Notes on a Fallen Star

It wasn’t easy growing up as my sister’s little brother. Unlike me, Jill was a whirlwind of energy and achievement at an early age. My only sibling, a little bit more than three years older than me, she blazed a trail in music, sports, and scholastics. Meanwhile, all I really wanted to do was watch the Three Stooges.

Jill Hamm, circa 1992.

In her musical and athletic pursuits, Jill was considered a tomboy during the early 1970s. With our mom’s prodding and our dad’s support, my sister helped open doors for girls in our hometown of Evanston, next to Chicago. Even so, at least towards me, she was also a bully, in the same way that I imagine lots of older brothers can be.

One of my most distinct early memories of our interactions is an early Saturday morning at our home a few blocks from Howard Street, the Chicago border. I had gotten up early to watch Moe, Larry, and—hopefully—Curly on Channel 9 (WGN). It was my favorite weekend routine, and normally I was accompanied only by our dog Skokie, whom Jill had named after the neighboring town.

But on this particular Saturday, Jill—then about 9 or 10—joined us in the family room, and she seemed eager to disrupt my flow.

“Nobody in the family loves you,” she told me, with a devilish gleam in her eye. “Not even Skokie.”

Such statements hardly provided the slapstick yucks I had been looking for that Saturday morning, and after they awoke, the assurances of my mom and dad “not to listen to Jill” only minimally improved my mood. My only real consolation came many years later, by which time my sister and I had become very close—and I never let her forget the pain she inflicted on me that one fateful day. Memory can be an effective weapon of revenge.

I was indeed forced to listen to Jill often, and it was intermittently painful. On the day school got out for summer at the end of her 6th grade year, she brought home an alto saxophone. Our dad had inspired Jill’s choice of instruments, because he had played the sax in high school (and in the mid-’60s was a jazz D.J. in Chicago). Yet even though she helped arrange for the nearby middle school (Chute) to let Jill take the horn for the summer, my mom wasn’t terribly excited at the prospect of listening to her break it in that day, and neither was I. Jill had been playing the clarinet for a few years, so she at least had a basic embouchure. But the sax is a much bigger instrument, and to this day I’ve never heard of any 12-year-old prodigies.

Soon after she came home, Jill began to honk and screech away on her new horn. For the first hour or so, my mom and I kept looking at each other and holding our ears, hoping the noise would subside. But as the afternoon wore on, the sounds coming from Jill’s room became increasingly smoother. She played her new horn that afternoon for as many hours as her lips would allow. We viewed it as a sign of her single-minded determination to succeed at whatever she tried, and for many years afterward, my mom enjoying telling the story of Jill’s first day with a sax.

Jill devoted herself to learning the alto, and practiced with considerable discipline, taking lessons from a talented mentor named Bunky Green, a fixture in the Chicago jazz scene. Even so, that was not enough to secure Jill’s place in the junior high school jazz band. Back in the 1970s, Evanston, like many towns in the Midwest, had very dynamic music programs, so slots in the band required tryouts. Even though Jill’s talent and competitive drive made it clear that she was ready, the biggest obstacle she faced was the band director, Wesley B.

In the era of E.R.A., the label for creatures like Wes was “male chauvinist pig,” and in his case, the porcine connotations applied. His constant sweating made him seem like a farm animal, and his perpetual growls often sounded like snorts. But on stage as a band director, Wes was a showman. He was flashy offstage as well, driving a Cadillac and prominently displaying his Playboy Club membership card. My mom, active in what was then called the Women’s Liberation Movement (see below), loathed Wes, and she often ridiculed the fact that this flamboyant middle-aged man “still live[d] with his mother.”

On behalf of Jill (and others like her), my mom made herself a pain in Wes’s copious backside, holding countless meetings with the recalcitrant music director who thought the sax was a male instrument. There are many things I’d like to ask my mother about, but she passed away in 1984. All I know for certain about this battle is the outcome, which was that by 8th grade, Jill was the lead alto in the jazz band, traveling to many statewide competitions. Via my mom’s persistence and Jill’s talent, or vice versa, Wes had to reckon with female empowerment.

Rest assured that when I came into his band (on the trombone) a few years later, Wes hated me passionately, and the feeling was mutual. We battled like two adolescents, with him shouting at me a lot, and me cursing back at him (causing me to end up at the principal’s office). You might even say that we had a lot of scores to settle.

Jill’s other primary passion was playing basketball. Evanston was (and still is) very much a sports-oriented place. In the wake of Title IX, girls sports gained increased funding at all levels, so here I wouldn’t really call her a pioneer because the doors had already been opened. Evanston is in many ways comparable to Montclair, NJ, a place with wealthy areas and a sizable black population. In 1980–81, unlike teams from nearby suburbs, the varsity girls basketball team at Evanston Township High School thus featured a black man as the coach and a mixed-race roster. And in her senior year, Jill was the Wildkits’ leading scorer, averaging around 15 points a game. 

What distinguished Jill from her peers was not so much physical prowess (she ultimately grew to 5' 9", but was always very thin). Here again, it was dogged determination that explained her success. From a very early age, Jill seemed to intuitively grasp that to be good at playing the sax or basketball requires hours upon hours of practice. That she spent lots of time in our driveway shooting hoops meant two things: she became a very good medium-range shooter facing the basket (because the baselines were the bushes and our front stoop); and I was often her practice partner. I played Jill regularly, or at least until I grew tall enough to block her shot—at which point she suddenly lost interest in taking me on.

In her senior year in high school, Jill was the star of the basketball team, a lead player in various school bands, and a standout student. And I was a freshman, motivated to do little other than memorize box scores. If there was one thing I was quite accomplished at, it was being a snotty brat to my sister. And so when we passed each other in the high school halls, I was lucky to get even a minor nod of recognition from Jill. At the same time, along with our dad and stepmom Yoga (our mom had by that time moved to Philadelphia), I attended nearly every one of Jill’s basketball games. My obnoxiousness notwithstanding, Jill knew I loved her; and despite her reluctance to admit it at the time, I knew she loved me, too. Except, of course, when we played one-on-one.

It was in early August of 1993 when Jill first told me something didn’t feel right. She and her partner had just returned from a trip to Europe to their home outside Philly, and I came to visit from California, where I was doing my Ph.D. work. One afternoon Jill and I went to a hotel with a rec center in King of Prussia. After working out, we sat in the sauna, where Jill explained that she felt a bit confused about things. And more important, she had trouble identifying why.

As I mentioned, we had become very close, which happened around the time our mom lost her battle with cancer. Since we lived on opposite coasts, when we did see each other, we were so playful and affectionate that people sometimes took us for a couple. By the early ’90s, Jill was completing an M.F.A. in music performance at Temple University. She had actually given up her alto when she started undergrad, opting instead to play ball (she had an athletic scholarship at the University of Delaware). But one of my mom’s last successful campaigns had been to convince Jill to give up ball and pick up the horn again. It certainly wasn’t easy to persuade Jill to change directions, because she was as stubborn as a mule (or a Taurus). Using much less sophisticated terms, I echoed my mom’s points, and together we finally prevailed.

Though she had only dated men until her late 20s, Jill fell in love with her music teacher, Roberta, at Temple. Even as she did her graduate work in classical saxophone, Jill played pop and R&B as well. She and Roberta formed the horn section of an Indigo Girls-type band that made the local club circuit. And one New Year’s Eve in the early ’90s, the two of them backed up the soul legends Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes in downtown Philly. Whether the presence of a two-woman sax section marked any sort of milestone in the history of soul, I cannot say—but I definitely regret missing the show.

Jill and Roberta were not the first lesbian couple to take wedding vows, but they were certainly part of the first ripple, if not wave. I flew back from California for their union ceremony, and spoke at the event. I’m not sure if I retold the Three Stooges anecdote during my remarks, but it’s a safe bet that I pulled on someone’s ear about it afterward. If Jill had only waited till after the Stooges were over that morning to deliver her blows, she would have spared herself 20 years of grief.

Alas, Jill’s marriage to Roberta was marked far more by real sadness than joy. From the day we spoke in King of Prussia forward, her mental health deteriorated steadily. And it was only in those last few years that we realized that many of Jill’s signature characteristics—her relentless energy, drive, and persistence—were intertwined with her bipolar disorder. She left us in the fall of 1996, at 33, long before what would have been her 50th birthday, this May 18. It’s been more than 16 1/2 years now, and I miss her every day—and though I’ve left out a lot of details, I’m really not sure what else there is to say. 



For more background on Joan McClure Hamm, see:
1. http://brooklynrail.org/2011/05/express/a-mothers-days
2. http://brooklynrail.org/2012/05/express/a-mothers-days-1

Contributor

Theodore Hamm

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