February 3, 2010

She Did It All

The number of surviving veterans of jazz, those musicians who were young in the late thirties, is constantly shrinking. Last Monday, January 25, we lost another one when pianist Jane Jarvis passed away at the age of 94.

Jane is far from a household name in the jazz world, although she played with many of the greats and was a highly respected pianist, composer, arranger, and music executive. Jane got her start in the music business in an odd and abrupt way. At the age of 11, she found herself a gig as a staff pianist for a radio station in Gary, Indiana. Jane related how this came about in our interview for the Jazz Archive, on September 3, 1995:

MR: Tell us about how the staff piano player at this radio show came about.

JJ: My life has just been serendipity you know. My father saw, there in the Gary Post Tribune, that they were going to put on a children’s radio show. So he thought well that would be nice, my daughter can play all these little pop tunes you know. So we were sitting in the waiting room, waiting for all these children to come in and perform, and there was a — I don’t know what people were thinking — but there was one lady who had her child there who was a baton twirler. This is for radio now, mind you. And they had tap dancers, and the brought their piece of board that they could tap. And so...

MR: And they were all dressed up too of course, right?

JJ: To a tee, including the mothers and fathers. And so we were sitting in this waiting room and it was really getting very noisy because we’d all been sitting there an hour. And I was very well off, because across from the radio station, you know the next door, a band was rehearsing. And it was a jazz band. So my father says, well let’s just go in there and see what’s going on. And I sat and listened to it as long as I could, and to my father’s astonishment I went up to the leader and asked him if I could sit in. I don’t recall what I said. But these men just thought it was so hilarious you know, to have a little girl, I was 11 at this point. And so they let me sit in and I played, ‘cause I knew all the tunes they were playing. And they just thought it was cute you know. But that did it for me. That’s what I was going to be — a piano player in a big band. All right, now we go back to the waiting room where all the noisy kids are. And a woman came out and she said “can anybody out here play the piano?” Because she was saddled with this room full of kids, chattering kids, kids that could recite poetry you know. So I held my hand up and came in and so I was pressed into service as the accompanist for tap dancers, baton twirlers and singers and so forth. But at this point I could transpose. That was no problem, and I already knew most of the tunes because everybody listened to the radio. And so I went through the whole thing, auditioned the whole, and so I kept waiting for her to say “won’t you play some?” I wanted to be on the show you know. And she never got around to that. I was crushed. I thought if I’m good enough to play for all these kids, why doesn’t she ask me to appear on the program? And I was just getting ready to go out the door and she said “and by the way” she said “could you please be back here next Saturday, we have auditions every Saturday.” And so I thought that was better than nothing. And my father popped up and said “well Jane is accustomed to being paid a small stipend.” My father was an attorney by the way.

MR: Good. I was going to say, what kind of bread are we talking about?

JJ: Well at that point in time 50 cents would have been a large nest you know. So I can’t remember what actually happened, but at any rate, I not only then began playing for all these Saturday auditions, and finally, somebody said “well if she can play for the auditions, she should play for the children on the show.” So then I became the official accompanist see, by default. Then after about six or eight months of this, nobody had any idea how old I was. Because I never did look young. I never had a young face, and it just never crossed their minds that anybody that could do what I was doing could be literally a child. At any rate after a few months of this, their regular staff house pianist summarily walked out one day, and they asked me if I’d like to be the staff pianist for the radio station. Well I couldn’t believe my good fortune but I was sure my parents wouldn’t let me do it. But to my astonishment, my parents had a powwow and Mother was very big into the public school system, she made a special trip and spoke to my principal and she said “my daughter has an unparalleled opportunity, could she possibly be excused from study halls and let her stay home the first two hours in the morning?” I worked until twelve o’clock at night, would you believe this? And I mean when I think about, now isn’t this...

MR: You were 12 — 11 or 12?

JJ: Yeah, by this time I was about 12.

I have to think that this live, on-air experience, served Jane well throughout her career. As she stated, she had perfect pitch, she had no trouble transposing, and I can picture her dealing with the typical guest singer who comes in with sheet music and says “can we do this a little bit lower?” Being able to transpose on the fly at the age of 12 is quite astonishing.

In our interview, Jane's description of her career sounded similar to mine. In addition to my work in the Jazz Archive, my week-to-week musical activities include a wide variety of gigs, teaching, facilitating gigs for others, you name it. And Jane, throughout her career, did what it took to support her family, and found a way to make a living in music, from playing jazz gigs, to being an executive at the Muzak Corporation, to accompanying baseball games. No doubt Jane didn’t envision herself solely as a sports organist, but it’s telling that an article about her passing appeared on the front page of the Utica, New York Observer Dispatch sports section this week, highlighting Jane's tenure with the New York Mets. She got her start in Milwaukee, for the Braves, and in our interview she related the story of how this came to pass:

MR: When did the whole thing with the ball clubs come about?

JJ: Well, what happened, when I tell this it doesn’t seem possible. When the Milwaukee Braves, who had been the Boston Braves, moved to Milwaukee, the owners called me out of the blue and asked me if I’d like to be an organist for the ball club. And I thought somebody was kidding me you know. Because I took music so seriously and that seemed so frivolous. And they said, (it was the most left handed compliment I’ve ever had in my life), the president of the new Milwaukee Braves, said “well we need an organist and we don’t know whether you’re anything good or not, but every time we ask somebody who a good organist is, your name always comes up. And we want to know if you’d like to come in and talk to us about the job.” Well to me that was just some more extra money you know, and I’d never been to a baseball game. I couldn’t even get a passing grade in gym. And my eyes cross if throw a ball at me you know. So I think I was the most unlikely person on earth to be a sports organist. At any rate, I’ll never forget that interview that they explained baseball to me. “Now the men get up with the bat, and they throw the ball, three strikes and you’re out. Don’t play unless the club is leaving the field.” So then they got nervous about me interrupting the game, and decided that they’d only have me play at the beginning, at the ending, and play “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” in the middle. So after they became certain that I wouldn’t wreck the national league, they let me begin to play.

After her move to New York she became the organist for the New York Mets, as well as an all-around musician who could step into many musical situations. She also started in a clerical job with the Muzak Corporation, and eventually rose through the ranks to become Vice President of Recording. Most musicians cringe when they hear the word “Muzak,” which is often perceived as bland, easily-ignored arrangements of pop tunes. What I didn’t know about this music until I read Jane’s bio, is that the musicians who regularly recorded it were some of the most highly respected in the business. Jazz giants such as Dick Hyman, Bucky Pizzarelli, Joe Wilder and Bob Haggart all worked in the studios recording arrangements written by Jane and other staff arrangers.

I can picture Jane’s typical day during those years, getting her kids off to school, going to the Muzak recording studios and overseeing a session of arrangements she had written of some current pop tunes, running to the ballpark to play the opening songs for the game, and in her downtime sitting with staff paper writing arrangements for the next Muzak recording session. Because she had perfect pitch she didn’t need to be at a keyboard when she wrote. After the ballgame she probably went out and played piano in a club, accompanied by people such as Milt Hinton and Jay Leonhart.

Jane said that some of the gigs she got came about by default, when accomplished male pianists couldn’t make it she eventually got the call. Jane soon became a first-call pianist when vocalists discovered she easily played in the keys of B, E and A.

In her later years Jane recorded for Arbors Records, and was a founding member of The Statesman of Jazz, a loose-knit ensemble of veteran musicians, all over the age of 65, who toured the country playing concerts and staging educational events. Up until the last few years of her life she was active, and of all the people I met, early on in the gathering of our interviews, I related to her the most for her day-to-day musical activities, and for finding a way to make a living in the sometimes brutal world of jazz. That inspiration led to my composition called “Standard Time” dedicated to Jane, which appears on my CD “Jazz Life.” Click here to hear a portion of this musical tribute.

Click on my blog title “She Did It All” and you will be transported to a video poem about Jane’s latter years and her relationship with trombonist Benny Powell.