When our colleague Tom Masland stepped off the curb onto West End Avenue one rainy night last week, he had his funky little black bag over his left shoulder and his saxophone in a case in his right hand. His life was about to end. He had just finished a gig at a Manhattan jazz club called Cleopatra's Needle, and was on his way to another performance downtown. In his day job, he had been a foreign correspondent and an editor for NEWSWEEK, occupations he performed with such devotion and skill that many of us wouldn't know until he died how much else there was to him. He had covered Africa for the past six years, but was so modest that if it hadn't been on the wires, we wouldn't have known that he took three chunks of shrapnel while reporting on civil unrest in the streets of Monrovia. He yanked the biggest piece out of his arm, dressed it from his own first-aid kit, and later said with his easy laugh, "It was the world's cheapest Purple Heart."
Tom was a child of the South, in ways that informed his professional and personal life. Born in North Carolina, he returned there after college for his first news job, on the Winston-Salem Sentinel. He would recall police there planting drugs on a black man who had protested a mechanic's bill, and Ku Klux Klansmen attacking civil-rights protesters. As a cub reporter he covered Stevie Wonder's near-fatal car wreck, and would recall afterward being "riveted" by Stevie's comeback album "Songs in the Key of Life." Music to Tom became entwined with the struggle for racial justice. "I've tried to expose wrongdoing and unconscionable human suffering," he wrote once, privately, by "being an honest witness."
His jazz roots are older than his journalism ones. Dropping out of college in 1969, he went to Paris where he learned the sax jamming with French musicians like Francois Breant, now a successful composer and arranger, but then returned to graduate from Haverford College. At the Philadelphia Inquirer, he was on a team that helped the paper win the Pulitzer Prize in 1980 for its coverage of Three Mile Island. In Philly, he also suffered his first on-the-job wound, investigating Warlocks motorcycle gang members who broke a bottle over his head and gave him a concussion. "It's a good thing they were drinking cheap beer," he joked from his hospital bed. The Inquirer sent him to Beirut in 1984, where he went as a newlywed with Chicago jazz singer Gina Lyden, just as Americans were being hunted as hostages. Later he moved to the Chicago Tribune, which sent him to Johannesburg, his first posting in Africa, and the beginning of another lifelong love, not least of all for the opportunity it gave him to explore the roots of American jazz. When Muddy Waters sang about the Hoochie-Coochie Man, Tom wrote in a recent essay on New Orleans, he was talking "about African religion in the New World."
Along the way he made friends the only way this gentle, soft-spoken man seemed to know how, for life. Breant was one of many who received Tom's late-night phone calls from the far corners, calls that invariably began with "What d'you know?"--asked in a voice often little more than a whisper. John Carroll, until recently the editor of the Los Angeles Times, grew up with Tom in Winston-Salem. "He was a collector of people, that's why he became a journalist, he loved talking to people; he was one of those folks who kept up with you." That's another thing we discovered after he died, as the condolence calls poured in, just how many people he knew. There were mechanics (he had five jalopies in various states of restoration in at least three countries), and boat wranglers (he was an avid sailor on the Hudson River and the Chesapeake Bay, particularly in the ketch Meadowlark , which he helped his father and brother build), scientists and sculptors, venture capitalists and, of course, jazz musicians.
Tom's friend Rodney Kendrick, the jazz pianist, doesn't find it at all strange, his twin passions for jazz and journalism. Kendrick remembers the same crooked smile whether Tom was talking about jamming in a jazz club or sneaking into African diamond mines to chronicle appalling working conditions. "Tom was out there fighting for his ideals, any place, whether it was on the front lines over there, or in the underground of the jazz community."
Lately Tom's sax playing had improved to the point where he was getting paying gigs for the first time in his life, playing at Manhattan clubs several times a week. He called his eldest son Richard--as he did nearly every day, with each of his three boys--to tell him he was getting a copy framed of his first jazz paycheck, for $400 from the Bubble Lounge. "He was really happy," said Richard, a sophomore at the University of Southern California. "Happier than he's been for a long time."
Then Tom stepped off that curb, and was hit by the offside mirror on a passing SUV; a freak collision on a rainy night that propelled him to the ground and caused massive brain damage. Thomas Masland died in intensive care at St. Luke's Hospital three days later, on Oct. 27, with his sons, his mother, brother and two sisters by his side, as Gina sang "When the Saints Go Marching In."