His life touched countless others, maybe even your own, yet most of you won't recognize his name.
Charles David Eastman.
Well, I guess that is a bit formal -- especially for a banjo player.
Maybe that's why everybody called him Chuck.
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Anyway, between 1970 and 1979, you could find Chuck down at Shakey's Pizza Parlor in Modesto -- plunkin' and chunkin' and strummin' -- most every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night.
And, when the mood struck him, he'd play some trumpet, too.
Eventually, Shakey's would close its doors but Chuck was just getting started.
He would help anchor rhythm sections of several popular valley-based "trad" bands (also known as New Orleans and/or Dixieland) including Tuleburg Jazz Band, Creole Jazz Kings and Catsnjammer Jazz Band.
The ebullient sound that characterizes trad jazz suited Chuck perfectly.
No one I've met was blessed with more optimism or a more zestful enthusiasm for life than Chuck.
I never saw his optimism waver, nor his zest for living diminish -- even when he was told that a malignant tumor had invaded his brain. Chuck didn't have time for self-pity.
So, the chilly rain that fell Tuesday afternoon outside Lakewood Funeral Chapel seemed especially out of place.
Equally out of place was the banjo -- Chuck's banjo -- sitting silently in its stand, just to the right of his flag-draped coffin.
I half expected to see Chuck come walking out and, grinning ear to ear, pick up that darn thing and start strummin' something, like the chords to "Old Bones."
Trumpeter Gene Berthelsen, leader of the Catsnjammer Jazz Band, would quote the piece in his eulogy to his friend:
But I love life, I'd like to live it again
Though I might not be much more than I've ever been
Just to have the chance to turn back the hands
And let my life begin
Oh yeah, I'd like to do it again
Oh yeah, I'd like to do it again
Berthelsen reminded everybody that Chuck had returned to the band just four weeks after undergoing surgery to remove the tumor. And, in the time Chuck had left, he spent more time playing with the band than any other member.
Suddenly, every bad banjo joke I'd ever heard -- or would want to hear -- flooded my consciousness.
Do you know what's the difference between a lawn mower and a banjo?
That's right. You can tune a lawn mower.
So, you drop an accordion and a banjo from the top of the Empire State Building. Which one hits the ground first?
I know. I know. Those jokes ARE older than dirt.
My eyes wandered off to the right, and there was Chuck -- or rather, a large portrait of Chuck -- banjo in hand and grinning from ear to ear.
Feeling just a bit uneasy, I smiled back.
Berthelsen moved away from the podium and picked up his trumpet, joining a small group of Chuck's friends -- musicians all. They began playing in the traditional New Orleans style.
I listened for the banjo.
My eyes returned to Chuck's portrait and I smiled again. My toes were tapping inside my right shoe.
It was the music, more than the words -- as beautiful and inspirational and heartfelt as those words were -- that connected us to Chuck and each other.
The same music he had shared at Shakey's all those years ago, not to mention a multitude of clubs and jazz festivals throughout California, across the nation and around the world.
It's the kind of music that grabs a group of strangers and rearranges them into the closest of friends.
So, it should come as no surprise that when the band kicked up the tempo -- New Orleans-style -- on the gospel standard "A Closer Walk With Thee," even the rain paused to listen Tuesday afternoon.
For a few moments, sunshine washed away the tears. The sun bolt grew in intensity and then faded away.
Before long, though, the gray gloom and chilly rain reclaimed the day. It didn't matter.
Tears welled. I grinned, ear to ear.
At 66, your music stopped far too soon.
But your gift doesn't end in a plot of earth. It remains here, alive with optimism and hope and your zestful enthusiasm for life.
Mike Mooney's column appears every Friday in Local News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2384.