[JPL] Terence Conley: A Long Road Back, but Not a Lonely One

Dr. Jazz drjazz at drjazz.com
Wed May 20 23:16:21 EDT 2009

May 17, 2009
A Long Road Back, but Not a Lonely One

With his wife's help, Terence Conley walked slowly toward a piano on a 
recent Thursday at the Jazz Foundation of America headquarters in Manhattan.

"Play something nice," Judith Conley told her husband as she eased him 
onto a piano stool.

Mr. Conley, 51, steadied his fingers above the keys, smiled across the 
room in the direction of his three children and began playing "Ruby, My 

"I'm glad he chose that tune," his wife whispered. "It's one of the 
hardest to play in all of jazz."

For Mr. Conley, a former member of the Count Basie Orchestra, tackling 
those difficult chords was another small but important step in his 
recovery from a September accident that nearly killed him.

Several months before, he had taken a job as a driver for Federal 
Express to earn some extra money --- decent-paying jazz gigs had been 
disappearing even before the recession.

"Things were drying up," Mr. Conley said softly. "I needed to feed my 

On Sept. 29, the day before he was to interview for a job teaching piano 
at Lincoln Center, Mr. Conley was driving his FedEx truck in Midtown 
Manhattan when he crashed into the back of a bus that he says had 
stopped abruptly. He sustained major head injuries and was deliberately 
put into a coma for more than a month by doctors at Bellevue Hospital 
Center in Manhattan who were trying to reduce swelling and stop the 
bleeding on his brain.

"We didn't know if or when he was going to wake up," Mrs. Conley said. 
"Either way, doctors were saying that he would eventually be sent to a 
nursing home."

Then one day at Bellevue, in mid-October, Mrs. Conley leaned over to 
kiss her husband.

"I'm so sad that this happened to you," she told him.

Though her husband could not speak, his answer came in the form of a 
teardrop that rolled down his cheek.

"He pointed to that teardrop as if to say 'I'm sorry, too,' " Mrs. 
Conley recalled through tears of her own. "I knew right then that he 
understood everything I was saying, and that he would continue to fight 
to get better."

Mrs. Conley, who met her husband at the Berklee College of Music in 
Boston (where they became friends with a rising saxophonist named 
Branford Marsalis), insisted her husband be sent to Mount Sinai Hospital 
in Manhattan, and not a nursing home, so he could receive therapy.

Her request was granted, and in the ensuing months, Mr. Conley began 
making remarkable strides.

"He came in here at just about point zero," Dr. Brian D. Greenwald, a 
physiatrist at Mount Sinai who specializes in brain injury 
rehabilitation, said of Mr. Conley. "It's incredible to see how much 
progress he has made."

Mr. Conley left the hospital on Jan. 13 and went home to the small 
apartment in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn, that he shares with 
his wife and children: Brandon, 16, Joralyssa, 11, and Christopher, 7. A 
few weeks later, he began feeling well enough to sit and play at his own 

"Other than my wife and children, I missed my piano the most," Mr. 
Conley said. "I look forward to the day when I can get back on stage again."

The Jazz Foundation of America, which has helped the Conleys pay roughly 
$9,000 in rent and other bills through a fund provided by the 
philanthropist Agnes Varis, staged a welcome-back party for him on April 
19 at St. Peter's Church in Midtown. The event brought together many of 
the musicians that Mr. Conley had performed with at the Blue Note and 
Birdland and other jazz clubs in New York in the past 20 years, 
including the pianist Barry Harris and Mr. Marsalis.

"Terence was always a beautiful guy and a talented musician," Mr. 
Marsalis said. "When you go to a conservatory, you're surrounded more by 
competitors than friends, but Terence and Judith were among the few real 
friends that I had back then."

On that recent Thursday, the Conley family had gone to the Jazz 
Foundation headquarters to meet Wendy Oxenhorn, the group's executive 
director. She has offered Mr. Conley the opportunity to begin performing 
again at nursing homes around the city as a dignified way of helping him 
pay his bills.

After their meeting, Mr. Conley went downstairs to the foundation's tiny 
performance hall, where he found musicians preparing for the 
organization's next fund-raiser: "A Great Night in Harlem," at the 
Apollo Theater. The piano was unoccupied, and Mr. Conley seized the 
moment. When he was done playing his last tune --- "It Could Happen to 
You" --- he walked off the stage and was greeted by another legendary 
saxophonist, Max Lucas, 99, who has performed with the likes of Louis 
Armstrong, Etta James, Muddy Waters, Dinah Washington and Thelonious Monk.

"He's a fine young piano player," Mr. Lucas said shortly after hugging 
Mr. Conley. "The jazz world needs him back."

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

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