When pandemic hit, a Chicago jazz icon’s world fell apart. Friends helped put it together again.
In his 80s and living alone, being unable to perform sent pianist and teacher Erwin Helfer into a spiral of depression. But proper care and friendship pulled him through.
“There’s a difference between being depressed and between being sad,” says Helfer, sitting in his backyard on the North Side. “But the thing is you have to have all of those emotions in order to play music. You know, it’s part of what music is about.”
At 84, Helfer has experienced a lifetime of joy and sadness, more than enough to fill 10 albums of his piano music and jazz festivals and other gigs he’s played in Chicago and overseas.
Growing up in the 1950s in the north suburbs, the Chicago piano legend spent much of his time on the South Side learning from jazz piano great Jimmy Yancey and later accompanying blues singer Estelle “Mama” Yancey. As a young man, he traveled with and made recordings of jazz and blues piano greats including Doug Suggs, Speckled Red and Billie Pierce.
Until March, Helfer was playing shows at the Hungry Brain in Lakeview every Tuesday night and offering piano lessons.
Then, the pandemic hit. Within weeks, he was hospitalized — not from COVID-19 but from what experts say is likely to become a significant side-effect of the pandemic. Helfer fell into a deep and debilitating depression.
“Along came the pandemic, and, at that moment, my life became very difficult,” he says.
On March 10, he played his last gig at the Hungry Brain.
Then, Helfer, who lives alone and, because of his age, is in a high-risk group for the coronavirus, began quarantining at his Lincoln Park home.
The absence of social interaction brought on by the stay-at-home order almost immediately began taking a toll on his mental health.
“What happened was that the things I love doing most — teaching and performing — were no longer available to me,” he says. “And also I have no computer skills, or now minimal computer skills. I did all my stuff by just walking in to the bank and did it in person. So somehow I went into a deep kind of despair, and I wasn’t even aware of this.”
After a few weeks alone, Helfer went to stay with friends for a few days. The visit helped.
But then, he says, “I went back home, and I just hit the bottom. I’ve never known anything like this. Normally, I’m pretty good-natured, positive and so on.”
Helfer says he’d never had any issues with mental illness and had never experienced anything close to the depression brought on by isolation.
A close friend, Ivan Handler, picked him up at his home on May 8 and took him to Rush University Medical Center’s psychiatric ward, where Helfer was admitted. Diagnosed with severe depression, he remained there for six weeks.
“In the first three days I was there, I was looking for a window to jump out, seriously. I was taking a certain amount of drugs, I don’t know what they were, and I wasn’t getting much better.”
Handler says he called Helfer every day at Rush and was updating about 60 other friends with daily emails.
When medication wasn’t helping, doctors suggested electroconvulsive therapy for Helfer.
Hearing that, Handler says his mind immediately went to the depiction in the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
“We’re not going to have Erwin, you know, we’re not going to have him subject to some kind of torture, right?” Handler says he was thinking. “That was a scary moment for a lot of us.”
But it turned out that, for Helfer, undergoing the therapy was when the world stopped being scary, and he started to get better.
“They started electroconvulsive therapy, also known as shock therapy,” he says. “And that was really pulling me out. After several sessions, I knew I got better when the nurse came in my room and said, ‘When was your last bowel movement?’ And I said, ‘We just met, aren’t you being personal?’ And then she broke out laughing, and I laughed. And that was a sign that I was getting better.”
On June 23, Helfer was released from the hospital. He returned home to find that his house had been cleaned from top to bottom. And a friend, blues singer and educator Katherine Davis, was ready to stay with him for as long as he needs.
Davis, who has known Helfer for nearly 40 years, had been living alone in Englewood through the first two months of the stay-at-home order, afraid to leave even to visit her daughters and grandson.
Like many of Helfer’s friends, Davis says she had been on the receiving end of so much kindness from him over the years that offering to care for him was a given. Besides, she says, it was good for both of them to have the companionship.
“He introduced me to my second husband and walked me down the aisle,” she says. “He’s played a big part in my life — helping me in many ways and everything, you know, some difficult times as well as more good times. So he’s just been a true friend.”
The world that Helfer returned to seemed significantly different than the one he left behind in May because of the mass protests and civil unrest in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Coupled with the pandemic, Helfer says he thought, “This is the worst moment that I can ever remember.”
But, rather than feel overwhelmed, Helfer says he now has a measured view of, well, everything. In a sense, he sees the virus as the planet’s way of biting back at humanity after centuries of abuse.
“We’ll either make it as a species, or we’ll become extinguished,” he says. “That’s the nature of everything.”
Of the increasingly influential Black Lives Matter movement, Helfer sees the impact on the jazz community in Chicago as “nothing but positive,” a view he says was shaped by the time he’s spent with so many Black musicians.
“I kind of romanticized where they were at, but actually they had to fight for their lives because of the discrimination that they faced,” he says.
Having confronted and dealt with depression at a time of so much tumult in the world, Helfer says his experience has left him with an overwhelming sense of gratitude — for having come through it all and for the friends who cared for him and continue to do so.
He says he doesn’t long for the pre-pandemic times because, “Things are too cool now.”
One thing in his own life has changed significantly. Helfer hasn’t played the piano at all lately. He doesn’t know when he might play or perform again. And he’s OK with that.
He says he’s spent a lot of time listening to Bach — “the ultimate stuff” — and feels he’s said all he needs to say.
“I’m just grateful for everything, and I find my days full,” he says.
Helfer says he isn’t done with music. He’s looking forward to getting back to the studio to edit his latest album, recorded in March, which the Highland Park label The Sirens Records plans to release sometime in late fall or early winter. He’s also written a book, “Blues Piano and How to Play It,” which the label plans to publish.
And he intends to spend some time getting his music notated, getting his songs down on paper. Many of them exist only on recordings or in his memory.
Handler says it was painful to see his friend suffer so deeply as the pandemic shut down the country.
“I don’t think people understand how important social relationships are,” he says. “We kind of look at them, you know, in a kind of jaded way. I think this emphasizes for me how important our relationships are for our mental health. And our mental health is everything.”