As far as he knew, Ethan Ostrow was entirely healthy, expect for some digestion problems that barely dented his elation at a very successful first week of college. An actor and accomplished musician who held down the piano chair in the Berkeley High Jazz Ensemble for several years, he enrolled in the University of Minnesota’s respected Theatre Arts & Dance program last year and immediately made a strong impression, getting cast in several plays (including a high-profile production of Jenny Schwartz’s God’s Ear).
Call it a premonition, a coincidence, or a case of unknowingly tuning into his body’s incipient breakdown, but after his first week of classes, unable to sleep because of stomach pain, Ostrow “decided to get up and write a list of all the people I would call if I knew I was going to die.”
When his worsening condition sent him to the ER the next day, he was diagnosed with an “undisclosed type of cancer,” he says. “I was having trouble breathing because tumors had spread all over my abdomen. I ended up having this list I really needed to use. It was a very surreal course of events.”
After an excruciating week and a half waiting to find out whether he had a terminal condition, Ostrow ended up back in the East Bay for intensive chemotherapy at Kaiser Oakland, treatment that fought off stage 4 Burkitt’s lymphoma. And on Monday at Freight & Salvage he marshals his music in the fight against cancer with Hat’s Off: A Benefit Concert for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
His group features two fellow Berkeley High Jazz Ensemble alumni from the class of 2016, drummer Matt Stoloff, a sophomore at Oberlin Conservatory, and bassist Max Schwartz, who’s spent the year working with bluegrass icon Laurie Lewis before he starts the University of Miami’s music program in the fall.
One sure sign that Ostrow is getting back into the groove is that he’s returning to his hectic lifestyle. In addition to preparing for Monday’s benefit concert, which will feature a number of special guests, Ostrow is serving as assistant music director for Youth Musical Theater Company’s upcoming production of Frank Loesser’s operatic musical The Most Happy Fella (which runs July 21-30 at the El Cerrito High School Performing Arts Theater). He’s working under David Möschler, the music director on about a dozen YMTC shows in which Ostrow has been cast, responsibilities he tackled while also immersed in the all-consuming world of Berkeley High jazz.
“I have no recollection of how it works,” Ostrow says. “I just remember countless semesters of committing to a show, and they’d have to hire an understudy for one performance I had to miss for a jazz concert.”
Even over the jazz ensemble’s trip to Cuba last year he was learning lines for a YMTC production, “and I had to miss a fifth of the rehearsal period for the show I was in. I was staying up late to make sure when I got back I had done my job as part of the jazz ensemble, but could also show up to rehearsals with all my lines memorized. Maybe I’m crazy, but I sort of appreciate having an overwhelming number of things to do.”
In the meritocratic hothouse of the Bay Area, talk of busyness can sound a lot like boasting, but Ostrow’s punishing pace is geared toward creation rather than ostentation. Bassist Max Schwartz, who like Ostrow has a second creative passion aside from jazz (in his case, bluegrass), saw his dogged perfectionism pay off when they were both writing big band charts for the Jazz Ensemble’s end of the year concert at the UC Theatre.
“I just remember he brought in draft after draft, really looking for feedback,” Schwartz says. “Is this passage in the right range for you? As a musician and artist, he likes to exhaust his options and look for the best thing. I had started my chart and he came and asked some questions. I knew he was really trying to make art out of it, and he ended up writing a great piece.”
Being accustomed to working every minute, Ostrow was particularly ill-prepared for the sudden halt required by chemotherapy. Facing mortality at 18 is tough enough, but for Ostrow getting used to the need for down time has proven almost as difficult.
“I really could not do anything for four or five months,” he says. “Even now I don’t have the same physical restrictions, but there was a big emotional toll. I do feel limited. There’s a lot more space and time in my life, even when I’m doing a million things. Often in the day I need to take a few hours to relax and not do anything, which stresses me out, even though it’s exactly what I need”
At the end of the summer, he heads back to the University of Minnesota to pick up where he left off. After the big splash he made upon his arrival last year he’s returning to campus with some added pressure as his sudden exit attracted a good deal of attention. “It’s a blessing and a curse,” he says. “My name is very much in the University of Minnesota theater community now, and I’m worried that they’ll have some expectations.”