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The news of the pickup slamming into an elk before careening into the oncoming lanes and ramming head-on into a semi sliced through Utah’s various musical communities with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. As the word spread, so did the carnage of deep sorrow and loss. Sudden death has a way of changing everything.

The task of notifying friends and past and present band-mates of the tragedy became the first issue at hand, followed closely with how to cope with the unimaginable reality of the aftermath. How do you tell someone that an integral part of their very essence no longer exists on the physical plane? How do you tell yourself?

Dead silence on the other end of the line slowly becomes unintelligible sounds of grief and the begging off with an apology and a promise to call back at some future moment when words might once again find a place at the table. Comfort lay on the horizon, seemingly just out of reach.

Such was the effect of Wayne Christiansen’s sudden departure. While returning home to Carbon County from live performances at the Salt Lake International Jazz Festival, the brilliant and fun-loving keyboard virtuoso and vocalist met his end just east of Soldier Summit on the notorious U.S. Highway 6.

At a time back in the ’70s when I was attempting to incorporate sub-genres of country into my jazz and ’60s musical snobbery, the Utah band I most gravitated toward and hung out with was an early outlaw outfit called Cow Jazz. Wayne Christiansen provided the rollickin’ piano riffs, a high sense of swing, and, generally, a good-time attitude to their repertoire.

As they all were, he was quite skilled, and to revisit their recordings provides much confirmation to that fact. Cow Jazz totally ripped and performed alongside some of the finest groups of that heady time when jazz sophistication crept into both country and rock and the subsequent hybrid forms stood proudly on their own.

There wasn’t a genre made, however, that could claim exclusivity to Wayne’s monstrous talent or interests. His love affair encompassed many styles and as a professional musician he found plenty of gigs in rock and blues and folk to go along with his ongoing skill set in country and jazz. In fact, the very act of listing genres seems too limiting when discussing his wide ranging contributions to the scene as a whole.

So when word of Wayne’s death came down, there were many both within and without the music community who had to be contacted as wakes were organized and dates for viewings and services set. Previous plans went flying out the window as the honoring of a fallen brother-in-arms took center stage.

Many among Utah’s jazz and blues scenes, almost all of whom had played alongside Wayne at one time or another, gathered on a balmy evening last week down in Salt Lake to express their feelings through music. With Wayne’s longtime playing partner Mark Cheney mixing and matching personnel, the poignancy of both the session and the moment hung in the air.

Everything from the outdoor-patio setting to the selected compositions and arrangements tended toward the reflective and celebrative side of the scale. A healing was afoot. These cats were soooo musically accomplished and their loss so deeply felt that the resultant vibe massaged both you and the emptiness you rode in on.

By Saturday evening, due largely to Buffalo Joe Jeff’s lobbying efforts with fellow musicians, the scene had shifted from jazz to country-rock and from Salt Lake to the Other End roadhouse outside Heber as yet another side of Wayne’s world attempted to channel his spirit.

Iconic Cow Jazz alumni K. W. Turnbow, John Bateman and Jack Quist joined my current band obsession, the Barfly Wranglers, and friends from the Famous Motel Cowboys, Sawmill Creek, and other groups of the day in a wild-yet-reverent jam session that went well into the wee hours.

The scene of keyboards, steel guitars, and assorted other instruments being hauled in and set up alongside the usual suspects in the rather intimate confines of the "packed-to-the-rafters" Other End Saloon only added to the joyous atmosphere. Wayne was most assuredly in his element.

With many of Wayne’s Salt Lake friends also making the jump outside their normal stompin’ grounds and on up the canyon to Wasatch County, the roadhouse ambiance of a warm Heber night proved a perfect cap to the week’s tributes. Love and music were once again showing us the way.

Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and a free-lance writer with a background in commercial and community radio, among other pursuits. He has been a columnist and feature writer for various Park City publications going back to 1973.


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