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Gordo

Gordon Garcia. Physician, musician, storyteller. 

To begin, Gordon loved nicknames. That’s how I became Droodoo, as in voodoo but perhaps a bit like doo-doo too. This inspired the rhythmic salutation, “Droodoo, how DO you DO?” Gordon naturally had several nicknames of his own. There was GG or Double G. The variant Brother G and sometimes just Gordo. They all fit.

We first met in a big band class at the University of Houston in the late 1980s. Gordon had just joined as the drummer having previously studied at more prestigious jazz institutions like The University of North Texas and the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Armed with this elevated band cred, he became both our mentor and resident storyteller, regaling us rubes with the hilarious and occasionally bitter tales of life among the jazz elite. We heard about dorm room shenanigans on Mass Ave. The politics of lab bands in Denton. He also talked at length about why he loved certain artists. The genius of Prince. The Beatles. Maceo.

Yet there was something special about his storytelling. A conviction that was softened by humor and warmth. And he listened intensely when you talked. I knew we’d be friends by the end of our first conversation.

An instant gang and a jazz trio too: GG, Droodoo and Brotha Hee, 1989

Soon it felt as if I had known him my whole life. After class, we’d pile into his blue hatchback and blast CDs to a backdrop of Houston traffic. “Listen to that pocket, Droodoo.” He’d say this with one hand on the steering wheel, the other thumping the dashboard. We’d talk at length about what made each song great. Feel over fills, groove over dazzle, qualities that informed his own playing too.

These conversations often continued late into the evening at diners like The House of Pies and IHOP. With Gordon, there was never a lull and if there was it was only because we were catching our breath from laughing so much.

He had another trick up his sleeve too. In that same college band hall, I once heard him jokingly singing “Minute by Minute” in a perfectly affected Michael McDonald rasp. I decided to join in on piano only to realize that he had plucked the record key out of thin air. Poker-faced, I said, “sing another.” He continued with a Beatles tune, which he also got right. I stopped after the third song and said, “OK Gordo, you know you have perfect pitch, right?” He seemed as surprised as I was. Incidentally the bassist in the band, our mutual friend Felix Luna (a.k.a., Brotha Hee), had this gene too. I felt deaf by comparison.

Despite his many pronounced gifts, Gordon eventually decided to ditch the music degree and pursue pre-med. It was an amazing non sequitur. From big bands to the grueling orgo and biochemistry classes one had to conquer before taking the MCAT. But he succeeded at all of it. Gordon got admitted to the UTMB School of Medicine in Galveston, a program with a 10% acceptance rate.

Dr. Garcia graduated in the late ’90s and took a job as a physician with the Air Force in San Antonio. Fortunately, his love of music didn’t end with the new career. When my wife and I opened a jazz café 150 miles from his home, he became one of our regular weekend performers. Once a musician, always a musician.

Gordon (center) at my wedding with Berkeley pal David Biscoe (l) and best man Sean Mullaney (r)
With my wife Stephanie at Gordon’s wedding, San Antonio, 2006

We attended his wedding in 2006, just as he had attended ours a decade earlier. But being in a different city and my not being on Facebook meant we lost touch for a while. Also, life has a way of blurring time and we all get lost in our own bubbles. Then a few years later Gordon surprised me with an out-of-the-blue phone call: “Droodoo Child!! Droodoo, how DO you DO?” His greetings had an instant warming effect. We soon settled into a long conversation in which he told me about a sustained bout with cancer and a divorce and I felt just awful for not having been there. As the call ended we made plans to fix this unacceptable life gap.

He explained over lunch a few weeks later that the cancer had been a rare lymphoma called mycoses fungoides, one that took years to properly diagnose and many more to treat. In the end what cured him was a stem cell transplant, one that completely reset his immune system. This meant every outing had to be treated like a war zone. Years before Covid-19 normalized such things, he’d wash his hands with a ferocious thoroughness and when necessary wear a mask too.

In the 2021 novel Between Two Kingdoms, author Suleika Jaouad provides a firsthand account of her own cancer experience and in particular the critical importance of familial support. She describes leaving New York City to move back to her childhood home in Saratoga Springs and how healing being with family was for her. When Gordon started his treatments, he had done the same. He left San Antonio to move back to his childhood home in Webster, Texas. The doctors at MD Anderson may have attended to his health, but it was his family who ultimately revived his spirit. That home was his refuge and they were his nurturers. 

Gordon at Cezanne, Houston, 2016

When Gordon was finally able to return to work in 2018, I abused the friendship by texting him with various medical questions. Like when I accidentally swallowed glass (“should I worry??”) or when I had hiccups for three days (“Droodoo, I’m writing you a script for Thorazine.” Crazy as it sounds, it worked after one pill.).

He found a practice in Deer Park on the east side of Houston and gushed about how happy he was to be working again. I’m pretty sure he was a great doctor.

That year I invited him to our Christmas party where once again we found ourselves sitting in the corner talking the entire time. The primary topic that evening was the new woman in his life. As we chatted his iPhone chirped a stream of back and forth texts. “What do you think, Droodoo?” We parsed meaning into her messages. He also shot videos of the party which he shared with her. He tried to make her part of the experience. Later we all sat around the piano making music with Gordon tapping a beat on his legs. He had been the first to arrive and was the last to leave that evening and I am so grateful for every minute of it.

At our 2018 Christmas party in his trademark Astros cap

Not long after that night the two of us attended the memorial concert for vocalist Kellye Gray, who we both had played with decades earlier. Little did I know, it would be the last time I would ever see him.

In September, Felix called with the horrible news that Gordon had passed away unexpectedly after a short illness. A week later we both served as pallbearers for our friend.

***

Sometimes death makes no sense. His certainly didn’t and eighteen months later I still can’t get my head around it. Having played off and on for years at a local synagogue, I thought about the Kaddish. It’s the point during the service when the congregants speak the name of someone they recently lost. Just the name, nothing else. That’s how this tribute began: by just writing his name, Gordon Garcia. From there it grew into something much longer, which I’ll now conclude in saying, Rest In Peace Brother G. We had so many more stories to share.

***

One last thing. While writing this post, I found this old voicemail from Gordo. It begins as always, “Hey Droodoo…” 

 

Bash was the nickname for our close mutual friend Sebastian Whittaker who passed away from cancer in 2016. The two of us had gone to see him in the hospital, at MD Anderson no less, and attended his funeral together afterwards. The benefit he mentions here is one they threw for his mom to help cover his medical costs.

 

OK, one more thing…

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