New Haven Register
Many years before the world witnessed the bleeding of Newtown, a terrible irony was born about 40 miles from Sandy Hook Elementary School in an academy of a different kind with its own hopeful children.
In those days The Artists Collective was in a Hartford neighborhood that seemed safe only in daylight. Clark Street is in the heart of the city’s north end, where far too many mothers have grieved the violent deaths of their children.
Thus, The Artists Collective kept its metal front door locked. To get in, visitors were required to buzz and explain their purpose. There was always a burly guard inside, though in its 40-plus years the school has had few disruptions or injuries—the latter mostly being turned ankles in dance classes.
That summer of 1994, kids of various ages enrolled in all-day programs. Almost all had African-American or West Indian roots, and many of them lived on streets that offered the prospect of danger as well as the lure of quick profits and deadly consequences that go along with the urban drug culture.
What they came to every day were lessons in the art of the possible —the lifting of lives from poverty and its unsavory choices, and the awakening to what art, personal accomplishment and applause could do for them. They learned to play music, to sing, to tap, to wear their heritage proudly, to be highly disciplined.
The faculty that set high bars for the kids did so from experience. One of the original founders of The Artists Collective—along with his wife Dollie and others—was the jazz superstar Jackie McLean, who offered his musical expertise and the lessons of life experience.
Among Jackie’s protégés that summer was Jimmy Greene, a Hartford native fresh from the honor roll at nearby Bloomfield High. At the Collective, Jimmy served as a role model for the younger kids, but he also looked up to Jackie. He dreamed of playing the saxophone like his mentor, and knew all about him—how Jackie had grown up in New York City and at just 18 made his debut with Miles Davis, and then how he’d fallen into a drug habit that nearly killed him.
Jackie got clean, climbed the musical scale, and in his 60s was ranked as the world’s No. 1 alto sax player by DownBeat magazine. And even then—flying to all those gigs in Europe and Asia—he always came back to Clark Street, devoted to the idea of keeping kids away from the trouble he had seen.
In that summer of 1994, Jimmy followed Jackie’s example, helping the young kids, and playing up a storm in group sessions. Jackie later said of him, “From the beginning I could tell that he was going to be an exceptional student. He already had a very mature sound.”
Jackie would live long enough—he died in 2006—to celebrate the building of a beautiful new Artists Collective on Albany Avenue, and to follow Jimmy’s career as it developed. Jimmy graduated summa cum laude from the Hartt School. He moved to New York City and joined the Horace Silver Quartet, played in the big band of Harry Connick Jr. and in the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band. He went on tour in Russia, Brazil and Uruguay. Throughout, he made acclaimed recordings.
His personal life flourished, too. He married his high school sweetheart, and soon Jimmy and Nelba Marquez-Greene became the parents of Isaiah and then Ana.
Eventually, the family settled in Newtown—a peaceful place of nearly 28,000 residents, where parents could send their children off in the morning without the fears of parents in the north end of Hartford. The Marquez-Greenes’ children made many friends. Newtown promised all its kids, no matter their origins, solid and safe educations.
At 6 years old, three years younger than Isaiah, Ana was a good student and also a performer. She sang before she could talk, and her mode of travel was not walking but dancing across a room. She was also affectionate, leaving notes under her parents’ pillows. And she was a deeply religious child, often expressing her love for Jesus.
On the morning of Dec. 14, 2012, Ana, whom her mother describes as having had “beautiful caramel skin and a shock of curly brown hair,” ran to the school bus with her brother. She was wearing a long-sleeved white T-shirt with a sequined purple peace sign on the front, and an Old Navy purplish gray sweat suit with “Peace” written across the legs and arms.
The parents of Newtown schoolchildren had ordinary worries that morning. House payments, job difficulties, the looming “fiscal cliff.” But all of this ordinariness and anticipation of “the foreseeable future” vanished in bursts of assault-weapon fire in an unimaginable setting.
Ana Marquez-Greene and 19 other children of tender age as well as six adults became the targets of the deranged Adam Lanza, and, at the same time, victims of uncivilized gun laws and largely ignored issues of mental health.
The inquisitive world, of course, descended on Newtown—outsiders with cameras and microphones moving from one tragedy in America to another asking townsfolk how it all feels, filling the air time with cliché after cliché. It was only in the days that followed that the human details came clear.
Ana’s parents set up a Facebook page in her honor (Remembering Ana Marquez-Greene), and drew a wide following—nearly 100,000 “likes” within a few days.
On the site, Jimmy wrote, “I wish I never had to feel my son’s body slump in my arms as I told him his sister, his best friend and playmate, was murdered at their school. I wish his ears never heard and his little mind never was forced to process the gruesome sounds and sights at school that morning. I wish I could have protected them from such horror—I wish I could have been there at Sandy Hook School that morning. I wish I could enter a room in my house without being overcome by grief, remembering Ana’s presence in the little things: the smell of her shampoo, the sound of her singing or snoring or saying ‘Hi, Daddy!’”
Ana was laid to rest on Dec. 23, after a funeral service that drew family and many friends, including the staff of The Artists Collective. In tribute, the Hartford Symphony String Quartet played, and a video showed Ana dancing and singing “I’m a Little Teapot.”
When the service was over, Ana’s small casket was lifted onto the back of a horse-drawn funeral coach, headed for burial. Even at the age of 6, she had left behind a legacy of music and love.
A month later, Jimmy and Nelba Marquez-Greene held a news conference with several other grieving parents and family members of the slain adults of Newtown. They introduced their new nonprofit, the Sandy Hook Promise—and the promise of a day when there will be real responsibility for guns, and when mental health issues are addressed in a meaningful way.
A day when—in city, suburb or country town—our mourning is not for children who will never grow up.
For other pieces by the columnist, see larybloom.net.