In 2009 my brother and I were invited to attend the National Alliance on Mental Illness, (NAMI) Conference in San Francisco. It is funny how every time I would share that with someone, they would only hear “San Francisco.” Most would be happy and excited that I went there, yet they didn’t have an understanding of what it took to be there with my brother. To put it in perspective, when Steve Lopez first told Nathaniel he was invited to attend and possibly play, he was extremely excited and did not ask many questions. About a week out my brother asked Steve, “If they were still going”? AND then the big question, “What does NAMI stand for?” Steve thought nothing of it and responded with, “National Alliance on Mental Illness,” I was told that suddenly my brother’s entire demeanor changed and he didn’t want to have anything to do with it. All he heard was, “mental illness.“
I had my flight booked, hotel accommodations, and everything else planned. I was even going to surprise him with meeting one of his favorite composers, Ernest Bloch’s great grandson! I had been communicating with Peter Bloch via email and maybe one or two calls. But that surprised could have all been washed away with the change of heart and mind my brother had. Who during this time was very resistant to excepting the reality of his health. Hearing the words “mental illness,” whether they were meant for him or anyone sent him into behavior that was sometimes very bizarre and usually into a reaction that he would later be apologizing about.
I mentioned to Peter that my brother and I would be in San Francisco and he said, “That is where I am!” So of course I invited him to attend the conference. Peter first noticed the story of Nathaniel during the 60 Minutes interview where my brother along with JoAnn Pierce Martin, (Pianist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra) played along with him. As they began my brother said, “Schelomo,” which Peter stated, “stopped him in his tracks.” That was his Great Grandfather’s work. He stopped, listened and contacted me.
I arrived in San Francisco first, realizing that my brother’s arrival was still “up in the air.” I did not know until Steve called me that they were on the way. Steve drove my brother from Los Angeles to San Francisco allowing him to – play his trumpet OUT THE WINDOW! God bless that man.
I was really very nervous, I walked around checking out the displays in the hotel and of course no one knew me and could care less about one other person standing in the lobby.
Finally, in walks Nathaniel, Steve had gone to park his car. He came in with this look on his face as if to say, “what is this all about and don’t touch me!” “Get back!” He did see me but it didn’t seem to matter. He was too occupied with the acronym “NAMI.” Then people began to approach him and I heard comments like, “Hey, that’s Nathaniel Ayers.” “Mr. Ayers, may I have your autograph?” “Mr. Ayers, will you take a picture with me?” “Mr. Ayers, what a pleasure to meet you!” He began to relax and realize that no one was there to offer any negativity or judgement about him, they were there to appreciate him and accept who he was, right where he was, at that time. After about an hour of that, I saw a new man. A man who was not used to being respected and he was humbled by the attention. The entire time we were there he was greeted with open arms. He played the next night in the ballroom after a screening of the movie and received a standing ovation, it was then that I saw how touched he really was. He had tears in his eyes.
After his performance, which was not perfect, a long line formed of people who just wanted to meet him, to get an autograph or to take a photo with him, they just wanted to get close and in their own way show him how much they cared. That is when he met Peter and was extremely pleased in knowing that the great grandson of Ernest Bloch had come to meet him, as well. It was overwhelming for the both of us, yet I was full of gratitude. Suddenly, a young man walks up and slaps music on the table and begun to ask questions about the music sheets and for Nathaniel’s opinion. I was so proud of the calmness Nathaniel had, at what first appeared to be almost confrontational. The young man’s name was Will. After his barrage of questions, he said as he looked at me, “he is just like me, Mr. Lopez can do a story about my life.” My response to him was, “He has.” Then Will turned to Nathaniel and said, “Mr. Ayers, I’d like to play with you.” Nathaniel replied with, “sure, ok” with a little hesitation. As they walked toward the piano in the ballroom we learned that we could not stay there we had to go to another location and so we did.
The two people who NEVER met each other began to play, Will and Nathaniel.
They could “Hear The Music,” coming from each other’s heart. You see, Will shared a little of his story. And for the first time I saw my brother “step back,” to listen to the struggle of someone else. What really touched me was the respect that they had for each other, which they did not express to each other in words, but through music. Will said to me “I have never known anyone who can improvise so perfectly and make it work.” The next day, when my brother realized he would not see Will again, they had to hit the road after breakfast, he said, “That guy was an amazing pianist. I hope to play with him again.” I attempted to stay in touch with Will, but was unsuccessful. I pray he had and has support, he was at the conference with his mother and my heart went out to her.
We (Steve, Nathaniel, Peter and I) met that morning in the lobby and headed off walking down the streets of San Francisco, where my brother had such a great time inside the hotel. Then we got to our breakfast location, Nathaniel attempted to go in first, we were still standing outside. The waiter stopped him and asked, “what do you want?” In a very harsh tone. My humble brother said, “I’m with them,” and pointed to us. I realized at that moment what happened and immediately wanted to defend him. Instead we walked in, sat down and looked at the menu. I was not comfortable I was hurting for my brother, knowing that this was NOT the first time he had gone through that.
As we waited other conference attendees began to come in and approached our table to speak with Nathaniel and express their gratitude, wanting an autograph on a napkin or take a photo with him. We found out a little later, that the man who was ready to turn my brother away was the owner and waited on our table, but for some reason he had a completely different attitude and he was much nicer. “No Words Necessary,” there either.