Hundreds of people had flocked to pay their respects and offer tribute at the May 2 memorial service for Claude "Fiddler" Williams. He was one of the last members of the pioneering generation of jazz greats to fade away, some fifty years after Charlie Parker burned out.
Negro Leaguer Buck O'Neil offered a testimonial. Myra Taylor belted out "Sunny Side of the Street" from her wheelchair. A band played "Moten Swing," and a crowd bid farewell to Fiddler as he lay in a coffin with a violin embroidered on its lid. There were acquaintances and admirers. Politicians and musicians. Friends and family.
I was, at best, a voyeur -- at worst, a vulture, an interloper clinging to the periphery of a solemn moment, trying to squeeze some sort of universal significance from the passing of a man who was, by virtually all accounts, an incredibly kind person and phenomenally talented musician.
I didn't know Claude "Fiddler" Williams. But those who did described him as an "ambassador," a "magnificent friend" and a "small man with a big heart." He was also one of the last living links between this city's glorious past and its tenuous future.
"Jazz wasn't born in Cleveland," Kansas City, Missouri, City Councilwoman Saundra McFadden-Weaver told the congregation. "Jazz wasn't born in Chicago. Jazz wasn't born down in Georgia. Jazz was born right here in Kansas City."
And, apparently, this is where it came to die.
"The good Lord needed the Fiddler to join the big band," McFadden-Weaver continued, looking to the heavens. "To join Count Basie and Jay McShann in the big band in the sky ... And believe me, that band is singing up there today."
It was a touching, heartfelt sentiment. The idea that he was a member of the heavenly choir might have come as a surprise to McShann, though. Particularly because the aging pianist, singer and bandleader was still very much alive, standing on the front steps of the St. Louis Catholic Church the next day, smiling for photos with admirers after Fiddler's funeral mass.
But you'll have to forgive the councilwoman. It's hardly outrageous to assume that the last breath of the original "Kansas City sound" left with the Fiddler. Plenty of other people appeared to be more knowledgeable about McShann's status but no less fearful for his art form's fragile future -- McShann patiently posed for a good 15 minutes on the church steps as snapping disposable cameras frantically captured the next last jazz legend before he really does join that big big band.
There are others. You could scarcely swing a cane at Fiddler's memorial service without hitting a stooped and graying man braying on a saxophone. In fact, many of the aging greats -- including McShann and Taylor -- will perform at the annual Coda Jazz Fund benefit concert this Saturday at the Gem Theater.
But it's hard to imagine that there's anybody left who embodied the spectrum as completely as Fiddler. He had that genuine pedigree. He was practically cradling a guitar in the womb. He served tours of duty with McShann, Basie, Nat "King" Cole and others in the sizzling speak-easies of Kansas City past. He would go on to rosin up his bow around the world for kings and presidents in palatial mansions, immaculate arenas and dingy clubs. Fiddler lived a full life with a cigarette in one hand, a glass of Hennessey in the other and a song in his soul. He had a 96-year run despite, as Father Donald Farnan remarked at Williams' funeral mass, "doing absolutely nothing that he was supposed to do, except love life."
It's easy to call his passing the death of an era.
Maybe it is. But maybe it's also the beginning of another. Soon after the last strains of Taylor's triumphant "Sunny Side of the Street" had finished echoing through the memorial service, another singer calmly took the microphone, cleared her throat and let loose with a soaring version of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot."
I didn't catch her name. I didn't recognize her face. But the girl, who didn't look a second over 16, still brought down the house.