…by Prill Boyle

When life veers from the script, why not improvise? That\’s what sixty-year old Keni Washington did. Literally.

I first met Washington in October of 2003 on a United Airlines flight from Indianapolis to San Francisco. Wearing a black turtleneck and carrying a tenor sax, he stood out from the throng of business travelers and Midwestern moms. He looked intelligent and intense in a gentle sort of way, and I thought to myself, I hope that man sits next to me. And to my delight, he did.

As soon as we settled into our seats, we began talking and didn\’t stop until the plane landed. We chatted about politics, philosophy, and music. I told him about the book I was writing on late bloomers; he told me about his own midlife career change. In May of 2005 I traveled to Indianapolis to interview him in depth. One of these days I might write a Defying Gravity sequel and tell the whole story, but for now, here\’s an abbreviated version:

At 21, while still an undergraduate philosophy major at Stanford University, Washington married a brilliant and beautiful fellow student named Charlotte. In 1967 they had a son together. A year later, his jazz quintet Smoke was invited to perform at the Berkeley Jazz Festival. Rolling Stone magazine reviewed the concert and gave a nod to his performance. That same year, he put out his first album. He was only 23 years old.

The following May, Washington produced his own music festival. Duke Ellington and Herbie Hancock were on the bill. Red Foxx was the M.C. Washington\’s future as a jazz musician seemed bright. But less than a month after the concert, Charlotte was killed by a drunk driver in a tragic car accident. (Even now, almost forty years later, Washington\’s eyes well up as he describes what happened that day.) Washington was left with his grief and an 18-month old son to raise alone. Unable to work nights and go on tour, he stopped playing music altogether.

Eventually Washington remarried (more than once) and had another child. For the next two decades, he focused on supporting his family, first working in electronics and later in real estate development.

Then in September of \’88, he traveled to his hometown of Indianapolis to be with his dying grandmother. He only planned on staying a short while; but as his grandmother lingered on, he settled in, leaving his business partner in San Francisco to look after his real estate interests.

During those months at his grandmother\’s, Washington picked up the tenor sax again and started noodling around on it. One day he looked in the mirror and said, Keni, you\’re back. The musician self that he\’d abandoned when Charlotte was killed had reemerged! Deciding to stay in Indianapolis and work on his music, he called his partner to break the news that he was opting out of their real estate ventures.

In 1989, at the age of 43, Keni Washington came back onto the jazz scene. When he first starting playing sax again, he didn\’t think it would possible to make up the twenty years he\’d lost. “If someone had told me I could, I wouldn\’t have believed it,” he said. But that\’s exactly what he did. Today he leads the Keni Washington Quintet and the Omniverse Jazz Symphonia, receiving glowing reviews for his 1997 album Eronsonata.

“Life isn\’t a rehearsal for something else,” Washington quips. “This is it.”