Sunday, May 16, 2010

Musician Paralyzed with ALS Still Makes Music

Inspiring and heartbreaking all at the same time. What an awful disease.

May 15, 2010 | Photo by John Gastaldo

Ned Mann, who is unable to speak and is paralyzed from the neck down as a result of ALS, spent six months mixing and mastering a two-CD set of music for an ALS Society fundraiser. He used a special computer program operated by movements of his head to produce the CD’s music.

Making tracks despite fighting ALS
Undaunted by effects of disease, musician Ned Mann finds a way to follow his passion


Sunday, May 16, 2010 at 12:05 a.m.

DEL MAR — Ned Mann always used his head to make music as a prominent jazz and pop bassist, recording engineer and producer in the 1990s. Now, 11 years after being stricken with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) — the debilitating neuromuscular condition known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease” — he is again making music with his head. Literally.

No longer able to talk, walk, stand or use his hands and arms, Mann expertly handled all audio mixing and postproduction work on the new album “Finding My Way Home — Help Ned Fight ALS.” He mixed the two-CD release, a remarkable labor of love that benefits the nonprofit ALS Society, completely on his own, using state-of-the-art technology.

That technology, NaturalPoint SmartNAV, enabled him to use a reflective dot placed on his forehead to control his computer with a laser head-tracking system, instead of a hand-operated mouse.

By very carefully and precisely moving his head, Mann mixed and mastered the album with ProTools, the same professional recording software he used for years at his New Jersey studio. It took him six months to complete the all-instrumental “Finding My Way Home,” which features as many as a dozen musicians performing on some of its 16 songs.

“Anything is possible if one has hope,” said Mann, 48, who resides in an assisted-living facility in Del Mar and lives by the credo: Acceptance. Forgiveness. Gratitude. Hope.

This credo is emphasized on his extensive Web site, Created with the help of friends, it includes more than a dozen Web pages, including one that links to a video clip that shows Mann mixing the album with his head (HERE).

“To our knowledge, this is the first time SmartNAV has been used to mix an album,” said Ryan Stoughton, a spokesman for The Human Solution, the Texas company that created and markets SmartNAV.

Yet, despite having ALS, Mann remains mentally sharp. He has also maintained his high aesthetic standards, as the sparkling sound and impeccable balance of instruments on “Finding My Way Home” attests.

A paralyzing (and as yet incurable) disease, ALS affects nerve cells in the spinal cord and brain — and, with it, the brain’s ability to instigate and control muscle movement. This in turn causes the motor neurons between the spine and muscles throughout the body to degenerate and die.

The average life expectancy for someone with ALS is three to four years, as Mann notes on his Web site, but he has lived with the disease for 11 years. Jazz legend Charles Mingus, also a bassist, died from ALS in 1979. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Stephen Hawking, the world’s most famous living person with ALS, has had the disease for 47 of his 68 years.

“Ned has a determination to make the best of things,” said Jessica Mann, his devoted wife of 27 years, who heads General Atomic’s environmental, health and safety department. “He doesn’t like sitting around.”

Her husband, who hopes to raise $50,000 for the ALS Society’s San Diego chapter from sales of “Finding My Way Home,” nodded in agreement.

“The album has definitely been cathartic for Ned,” Jessica noted. “It’s almost a culmination of his career.”

Organized by saxophonist David Mann, Ned’s younger brother, the recording sessions for “Finding My Way Home” took place last May. They were held at a studio in New Jersey, not far from where Ned had lived with Jessica and their two sons, Evan and Ben (14 and 11, respectively).

The family moved to Carmel Valley in 2003, in part to provide a milder climate for Ned. After the “Finding My Way Home” recordings were done, digital files of the music were sent to him to begin the laborious mixing and mastering process.

“Ned’s ability to play an instrument was taken away from him,” David Mann, 46, said, from his New York home. “But his musicality and his love of music were not taken away from him. For him to keep making music with this album, and to become a part of the musical community again, was a joy for him.”

Three songs on “Finding My Way Home” feature Ned’s bass-playing from 1999, the same year his then-undiagnosed ALS began to make his arms numb. The musicians on the album, which deftly mixes straight-ahead and smooth-jazz, include “Late Night With David Letterman” bassist Will Lee, Rolling Stones’ touring saxophonist Tim Ries and former Miles Davis guitarist Mike Stern.

“We all played on it for free because we like and respect Ned so much,” said Stern, a longtime friend and musical partner of Mann.

“I went to visit Ned in Del Mar last year, and the work he did mixing the album impressed the hell out of me. I thought, ‘Wow! If he has that much sensitivity left in his heart and mind that he is able to mix music so well — without being able to move his body — it just illuminates his courage and ability all the more.’ ”

Stern was so impressed that he is already recommending Mann to mix albums by other established jazz artists.

Asked if he’d be open to doing more mixing work, Mann nodded, then added a qualification.

“I work slowly, so it would depend on the client,” he replied. “I used to work 12-hour days. Now, four is enough.”

Conducting an interview with Mann is a unique experience. Answering questions requires intense concentration on his part, since he lost his ability to speak aloud about five months ago.

He now communicates using the same SmartNAV computer program he used to mix “Finding My Way Home.” In this case, he spells out words by using his laser head-tracking system to point at letters on a keyboard on his computer screen. A robotic-sounding electronic voice audibly articulates each letter and word as Mann types them. Each of his sentences begins with the word “enter” and each word is punctuated by “space bar” each time he starts to type another word.

Eager to converse, Mann — an avid newspaper reader — typed out a comment even before his interviewer could pose a question. It read: “I liked your article on Sly & The Family Stone (performing) at Coachella.”

Asked about the first concert he attended as a kid, the Michigan-born Mann typed: “I saw Miles Davis in 1973, when I was 12. (Pianist) Keith Jarrett was with him.”

Mann began performing professionally in Ann Arbor jazz bands in his midteens. He and Jessica met when his band played at their high school. They have been together ever since. The walls in his Del Mar room contain framed photographs of the couple and of their two sons, who visit their father regularly. His eyes quickly light up when he speaks about his family.

“Music as a career has always been hard. Now I do music just for the love and joy of it. Doing this album kept me positive,” typed Mann, whose extensive résumé includes working with Irish music group The Chieftains, Cuban saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera and Puerto Rican flutist Nestor Torres, whose Grammy-winning 2001 album, “This Side of Paradise,” Mann engineered.

When asked what music he’s enjoying, Mann clicked his computer and a lilting vocal ballad by Cameroonian bassist and singer Richard Bona began to play. Later, when asked about pianist Michel Camilo, in whose band Mann played in the 1990s with San Diego drummer Cliff Almond, Mann clicked on a YouTube video clip of their performance at the 1991 Newport Jazz Festival.

Listening intently, he smiled and gently swayed his head in time to the music. Yet, as much as he obviously enjoyed sharing this blast from his past, Ned Mann leaves no doubt he is focused on the present — and on the inspirational new chapter “Finding My Way Home” represents.

“One of my favorite parts of this project has been re-connecting with all the musicians,” he said. “I hear from them every day now. Music is a competitive business, and this project has brought out the very best in people.”


Veteran musician, producer and recording engineer Ned Mann recently completed all audio mixing and postproduction work on an all-star, two-CD album recorded in his honor. He accomplished this despite having Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a disease that has robbed him of the ability to talk or use his arms or hands. Mann mixed the album by using his exacting head movements to operate special computer software. The project took him six months of painstaking work to complete.

Making a difference: All proceeds from “Finding My Way Home — Help Ned Fight ALS” will benefit the ALS Society. Mann hopes sales of the album will enable him to reach his goal of raising $50,000 for ALS’s San Diego chapter. The album is available from and can be downloaded at iTunes, AmazonMP3 and Napster. For more information:

Quotation: “With this album, I was willing to take risks, to try things that I never had time for (before).

I had time to experiment and enjoy the process. This project is about hope. The music is played with love, which I hope will come through to the listener.”

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