BOOGIE WOOGIE: Composer and pianist Harold Kaufman at his Georgetown home

My friend Harold Kaufman gave me a lot of advice over the years. The most important was, “stick to Boogie Woogie.”
He might have first delivered that advice between sets at the jazz club in Washington’s Georgetown, where we had met, and where he played the piano every Tuesday night. It might have been in a chat aboard a golf cart, in one of Harold’s several unsuccessful attempts to teach me the game. It might have been on a lunchtime stroll through one of his haunts in the drug- and violence-wracked neighborhood of Washington’s Anacostia. This is a neighborhood on which I wrote a story 20 years ago after statistics proved it to be the “murder capital of the United States.”
It was – and is – intimidating to most outsiders, even the cops. Not to Harold, who reveled in the beauty of its parks where he knew each down-and-outer by name. In fact, Harold and I once went swimming in the Anacostia River where it meets the Potomac, which most people who live in Washington would say is impossible. Not Harold.
But let me get back to the importance of Boogie Woogie, the piano-based blues of the 1930s and early 1940s. It was about 1945 as I recall Harold’s story. He would have been 12 or 13 and the promise he was showing toward classical music earned him a recital before the director of New York’s famous Julliard music school.
The recital, Harold recounted to me a half century later, took place at the music director’s home. He described a cavernous apartment in mid-town Manhattan, the living room so large it accommodated two grand pianos, placed face-to-face alongside a balcony window overlooking Central Park. The stern music director gave Harold a sheet from Chopin; Harold remembered the name of the work, but I do not.
Harold played it. He felt he did quite well. And then the music director asked, “What do you like to play?”
“I told him, ‘I like to play Boogie Woogie,’” Harold recalled. “He then said, ‘then stick to Boogie Woogie,’ and the classical recital was over. And so I did.”
What little I know about jazz today, I know from Harold, who recorded several albums. Or from his friends, such as the jazz legend Shirley Horn, who joined us for dinner once after Harold took me to hear her sing.
But I learned so much more on our outings and adventures, which ranged from a raid of sorts on a Republican Party convention to a yacht trip down Chesapeake Bay to an impromptu concert at the Istanbul Hyatt Hotel after Harold commandeered the piano on a trip here last year with his wife Susan.
His lessons were many. From the philosophy of France’s Michel Foucault to the politics behind the Bay of Pigs invasion to the relative merits of varying brands of snow tires, there was little that fell outside Harold’s range of curiosity. And he taught me about family.
Once, in response to a query from someone about our friendship, I responded that my relationship with Harold and Susan was a “post-modern concept of family.” Harold quickly corrected me that “pre-modern” would be more accurate. What followed was a discourse on the theories explaining “Creole” languages. You see, Harold explained, when people from totally different language groups are put together without a common language, as results from the chaos of war or slavery, they manage to invent a new language from linguistic shards of what they already knew. Haiti’s French Creole is an example. Family was a concept much like this before the Industrial Revolution necessitated the “nuclear family” for purposes of production, he argued.
It was through this chaos-based process of family-building that we met. It was a difficult time in my life, and another friend-turned-family member, the filmmaker-turned-lawyer-turned-satellite owner Gregg Daffner appeared at my apartment to cheer me up.
He insisted I join him on a mission to a jazz club. I almost didn’t go. My life changed because I did. I had a brief chat with the piano player on his break. After the music, to my surprise, Harold and Susan invited me for a nightcap back at their house, four stories of brick, modern art, Susan’s photography and a grand piano around the corner in Georgetown.
This was just the start of a conversation that began to reveal the full depth of the piano player. A lawyer, he had finished Harvard Law School in the early 1950s. Upon graduation, he decided medicine might be more interesting. And he decided to do it in French, enrolling in the Free University of Brussels in Belgium. Jazz paid the bills and he wound up running the U.S. pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World Fair. Ultimately he was to transfer back to the United States. He earned his medical degree from the University of California in San Francisco, where he did his residency in psychiatry.
All those pedigrees, and Harold’s years of work at the confluence of the legal and mental health systems, is really a distinct and separate story. Part of it is a story of an attorney whose stature as a lawyer was undiminished by his disregard for lawyers. Part of it is the story of a physician who was a better one because of the contempt in which he held the health care system. He taught me that there is honor in all such dichotomies. He composed his own music, as he composed his own life. Our story was simply one of an abiding friendship.
That friendship endured my departure from Washington with trips back and forth for both of us. Harold was also there when I made the decision to leave journalism in 2000. And when in 2004 I found myself considering a return to the profession I had so decidedly left behind, Harold again recounted the story of the recital in 1945. Said Harold: “Newspapers are your Boogie Woogie. Stick to it.”
And so I did. And so I am here. And so I write of Harold, whose great heart gave out last week. His funeral is today, Saturday, in Washington. My own heart goes out to Susan. And to their son Nikolas, a composer himself in New York. I can’t be there. But I can listen to the late Shirley Horn and to Harold, at some hour around the time of a memorial service that I know will be packed. And I will hoist a glass to so dear a departed friend. Everyone has their own kind of Boogie Woogie. It is usually friends who help us find it.
Here’s to Harold. Here’s to Boogie Woogie.