Saturday, February 10, 2007
Raising a glass...
As many of you know, my maternal grandmother died in September after fighting a six-year battle with the aftermath of a major stroke. I was fortunate enough to be able to go home for the funeral, and even more miraculous, so was Dave.
My aunt Nancy put together a beautiful slide show presentation of Grandma Marian's life, all to the soundtrack of my grandfather playing his trumpet. As I was playing the hymn during the service, the pictures of grandma still in my eyes, I started thinking about how profoundly connected I am to my family. And that day, I was thinking much about my grandparents and what legacies live on in their absence. Specifically, I had my first real thoughts about my musical lineage and how profound it really is that expression through music spread through generations of both sides of my family.
So, in this blog, I raise a glass to the generations before me and all that they left behind. In an unsolicited telling of my history, I'd like to introduce you to some special members of my family.
Starting with my mom's side...Grandma Marian - my mom's mom - was a creative, thoughtful, musical woman. She had a great smile and laugh that only improved with age. And I swear she still had the skin of a 25-year old in her final years! Amazing. She was a poet and a calligrapher. Many of her poems were published in poetry journals, in fact.
And Marian was a pianist. She played with a jazzy stride style. Playing melodies in octaves in the right hand and keeping the harmonic rhythm steady in the left. This seemed to be instinctual for her. She wrote piano arrangements of all sorts of songs...ballads, hymns, even tv theme songs. And yet, not a prideful bone in her body. So much that, it wasn't until this past year that I really started to appreciate what she could do as a musician. A lot, frankly. And she was determined to have piano music in their home.
My mom recently told me this story:
"Mom desperately wanted a piano, so she found an old upright someone in the neighborhood was discarding. It was quite a deal getting the piano down our basement steps. They had to remove the top of the piano and the wheels, etc, but they got it down there. It was ugly as sin. She wanted Nancy and me to learn to play the piano, and Mom was a great pianist, so the piano made sense, but it was truly ugly, all spotted and water stained and chipped wood, etc. Mom decided to paint it a bright flamingo pink/orange. She made a leopard skin cover for the swivel stool that came with the piano, and she painted a big black staff, G cleff and notes on the wall behind the piano. When we saw it, we couldn’t wait to play it!! She made playing piano a fun thing even though it was still the old horrible sounding upright."
Grandma ended up buying a new piano in the sixties - an Acrosonic spinet - using money she earned and saved after contributing to household expenses. Fortunately, I have many recordings of her playing solo and with my grandpa on that piano.
Grandpa Bob, who is still with us - living in St. Paul, began his musical life playing the violin. But growing up during the uprise of the jazz age, he caught the trend by learning to play the trumpet.
I've spent many hours in recent years asking grandpa about playing, arranging (which he did much for brass bands and jazz combos), teaching music (which he did up until only a few years ago), and about his crazy gigs in the days of gangsters and speak easies. In the hundreds (if not thousands) of times he played out in his life, he collected a dizzying array of stories about people met and experiences had that keep me spell-bound.
Without even realizing what a gift it was, I grew up seeing Grandma at the piano bench, playing and singing. I saw photocopies of her arrangements on our piano's music stand. She and grandpa (and Nancy and Heather and Dave and me and my mom) would play carols together at Christmas. Grandpa gave me trumpet lessons. Grandpa gave my brother trumpet lessons. Heck...he gave most of the male cousins in my family trumpet lessons. And when they all got to be pretty good, they started playing together on Christmases.
Also on my mother's side of the family...Grandma Marian's brother Lambert was a great stride player. He gave me my first lesson in the left hand "boom chuck" when I was 14. "Just a Closer Walk With Thee". Lam looked like Ronald Reagan to me. Dashing and strong. Always donning a turtleneck and a blazer. A walking style icon.
My mom's sister Nancy is a gifted pianist and organist. She held a position as church organist for many many years. She writes piano arrangements and published a song she wrote for voice and piano. Her daughter - my cousin - Heather is also a talented pianist who has accompanied choirs and bands of all shapes and sizes in her lifetime.
My mom herself has a really beautiful relationship to the piano. She plays frequently, using her time at the bench to relax and enjoy the beauty of her favorite songs. She was my first teacher, showing me how to read music and providing me with all the basic tools to start my musical life. Recently, I had the great pleasure of returning the favor and sharing with her some tips of the trade I've picked up since those early days when she taught me.
Ione Kadden, one of Marian's cousins, composed and published the song used to celebrate Minnesota's 100-year anniversary. A talented singer and all around promoter of music and musicians, she got me my first paying music gig...playing a 45-minute concert set for Club Montparnasse in Minneapolis. I think I was 12 or 13 at the time. She was one of the most encouraging people I've ever met. Always saw great potential in people.
On my father's side, there was my grandmother's mother...grandma Evans...who I never had the chance to meet...who was a trained gifted classical pianist. I believe it was her piano that we ended up inheriting and on which I learned to play. It was nearly 100 years old when we got it. I have also received many of her scores and books, and recently, one of her music theory notebooks from her college studies.
My father's mother, grandma Jane, was always tremendously supportive and interested in my musical and artistic pursuits. She died before she had a chance to hear me play classical music, which I know she would've loved. It was with the money she left me that I bought the grand piano that now belongs to my parents.
My father's sister Sally is a skilled pianist, who plays at her church in Virginia and often accompanies other classical musicians. Her daughter Cindy is a professional clarinetist who performs and teaches on the east coast.
Every Christmas, there were opportunites for the extended family to come together and play. And play. And play. Kids would work up solo pieces for the Family Talent Show. Adults would congregate and improvise carols. Grandpa and his trumpteers. This was the wallpaper of my holidays. And so tame were everyone's egos that it never dawned on me the collective talent that I was surrounded by. There wasn't a competition among players. Just everyone using music to come together and say something personal. Some bright. A dream-like musical atmosphere for a young player.
And as years have passed, we have also shared music together at the events celebrating the completed lives of those we've lost. I have bit my lip at the piano bench a few times, playing hymns and songs honoring my family. Saying good byes in the way I know they would understand.
It's a beautiful circle.
On any given day, I will undoubtedly go through some artistic quandry about the status of my musical self...What should I write? What should I play? Will anyone want to hear what I write or play? And yet, at the core of it all, I'm seated at a bright pink and orange piano, with grandpa's trumpet in my ear, Lam coaching my left hand, grandma Evans starting the metronome, and Ione making a phone call to tell somebody about her talented grand-cousin.