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Parkinson's patient is enjoying an unlikely career in music.

Wednesday December 22, 2010

Brad Flory

Mlive.com - Before his body went mysteriously and profoundly wrong, Walter Liskiewicz was an oral surgeon enjoying the middle of his career in Jackson.

The middle suddenly became the end in 1994, after his right hand froze “like a claw” and ordinary movements required supreme effort.

“I said, ‘What am I doing? I can’t do this anymore. I cannot treat patients,’” Liskiewicz recalls

So he retired at age 44 due to the onset of what was later diagnosed as Parkinson’s disease.

Sixteen years later, Liskiewicz, 60, has reinvented himself with one of the most unlikely musical careers found anywhere.

He writes and records jazz music while simultaneously battling his disease with every weapon from experimental brain surgery to faith healing.

“He is one of the most prolific songwriters I have ever known,” said Sandy Shore, Liskiewicz’s California-based agent and founder of SmoothJazz.com and SmoothLounge.com. “His music is inspired.”

Jimmy Shellberg, a Jackson producer and musician who collaborates with Liskiewicz, called him a talented and determined artist.

“He’s got an inner gift; there’s no doubt about it,” said Shellberg. “The first day I met him, I knew this guy was serious business.”

Liskiewicz is a Taylor native whose first love was baseball. He studied to become an oral surgeon at the University of Michigan, where he met his wife, Jackson dentist Constance Smith. They have two children.

He moved to Jackson in 1979 to practice oral surgery with Dr. Jerry Booth.

“We had good chemistry,” said Booth, who recently retired. “Good partnerships are tough to come by, but we had a good partnership until his health would not allow it.”

Liskiewicz noticed symptoms of Parkinson’s disease in 1992, and his condition worsened steadily.

“No one wants to quit and no one wants to say ‘I can’t.’ But he had to do both of those things,” Booth said. “It was difficult sledding, emotionally, for both of us.”

“When I retired, I was shot,” Liskiewicz said. “I couldn’t walk to the mailbox.”

Parkinson’s disease is a motor-system disorder caused by a loss of dopamine-producing brain cells. It is often characterized by tremors, stiffness and impaired balance and coordination.

Medication can help greatly, but the disease never goes away and it gets worse over time.

Liskiewicz has periods of pronounced, wiggly body movements and periods when his body remains calm. Much depends on the level of his medication.

“It’s the medication that causes the motions,” he said. “In an unmedicated state, you literally freeze. You cannot move.”

His disease was diagnosed after his retirement, and medication enabled Liskiewicz to rebuild lost strength.

“For several years, I spent time with my kids and had fun with them,” he said.

Around 2000, he bought a synthesizer and took up music as a hobby. He had no musical training and no lessons.

“Everyone thought I was nuts,” he said.

His first musical efforts, by Liskiewicz’s evaluation, were poor. But he became “a man possessed.” He spent long hours at the synthesizer and often did not sleep.

“To do this kind of music, you really have to be a studio wizard,” said Smith. “And he is.”

His first CD was released in 2002. Looking back, he says “it stunk but there was one good song on it.”

Thirteen more CDs followed under three names: Waldino, The Love Gypsies, and The Allure.

Waldino, an alias he said was picked from thin air, accounts for most of Liskiewicz’s output. It is “chill jazz” music.

The Love Gypsies, a group that is Liskiewicz, Shellberg and a floating assortment of session players, makes R&B and jazz.

The Allure is Liskiewicz and singer Laura Chandler of San Francisco. They released a smooth jazz CD in 2008.

With practice, his music became highly polished and began attracting notice.

Three years ago, he was surprised to hear one of his songs played on the radio while visiting Chicago with his wife.

“We could hardly believe it,” he said. “It was like: How did this happen?”

His songs have aired on jazz radio stations around the country and are featured on the syndicated “Chill With Mindi Abair” radio show.

“Walter’s music is some of the most popular we play on SmoothLounge.com and our contemporary jazz outlet, SmoothJazz.com,” said Shore. “He has many fans all over the world.”

Parkinson’s disease can cause hurdles for the recording process, especially when he sings and plays harmonica.

“You wait until the right time,” Liskiewicz said. “I can be slightly wiggly and still achieve a lot of what I want to do.”

“We usually wait it out until he is physically feeling good,” said Shellberg. “He does not give up easily and neither do I.”

Over time, his disease progressed enough that by last year even with medication it began to threaten Liskiewicz’s ability to make music.

“I couldn’t walk very much,” he said. “I couldn’t do much at all. It was starting to interfere with the music. My singing was deteriorating because of my Parkinson’s.”

In July 2009, Liskiewicz received experimental surgery to put genes into his brain.

The surgery, which is considered promising, appears to have caused significant improvement.

“It’s not like you wake up and say, ‘I’m cured,’” Liskiewicz said. “You look back after a year and realize how far you’ve come.”

Surgery and a subsequent case of shingles laid him low for much of this year, but Liskiewicz went back to the music.

“I had to resurrect myself,” he said.

Last month he released a Waldino Christmas album titled “Coming Home for Christmas.”

“I was in a lot of pain in my back, and some other things, but somehow I found the energy to do it,” Liskiewicz said.

Now, he said, he feels better and is eager to make his next CD.

“The music is ready,” he said. “All I have to do is sing it.”

Sometimes his wife speaks to groups, and her talk is about her husband. She calls his life a lesson to everyone.

“Follow your dreams,” she said. “And if your dreams don’t work out, find new dreams.”

New dreams can be even better than the old ones.

“I loved my career as an oral surgeon and it was wonderful, but this is more fun,” Liskiewicz said. “I am not making a bundle of money, but I am having a blast.

“I get really pumped up about it. It’s almost like I was meant to do it.”