'Miniature self-survival festival'

Saxophonist turns to playing on downtown streets

Tuesday, December 30, 2003


Scott McClurg/Journal-World Photo

Saxophonist Dan Kozak, Topeka, plays a tune as a passer-by drops money in his jar. Kozak, who has fallen on hard times, plays his sax on the corner of Seventh and Massachusetts streets.

Dan Kozak stood a wooden crate on end, placed a board across it to serve as a countertop, and set out a pitcher with a dollar bill taped to the top. He wrapped a sign that read "Enriching Your Stroll Downtown" around a nearby trash can.

Then, this established jazz musician from Topeka began to do what he says he must these days, both for money and for his mental health: blow through his tenor saxophone and hope that not everyone who passes the corner of Seventh and Massachusetts streets will ignore him.

"It doesn't look promising," he said in between songs as he looked up at the cloudy sky.

The 51-year-old Kozak has two things many street musicians lack: musical credentials and a large repertoire. He's recorded two compact discs and is known in Topeka for co-founding an annual jazz festival in honor of tenor saxophone great Coleman Hawkins, who once lived in Topeka.

But what Kozak does these days in Lawrence involves music at a more primitive level.

"I guess this is my miniature self-survival festival," he said. "You always hear the phrase that most people are one paycheck away from becoming homeless. Life is not fair, and bad things happen. What you think you deserve out of life is all an illusion."

Precarious situation
Most people who have passed this intersection recently have probably heard Kozak or seen him stepping in semicircles, lost in what he considers his form of prayer. He idolizes John Coltrane but plays requests, be it Bob Dylan, country and western, or the "Sesame Street" theme, which he plays when children stop to listen.

Since July, he's been setting up here whenever the weather is suitable, playing until his lips can't shape any more notes -- usually for two to three hours -- and making anywhere from $20 to $70.

Kozak said he suffered four heart attacks in 1999 and 2000 and underwent sextuple-bypass surgery, but that was the easy part. Things really started going downhill, he said, about a year ago when his live-in partner of more than four years left him.

"I started slipping into a depression the likes of which I didn't think it was possible to get to," Kozak said.

He said she recently came back to town to move his former partner's belongings out of the home, which she owns. The home will be sold soon, and Kozak said he's hoping to move into a Quaker meeting house in Topeka -- the same house where Hawkins once lived -- and earn his keep as a caretaker and custodian.

"We've given him permission to stay at the meeting house for a short period of time, but in terms of living there on a long-term basis as a caretaker, that's something that's going to have to be decided in the future," said David Ozaki, clerk of the Topeka Friends Meeting.

Looking for work
Kozak has a part-time job with benefits in the music department of Barnes & Noble, but his job prospects beyond that are limited. He worked for 25 years as a nursing technician, but with his heart troubles and recent depression, he fears no employer will hire him -- and he says he wouldn't feel right if he didn't mention his health history during a job interview.

"I think he really is a good-hearted person," said Lawrence resident Steve Burk, the musical director for Grace Episcopal Cathedral in Topeka, where Kozak plays twice-annual concerts. "Maybe to his own detriment, he probably wears his own heart on his sleeve."

Until now, Kozak has never resorted to playing in the streets, except to raise money for the Coleman Hawkins festival. He used to be able to supplement his income by playing private engagements alone or with other musicians-- billed as Dan Kozak Jazz --but the phone hasn't been ringing lately.

"There's hardly any market for what I do in any of the clubs. Even the Jazzhaus here rarely has jazz anymore," he said. "I've never had an unsatisfied customer in 10 years. The time when I need it most, the private gigs have dried up."

On the street
He plays in Lawrence instead of Topeka, he said, because he considers it more cosmopolitan. People who walk past generally have one of three reactions, he said: They act like he's not there, they appear to feel sorry for him and toss some change in the pitcher without stopping, or they genuinely appreciate what he's playing and leave him bills, not coins.

He sampled other corners downtown before settling on Seventh and Mass., which he likes in part because he can see Liberty Hall.

"It was just the corner with the best vibrations," he said.

In 1996, downtown business owners united in an effort to curb panhandling downtown. But workers in shops near Kozak's playing don't seem to mind his presence.

Most employees of Hobbs Inc., 700 Mass., enjoy Kozak's music, a clerk said, and so does Lauren Royall, a clerk at Bloom Bath & Body, 704 Mass.

"I love it. It just kind of adds to the atmosphere," she said. "He really just seems like he's out there to entertain. I don't feel attacked when I walked by him."

On an afternoon last week, however, the vibrations weren't so hot. The wind shook Kozak's crate, the temperature fell, and slowly, drops of rain puddled on the compact discs he puts out for sale.

When the rain picked up, he gathered his crate, his saxophones, his stack of orange biographical fliers, and his sign. He hurried to his Toyota Corolla and stuffed the equipment in his trunk.

In the past half-hour he had earned, judging by the sound of change dropped in his jar, about two dollars.

Originally published in the Lawrence Journal-World on Oct. 19. Kozak continues to play on the corner of Seventh and Mass. streets