On Unexpectedly Early Retirement, and All that Jazz

A Florida neurologist had to improvise when an injury forced his early retirement more than 20 years ago. Since then, he's built a second career bringing jazz to music lovers of all ages.

Play the word association game with retired neurologist Ronald Weber, MD, of Plantation, FL (near Fort Lauderdale), and if the clue was “downbeat,” you might get a couple of very different answers.

On the one hand, he might have become fundamentally downbeat—emotionally negative—after a painful spinal injury in 1986 forced him to terminate his practice in 1993. A specialist in neuro-ophthalmology, Weber, now 76, says he “never planned for retirement, per se—no Plan B after neurology. I thought I’d 'die with my boots on,’ so to speak.”

Then he allowed another kind of downbeat—the musical kind—to dominate his life to a degree he hadn’t since he was a teenager growing up in Detroit, a time when he willingly practiced classical and jazz drumming up to “12, 13 hours a day,” Weber recalls. “I just needed to do it.”

Weber

That’s how he found himself, in 1994, as the president and artistic director of South Florida JAZZ, Inc, an all-volunteer nonprofit corporation he had helped found 2 years earlier. Among the organization’s missions were to present a program of 8 diverse high-quality performances each season, and to sponsor and support jazz education in southeast Florida at the elementary, high school, and college levels.

“In order to keep an art form alive, you have to pass it onto the next generation, to create enthusiasts. And personally, I’ve always liked teaching,” in medicine and out, says Weber, who received his undergraduate and medical degrees from the University of Michigan (while leading a local jazz quintet on the side).

Weber takes pride in presenting, in any given season, both immensely talented young performers who haven’t yet had great exposure as well as acclaimed prime-of-their-career professionals. “We’ve had artists from 35 different countries. I’m always looking for new and very-high-caliber talent,” Weber remarks.

He mentions 3 jazz artists in particular who played for SFJ before they went on to huge approbation: vocalist Kurt Elling, pianist Brad Mehldau, and Japan-born Hiromi Uehara (known as Hiromi), a composer/pianist. “I discovered Elling in Chicago in 1996 and brought him down here to our festival that year, and he’s a Grammy winner now”—12 times nominated and a winner in 2010 for Best Jazz Vocal Album. Elling, Weber says, returns “every couple of years.”

As for Mehldau, “this year he won a critics’ poll for best jazz pianist, and I discovered him in 1997, when he was unknown,” says Weber. “And someone wrote to me about Hiromi, just when she was graduating from the Berklee College of Music in 2003. I heard her play and she was sensational, and we brought her down that July.” Now a star in the jazz world, she tours from the Ukraine to Brazil.

And the tradition continues: In May, SFJ will present “a young lady whose star is ascending very quickly,” Haitian-American vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant. The 2015 season closes with the Grammy-nominated Clayton Brothers Quintet, led by siblings John (bass) and Jeff (reeds), with John’s son Gerald on piano. “They’re very well-established, but have never played in Florida before.

“I’ve pretty much booked my personal wish list of ‘name’ performers over the years,” says Weber, “from Gerry Mulligan and Sonny Rollins to Chick Corea and Pat Metheny.”

Weber with guitar legend Larry Coryell

No matter who is taking the stage for the main performance, Weber always has a band of young local jazz artists, aged 11 through 17, play on the plaza outside the Rose & Alfred Miniaci Performing Arts Center in Davie, FL, SFJ’s home. “Some of these kids are extremely accomplished, and their performance is free to the community,” he says.

It’s another way for SFJ to reach the public, especially youth. “Arts education for younger children is getting more problematic, because administrators don’t like to have their curricula disrupted,” says Weber. Fortunately, he continues, “we still do reach kids, and in Broward County there are a number of high school jazz bands. We find very willing college cultural partners as well.” Often, the SFJ headliners will arrive a day early to give master classes to students, and the organization has particularly close relationships with the University of Miami, Florida International University, and Broward College jazz study programs.

While Weber doesn’t run SFJ single-handedly—he has executive and advisory boards—he freely admits that it’s his personality to take ultimate responsibility for virtually all aspects of the organization. He says that in addition to selecting and booking artists, he writes grants, oversees the website content, and lectures on jazz at the performances, among many other functions.

Possible over-involvement aside, SFJ “has kept me busy to fill the void” that early retirement might have created, he says. And, Weber jokes, his wife, Gari, is happy he has something to keep him busy. “I have retired colleagues for whom time hangs heavy.”

Gari is a classical pianist; Weber’s father played violin and sang. “I played classical piano beginning at age 5, began the drums at 11, and then dropped piano at 13, much to my mother’s chagrin,” recalls Weber. Surprisingly, none of his and Gari’s 3 children is particularly musical, although, Weber says, each contributes their talents to SFJ. Daughter Juli, a graphic artist, has created all design elements for SFJ; son Evan, an Internet marketer, applies his multiple skills to SFJ’s online presence, http://www.southfloridajazz.org; and daughter Lauren was the membership point person in SFJ’s early years.

Although Weber is relatively satisfied with his monthly audience size—usually 300 to 400 patrons—he would, of course, be happy if it grew.

“I will never pander to the lowest common denominator, though,” Weber says emphatically. “Some of what we present is avant-garde. I like to push the audience out of their comfort zone just a bit, and we can afford to take chances because we’re a nonprofit. Nearly every cent we take in is poured back into artistic performances and education. We try to do the best we can for the art form and the community without the obsession over revenue that dominates the private sector.

“I feel very fortunate,” Weber reflects, “to have this encore career I never expected—intellectually, it’s a career—and I love what I’m doing.”

On balance, for Weber, the upbeat clearly overshadows the down.

Photos courtesy of Ron Weber.