Pops was my mentor, my friend, and like a second father to me. Many years ago, he told me that if I wanted to be a better singer, I should listen to more horn players. He gave me my first Sonny Rollins record and my first Shirley Horn record. He was a musical force of nature in my life, but there are so many people in this room today who are far more qualified than me to talk about Pops and his music. So I’m going to leave that to them. Rather than talk about Skipp Pearson the band leader, I’d like to talk about Skipp Pearson the man.
Pops was one of the biggest hearted, most selfless, genuine people I’ve ever known. He didn’t care about the color of your skin, which church you go to, or how old you are. He saw past the packaging of a person and looked directly into your soul. If he liked what he found there, he adopted you as his own. Whether you believed you were worthy or not, if Pops saw potential in you as a person, or as a player he made it his job to help you realize that potential and become the very best version of yourself.
I’ve always thought of Pops as an elegant man. He wore class and dignity and that incredible cool he had like a comfortable shirt. He had an effortless gravitas about him that commanded respect, without him ever having to ask for it. Yet somehow, his lack of ego, his quick humor, and his incredible soulfulness made him deeply relatable and accessible to us all. He was one of those rare people you could think of as both a hero and a friend at the same time. And he was certainly both to me.
Although Pops was an important influence on my life across almost two decades, we became especially close over the last five years. We spent a lot of time breaking bread together, talking about his hopes for jazz in Columbia, talking about the larger state of the world, and just listening to music in the comfort of one another’s company. We even had regular weekend breakfasts at my kitchen table. He’d ask me if I’d mind making him “some yellah grits and runny eggs” while he would tell me stories about his childhood, his time in the military, and about the struggle of being one of the first African American leaders of an integrated jazz band in South Carolina. And even though I was the one standing at the stove, we all know that Pops was the one who knew how to make a story sizzle when it hit the fat.
Pops was rarely sad, and he was never bitter. Not about the past, not about the present, not about losing his beloved wife Sandy, and not even about getting sick. He said once, “You know what the problem with people is today? They just don’t know how to suffer anymore.” What a deep thing to say. What a totally Pops thing to say. The grace and joy that Pops always navigated life with, in spite of his own suffering, stands as an example to us all. When I find myself upset about the small stuff, or becoming too self involved, I think about that.
Pops had a seeming endless supply of love and of hope. He believed in the fundamental goodness of people, and he wanted us all to see the world as he did. He saw us all as a collection of beautiful and unique souls to be nurtured. And he believed that we are all capable of rising above our baser instincts like selfishness, anger, and fear, if only he loved us enough, and we in turn, love each other enough.
Whether he meant to or not, Pops instilled that hope in me. And I believe that was the most important thing he ever taught me. Even as I have recently watched the world around us grow increasingly divided along racial and socioeconomic lines. Even at a time during which the public discourse has broken down to sound more like a shouting match. Even at a time during which any person of reason and empathy cannot help but fear that the world is moving backwards instead of forwards, I find that thanks to Pops, I remain optimistic. So I’d like to share with you today what Pops had to say to me about the current state of things because he would want his words to give you that same hope. Because it says so much about what a wise man he was. And because it speaks directly to profound his belief in unity through community…something he lived by example every day of his life.
Pops was having dinner with Sidney Mitchell and I, two of many of his adopted children. At the time Ferguson and Charleston Emanuel were all over the news. And we were talking about it together. Sidney and I both were feeling deeply saddened, and even a little hopeless. Sidney made the comment that with everything that was going on in the country, it felt like race relations were as bad as they had ever been. But Pops surprised us by saying that he was actually hopeful. We were both wondering how he could possibly feel that way. And he said something like, “I was around when they were turning fire hoses and dogs on peaceful protesters. I was around when I couldn’t drink from the same water fountain as you, Shelley. Believe me when I say that things are not the worst they’ve ever been.” Then he said, “You two need to have hope. Maybe y’all are too young to understand this, but you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs.”
I was kind of puzzled by that last part, so I asked him what he meant. He explained by saying something very similar to this, “During the civil rights movement, things got really ugly. They got ugly because the world was changing. But that change, that move towards what was right was an unstoppable force. And that kind of unstoppable change made a lot of people scared. And scared people do ugly things. Fear is a poison,” he said.
Pops went on to explain that the more those scared, angry people realized that this change was inevitable, the worse their behavior. Then he said, “If you think about it, right now it’s the same thing. And that’s exactly why you should have hope. Things are bad because we’re making progress. That’s the only way change can happen.”
He pointed out that America is getting more diverse. That young people don’t care so much about skin color. That an African American man was elected President, something he never thought he would see in his lifetime.
Then he reminded us that this all scares some people. People who can only build themselves up by tearing others down. People who aren’t sure they can succeed in a world where the deck is not stacked in their favor. “And so,” he said, “there’s some crazy stuff going on in this country right now. Because this movement in the direction of what is right is once again unstoppable. And that is cause for hope.” He concluded, “Y’all have to understand that we’re going to take some steps backward in order to move forward. Cause if we’re going to finish making this omelette, we’re gonna have to break some eggs.”
I will will remember this incredible conversation for the rest of my life. I think about it almost every day. And I think more than anything, that’s what Pops would want me to share with you today. His hope. He believed in us all so much. Often more than we believed in ourselves. He understood that the love he shared with us through his music, his mentorship, and even his smallest actions had immense power. And I think he wanted you all to understand that your music, your words, and your actions, can have just as much power as his did. And that is the beautiful potential that he saw in us all.
So I’ll conclude today with a quote from my dear friend, and one of Pops many other adopted children, Todd Edmunds. Todd can’t be with us today, but Pops was like a father to him and they played together for many years. The day he passed, Todd and I were together. We were talking about what he taught us. And as a musician brought up by Pops, I expected Todd to focus on what he taught him about jazz and about music. But instead Todd simply said, “Skipp taught me a lot of things…a whole lot of things. But probably the most important is that love is the biggest gun.”
We love you too, Pops. We celebrate you. And we thank you for understanding that changing the life of one person fundamentally changes the world. So when you leave here today, please carry his love and his hope out those doors with you inside your heart…because “Pops don’t stop.”
Skipp Pearson Going Home Remarks by Shelley Magee, 6-18-17