Meet The Checkmates
Cancer innovators band together to make music
By day, members of Checkmates are working to end cancer. But by night, this band of musicians that includes Nobel Prize-winning researcher Jim Allison, Ph.D., lets loose by jamming and performing together.
The Checkmates, a versatile band of MD Anderson musicians with an eclectic playlist and increasing presence in the community, owes its existence to a less than stellar jam session.
At a scientific meeting about 15 years ago, Patrick Hwu, M.D., now head of Cancer Medicine, and colleague Tom Gajewski, M.D., Ph.D., of the University of Chicago, arranged an open-microphone, after-hours music session for immunology experts to showcase their musical and vocal skills.
“It was a total train wreck,” Hwu recalls. “We weren’t organized. No one was singing. It was horrible.”
One of the few who tried to sing, a scientist who will remain nameless, tried to belt out “Wild Thing.”
“He didn’t know all the words!” Hwu recalls. “There are only a few words in ‘Wild Thing.’ So, kind of awful musically, but also lots of fun.”
The original band: the Checkpoints perform at scientific meetings
After learning that some of their colleagues at other institutions also are musicians, Hwu, Gajewski and harmonica player Jim Allison, Ph.D., chair of Immunology at MD Anderson, were inspired to form the Checkpoints, which now is the house band of the Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer. The band is named for the Nobel Prize-winning checkpoint blockade cancer immunotherapy invented by Allison, which removes a “brake” – or checkpoint – on immune cells and thereby frees them to attack cancer.
The Checkpoints play at two scientific meetings each year, gathering from around the country to practice the day before each performance, then scattering afterward. Their performances routinely draw 600 to 700 people. Saxophone player Ferran Prat, Ph.D., J.D., MD Anderson’s senior vice president for Strategic Industry Ventures, caught a show in Chicago and volunteered to introduce woodwinds to the band.
Prat and pianist Hwu began having regular jazz nights at Hwu’s house, joined by an ever-changing parade of MD Anderson musicians.
The birth of MD Anderson's house band, the Checkmates
Playing with the Checkpoints was great, but not enough.
“We wanted to play more often,” Prat explains, “but it’s really hard with a national band.”
So they decided to go local, starting with three Checkpoints: Hwu, Prat and Allison.
Hwu connected with lead guitarist Anthony Lucci, M.D., professor of Breast Surgical Oncology, then Greg Lizee, Ph.D., professor of Melanoma Medical Oncology, who played a number of instruments before settling on the drums.
They formed a new band, the Checkmates – named for the running title of clinical trials of Allison’s drug, ipilimumab.
The band lacked a bass player.
“Seriously, I Googled, MD Anderson bass player,” Hwu recalls. “Up popped a bio of Adela Justice, senior librarian at The Learning Center.
“Ex-cop, librarian, bass player – perfect,” says Prat.
Hwu cold-called Justice, who joined the Checkmates.
“She’s a total musician, went to High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, a music major in college – she’s played professionally. She’s the best,” Hwu says.
Christina Boulton, office manager in Research Administration, and Daron Gilmore, IT support system analyst in Cancer Medicine, front the band with soaring vocals, with Allison growling select songs.
Prat connected with trumpet player Powel Brown, M.D., Ph.D., chair of Clinical Cancer Prevention, who helped the Checkmates fill out their horn section with Scott Krueger on trombone and Kyle Krueger on bass saxophone. The father-and-son duo are the only non-MD Anderson musicians in the group.
“The horns bring a completely different dimension,” Hwu says.
He plays a digital recording of the Checkmates’ version of Bruno Mars’ song “Uptown Funk” from a recent gig.
“They nailed it!” he exclaims.
It’s a ton of fun.
The Checkmates are a microcosm of MD Anderson
The strength of the local band is regular practice.
“We can play harder songs in the Checkmates,” Prat says. “You can’t play Stevie Wonder cold.”
They perform at a variety of MD Anderson events and occasional benefits for cancer-related charities in Houston.
The band feels like a microcosm of MD Anderson, Prat says, with members who work in the clinic, researchers, faculty, staff and administrators.
“In the band, we’re all the same,” Hwu says. “It’s beautiful. We love each other; it’s a ton of fun. Every time we play, we think, ‘Why don’t we do this more often?’”
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