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Cecil Payne has proved to be one of the bebop era's strongest baritone saxophonists. Payne joined the most progressive big band of the era, Dizzy Gillespie's, where he made his reputation as a fluid player on a sometimes cumbersome instrument and played on the orchestra's groundbreaking recordings, including Cubano-Be/Cubano-Bop. Payne later freelanced in NYC with Tadd Dameron and Coleman Hawkins, and later working with the Illinois Jacquet.
About nine years ago, Cecil had gone into seclusion because his eyesight was failing due to severe glaucoma, which could have been prevented if he'd had access to proper health care. He didn't reach out to friends for help because he had been a strong and independent man all his life, and he "didn't want to bother anyone." One night Jazz bassist Ron Carter ran into Wendy Oxenhorn at a club in Harlem and said, "I'm worried about Cecil. No one has seen him in a year."
The next day Wendy called Cecil and spoke with him. He said he was "fine" and didn't need any help. He admitted that he had been going blind. When Wendy asked him how he managed to shop and cook for himself, he confessed that he could only walk as far as the local corner 7-11. He had been living off two cans of SlimFast and a package of M & M's a day for over a year and a half. After hearing that, Wendy tried to tell him that they could at least get "Meals on Wheels" delivered to his home, and he'd get a wonderful meal each day. Cecil wouldn't hear of it. He hung up the phone immediately. The next day, Wendy called him again and said, "Cecil, I was up all night worried about you - please would you let us try the Meals on Wheels just once." "Well, I don't want you to worry about me…actually...Meals On Wheels…sounds cool," he said slowly in his Cecil way, "Meals...on Wheels..."
As it turned out Cecil loved the Meals on Wheels. He called up Wendy the next day and told her, "The volunteer was so nice, and the food was great. I forgot greens were green!"
Because of these nutritious meals, his health improved. He came out of seclusion and started to play again in New York City at Smoke with Eric Alexander, Harold Mabern, Joe and John Farnsworth, John Weber and others he loved dearly. We were able to help Cecil in other ways too. We looked into housing organizations for the blind and got him a home health aide to help him out with laundry and shopping. When he discovered he had liver cancer, we were able to help him with his medical needs as well.
Payne had remained highly active during the decades since; even though his eyesight had begun to fail him, his songful sax, flowing lines, and warm tone remained fully intact well into his 80's.
Cecil had the chance to play the Jazz Foundation's Annual "A Great Night In Harlem" benefit concert at the Apollo Theater, where he was reunited with many old friends like Quincy Jones, Ron Carter, Frank Foster, Freddie Hubbard, Candido, Ray Baretto, Clark Terry, Frank Wess and many others. You would have thought he was 25 again if you had seen his face light up when being reunited with his peers.
After this, Cecil found time to perform in the local nursing homes in the Somerdale area, entertaining elderly patients for free. When it became time for Cecil to enter an assisted living situation, we were able to facilitate a smooth transition for Cecil to move into a very good nursing home in Stratford. Never complaining about the pain of his cancer, just the same optimistic Cecil who would say, "The Sun is up and so am I...it's a good day."
In 2007, Cecil said to Wendy, "I want to go home." He said he was tired and ready. He said, "It's time to go." He passed at 6:30 AM on November 27th. He did not die alone. Bucky, his friend and landlord, called to say "He's gone." The sun came up this morning and Cecil rose with it.
Cecil Payne was one of the truly great human beings on this Earth. His positive attitude and his endlessly optimistic nature, no matter how bad things were, always got you a "It is what it is" and "Everything is Everything" and never a complaint or a negative word was uttered from his mouth. The Earth is a little emptier from his passing.
"I was going blind and couldn't see to shop or cook. I was living on two cans of SlimFast a day for over a year and a half. The Jazz Foundation saved my life."