Through the years I’ve been fortunate to study a variety of instruments with a variety of teachers. Around the time I started junior high school I started piano lessons with a new piano teacher. Before our first lesson I went out and bought several of the teacher’s records. I was instantly inspired by his mastery of the piano.  He was a brilliant player - and happened to be a former member of the Grateful Dead.

 In 1968 Tom Constanten became the keyboardist for the Grateful Dead. Prior to his rock n’ roll career Tom studied piano in Paris and Brussels. During the Vietnam war he enlisted in the Air Force as a computer programmer. A day after his honorable discharge he made his first live appearance with the Grateful Dead. Tom went on to play with Jefferson Starship as well as tour the world as a solo pianist. In 1994 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Grateful Dead.

 Sixth grade not only marked the beginning of junior high school, it was also when I became a Deadhead. I listened to every album I could get my hands on. I checked out books about The Dead from the library. I bought every live concert VHS tape I could find and watched it until I had it memorized. I’m sure the adults around me raised an eyebrow given the drug culture that went hand in hand with Grateful Dead lore.  I was so young most of the drug references went above my head - and I could’ve cared less - I was there for the music!

 My lessons with Tom quickly became my favorite part of the week. He encouraged me and pushed me to be a better player. Often times I would have a list of questions about his career or the Grateful Dead that I would bring with me. Amused, he would always answer. I remember once I asked him about Jerry Garcia’s role as lead guitarist (I pronounced “lead” like the chemical element Pb). Tom dryly responded, “Well it was very heavy.”

 We’ve lost touch through the years but I remember my time with Tom fondly. Not only is he a brilliant player he is a kind and beautiful human. I miss our talks. One thing I’ve come to know is that nobody is self made. We are all molded and influenced by people and experiences along the way.

"I know of no path that is better marked than the study of music. Maybe I just think so because it's the path I'm on. There's the old question "How come there's never enough time to do it right, but there's always enough time to do it over." Well, here's an answer. Settle down. Do it right. However long it takes. That's the direct route to the fast lane!"

 - Tom Constanten

"Are you Jerry Brown?"

I'm not sure if I found Petra's or if Petra's found me. That sounds cliche as hell but that's just the kind of place Petra's was. It was (and is) a place you walk into any night of the week, alone or with friends, and feel completely at home. It's a place that would become a home for me in many ways.

"Are you Jerry Brown," I asked the tall stranger at the bar during one of my first visits. 

I think those were my first words to Jerry. I remember shaking his hand and telling him my name. "Holy shit, I held you when you were a baby," he said. "You've grown up."  That was all it took to become friends with Jerry - a smile and a handshake. Of course, those handshakes quickly evolved into one of his famous bear hugs. It didn't matter how busy the bar was or what band was playing; Jerry always had time for a hug.

Jerry was one of the first club owners to book me in Charlotte. I'm not sure if he ever realized what a big deal that was for me. It was a space where I could perform in front of an audience and, on a few occasions, fuck up. Every performer has an off night. Jerry and the wonderful Petra's family gave me place that allowed me to fuck up, but also to grow up. 

Many nights after the bar had closed down, a few of us would be left inside. I'd find my way over to the piano playing to the stragglers. My dear friend Curtis would want to hear "New York State of Mind" while Jerry, who enjoyed a good hymn, opted for "The Old Rugged Cross." 

Jerry created a place in the neighborhood that allowed artists and patrons of all kinds to gather and be themselves. A rock show one night, a cabaret the next, a yoga class the morning after that. Jerry made Petra's something special and unique and, in the process, became as much of a fixture as the bar itself. 

The last time I played Petra's it was my album release show. It was a packed house and the energy was through the roof. Jerry was there in the crowd. I even flubbed a lyric that night but it didn't matter. I was home with my family and singing my songs.  

The next time I walk through those doors it will be different. There won't be a Jerry to hug and cut up with. But there will still be the piano in the corner, there will still be Curtis' laugh, and there will still be many more good times to be had. We have Jerry to thank for that. 

Jerry Brown