Before he played a violin with two broken strings, at Pershing Square in Los Angeles, Nathaniel Anthony Ayers was a teenager who played the double bass in Cleveland. At the time, he demonstrated great talent and no signs of mental illness.
His mother, Dorothy, was a beautician; his father ultimately left the family with another woman. Mrs. Ayers raised her daughters (Jennifer and Delsenia) and her son (whom the family called “Tony”) to believe in themselves and to be respectful of others. Years later, despite the devastating illness which interfered with Nathaniel’s life, he still reflects his Mother’s positive influence.
Harry Barnoff, Nathaniel’s mentor at the Cleveland Music School Settlement, tells us about his protégé’s talent (and about his early approach to honing skills). Though initially unfocused, the young double bass player was able to perform well even when he ignored assignments and skipped practice.
Barnoff, a Juilliard-educated bassist with the Cleveland Orchestra, urged Ayers (who was born on the 22nd of January, 1951) to recognize and develop his gift. His faith in the young man helped Nathaniel to get serious about his goals - like performing in a world-class orchestra, just like Barnoff. Talent, said Harry, wasn’t good enough:
You’ve got to make music your life. You’ve got to practice, practice, practice. (Steve Lopez, The Soloist, page 18.)
Nathaniel took his teacher’s advice. While his city erupted in riots, during the 1960s, he worked on his music at the Settlement School. After he won a scholarship to Ohio University, Nathaniel told Barnoff he wanted to emulate his mentor’s career in another respect - to become a Juilliard student.
Flying to New York, for an audition at the famed school, Nathaniel achieved the ultimate prize: A Julliard scholarship. He was on his way to an exciting career in music.
Thirty years later ... Nathaniel met Steve Lopez. By the time he became friends with the distinguished journalist (who’d once worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Time Magazine and other publishers), the musician’s career had taken a drastically different turn.
Had Lopez not passed by Pershing Square, that day in early 2005, maybe no one outside the environs of LA’s skid-row would have learned about Nathaniel Ayers and his musical gifts. What Lopez reported, however, was a much different picture than the scene of conservatory music in which “Nate” thrived, during the early 1970s.
Back then, the elite world of top-performing musicians was open to this young member of Juilliard’s concert orchestra. Until ... he got sick.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
A moving story of the remarkable bond between a journalist in search of a story and a homeless, classically trained musician—destined to be a major motion picture from DreamWorks, starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr.
When Steve Lopez saw Nathaniel Ayers playing his heart out on a two-string violin on Los Angeles’ skid row, he found it impossible to walk away. More than thirty years earlier, Ayers had been a promising classical bass student at Juilliard—ambitious, charming, and also one of the few African-Americans—until he gradually lost his ability to function, overcome by schizophrenia. When Lopez finds him, Ayers is homeless, paranoid, and deeply troubled, but glimmers of that brilliance are still there.
Over time, Steve Lopez and Nathaniel Ayers form a bond, and Lopez imagines that he might be able to change Ayers’s life. Lopez collects donated violins, a cello, even a stand-up bass and a piano; he takes Ayers to Walt Disney Concert Hall and helps him move indoors. For each triumph, there is a crashing disappointment, yet neither man gives up. In the process of trying to save Ayers, Lopez finds that his own life is changing, and his sense of what one man can accomplish in the lives of others begins to expand in new ways.
Poignant and ultimately hopeful, The Soloist is a beautifully told story of friendship and the redeeming power of music.
ABOUT STEVE LOPEZ
Steve Lopez is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, where he first wrote a series of enormously popular columns about Nathaniel Ayers. Lopez, the father of three children, lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Alison, and daughter, Caroline.