By Bryn Nelson
In South Carolina, music gave Paul Caldwell joy when he needed it most. In Seattle, music will help him be a leading voice for change. And in Chicago, it was music – a stack of sheet music in his favorite leather satchel – that literally saved his life.
The new artistic director of Seattle Women’s Chorus and Seattle Men’s Chorus has been deeply influenced by a childhood transformed through gospel music and racial integration, a long commitment to service, and a near-death experience just steps from his home.
Raised in Chester, S.C., Caldwell recalls his fear of not fitting in with the conservative Evangelical culture of the rural South, even before he knew he was gay. “It was a culture where I really felt the need to hide to the point of trying to disappear,” he says. The same culture, however, inspired his love of music with its rousing gospel songs. “Music was a way to find myself and lose myself and be happy and experience unbridled joy,” he says.
After receiving his master’s degree in music from Southern Methodist University in Dallas in 1989, Caldwell joined forces with fellow composer Sean Ivory in the early 1990s. The professional duo has since written dozens of original compositions and arrangements. “When I make music today, I find myself trying to recreate a snapshot where other people will experience that same kind of unbridled joy that was so powerful for me as a child,” Caldwell says. “I really only found my voice as a musician and as a person when I returned to that musical vocabulary.”
He brought that musical exuberance and energy to his position as artistic director for Chicago’s Windy City Gay Chorus and Windy City Treble Quire. On April 3, only a month after accepting his new position in Seattle, Caldwell was walking across the street to his home after rehearsing the music his Chicago choirs would showcase at the LGBTQ choral movement’s summer GALA festival in Denver.
But as Caldwell stepped into the crosswalk, he was nearly killed by a hit-and-run driver who sped through a red light and ran him over. “It felt like my body was being sucked into a paper shredder,” Caldwell recalls. His left leg got caught in the wheel well and was badly broken; his right arm smashed against the pavement, destroying the bones in his elbow; his left arm was run over by a rear tire and cut badly.
It could have been far worse. “Miraculously, the satchel I was carrying, which was full of choral sheet music, landed on the pavement,” Caldwell says. His face hit the satchel and its metal buckle broke his nose and cut his face. “But because my face landed on the satchel and not on the pavement, I survived the accident.”
After an extended stay in the hospital, nine weeks in a nursing home, multiple surgeries, and countless hours of grueling physical therapy, Caldwell says he has experienced the profound isolation and uncertainty of a painful recovery, as well as moments of sheer beauty.
His Chicago chorus members showed up en masse to comfort and wash him, to cook him meals and feed him, and to buy him clothes that would accommodate the “Erector Set” around his reconstructed elbow and the cast on his leg. “I really didn’t comprehend people’s capacity to care for me,” he says. “I have wanted for nothing. They have dried my tears and made me laugh. It’s really incredible.”
Music, he says, builds communities with a remarkable capacity to care. “What I do know is that music often brings out the best in us,” he says. “A song can inspire someone to stand up and do something in a way that nothing else really can.”
Caldwell has heeded the call himself through projects such as a collaboration with the Tyler Clementi Foundation to combat bullying and help prevent suicides among LGBTQ youth. He has worked with Chicago’s Youth Empowerment Performance Project to aid homeless LGBTQ youth. Caldwell has even helped raise money for New Orleans musicians impacted by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
He learned some of the most important lessons about love and respect, he says, from his African American high school French teacher. The day he entered first grade, Caldwell’s school was integrated and he grew up with African American classmates and teachers. None had a more profound impact on him than his French teacher. “I loved her. I’m a child of the South, but I became a child of her,” he says. They stayed in touch over the years and built a strong friendship; she was among the many friends sending him get-well wishes after his accident.
Although Caldwell will miss his beloved choirs and their shared history in Chicago, he says he instinctively knew that Seattle was the right place for him after his tryout in January. “I knew that immediately in my rehearsals with the choruses,” he says.
As the new artistic director, he brings his passion for music, sense of humor and conviction that Seattle Men’s Chorus and Seattle Women’s Chorus can continue to be a powerful force for good. Despite the remarkable advances in LGBTQ rights, he says, it’s critical to remember the places and people who haven’t yet achieved the same tolerance and freedoms. “We have the ability to really be a voice for the voiceless,” Caldwell says. “I remember what it was like to feel voiceless, living in a rural place where being gay was not OK. Now we’ve found our voices, so we have to use them.”
He is also looking forward to simple joys with new friends. “I came too close to not being able to walk or hold hands again,” he says. After his near-death experience, he says, he can’t wait to meet new people and hold hands and walk up and down Seattle’s famous hills. Despite the uncertainties inherent in a long recovery, Caldwell is thrilled at the new chapter in his life. “I just can’t wait,” he says. “I’m so excited, and I think it’s going to be a blast.”