Heart Strings: Music and family

By David Watts Barton, The Sacramento Bee, November 5, 2000

For violinist Jaime Smith, the words “family” and “music” have always been virtually interchangeable.

They have sustained her through the best of times, and now through the worst.

The daughter of local jazz singer Shelley Burns, Smith was raised by an extended family of local musicians, including bassist Erik Klevin and drummer Stephen Coughran. Her 17-year-old half-brother, Ryan, is a budding multi-instrumentalist and jazz composer.

“It was really fun,” she says of her childhood home in Sacramento’s Curtis Park neighborhood. “There were always rehearsals at my house. I was always going to the recording studio with my mom. It was great: My mom’s a sexy jazz singer.”

But it was her mother’s friend Gilda Taffet, a Sacramento violinist who played with Burns in Avalon Swing, who jump-started Smith’s young musical career.

“Gilda was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen,” she says. “And I thought that if I played violin, I’d be beautiful, too. She gave me free lessons for seven years.”

Since then, Smith, now 24, has followed music wherever it would take her: first to the position of concertmaster of the Sacramento Youth Symphony; then to Boston, where she studied at the New England Conservatory of Music; then to Athens, Greece, on a Fulbright scholarship, where for the past year she studied and made friends and a new life, full of the Greek music she loves.

And on Sept. 25, music led her into the path of a speeding car.

“My friend Marco and I were going to hear some Cuban music in Glyfada, outside of Athens, and we were in the crosswalk when this young guy just sped right into us,” she says.

Marco, a fellow musician from Ecuador, was killed. Smith, who has few memories of the accident, was more fortunate, but she was left lying in the street with a broken arm, broken leg and broken hip.

And a broken violin.

“It wasn’t the greatest violin, but it was my violin,” she says. Musicians have an intimate relationship with their instrument, which is an integral part of the musician’s voice.

But it is her human relationships that will help put Smith’s body and violin back together again. Her mom and several friends, as well as comedians Milt Abel and Paul Morrisey, are giving a benefit performance at 8 tonight at Laughs Unlimited in Old Sacramento to raise money to replace the violin and help Smith with her medical costs.

Those costs are substantial. But the day after she arrived back at her mom’s Sacramento home after 30 days in an Athens hospital, it is clear that Smith’s musical dreams are anything but broken.

“I can’t wait to get back to Greece,” she says in her indefatigable style, perched on the living room sofa. “I’ve got an apartment and a job waiting, and a group of incredible musicians I can’t wait to play with again.”

But Smith’s recuperation will be slow, and is being complicated by every musician’s nemesis: money. Smith has found what her mom and stepdads and many musician friends have found: Music is a calling, not a secure salary-and-health insurance job.

“It’s just the way it is,” says Burns, 48, a lifelong professional musician who has recorded several albums of music and performed on every stage in town. “Being a self-employed person, you’re always living on the edge, and it’s kinda ‘What if?’

“And here we have it, the ‘What if?’ ”

This crisis has shaken Burns, who at one point took a job as a cashier at a local grocery store “just to get a breather from the stress of not having health care for my family.”

But, she adds, “It was complete hell. I’m a musician.”

Right now, she confesses to feeling overwhelmed, and to having some doubts about her choices.

“I keep thinking, what if I had lived my life differently.”

Burns estimates that it will take about $20,000 to pay medical costs and to replace the broken violin. And then there are the legal fees for an attorney when Smith returns to Athens to press her lawsuit against the driver who shattered her body.

Burns figures that tonight’s benefit could raise about $1,500, which leaves a lot of money still to be found. Until that money is raised, Burns is using the time she’s not giving music lessons or performing to take Smith to various doctors and to physical therapy. The costs are being paid by Sacramento County.

This care is an improvement over what Smith had in Greece, where the nurses were rough and the language barrier made communicating with the doctors fraught with difficulties.

“It was a very vulnerable feeling,” says Smith. “You can’t say, ‘I don’t want this needle,’ you just have to take it.”

Burns’ helplessness at her child’s trauma was exacerbated by a distance unbridgeable on a musician’s income.

“I didn’t find out for 24 hours after she was hit, and when I did, it was horrible,” says Burns. “I wanted to get on a plane and go take care of her. But I called my mommy, and she said, ‘Wait a minute, you’re not going to get on an airplane, you need to calm down and get more information, and find out if you’re really needed over there.’

“After I talked with Jaime, she said I didn’t need to come, so I decided that I should stay here and show up for work, because I’m self-employed, and I needed to stay here so that I would be financially able to take care of her.”

For her part, Smith was able to get through the month in a foreign hospital with severe injuries for the same reason she loved Athens: her musician friends.

“Not a day went by when I didn’t have visitors. I wasn’t alone one evening,” she says. “People would start bringing me food, clothes, flowers, perfume, things to exercise my fingers with. Someone would drag my bed outside and musicians would come and play around my bed, and I’d beat on an empty bedpan. The doctors couldn’t figure it out. It was great.”

Rowan Storm, a musician, was on tour in Greece when she heard about Smith’s accident. Storm postponed her trip home by several weeks to take care of her injured friend and then accompanied her on the flight home.

But that flight home cost $2,400, and that’s just the tip of the expenses. The violin itself was worth about $11,000.

Still, Burns says, “It’ll be OK. Jaime is such a bright light that people adore her, they want to help her. There’s a woman in San Francisco who just sent her $2,000. Every year Jaime was in college, she sent Jaime $1,000, because she thinks she’s a special person. There are special people out there like that.”

For her part, Smith is just eager to get back to her life in Greece.

“I have really deep friendships with musicians there, and I have a really great band of exceptional musicians,” she says. “I’m really wrapped up in it. I’m settled in Greece.”

She’s planning to return to Greece in January, but that depends on her health and her finances.

“I have to be able to walk well and play, because the job I have waiting for me is in a nightclub where they have bouzouki music,” she says. “It’s not my dream job, but the musicians are good and the boss is nice. And I want to go to Athens University to get a doctorate in ethnomusicology, with an emphasis on Greek music.”

And despite the fact that she’s laid up on her mother’s couch with three broken bones, no violin and no money, she’s happy with the choices she’s made.

“Except for the broken bones,” she says, “it’s a fabulous life.”