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The Happy Warrior
"Neurology has determined that Doug lost 90 percent of the left side of his brain, with no hope for recovery. He looked forward to a poor quality of life in a nursing home, which he has always expressed that he would not want. It was a difficult decision for us, but was done in love and mercy. It was a family decision to let Doug pass on to his next adventure." – statement from the Nervik family, October 2012
I don't remember when I first met Doug Nervik. He always seemed to be there, tinkling on his piano, smoothly singing clever improvised songs with an ease that he also brought to old standards and to the opening game he would frequently employ at my weekly Sunday Night Improv jam sessions.
"Hello, everyone," he would say in that upbeat way he had, "we're going to play a game right now. I play a TV theme song, and you call out the name."
He would usually begin with something everyone knew, like the theme song from Gilligan's Island or The Beverly Hillbillies, and then progress on to harder tunes, like The Wild Wild West or Hill Street Blues (when someone would invariably call out the wrong show – Bonanza, say, after he had played The Wild Wild West – Doug wouldn't exactly say they were wrong, but he would slyly segueway from the one tune to the other, transforming The Wild Wild West into Bonanza, so that the audience member would realize his or her mistake and someone else would get a chance to guess again.)
That was Doug all over, one of the sweetest guys I knew. (It was also an ingenious way to get audiences to feel comfortable calling out suggestions.) He never liked to say "no" -- and perhaps that came from his improv training. For, although Doug was technically not the greatest of piano players (which he himself would admit), he was one of the most heartfelt and one of the best improv piano players. He never left you hanging on stage, musically, always followed when you knew where you were going, always led when you needed someone to follow. You were never alone when you were on the stage with Doug, never abandoned. His music, seamless and unobtrusive, gave you the backing you needed to look brilliant on stage (or at least not so bad as you might have been).
I guess I must have met Doug at Chicago City Limits, where I spent seven years in classes, learning how to talk on stage without a script. I knew he worked with the First Amendment and For Play, as well, and had even played for my performance workshop group, Wingnuts and (at times when Noel Katz wasn't around), for The Chainsaw Boys. But I got to know him best when he performed for my improv jam. He was there from the beginning, in 1992, when John Webber and I had inherited it from Ian Prior (who had in turn taken it over from Jane Brucker), and his tall, lanky presence became a familiar site at the weekly show.
He was great on piano, but he also loved to perform on stage. He once agreed to play piano for a show, but asked if he could also get in some stage time at another show as a "performer not just a pianist." He was terrific as a performer, but he was never "just a pianist." When he would perform as an actor not a musician, I frequently had him come on stage and do a bit where he would sit with the show's pianist that night and the two of them would improvise together on the keyboard, taking an old standard like "Heart and Soul" and riffing on it.
Watching the two pianists' hands fly over the keyboard, working now in counterpoint and then in harmony, playing games with each other as they created a unique, never-to-be-experienced-again jazz masterpiece, was breathtaking and often brought thunderous applause from the audience. It wasn't that they were so very extraordinary as musicians, it was the overall experience that wowed you. There was the low-key way it all started, with Doug walking out on stage quietly, sitting down, and then picking out a few notes on the piano as though he were discovering the instrument for the first time. He and his collaborator would build the piece slowly and methodically, like good improvisers, climbing to a comedic crescendo bit by bit, drawing you in through the power of the collaboration.
He made it all look so easy – which it wasn't (as was evidenced when I tried the same game with less fluid piano players). But that was Doug all over. He was supportive, kind, and always there if you really needed him.
I remember the last time I spoke with him in person. He hadn't played the jam for me in years (in fact, I heard he hadn't played much anywhere in recent years), but he was as cordial as ever when we ran into each other on Broadway and 79th Street. He was rushing somewhere, but we stood and chatted for a few minutes. I consoled with him over one of his brothers, who had recently died, and the talk got around to my father, George. My dad, who attended the jam every week for years, had often praised Doug profusely – so much so that Doug started referring to him as "George, my agent." And when my father came down with cancer, Doug was devastated. I remember him sitting outside my father's bedroom after his last visit. The look on his face spoke volumes.
As we finished our conversation, I, of course, extended an invitation for him to play at Sunday Night Improv. He didn't say yes and he didn't say no, perhaps, because like any good improviser, he wanted to keep his options open. But two weeks later, when I called him to say that I was in a bind for an upcoming show – none of my regular pianists were available – he agreed immediately. That was an exciting moment. Doug was back!
Alas, it was not to be. A few days before the show, I received a message from Doug that he had suffered a stroke – the first of two – and that he would be unavailable. Doug and a stroke seemed like two incompatible terms that were hard to wrap my mind around. Doug and a stroke! How could a man so vibrant, so athletic, so ready to jump in and save the day on stage suffer a stroke? It seemed incredible.
It is almost as hard to believe that he will soon be gone. A world without Doug is like a world without one of its great happy warriors. For Doug fought the good fight against an unfeeling world. He truly lived the adage: "Life is a big joke. It only hurts if you don't laugh."
Goodbye, Doug, old friend. You will be missed.
October 21, 2012
(Doug died on October 23, 2012.)