how he could be insistent, and most often, correct in his opinion.
Like most artist, he did things that some folks just couldn’t understand. He had rented a warehouse space that was full of not only his drum kits but dozens of keyboards, vintage amplifiers, and a lot of boutique gear. I supposed that he recognized these were important creative tools irregardless if he ever used them. To me, this collection was indicative of not just being an artist, but also someone who was a student and steward of the art of composing and creating contemporary music. Perhaps he didn’t want these tools to be lost and he was holding them for some future use.
Like most artists, he appeared to be eccentric.
Our family at large, was not very well equipped to support an artistic lifestyle. Both of my parents, as was the case with Jay’s grandparents, had come from very humble beginnings in rural Tennessee. By today’s standards we could say they were born into poverty, and through tireless hard work had found their way to a middle-class existence.
Such a life doesn’t have much room for the perceived luxury or art, and these values are often passed along from generation to generation.
It seems to me that being poor is a condition many people may not be able to escape, and consequently, must accept. But, if by a series of events, good fortune and hard work, one escapes the clutches of poverty, that person never forgets what it was like to be hungry.
Such was the case of my parents, and most of my aunts and uncles. They were consciously aware of the cost of everything, and the ephemeral nature of comfort. In that mindset, there was little room for luxury, as luxury could easily be construed as opulence, and opulence was wasteful. Waste can be a horrible notion for someone who remembers what is was like to be without.
A very important component to the path that led my parents beyond the limitations they were born into was their religious convictions, and for the most part, this was consistent through my father's side of our family. This included Jay’s grandfather. Religious faith was a huge part of our upbringing. Fundamental religions expect a complete and total commitment. And for a large part, the reward for that commitment is the promise of a life in heaven.
Now the end game in this equation is the notion of eternal life, and by being devote, you could make it through the pearly gates. So from my perspective, this faith is driven by the promise of a personal reward. While at Jay’s gathering I found myself pondering faith in a much different way.
Anything beyond simple household decorations was just not a part of my upbringing. I am comfortable in saying this was surly accurately for my cousins as well.
For the most part, art was simply outside of the world we grew up in. That is not to say members of our family were not artistic, that is not the case at all. I am saying there was little to no understanding of how to support the pursuit of an art form and an artistic lifestyle.
Being an artist, does not allow room for much else. A great deal, if not everything, revolves around this calling.
Analyzing and trying to understand my own upbringing is exactly what made me feel so proud and emotional at Jay’s gathering. It was apparent that Jay was an artist and he had lived as an artist.
I have read numerous interviews and articles with, and about musicians and songwriters. Sometimes when they are asked why they do what they do, the answers range from, “This is my job”. to “I don’t know, it is something I have to do”.
I think there is something else at play and that is the unquantifiable, inherent belief that this thing called art may touch the lives of others and may make the world a better place. Maybe by bringing forth an emotion, pain, joy, sadness, or laughter, or creating motivation or hope, or maybe calling attention to good or evil, an artist might make the world a better place. I think this is the unspoken, and maybe un described faith of an artist.
Certainly there are intrinsic rewards associated with being an artist. Emotional rewards associated with the act of creating. Accolades given from people who appreciate the work. Maybe even some financial return on the hours of time and money invested in this pursuit. But when all of the dust settles, there is something else that compels and artist. Maybe it is simply faith.
A faith fuels the deep drive to make and create art that may on some scale, on some level, make the world a better place.
Maybe that is why Jay did what he did.
And looking around at the tremendous gathering of friends and colleagues, it was obvious, Jay’s art and lifestyle had enriched the lives of so many. It certainly enriched mine. I wished I known him.