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by Lee Tomboulian
When I was living in Fayetteville, I used to be pretty cocky about my jazz playing. I used to admire my own ability to not even break, but ignore the rules, circumventing them altogether. High on ignorance -"The best bebop pianist in a small town, like the best ballet dancer in Wyoming" This went on for a few years until it hit me..."If you came from New York to Arkansas, what's to prevent other more monstrous players from tiring of New York and coming here? You know it's gonna happen."
Two years later, I had just gone to Japan to visit and play, and when I got back into town, exhausted, my ride took me to George's Majestic Lounge for the Thursday Night Jazz and there were three fine pianists and then I sat in, doing the best I could.
My prophecy had come true. One of the three was Frank Stagnitta. He looked like an Italian Groucho. His playing was fleet, with a singing line all the great players have, plus a vastly expanded harmonic approach that left mine sounding old-fashioned, one-colored, monochromatic.
Frank is also a serious classical composer with a bent toward the hyper-emotionalism of Alban Berg. Frank had even been the President of the Berg Society in N.Y.C. for a little while. Why wasn't he given a major record deal? It's not that he didn't shop around for years for a label. The late lamented tenor mand Sal Nistico was a member of his quintet, along with Scott Lipsing and others.
Frank took over Fayetteville as the best bebop pianist. What competition there was (Mem John Lindquist, John Gould, & Jack Martin, fine player of mostly Jazz, R & B and fusion. Frank was all over. He p;layed with the symphony his own orchestration of Gershwin tunes for piano trio and orchestra, recorded a tape of standards with Chusk Owens and Darrin Novotny. This trio played at a club in Rogers, AR. and fortunately I taped one night when he was really on. I mean, smokin', bad. I mean, serving notice.
Particularly, I remember a solo on "AS Night in Tunisia," the old bebop standard, where out of the ??? Frank played this double-handed line, in octaves that just boiled over the changes (with, I don't know, contemptuous brillliance) going on and on like an eruption, force of nature, blizzrd, Mout St. Helens, whatever. I was with my friend John, also a pianist, and I looked over at him and he had his head in his hands, overwhelmed.
It was unforgettable triumphant.
Then Frank disappeared to Holland, taking the ten or moe recently composed classical pieces inspired by Fayetteville with him. Some of the concepts he left with me are just now sprouting. I was a rebellious student at the time, as subconciously I resented him for taking over my turf. What did that have to do with music? Nothing. So whatever I've learrned was kind of in spite of myself, my ego.
Some more years later, if you've followed this column, dear reader, you know I bourgeoised out and went to Paris, taking a side trip to Holland to see Frank. Just a seven hour train ride thru some amazing countryside from Paris to Den Haag. Just think! That's like Little Rock to Dallas in a car. It was ther I ordered orange juice in French and didn't colapse into English, a private victory.
So what's it like to be an American, non-mionimalist, reasonably dour serious composer living abroad? If you're so great, why aren't you touring around playing jazz? "My illness... I'm a manic depressive. If I'm on a five-month tour and my medicine stops working around the third month, there's no stopping, even if my hands are shaking like crazy. The show must go on. I can't risk playing poorly just for some bread."
In fact, come of his titles tell the story:"Dante's Studies," "Don Juan in Hell," "Self-portrait." The last was a typically somber colllection of gestures (collected by one impaired by forces beyond his control.) Some of his episodes would last three or four months, and would get so bad that he could do nothing but sit at a table and watch the clock tick by. If it let up enough for him to play, his hands would feel like "soggy spaghetti " and nothing would work properly.
But that seems to be the price he pays for the intensity. I mean, the piano teacher I had before him, Dr. John Cowell, had said that he (John) had to be careful and not listen to music much when he got home from teaching or else, he feared, he would turn into a music fiend, stay up til 4 every morning (he was 60-plus at the time), composing, listening, playing. But that would have wrecked his days, and maybe killed him.
Miles Davis says, "Music is an addiction." Anybody reading this paper knows it's true. Frank Zappa goes as far as to say it's the only religion that works, a sweeping statement of there ever was one.
NAtalie Goldberg says there's a crucial difference between an addiction which diminishes you and a passion which challenges you to grow constantly. So my favorite memory of my visit with Frank might be waking up on a daybed by a "fwap" sound. I opened my eyes and the score of Charles Ives' "Piano Sonata No. 1" laying next to my face. Frank was standing up over me in a red bathrobe, with sunglasses on, a cigar in his mouth, and he was saying, "Come on, man, get up. We gotta listen to this. There ain't much time before your train leaves."
Apparently he was happy to see me, another listener, because living in isolation in Holland with his wife, he needed ( Hey Lee, How about enjoyed instead of needed?) a fellow maniac to bounce music off of. He has some piano students at the conservatory, some of whom are quite prominsing, he says. His wife, Pat Gideon, is a fine classical and jazz singer and a voice teacher.
She has chronic back pain from an injury suffered as a chorus member/dancer in a Broadway revival of "Hellop Dolly." This, I think, helps her cope with his bi-polar disorder, gives her some insight into affliction beyond our control. At the risk of sounding like "Donahue," they met, I seem to recall, in the late '70's at a jazz club he was playing at in New York, and she was a hat-check girl.
In 1990, he recorded his "Four Songs" for alto voice, piano, acoustic basss and bass clarinet, with Pat as soloist. The overwhelming pessimism and gloom of his previous works is replaced by greater warmth and intimacy, episodic candor, a willlingness to accept things moment-to-moment, and even some humor.
A Personal Note:
Frank's tutelage for me was a great counterweight to my upbringing. My dad is a big Bach Nut, and into Spike JOmes and PDQ Bachand VIctor Borge and all those musical humorists. So for some time I was kind of afraid of the musical emotions other than mirth and ironic juxtaposition of incongruous musical elements (Playing a country cadence in the middle of a Beethoven slow movement, or a Beethoven ending at the end of a rock and roll piece). The late romantic composers, with all their angst and anxiety, were anathema to may dad, (still are). ONe summer I came home from college with my newfound admiration for Mahler. I said "You have to take each composer on his own terms." He said, "No, I don't."
Frank showed me about some other sides of music, some music that isn't araid of facing its depresssions and problems directly, and going through them towards the lighht of hope.
I got to Holland and had no dutch cash, so I had to find a bank to cahnge some francs, so that I could make a phone call to Frank.
I went up to the exchange counter and asked the pale friendly bearded Dutchman if he spoke English. "I let you be the judge of that: he smiled.
Frank and I walked around Den Haag, went up to a park bench where he composed many recent works, with cigar, umbrella. Yes, even in the rain. This day, which from all reports was the sunny weather all year so far (May), the park seemed magical, with little pollen fairies floating down from the overhanging trees. We came to the bench, walked to the other end, where a strange statue was. It had one body and three heads:1, Joseph Stalin in the middle,2,an expressionist head with huge staring eyes, 3, an odd face somewhere between the two.
I asked Frank if it bothered him to live under a socialist government. He said, " It's ideal 'cause the government pays for my bi-polar medicines and other mental health treatment."
He also mentioned that due to heroin and other drugs being legal in Holland, the official payments for musicxians' gigs go this way: half goes to you on the night of the performance, and half goes into an account, from which your bills are automatically deducted.
When we debarked in St. Louis I told Cusoms I was a musician and my traveling companion volunteered that I had been to Holland overnight for business purposes. That's when they combed through my suitcase for contraband. Then I remembered the tiny bottle of Sutterhome( Hey Lee, that was French table wine, not Sutterhome) aquired on the plane, in my breast pocket. "If I pull it out, will they think it's a gun? Will they hold me down and shoot me, leaving Peter Read stranded for days until he can find another ampside chatter?" The lady officer asked "Do you have anything else to declare?" looking me in the eye. "just this bottle of wine" I replied, pulling it out by the neck. Her eyes got huge, and she gasped. I was immediately sorry.
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