On his 49th birthday two weeks ago, tenor saxophonist Carter Jefferson phoned home from Poland, where the noted Washington jazzman was on tour with a European pickup band.
"He sounded depressed," said Marcedes Scahill, Jefferson's girlfriend of the past four years, who kept house with him in Arlington. "He said, 'I'm in some Godforsaken little town and I can't even pronounce the name of it. And it's sooo cold.' He said he just wanted to be home with me on his birthday. And I just said, 'Hang in there. You'll be home in about two weeks and we'll celebrate your birthday then.' "
He never made it. Four days after his Nov. 30 phone call, Jefferson collapsed while playing at a jazz festival in the far-flung town of Zamosc, 20 miles from the Ukrainian border. After the local doctor said he didn't have the facilities to treat him, Jefferson's fellow musicians put him in a taxi for a five-hour drive to Krakow, where he was admitted, coughing blood, to the intensive-care unit of Biernackiego Hospital.
According to the State Department, a team of Polish doctors operated on Jefferson to correct a hemorrhaging esophagus as well as a stomach ulcer, and put him on a respirator. But Jefferson, a regular at Washington's One Step Down, who was forced periodically to tour Europe, where he could earn a living unavailable in the United States to a journeyman jazz musician, drifted in and out of consciousness over the next six days, suffering from cirrhosis of the liver and kidney failure as well as fluid in his lungs.
He was pronounced dead of acute circulatory failure at 1 a.m. last Friday Krakow time, a State Department spokesman said. Jefferson's body has remained in a Krakow morgue, while Polish authorities await a payment of $6,000 to embalm and ship it home -- a sum the State Department will not advance, but which Jefferson's family has been frantically trying to raise.
"One of our seers, man, is lying over there, and we've got to retrieve him," said Washington poet Gaston Neal, who had known Jefferson for 15 years. At a fund-raiser Sunday at Howard University's Cramton Auditorium, Neal was among an assembly of Washington area artists and musicians who raised $600 toward his return. Several radio stations in Washington and New York have been airing tributes to Jefferson and helping to raise money. And yesterday, Scahill received a $5,000 pledge from the New York-based Rhythm and Blues Foundation. She said she plans to write a check to the State Department as soon as the contribution arrives.
Jefferson, a native of Washington and alumnus of Cardozo High School, was a fixture on the international jazz scene for 25 years, touring constantly and even living in Paris for several years but never able to make a secure living in his own country. Scahill said he expected to clear $5,000 from his tour of Poland and Germany, enough to get them out of arrears on the rent for their apartment.
"Part of it was ageism," said Jefferson's fellow musician, veteran trumpeter Jack Walrath, when asked why it was so difficult for him to earn a living. "Everybody is looking for the next young kid to come along."
"His style of playing was definitely muscular; it had that powerful tone with a little edge to it that many of the players since Coltrane have used," said Pierre Sprey, president of Upper Marlboro-based Mapleshade Records, Jefferson's label. He noted that Jefferson played with such jazz greats Art Blakey and Woody Shaw, while Jefferson's son, Carter Jefferson III, said he had also performed back-up for Little Richard and Phyllis Hyman. "He was also a very good composer and wrote some beautiful stuff," Sprey added.
According to friends and family, Jefferson lived the sort of insouciant life associated with jazz musicians of legend -- a life filled with women, smoking and drinking, until he was compelled by his doctors to give up alcohol entirely seven months ago because of chronic cirrhosis.
Scahill speculates that Jefferson may have started drinking again in Poland.
"I'm pretty sure he did," she said. "I asked his doctor here what might have brought this on, and the doctor told me he was probably drinking."
Aside from Scahill, Jefferson leaves thousands of fans, three ex-wives and six children ranging in age from 10 to 28. He never saw the get-well card mailed Dec. 9 by his 10-year-old daughter, Naomi:
"I know that you are suffering but just put all of your faith in God. Remember he can work miracles. Please get better and never forget how much we love you... . I LOVE YOU VERY MUCH DADDY!!! P.S. Get well soon."
Jefferson died the next day.
Staff writer David Mills contributed to this report.