By J.M. GARCIA | Uptown News
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, jazz musician Marcia Forman makes her way through the day center of St. Paul’s PACE, a medical program for senior citizens. Carrying a saxophone case in one hand and a satchel stuffed with songbooks in the other, she walks toward a piano, greeting patients as they eat lunch. Unpacking her saxophone, Forman runs a hand over the piano keys. A few of the agency’s patients gravitate toward her. One complains he ate too much.
“Are you full?” Forman asks unpacking her songbooks. “Me too. I had a big lunch.”
For nearly 12 years, as an adjunct professor for San Diego Community College Continuing Education Emeritus Program, Forman, 62, has played music for senior citizens in programs that provide physical rehabilitation and care for patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia.
She first played for the elderly at Windsor Gardens Convalescent Center of San Diego in 1985. She started with “Satin Doll” by Duke Ellington and noticed people tapping their toes and thought, “This is it. I want to bring people back. I want to make people happy.”
“What time do you start?” asks Travis, a patient at St. Paul’s PACE.
“One o’clock,” Forman tells him. “Should I play Thelonius Monk, ‘Round Midnight’?”
“One of our greatest players,” Travis replies. “I saw Charlie Parker at the Oakland Auditorium when I was 13 in 1948.”
“Wow,” Forman says.
“It was a long time ago,” Travis tells her.
Forman begins playing the clarinet, eyes closed, concentrating. The South Park resident hopes to bring back memories to her audience through songs they haven’t heard in years — memories of husbands and wives when they were young and dancing the jitterbug. “Sentimental Journey” is a favorite. So is “God Bless America.” “Downtown” by Petula Clark brings patients to their feet. Occasionally, they dance. Forman has updated her songbooks to include The Carpenters, The Beatles and other 1960s and 1970s bands. She sees more and more baby boomers among the patients. Like the men and women she entertains, her hair, too, has gotten grayer. Sometimes, she forgets a note in a song. Everyone is getting older.
“OK, guys,” Forman says when she finishes “Round Midnight,” “Christmas songs. ‘Tis the season, you know. Or, we could play jazz. Up to you.”
“Jazz,” a woman named Joy says.
“Twist my arm. How about ‘Stardust’?” Forman suggests. “It was my father’s favorite. The only song he could play.”
“Does he still play it?”
Forman points skyward.
“Up there and through me,” she says.
Forman grew up in New York state listening to jazz. She enjoyed its improvisational style and took up the saxophone when she was 10. She liked the sound of the instrument in the rock ’n’ roll songs she heard, the way its sound traveled, the different pitches and notes. In 1980, she moved to San Diego and worked at The Big Kitchen, a South Park restaurant her sister Judy had just bought at the time. Forman worked and participated in the jazz band of San Diego City College. She would later meet and marry Floyd Fronius, a violinist. These days, on Sunday mornings, Forman jams at the restaurant with The Marcia Forman Band, a group she formed in 2005.
Sometimes seniors drain her. Their frailty hits her. One day they’re here, the next they’re not. Like one 90-year-old man. He knew all the words of almost every song she played. “Carolina in the Morning” was a favorite. He’d get up and dance. He died in May. Just like that.
Forman knew an Alzheimer’s patient for 10 years before she was suddenly transferred to another facility. That was hard — a decade is a long time. Forman could still recall the details of the Filipino woman’s life: Her father had been a pilot for President Ferdinand Marcos.
“We haven’t done ‘Jingle Bells,’” Forman says. “We should at least do ‘Jingle Bells.’ You know, ‘dashing through the snow.’”
“Do you come tomorrow?” Travis asks.
“No, I’m here just on Mondays and Tuesdays.”
“It’s going to rain tonight.”
“I know, and I have a gig this evening. Darn it.”
Before she starts in on “Jingle Bells,” Forman noticed a woman she hasn’t greeted.
“What’s your name?”
“I’ve seen you for two days and I didn’t know your name. Nice to meet you.”
“My left hand is kind of numb.”
“Is it?” Forman says. “But you look good.”
“Yes, you do.”
In the mid 2000s, Forman would travel to New York to visit her parents, who were then in a nursing home. Friends played music for them and she would join them in renditions of “Sentimental Journey” and “You Are My Sunshine.” Whenever she plays “Misty,” she thinks of her mother. It was her favorite song.
When she completes “Jingle Bells,” a patient named Ed tells Forman that he has finished his rehabilitation.
“You’re leaving me?” Forman says.
“I can walk on my own now,” Ed says.
He stands to go.
“Wait,” Forman says. “Ed, you have to hug me.”
They embrace and she gives him a wide, encouraging smile. Back at the piano, she plays the Jimmy McHugh tune, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby.” A patient named Peggy starts singing. Forman believes she makes a difference. How much and for how long she can’t say. But when she’s with them, she makes them happy. And when they leave, they tell their families, “Marcia was here today.” Just when she thinks they’re not paying attention, they let her know they are. She can’t measure that, either, but they make a difference in her life, too.
The Marcia Forman band plays at The Blarney Stone Pub in Clairemont every other Tuesday and at The Big Kitchen every Sunday morning.
— J.M. Garcia is a freelance writer/photographer in San Diego. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.