In Perfect Harmony

SILVER CREEK – One saxophonist is proof positive of the healing power of music – and lasting love.

A successful musician and local music teacher, Charlie Borzillire suffered a massive stroke on Labor Day 2004. His road to recovery has been long and arduous, but his devoted wife, Greta, has been at his side every step of the way.

“The way he pulled through this whole thing – the way he got through this, is amazing,” said Chuck “Big Wheelie” Vicario, lead vocalist of Big Wheelie and the Hubcaps, one of the bands Charlie has belonged to. “And his wife was just on top of it – getting the sax, getting him to play again. I told him he’s my idol.”

The couple was without insurance when the stroke struck Charlie, which affected the right side of his body. The Borzillires didn’t know how they would cover all the medical expenses and simply get by; Greta had to stop work in order to take care of her husband.

Friends and community members came together to support Charlie, holding four benefits in order to help out – two in Silver Creek, one in Fredonia and one in Buffalo.

“That’s what we survived on for the first few years,” Greta said.

A gifted performer, Charlie could once command a crowd of thousands. What invigorated him onstage was the same thing that helped mend him in his moment of need: being surrounded by supporters, and the mellifluous sound of his saxophone.

A FATEFUL INTRODUCTION

Born in Silver Creek in 1949, Charlie is the son of the late Charles and Louise Borzillire. The couple, married for 71 years, owned and operated Borzillire Food Market on Howard Street. Young Charlie’s musical talent was recognized early on.

“(Louise) told me that Ron Sutherland, who was the band director at the time, sent (him) to the college as a young kid,” Greta said, sitting down at the kitchen table with her husband and son in their cozy Silver Creek home they share with their two children. “He didn’t last there too long at all because their music department said, ‘There’s nothing more for us to teach you. You just need to play.’ So, there were these teachers with Ph.D.s in music telling him, ‘You can do it all.’ And he was only 10 or 12 at the time, from the stories I’ve heard.”

Charlie said that he first remembered becoming interested in music around the age of 10. His gift was nurtured during his school days, where he played alto and tenor saxophones with the Silver Creek Central School and Select NYSSMA bands; Charlie also performed in the annual Grape Festival. As a high school freshman, he started his career as a professional musician, forming his band, The Princemen. Charlie’s father served as their chaperone.

After graduating from Silver Creek High School in 1967, Charlie went on to become the second person in U.S. history to be drafted directly into the 158th Army Band. The Army also offered to send him to West Point to earn a master’s degree in music; he graciously declined the offer and was discharged in 1971.

“The audition (for the Army Band) was with music for another instrument, so he had to transpose everything while he played – he had never seen the music before,” Greta recounted. “It was in middle of the war. I guess a call went out for saxophone players for the band and of course, everybody thought – the band, they’re not going to Vietnam. So, Charlie said, hundreds of hands went up. I have no idea how many people actually auditioned, I don’t have a clue.”

“One other one,” Charlie added. “One …”

There was a lot that he wanted to say; when Charlie had trouble communicating what he intended, Greta would gently reassure him.

“It’s OK; between you and I, we’ll get through this,” Greta said to her husband. “The words are all in there,” she explained for Charlie, “they just don’t always like to come out.”

Charlie attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Mass., with the assistance of the GI Bill, majoring in instrumental performance and composition. To fulfill the program’s requirement of taking a secondary instrument, Charlie began playing the flute. It was during his days at Berklee that he purchased his cherished Selmer MK 6 tenor sax, which he still plays, and Gmeinhardt open hole flute.

A jazz flute played an upbeat song softly in the background on a small radio in the kitchen, with old albums and memories scattered across the table between them.

“This is Charlie,” Greta said proudly. “This was recorded two weeks prior to the stroke.”

In 1975, Charlie returned to Western New York, where fate awaited him. Charlie and Greta met on a blind date set up by a friend of Charlie’s, while Greta, a Niagara Falls native, was still in the midst of her studies at D’Youville College that fall.

“Now let’s see, do you remember?” Greta lovingly asked her husband as they try to determine were the date took place; the couple pondered it for a moment.

“Your cousin Pat’s!” Greta exclaimed.

“Oh, yes,” Charlie said with a laugh.

“He was just down the road – it was following a mixer at the college,” Greta added, tucking her long hair behind her ear. “I guess the mixer was actually the date.”

It was a match that would last; the couple was married in 1977. One year later, the newlyweds moved to the Albany area, where Charlie formed the band Fiestaband along with three talented brothers; it was with this band that he discovered his vocal abilities. The couple would be transplanted many, many more times over the years.

“This is our 27th move,” Greta said. “Twenty-four since our oldest son was born. We’ve actually lived here in this house for 26 years.”

BIG WHEELIE

Charlie’s relationship with 1950s rockabilly revival band Big Wheelie and the Hubcaps began in 1979, when Charlie sat in with the band for set while they were performing in Tompkins Lake, N.Y. Big Wheelie would call on him occasionally when they needed a sax player. Eventually, lead singer Chuck Vicario asked Charlie to join the band and come on the road with them. The couple had just rented a new apartment in Troy and was expecting their first child. Charlie agreed, playing tenor sax and flute, singing back-up and evening dressing in costume for comedy bits.

“He would really get people laughing,” Vicario, a Buffalo resident, said. “He wasn’t just a sax player. He could play the flute really well it was really rare to have someone who could do that.”

Shortly after the birth of their first son, the couple relocated to Buffalo, where Big Wheelie was based. They barely had time to unpack before the next move; just two weeks after settling into their Blasdell home, Vicario was offered a club management opportunity in Florida and invited Charlie to come with him and the rest of the band to the Sunshine State. The couple was there long enough to baptize their son, have a garage sale, and a farewell party with family and friends.

Big Wheelie was playing at least five nights per week in Florida, and then went back to touring. They traveled throughout the East Coast and the South, as well as Ontario. Charlie didn’t like to part with his instruments; he opted to ride in the equipment truck along with his flute and sax.

The couple agreed that they didn’t mind the changes in scenery in the early days of their marriage, although there was a lot of time apart while Charlie was on the road. There were phone calls every other day; Greta and their son, Sean, would flip through photo albums together to keep memories of Charlie fresh in Sean’s mind. Although they enjoyed their time together when Charlie was home, Greta’s schedule would be disrupted when he would stop back briefly for a visit; she was up early for her job as a social worker and Sean would want to stay up late with his father.

“The house ran so much more smoothly when he was on the road, to be honest,” Greta laughed.

Rockabilly music was enjoying a comeback in the 1980s; the band’s songs were getting radio airplay and there were long lines of fans waiting for autographs after the shows. Big Wheelie performed for audiences of 50,000 people, which Charlie recalls as exhilarating. Nerves would never affect him, he said; he fed off the excitement from the crowd.

“When he would do ‘Tequila,’ people would line up behind him and he would march through the audience,” Vicario remembered. “They loved him.”

According to Greta, “He played on a platform while being lowered onto the stage or into the crowd, on tables, on his back and even fell down bleacher-type seating while playing, but never missed a note.”

After three years, Charlie parted ways with Big Wheelie, citing differences in lifestyle and “conflicting personal philosophies.” (Vicario explained that the band mates began to drift apart, their lives going in separate directions). Their past conflicts far behind them now, Vicario and Charlie have become close friends, staying in touch over the years.

After a short-lived stint in Hinesburg, Vt., with the band Boogie Beast – Charlie quit after overhearing the band leader/manager/producer claiming that he “owned” him – the Borzillires moved back to Western New York. Charlie worked as a freelance musician, performing with different bands in Chautauqua and Erie counties, as well as playing for school children, nursing homes and senior citizen groups. He also began to teach, giving private sax, flute, clarinet, piccolo and oboe lessons. Some of his students went on to perform Off Broadway or become music teachers as well.

Charlie rejoined Big Wheelie and left again; in 2004, he started to play with the Rod Nickson Project, in addition to Big Wheelie. It was that Labor Day when the stroke occurred, forever altering Charlie and Greta’s lives.

HITTING THE RIGHT NOTES

It was music – along with help from friends and, most importantly, Greta’s dogged determination – that brought Charlie back from the brink. Vicario and Rod Nickson from the Rod Nickson Project would come to his hospital room to sing and talk to him.

“Buffalo General Hospital, I thank them a million times – his ICU room had two bands and his entire family in it almost constantly,” Greta said. “What they found was when Charlie didn’t have all of these people in his room, his vital signs just weren’t as good as when everybody was there.”

On Charlie’s second day there, doctors did a feeding evaluation. The speech therapist was explaining to Greta that he did not pass it and a feeding tube would have to be inserted. A nationally certified applied behavior analyst with 20 years of experience in special education, Greta was familiar with feeding evaluations and had assisted with them in her work; she had some ideas of her own. She asked if she could bring in Charlie’s saxophone mouthpiece; they granted her permission. Greta used it as a tool, introducing the mouthpiece, coaching her husband along and conducting her own feeding evaluation – and he did just fine. The mouthpiece helped trigger the automatic responses required for effective biting, chewing, swallowing, and effectively coordinating breathing with those movements.

“(The therapist) came in the next day, did the real one and said, ‘If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I never would have believed this,'” Greta said. “He had no problem at all. Swallowing was no longer difficult. He was perfectly aware of where his tongue was, where the roof of his mouth was and where his teeth were.”

After seeing the way part of his instrument had aided in his immediate improvement, Greta decided that they would bombard him with music. She wanted to see if his “critical ear” was still there; sure enough, Charlie liked and disliked the same music for the same reasons. (He still despises seemingly never-ending, aimless guitar solos). Music was played for Charlie 24 hours a day. Greta eventually brought in a recorder for her husband to play and he handled scales adeptly.

When Charlie came home, his entire family participated in his recovery. His children tested him to make sure that he could still read music and play, and he passed each challenge. Greta reminded him that they could take out his sax and flute anytime he wanted, and she would be there to help him in any way she could – holding the instrument if need be.

“I knew that was going to be hard,” Greta said. “Some of the notes he plays with the flute, he actually has to turn the flute; sometimes he has to get his body up over it to get the sounds out.”

The use of drum peddles and high velocity electronic keyboards facilitated movement of his right arm/hand/fingers and leg/foot. Greta began to keep a journal of his progress, which she still maintains – how long he would play music for, the increase in his vocabulary.

“His sentences went from two to three words from seven to 10 words,” Greta noted. “We also started noticed that the higher level executive functions of the brain – organizing information and planning ahead – was coming together that much more after he played.”

Greta observed that if he took a break from playing an instrument, his improvement slowed markedly.

“He has made continuous progress,” said Dr. Katherine M. Levy, SUNY Fredonia associate music professor and conductor of the New Horizons Band, which Charlie has been playing with since 2008. “He can speak more, I find, on band days. He makes a lot more expression in his eye contact and his face than he used to.”

Familiar with his background as a jazz musician, Levy wasn’t initially sure if he would be able to improvise the way that he used to due to the severity of his stroke. She started by writing in some of the notes for him, but after awhile, Charlie was able to work it out on his own. Levy smiled as she remembered an important turning point: Charlie made a blunder while the band was rehearsing. Levy has done research was on the analysis sight reading errors, which show the kind of understanding, critical thinking and processing used in the creation of the error.

“That’s a big deal,” Levy explained. “I knew that he had read the music like a musician, and made a musician’s mistake.”

Charlie currently plays with the New Horizons concert band, jazz band and sax quartet. He began performing solos with the band in 2010. SUNY Fredonia Director of Curricular Jazz Bruce Johnstone, a longtime baritone sax player, wrote “Here Comes Charlie!” for him, in order to help Charlie redevelop his improvisational abilities and get back into the swing of things.

“Charlie can really wail,” Levy said. “You can hear his personality.”

TOGETHER AT LAST

Charlie and Greta would be separated for several weeks at a time while he was on tour, but he would never part with his sax. After bidding his beloved Selmer MK 6 tenor sax farewell more than a year ago, Charlie was finally reunited with his newly-refurbished instrument that now allows him to hit all of the notes using only his left hand.

“There were six and a half years of phone calls and emails and evaluations of Charlie, and communications of various kinds to pull this all together,” Greta said. “We were planning to do all kinds of benefits and fundraising events of various kinds – all I was hoping for was that Vocational Rehab could assist with that. I never dreamt that they’d be able to pay the entire thing.”

The New York State Department of Adult Career and Continuing Education Services-Vocational Rehabilitation approved the grant proposal submitted by the Borzillires in August 2011 in order to get the work done on modifying the sax – a pricey and complicated undertaking. When Charlie was making the appeal for the grant, Levy wrote an analysis of her work with Charlie and the tremendous strides he has made.

“It is awesome,” Levy said. “It will give him access to all kinds of notes and expand what he can do, showing what he can do as a real musician. It was his career. And that was the argument we needed to make – this was not just a hobby for Charlie.”

Greta also struggled to find the right person to do the work; she received many refusals before she located Brian Russell of Russell Winds, based in Winneconne, Wis. He has an extensive background in instrument repair, developing several new tools now used by many repair technicians across the country.

While Charlie eagerly awaited the return of his sax, he temporarily played his saxophone from his SCCS days, which Russell made some minor modifications to in order for Charlie to operate it with greater ease. Russell knew that having an instrument to play in the meantime was important for his musical redevelopment to continue the positive effects it was having on all facets of his life. The work on the main sax began in October 2011 and was completed in December 2012.

“Its mechanism provides means for the left hand to have complete control of all the keys over the full range of the instrument,” Russell detailed. “To my knowledge, this is the first saxophone with this complete a mechanism built for the left hand. One of the goals was to assign the jobs that the right hand digits formerly performed to the corresponding digit of the left hand. … Establishing a fingering system that would allow for all the necessary combinations is where the job started.”

Russell and friends arrived with Santa hats on their heads and red-and-green bows on the sax in December. The Borzillires shared the day with them, enjoying a meal together and trying out the newly-modified horn, with lots of laughter and Charlie grinning ear to ear.

“Delivering the instrument was very emotional,” Russell said. “Very gratifying. Charlie was so happy to have it back, and to see the possibilities it holds. It is also going to be a challenge for him to learn the new fingering system, and to be able to express himself through it. He is very motivated, and has a great support system in place with the help of family and friends.”

In the Borzillires’ kitchen on an unseasonably warm winter’s day Charlie proudly begins to play the sax, trying out some of the notes he hasn’t been able to hit in almost eight years. He smiles widely afterward.

“I am thrilled,” Charlie said.

The saxophonist is performing again, with confirmed gigs in the spring; his next concert with New Horizons is on March 21 at 7:30 p.m. with the Westfield Academy Band. Charlie is also planning to reunite with Big Wheelie for some upcoming performances. Big Wheelie – inducted into the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame – sticks to outdoor venues these days, performing in the M&T concert series and at the Erie County Fair in the summer. Vicario suffered a setback himself last year, getting into a motorcycle accident that resulted in a punctured lung, broken clavicle, five broken ribs and other injuries. After his “painful experience,” he’s getting back in shape and building up his endurance before the band starts booking shows again.

Greta is very modest about the role she’s played in Charlie’s healing. She always goes back to advice she received from a veteran musician when they were newlyweds.

“He told me to listen when he played; I’d hear everything that I needed to know,” she said thoughtfully. “And I kept that in mind. He was right. The words that came out of Charlie’s mouth didn’t have as much as an impact as the music. I need him to play in order to be able to communicate with him. That is how he communicates. It’s how he perceives the world, it’s how he responds to it. I needed that as much as he did.”