Quite a few young people have no idea what they want to do with their lives. Some of them end up going to college, choosing a career, and they make out just fine. Others spend a lifetime (or a good part of it) searching for something that will be the right fit for them.
Then there are the odd few who have a burning passion, sometimes from a very early age. I am one of those people.
In 1949 my mother bought a piano for me and my sister to take lessons. I was seven years old. She got the music teacher from the local school to teach us, and I started out with John Thompson’s “Teaching Little Fingers to Play.” I was quite happy to sit at the piano for a half hour each day, and never complained.
Before long, I started making up little melodies on the piano and writing them down. My teacher, Mr. Jones, was impressed. In those days, no one taught how to play by ear. It was something I just did naturally.
Around five years later, Mr. Jones said he had nothing more to teach me and passed me over to his wife, who was strict and mean and would only allow me to play classical music. But during those five years I had been listening to a lot of jazz records. My father had a nice collection of big bands and small groups, and by the time I was twelve years old, I was spending my allowance on records by Charlie Parker, Gerry Mulligan, Dave Brubeck and Thelonious Monk at the local music store.
So Mrs. Jones found that she had a rebel on her hands. After studying with her for a year or so, I just upped and quit. But I kept playing and making up little tunes.
Then one day my father came home with a jazz record by an obscure blind pianist named Alex Kallao. I put it on the turntable and listened. Something clicked into place in my mind, like the planets stopping in their orbits for just a split second. I thought, “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I HAVE to learn how to play like this!” I was thirteen years old.
So from then on I was at the piano for as many hours as my mother could stand it, sometimes as long as five hours a day in the summertime when there was no school.
I worked like this for a year or so, and then word got around that there was a little girl playing jazz piano…a real oddity back then. I started getting invitations to play with some adult musicians from my town and the next town over, and I felt quite proud of myself. Before long I was teaching jazz at a little music school, and when I turned fifteen I joined the musician’s union and gigged my way through high school. And the rest is history, so they say…
Well, not quite. Life has a way of offering up a million distractions, and I found myself going off in a number of different directions over the years. But that core passion of loving to play and write music has never changed one iota.