by Jonathan Widran
When youre a music journalist, a lot of musicians like to consider you their friend. The joke goes that as long as the reviews are good, they love you. You run into them here and there, mostly at shows or parties, exchange some nice words and move on. But my friendship with Steve Veale was different. Before I met him, I had given his 1995 Farenheit Records disc City Steps a positive review in my Jazziz Contempo column. Once we were best friends, I came up with chipper sticker copy for his A Tropical Christmas CD, and then later called his last release, 1999s Urban Oasis, one of the best albums of the new year.
But music - and discussions about smooth jazz, the genre he worked so hard to be successful in - was only one of the things that bonded us. There was spirituality, there was this mutual love for life and traveling adventures, but his greatest gift was humor. I got married briefly and I could think of no one else for my best man. He encouraged me through the hard times. When he passed away after a two year battle with melanoma on January 20, I wrote a eulogy which tried to capture every facet of Steve and all the things we shared. I did some of his best pop culture imitations, and got a few laughs at a funeral which played more like a big celebration for someone who simply couldnt be there physically. One of the neighbors told his mom he really enjoyed it. Not many people say that about funerals, but that was in keeping with Steves spirit. He enjoyed life to the fullest. As his mom told the Orlando Sentinel obituary writer, he lived more in 38 years than most people do in 78.
Because our friendship transcended the music which brought us together - we first met when his old guitar teacher, Ken Navarro, invited me to review his show in Florida which was recorded for a CD and video project called Ablaze in Orlando - I didnt really take the time to listen much to his music beyond a few run throughs for the reviews. His struggles breaking through to larger acceptance in a genre he jokingly sometimes called snooze jazz (for the narrow, often repetitive playlists of some stations) sometimes discouraged him, but he kept trying. He was always working around Orlando and had a thriving gig teaching music to kids in his converted garage - a vocation which he ultimately found much more rewarding than simply making records. He was also involved in a local camp for terminally ill children called Give Kids the World. As the headline in his obituary said, his forte was compassion. His courage, strength and gratitude in the midst of his illness taught me amazing lessons about how to both live and love. He truly had a wonderful life and felt very fortunate. As a result, I saw him as a person first and musician and composer second.
Only now do I realize these amazing gifts I so often overlooked because - especially after he was diagnosed - they seemed of lesser importance at the time. Since his passing, the tunes on his five CDs (also including My Imagination and Blue Horizon, released on his indie label Sunspot Records) are to me like serenades from heaven, reflections of his spirit which he generously left behind. He played keyboards, electric and acoustic guitar effortlessly and once described his composing ability as a constantly running faucet. The tracks Paradise Dance (from Blue Horizon), Road Trip (a joyful fusion explosion mixing lighthearted pop with intense improvisational energy) and Arizona Highways (a lush, new agey meditation also from My Imagination) have become favorites. The upbeat, intense energy of his life shines through. Other favorites are the fluffy and tropical Banana Man and the soothing romance Youre The One from City Steps. Angies Dream from Urban Oasis is a mystical flavored piece dedicated to one of his local musical partners and friends; he and Angie formed a tandem called Duo Bolero, which worked quite regularly around Central Florida. It was also hard to resist his covers of Reminiscing, One Hundred Ways and Low Rider. Had I heard My Imagination in the year he released it (1997), it most likely would have made my Top Ten. Yes, even before Id met him!
Born in Washington DC, Steve grew up in Rockville, Maryland, where he and a then-unknown singer named Tori Amos were named the two outstanding graduating seniors from Richard Montgomery High School in 1981. He received a degree in classical music from Towsen College and a Masters in Jazz studies form North Texas State University in Denton, Texas. He later did additional graduate work in Ethnomusicology at Florida State and Music Education at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.
When people we love pass away, were always looking for special things to remember them by, to keep them alive in spirit. I can think of no greater gift than the gift of music for those blessed with the talent to make it and make it as well as Steve Veale. Borrowing from Reverend Lovejoy, one of his favorite characters from The Simpsons, Steve liked to say about his life, It s all good. Thats how his music makes people feel. He wasnt the best known smooth jazz dude on the scene, but the passion was there. It lives on.
Added: February 9, 2002