Saxophone Player, Injured By Stroke, Plays To Hospital Patients
BY JOANN KLIMKIEWICZ | COURANT STAFF WRITER
May 27, 2008
Ken Carter pushes a wire cart up the sloping, carpeted halls of St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center, keeping a bifocal watch on the zipped black case that rests inside. His shuffle is slow, a slight drag in his right leg.
"This carpet knocks me out," he says in his gravelly croon. Now 74, the Bloomfield resident suffered a stroke nearly 17 years ago that partially paralyzed his right side.
"Sometimes I think I'm movin' my feet," he says through a smirk, "and the shoe's still standin'."
Carter makes his way to the third floor of the Hartford medical center, parks his cart by the nurses' station and unzips the case with his left hand. Gently, he lifts out a tenor saxophone. He steadies the instrument between his thighs, then bends over to hook it to a strap around his neck.
He straightens to blow out a few test notes. Right hand curled stiff against his chest, his left fingers work an instrument specially modified for one-handed playing. Then, a nod to the patient room behind him. "What's the name? Can I get a name?"
The hospital's unofficial strolling troubadour is now on call.
Time was, Carter played the smoky blues clubs and jazz joints of New York City. These days his stage is a sterile hospital unit, his audience a bustling medical staff and their recovering patients. He serenades them five days a week at St. Francis or neighboring Mount Sinai Rehabilitation Hospital, bringing nurses and visitors to dance in the corridors, compelling toes to tap from under their bed linens.
"You can feel it — it just calms everything down when he comes," says Lyn Robitaille, a staff nurse working in the joint replacement unit during Carter's visit last week. "He perks people up and gets their mind off the pain."
But the sax player delivers a melody more profound than any you'll find in his music.
Carter first wrapped his hands around the curve of a saxophone at 14. Hearing a Big Band orchestra on the radio he asked his mother, "That — right there. What instrument was that?" A family friend brought his sax to the house and showed the young boy four notes. By the time the man returned a few hours later, Carter was playing "The Hucklebuck."
The Pittsburgh native never made his living as a musician. He worked day jobs to support his family while living in New York, playing most nights a week at clubs around the city before returning to Connecticut. After his stroke in 1991, he thought his days on the sax were behind him. And that was OK with him, he says.
"I had played for 42 years," says Carter, who has a black musical scale printed across the chest of his gray sweat shirt. "I couldn't be angry. I was just glad I had that 42 years."
But a year later, Carter walked into a music shop in West Hartford wondering if he couldn't teach himself to play an instrument more disposed to one-handed playing, like the trumpet or French horn. "You know, just to play 'Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star' or something like that for the kids." The owner told him he might not have to give up on the sax. He knew a shop owner in Hamden who had reconfigured two tenor saxes for disabled musicians. Maybe he could do the same for Carter?
But that owner, George Theodos, was reluctant to rework a third sax. It was a labor-intensive endeavor that had taken him as long as 11 months. "You have to create each key and mechanism by hand," he told The Courant in 1993. "You don't just throw one of these things together."
Theodos agreed to try to track down one of the existing instruments. He eventually found it in a Florida swap shop, where it had been sitting unwanted for years. Carter paid $350 to get the sax to Connecticut and Theodos made a few further adjustments without charge.
The day Theodos called to say the instrument was ready, "I went down there flyin'," says Carter.
He practiced up to eight hours a day, retraining himself to play left-handed on an instrument that calls on the pinkie finger to do the work of the right hand using a series of extension keys. In the beginning, he felt his right hand instinctively tug toward the sax. "I had to erase everything I knew," he says.
Back in the swing of things, he started playing locally. He sat in with bands in New Haven before performing at the international jazz festival in Montreal. In the mid-90s, he became a national spokesman for the American Heart Association.
"Oh, the people were goin' wild. They were goin' wild," Carter recalls of the audiences' reaction to his one-handed playing.
A former drug and alcohol counselor, Carter started volunteering at the hospitals, unofficially, not long after he got the hang of his new instrument. He fast became a staple there. So volunteer coordinators figured they'd make it official. For about 15 years now, he's been blowing strains of "Misty" through the halls, leaning bedside to encourage patients and walking his slow gait to catch the bus home to his wife, Quree. He uses a souped-up cane embellished with a bicycle horn, rearview mirror and tiny vanity license plate that reads "KEN."
Why the mirror?
"I didn't realize till after I put it on there that the ladies don't wear skirts and dresses like they used to," Carter delivers his well-rehearsed line.
Oh, yes — our white-haired jazzman is also a huge flirt.
Back in the joint replacement wing last week, Carter got a patient name: Vic. As it turns out, he's the same knee-replacement patient he played for the day before.
"Is Vic over there?" calls Carter, as he enters the hospital room.
"Hey Ken, buddy. Come on in," says Vic Paternos, 55, of Avon, smiling from a reclining chair just a day after surgery, and six weeks after having the procedure done on his other knee.
The musician asks for a request. "A Train," Paternos says.
"Let me see if I can do that. I probably have to slow down because I'll blow my hand off," he laughs.
A faulty start and then the slow, smooth notes come. His left hand works steady, his pinkie finger busy, his right hand stationary at the center of his chest. Paternos bobs his head, rapping his hands against the arm rest.
"Awesome. Absolutely awesome," says Paternos at the song's finish. "Thank you so much, Ken."
Carter blows a few more tunes before wishing Paternos well and shuffling on to the next patient.
"He put everything back in perspective," Paternos says once he's gone. "That someone can go through what he's gone through and do what he does? What am I worried about?"
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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