Updated: Jun 30, 2022
It was at the Mt. Fuji Jazz Festival, where Steps Ahead had a reunion gig on Aug. 29, 2003, that Michael Brecker complained of intense back pain after the gig. As Mike’s manager Darryl Pitt, a one-time editorial photographer who was a staffer at Rolling Stone and contributor to DownBeat as well as the official photographer of the Montreux Jazz Festival, recalled for my book, Ode to a Tenor Titan: The Life and Times and Music of Michael Brecker, "Mike’s back was hurting before the gig. As I had back surgery twice by that point, we went through all the stretches and routines at the hotel spa in the effort to create relief. And Mike made it into a game as to when he felt better and when he didn’t. So we made it to the concert and he was feeling a bit better. But then by the end of the show, it wasn’t right. Something was very wrong with Mike."
Brecker flew back home from Japan and though he was still experiencing some back pain, he put off having it looked at for a few days in order to attend a ceremony on Sept. 3, 2004 at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, where he received an honorary doctorate of music degree for his outstanding contributions to contemporary music. Back in New York, Michael’s friend and former road manager Jerry Wortman picked him up in Hastings-on-Hudson and took him to Columbia Presbyterian hospital, where an MRI revealed a cracked vertebra. It was later repaired and he was told that he could resume his busy schedule of performing, composing and recording after a period of recuperation. But as Pitt noted, “When a bone breaks without any associated trauma, red flags go up.”
Michael’s injury would sideline him through the month of September, forcing him to cancel five nights in Moscow at Le Club from Sept. 18 - 22 with the Brecker Brothers. Looking back on this period, which was before Brecker’s diagnosis of myelodysplastic syndrome, Pitt said, "We knew Mike was sick, but we didn’t know with what. It was becoming increasingly problematic and I was getting really depressed."
Around that time, Pitt flew out to the West Coast to check in with another client of his, Grammy Award-winning singer Dianne Reeves, who had a part in George Clooney’s movie Good Night and Good Luck that was shooting in Los Angeles. "And I brought my camera because I was a set photographer on a lot of films in my earlier life," he recalled. "I even asked Clooney if it was OK to bring my camera, and he jokingly said, 'No problem. You can take pictures of the flowers.' Of course, I said, 'Flowers? I don't like to photography flowers. I'm more interested in shooting in Death Valley.'
Unbeknownst to Pitt, there had just been record rainfall in Death Valley -- three times more than the normal spring rainfall — and the result was an explosion of wildflowers. "And I was like, 'Oh shit, it's covered in flowers? I don’t want to see flowers in Death Valley.' But I went there anyway, and it was one of most remarkable things I’d ever seen. So I took photos of the flowers but they really didn't work out right. I wasn't please with the images."
Later on in a phone chat with his main client back in New York, Pitt got an odd request. "Mike said knew I had gone to Death Valey and he said, 'Send me photos.' But I told him, 'No, because they stink.' And they did stink, to my eye."
Filming for Goodnight and Good Luck took place another week, and the following weekend Pitt went back to Death Valley, obstensibly to shoot more photos there. "And again, Mike saId, 'Send me some photos,' so I did," recalled Pitt. "And even though they were a bit better, they still really stunk, in my opinion. So I told him, 'Mike, some of the world’s greatest photographers come here every year and do this shit. Go online and look at this stuff -- it’s amazing, it’s mind boggling, it’s extraordinary. You can see all these great photos online.' But Mike says, 'But I want to see what YOU'RE doing.' And I say, 'Mike, I’m not going to let you see them because I have too much pride in what it is I’m doing, and it stinks.'”
Pitt fly home to New York and ended up assisting Michael check into Sloan Kettering Memorial Hospital. As he recalled, "Mike, Susan, myself and a nurse were in Michael's hospital room and we’re putting posters on the walls, and Mike goes, 'I want flowers.' And I looked at him like 'What?' And then he says, 'I think I’m about to enter my own Death Valley and I want it to be covered with flowers.' I said, 'Really? You’re gonna play the death card on day one, are you? We’re just checking into the place, just to figure out what the hell's wrong with you, and you’re playing the death card already?' And we all started laughing."
Later that night, Pitt made an important discovery. "I rode my bike past this flower garden in Riverside Park that I had passed a thousand times before but never paid attention to, and it suddenly gave me an idea." The following morning, Pitt too his camera and went back to flower garden like a man on a mission. "I thought, 'I’m not going to leave this garden until I take some photos that are OK.' Afterwards, I went back to the office, printed out one photo and went over to Sloan Kettering to put them on Mike's wall. And Mike said, 'I really like that. I want another.' I wasn't expecting that, but if it gave my friend some pleasure, great."
While taking these artsy closeups of the brilliantly colored wild flowers growing in the small neighborhood garden in Riverside Park, Pitt considered the wisdom of Robert Elswit, an Academy award winning director of photography who was working as PD on the set for Goodnight and Good Luck. "He shot the film in a very small set and I was blown away by how creative he was in a really small area," said Pitt. "I told him as much and he said, 'One of the great joys and satisfactions in life is to discover possibilities when you think you're in a confined space, whether it’s making a film or in your personal life or whatever artistic endeavor it is that you’re doing. We all think of ourselves as being in a smaller space and what joy it is to find new possibilities.' So I decided, because Mike was confined to a small space in that hospital room, that I was going to confine myself to this small garden and just explore possibilities and get great pictures of flowers for Mike’s wall."
It became a daily discipline, like his mantra. As Pitt explained, "This thing began to grow and I began to get better at it. Now it’s 15 years later and I’m still spending time in that garden. For 'The Nearness of You' concert, which would raise many millions of dollars in Mike's name, the only motif that is used are the pictures that I took in this same small garden in Riverside Park.
So the fascinating thing is — and this would make Mike so happy — is that I stopped photography because of him, but I started it again because of him. And the flower photography has now become a thing. And it’s all because of Mike. All of it. I don’t know if it’s something preternatural, but he knew how to help people in a way in which they would be able to elevate themselves and make life better. It was a gift."
(All photos by Darryl Pitt. For more samples of his ongoing series of flower photos from the small garden in Riverside Park, check out his One Flower at a Time Instagram site: https://www.instagram.com/onefloweratatime/?hl=en)