Music Feature



Reflections: Oh the Irony!

February 1, 2011 - Raleigh, NC:


In 1961, a young man struggling to establish himself in the business of architecture in the big city of Philadelphia decided to add music as a possible vocation. Having studied piano and trumpet from an early age, he decided to reacquaint himself with the instrument and the discipline. He went to his former school, the Settlement School of Music, where he had taken lessons for the piano and trumpet; he had actually done better on the trumpet than on the piano. Nevertheless, he proceeded to study with a pianist named Irwin Gelber.

Mr. Gelber was a young man at the time, not too much older than the prospective student.  He was part of a new breed of classically-trained musicians who acknowledged jazz as a viable and valuable American art form. As you may have gathered, the young man was me, and I had inadvertently selected the one teacher who could lead me out of the woods.

Mr. Gelber’s multi-cultural background turned out to be a great springboard. At our first lesson he inquired into my motives for wanting to study music while at the same time pursuing architecture. Did I intend to become a classical solo performer or a member of an orchestra? Did I want to play just for my own amusement? The answer to these questions, he said, would help him understand the depth of my commitment and, in turn, determine the way he would approach my instruction.

I had never been presented with options of this sort in the past, so I was taken aback slightly, but I soon realized he was serious. After pondering for a minute, I realized that, given the choice, I would probably prefer playing jazz. Thinking that this statement would surely cause him to cancel my lessons, I was surprised to find that he was neither insulted nor dismayed by my choice.

Mr. Gelber, it turned out, had gone to school with and was a good friend of James (Jimmy) Depreist, nephew of world famous contralto Marian Anderson. I had seen Jimmy perform as a jazz drummer at a society fund-raiser several years before and knew something of the buzz surrounding his name and genealogy in the City of Brotherly Love. Of him great things were expected, and he was to live to them - sometimes under very extenuating circumstances. From his association with Jimmy, Mr. Gelber felt he had some familiarity with the jazz idiom and the techniques that would be required.

Because of the style of jazz piano playing of the day ("comping," or  the rhythmic use of three and four note chords in the left hand to accompany melodic solo lines in the right), jazz pianists had lost many of the possibilities available to play with the left hand. His lessons, he said, would focus on equalizing the skills of both hands. First, using scales, he taught me how to practice, how to hold my hands, and how to address the keyboard - an approach that was, strangely, omitted by my former teachers. Armed with this new knowledge, I took up my scales, Czerny exercises, and two waltzes of Chopin which he said were within my abilities and would help develop my touch and feel.

Filled with great expectations bolstered by this new outlook, I became very committed and, in time, quite proficient. Indeed I became so technically proficient that my fingers moved too rapidly when developing jazz solos, outstripping my ideas - which at that stage in my development were not really so plentiful. After about nine months of this phenomenal experience, however, my economic situation changed and I had to stop taking lessons.

Because of his focus on left hand development, I was attuned to left-handed music. While listening to the classical music station on my car radio one day, I heard the announcer say, "the piece we just heard was Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, performed by… " (I don’t remember who).  Even though I was in traffic and probably distracted, his statement left me dumbfounded. I thought there had to have been more than one hand playing the music I heard! I was so struck by the recording that I bought the score to prove to myself that more than one hand was used. Nope! To my amazement, there was only one. Ravel had so artfully woven the arrangement around the left hand that, without seeing the score with my own eyes, I really couldn't distinguish when the piano was playing or when one of the instruments of the orchestra was taking its place.

As I advanced my standing in the jazz community, I tried to carry my musical training with me. However, the demand for the popular style and sound pressured me to follow the crowd and revert to playing just chords with my left hand. (It’s amazing how easily you can lose your facility when you stop using it.) As a result, I got the opportunity to go on the road with a well known group and travel around the country and parts of the world.\

Thinking I would pursue architecture, I left the circuit in 1974 to enter NCSU - but lasted only one semester. I went back on the road, finally giving up touring in 1975, this time making one of my main goals the rediscovery, and redevelopment of my left hand. I began by creating music with ostinato patterns that required a strong left hand presence and then performing in groups without a bass player so I would have to utilize my left hand for the entire gig.

After a number of years, during which I had achieved some success, I noticed, ironically, that my left arm was tiring and my hand began feeling numb. Eventually I ended up seeking a medical help and was advised that an operation was necessary to prevent the end of my musical career. I underwent back surgery and realized that my recovery might be lengthy and there was no certainty that I would make a complete recovery.

As I approached this new uphill climb, I thought of Ravel’s Concerto and the man who commissioned the work, Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein,  who lost his right arm during World War I. It is possible for amazing things to come from such adversity. Even though a symphony performance was out of the question for me, Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand became my inspiration. Then one day, I was browsing through YouTube videos and stumbled upon jazz pianist Kenny Drew, Jr., performing Duke Ellington’s "Sophisticated Lady." Lo and behold, it turned out that Kenny played the entire composition using only his left hand! Now this I might be able to accomplish!

I would like to recommend that you listen to Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand - there are many fine recordings, including one played by Wittgenstein himself , and a two-part audio recording with Sviatoslav Richter is available on You Tube, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=371XZyPp-Bg&playnext=1&list=PLB76C96524425A8BF and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fWgbnQOeXTA&playnext=1&list=PLB76C96524425A8BF. Then you may visit YouTube again for the video of Kenny Drew, Jr., performing for a clinic at St. Petersburg College in St. Petersburg, FL, in September 2008.  This is music that changed my life, and I am pleased to be able to share it with you.