On April 18, 1986, Rusty Taylor and a friend were driving to Columbus from Americus in a brand new Thunderbird. Ronald Reagan was in the White House, Prince’s “Kiss” was at the top of the charts, and the Challenger disaster was still fresh in everyone’s mind. But for Rusty, the ensuing days meant laying on a gurney as doctors and nurses pulled shards of glass from his skull. He has no memory of the car crash, nor any recollection of the two weeks that followed. His fourth and fifth vertebrae were shattered, leaving him a quadriplegic. Rusty would spend the summer of 1986 at the Shepherd Center at Atlanta in rehabilitation, learning to contend with a new set of wheels—the ones on his brand new motorized wheelchair.
Though he may have lost his physical prowess, it’s immediately obvious when talking with Rusty that his mental prowess suffered no damage. He refers to the doctors and nurses at the Shepherd Center as “the first set of terrestrial angels I met.” He lives his life at “areola level,” riding around on his “electric chick magnet.” “It ain’t too bad,” he tells me. “All in all, it’s been a mostly groovy experience that I wouldn’t change even if I could. I feel I’ve experienced more spiritual growth than if I’d remained a vertical.”
After rehab, Rusty enrolled in the Independent Living Program in Warm Springs, Ga. Later, he attended computer programming classes at Georgia Tech and ultimately earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English with a minor in Computer Science from Mercer University. Six years after the accident, he landed a job at the global headquarters of TSYS in Columbus, where he worked for 16 years, programming for the company’s mainframe and desktop computers. Eventually growing weary of corporate life, Rusty left his job in 2008. Two years later, he released his first album.
That’s how many people in Columbus know Rusty Taylor—as a singer, former president of the Columbus Jazz Society and the guy who makes sure everyone knows about all the upcoming jazz events in the Columbus area with his weekly emails. But is there a connection between his old career and his new one? “For me, focus is the most obvious relationship between music and computer programming,” he says. “If you lose concentration in either field, there is generally no graceful way to recover.”
As far as graceful recoveries go, Rusty seems to be an expert. “I, and quadriplegics in general, have no control over the abdominal muscles that aid in coughing, which makes pneumonia and other respiratory anomalies much more potentially fatal,” he says. “As a singer, I expand my lung capacity and strength, thereby effectively exercising my diaphragm and improving my immune system…I hope. I’m no doctor, but breathing easily seems to add immeasurably to one’s mental and physical salubrity.”
“Salubrity” (healthfulness) describes Rusty well. A better adjective might be “audacious.” Bassist and fellow computer programmer Jeff Smith explains, “From the moment I met Rusty, untrained in music and all, he had that primal thing that is more important than polish.” Jeff encouraged Rusty to start singing in public and introduced him to jazz music. “Like everything else, he jumped headlong into jazz, training be damned,” he recalls. “We tackled the Thelonious Monk classic “Round Midnight” sometime in the mid-90s. There was a chromatic passage that he couldn’t nail the pitches on, with cringe-worthy result. Then, on one gig he nailed it and I’m pretty sure he never screwed it up again.”
“He lured me into the intrigue of jazz where I’ve remained ever since,” Rusty says of Jeff. “Jazz is challenging and, for me, much more rewarding when, on a few occasions, and very briefly, everything seems to magically come together. It’s like the perfect golf swing: just as one starts to become so frustrated that quitting seems like the most satisfying option, a golfer strikes the ball with a sweet stroke and the emotional joy within the most distant recesses of his psyche convinces him that he can not only do it again, but with much more consistency.”
Though Jeff first brought Rusty to jazz, it seems Rusty is now in the driver’s seat. Jeff played bass behind Rusty on his first album and continues to perform with him regularly. He recalls a recent gig when the two friends played the weekly Friday Jazz at the Loft series with Mitch Barron (guitar) and Mark Parker (drums). “I heard those guys in the early 80’s with the Columbus College (now Columbus State University) Jazz Band and at the time, I thought if I worked hard, maybe I could play with those bad-asses one day,” Jeff says. “I ended up majoring in music at CSU and played with them. But it was Rusty that got us back together in recent years.”
Donald Tipton, a jazz pianist and curator of the Friday Jazz at the Loft shows, echoes Jeff’s sentiment: “Rusty is a constant promoter, blogger, cheerleader, colleague and friend. He’s also a constant source of off-the-wall, come-at-you-sideways humor.” Jeff concurs, adding “…many a poor fool that takes him/herself too seriously has gotten a wakeup call from Rusty’s sharp tongue (me included).”
Currently, Rusty leads his own band, Southern Standard Time, but also branches out, performing with the David Banks Gospel Jazz Revue and VEE, the Voices Enabled Ensemble. VEE is a project of Abel 2, a 501(c)3 nonprofit arts organization in Atlanta that promotes and showcases the talents of underserved populations, including those with hearing, developmental, and congenital or acquired physical disabilities, among others.
Myrna Clayton, Abel 2’s executive director, immediately recognized Rusty’s talent. “When he opens his mouth, you discover he is a true jazz crooner,” she says. Clayton, an accomplished singer herself, founded Abel 2 in 2009 after noticing that there were few people with disabilities in the music industry. Slowly, she was able to coax such singers to get involved and display their talents for the public. “I am thrilled that Abel 2 is working with talented folks like Rusty who not only have the moxie to get in front of a crowd and sing, but also have the support of the family and caregivers around them to get them where they need to be when they need to be there,” she says.
Abel 2’s activism and community engagement resonates with Rusty. One of the reasons he is so often out in the community, performing or attending concerts and other events, is to “modify aberrant attitudes against those of us who possess both obvious and hidden physical and mental impairments,” he says. “I, for better or worse, have come to represent the under-served, so I proudly manifest my skills in singing and, to a lesser degree, any other minor skills I may possess despite certain obvious obstacles, and to show my supporters and anyone else with enough curiosity that with preparation, education, and a little luck, one can overcome the seemingly non-navigable calamities of life to achieve some modicum of success.”
That success will be on full display when Rusty gracefully glides onto Turner Field on July 22, 2015 to sing the national anthem before the game between the Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers. Myrna, Jeff and Don will be watching, along with his parents Bob and Pat, and dozens more friends and supporters. Undoubtedly, Rusty’s batteries will be fully charged for that gig, and all the gigs that lay ahead.
Update: Rusty made it to the Ted!