Keeping time with The Jazz Project
February 15, 2023 at 5:55 a.m.
As he slowly regained consciousness, Jud Sherwood could discern his environs — the interior of an ambulance — but, to answer the paramedic’s repeated question, he had no clue how he got there.
Sherwood was under a lot of stress. His mother had recently entered a memory care facility to the tune of more than $100,000 a year. He had just met with a real estate agent earlier that cold Thursday last February to discuss a quick sale of the home she’d no longer need. Afterward, he spoke with a financial advisor about his mother’s assets.
In the two years before his mother’s health crisis, COVID-19 had put pressure on Sherwood’s income as founder and director of The Jazz Project — his nonprofit focused on increasing performance opportunities for local, regional, national and international jazz musicians. But venues closed during the pandemic were reopening, and he was now commuting 400 miles weekly to gigs six days a week. Things seemed to be slowly returning to normal, but his mother's failing health shattered that optimism.
That February morning had been too much, he recalled. Though it was only 11 a.m., he wanted to drop by Kulshan Brewing on James Street for a late-morning beer — to recenter himself.
“I got out of my car,” Sherwood said, “and hit the ground.”
Once delivered to the hospital, doctors asked if he had a history of seizures.
“I’m like, yeah … when I was a child,” he said.
As a 2-year-old, Sherwood had a seizure doctors considered febrile, a fever-induced convulsion that, according to the Mayo Clinic, is alarming but harmless. At age 8, he suffered a more serious grand mal seizure that lasted three hours. This event led to a diagnosis of idiopathic epilepsy — an umbrella term for seizure disorders that come from abnormal electrical activity in the brain and have a genetic component.
The decade that followed involved seizure-preventing medication — what he refers to as “all these heavy drugs.” Yet he still averaged 10–15 seizures a month.
By age 18, specialists determined his epilepsy was focal, meaning the source of the seizures was a locatable area in his brain. As Sherwood, 55, describes it, an “atrophied part of my right temporal lobe that was just cranking out useless noise.”
Fortunately, with this new understanding, there was also a remedy. As a music student at the University of Rochester, he underwent a right partial temporal lobectomy, a brain operation reserved for patients who don't respond to anti-epileptic medication. The surgery wasn’t without complications, and when he awoke, the left side of his body suffered paralysis.
“This is not good if you're going to the Eastman School of Music for percussion,” he thought.
The paralysis soon abated, and Sherwood began a long process of tapering the medications, all the while having seizures, but far fewer. In his early 20s, he had his last episode.
Until Feb. 24, 2022.
He's not convinced that his February seizure — his first in 34 years — was a recurrence of the chronic condition that plagued his childhood. “They took out the part of my brain that (was) causing seizures,” he said. “I think I (was) just stressed out!”
He believes his brain reacted to that stress as it had in childhood by deciding, “We're just gonna shut you down for a second,” he said.
The law took away any latitude for the neurologist. Because of his previous seizure history, the state suspended Sherwood's driving privileges for six months. This loss of mobility led to a whole new level of stress. He was playing as many as six performances a week and had been averaging 400 miles of driving between them. How would he get a drum set moved around Puget Sound with a bus pass and limited public transportation options? A flutist could, sure, but a drummer?
This is where Sherwood’s 25 years of directing The Jazz Project paid off. After decades of bringing the nation's finest jazz artists to Bellingham and the northwest region, he had cached enough goodwill that others stepped in to help him make his shows.
He began by relocating his extra drum kits to his regular performances — even purchasing an additional set to cover a weekly gig in Big Lake, Skagit County. He arranged rides with other musicians whom he’d hired in the past or currently employed. He even had a friend who, after dropping him off at his performance in Arlington, used the van to visit his mother in Lynnwood before returning to pick Sherwood up and deliver him back home.
“All (I had) to do is get my throne and a cymbal bag to these places,” he laughed.
But Sherwood’s karmic reach isn’t limited to financially supporting jazz musicians. Through his eight-year involvement with Out of the Ashes — a band offering a creative outlet for adults and teenagers with cognitive, emotional and physical disabilities — he has enriched musicians emotionally. Stephanie Pratt, a care provider for Steven Jacobson, a musician with Down syndrome, sees Sherwood’s impact on a more personal level.
“It’s just amazing how much Steve has come into his own,” Pratt said. "He loves playing music with Jud. He starts lifting his shoulders up and down and singing at the top of his lungs. He’s really come out of his shell."
Out of the Ashes Director Jon Dalgarn noticed it, too. One day, while leading the exuberant ensemble in Boundary Bay Brewery's beer garden, he saw the trained jazz percussionist checking out the show. Sherwood approached him later about getting involved. Dalgarn recalls telling him, “This is what it’s gonna be. You're either gonna get it, or you’re not.”
For eight years, Sherwood has gotten it. And how did the new drummer adapt so well to the unique band? “He’s a jazz player, man,” Dalgarn said. “This is jazz!”
Seizure-free since that crisp, clear day last February, Sherwood is back behind the wheel of his transit van, shuttling his gear from gig to gig as he did before. The Jazz Project is back to its pre-pandemic schedule, with the monthly Art of Jazz series continuing at the FireHouse Performing Arts Center in Fairhaven.
The concerts are free to Jazz Project members, with at-the-door prices of $20 for non-members and $10 for Western Washington University students with ID or patrons under 18. The nonprofit also continues its involvement with the Bellingham Youth Jazz Band, the Bellhaven Jazz Festival and the Summer Jazz Series at Samson Estates Winery.
The Jazz Project, a 501(c)(3), is funded by grants, memberships and donations. In addition to promoting jazz concerts, it also offers musical scholarships, leased equipment and a medical fund for jazz musicians.
The Art of Jazz’s next concert takes place at 4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 19 at the FireHouse Arts and Events Center, 1314 Harris Ave. The Miles Davis Tribute Band consists of Sherwood on drums, Kevin Woods on trumpet, tenor saxophonist Josh Cook, pianist Bill Anschell and Jeff Johnson on bass. Out of the Ashes plays from 3–5 p.m. every Tuesday through May at the VFW Hall, 625 N. State St. Info: jazzproject.org.
Western Washington University student Tom Campbell wrote this profile as part of Dean Wright's newswriting class. A second story relating to the band Out of the Ashes will run in May.