Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Unexpected Gifts of Family Detective Work

My dad and I learned some sad news earlier this week: his second cousin, Nancy, died Feb. 17 after a long battle with ovarian cancer.  Dad and I only met her once, in June 2007, but we hadn't forgotten her bubbly, warm embrace of two almost-strangers from Minnesota.  If it weren't for the G. Oliver Riggs research project, we would have missed out on getting to know a wonderful human being.

We located Nancy and her sisters Grace and Lorenda thanks to some letters my grandmother had kept, and some internet sleuthing.  Their grandmother Daisy was the only sibling of my dad's grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs.  The families had not kept in touch since my grandmother's death in 1980.

My dad and I had already been planning a research trip to Aledo, Illinois, so when we found out that Nancy and Lorenda lived in the area, we arranged to meet at Lorenda's home to exchange family information.

As we poured over photos at the farmhouse kitchen table, we discovered we had some of the same ones, including one of Jasper Riggs, father of G. Oliver and Daisy.  Lorenda had a copy of Jasper's obituary, which we didn't have.  Lorenda also had a band photo we'd never seen, but which we were able to identify; the St. Cloud Municipal Boys' Band, standing outside the Stearns County Courthouse.

One of the last photos my dad produced was one of G. Oliver and his wife, Islea.  That's what we thought, anyway.  Our cousins had the same photo, but unlike ours, theirs had writing on the back: G. Oliver and Daisy.

My dad's brain accommodated this surprising information much more quickly than mine.

“Here we were thinking this was Islea, and it’s really Daisy,” he said, shaking his head.

Nancy laughed and said,  “He married someone who looked like his sister!”


        G. Oliver with his sister, Daisy               Islea with her daughter, Rosalie

Unsure what to make of that psychological revelation, we put the photos away and sat down to lunch.  I was still feeling stunned that we had jumped to the wrong conclusion about the photo, and grateful that we'd learned the truth.  It reinforced for me one of the first lessons I'd learned in journalism school: never assume – which goes hand-in-hand with another lesson, Accuracy, accuracy, accuracy!

It's hard to imagine how much photo technology will have changed by the time my own great-grandchildren are adults.  Will they need to write on photos, or will all the necessary information be embedded into them?  Will people still take photos? 

Whatever the technology, I hope my descendants will feel a connection to their roots, and experience the pleasures of meeting others who belong to the same family tree.

Meeting you was a gift, Nancy.  Peace.

In Memory of Nancy Slavish

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

An Education from the Jazz Man

I don't usually watch the TV news at 10, but after the Olympics Sunday night, I got caught up in a news feature on KARE 11, "Cruisin' with the Jazz Man."

The story was about Rob Thompson, a bus driver who plays jazz on his boom box while shuttling University of Minnesota students between the east bank, the west bank and the St. Paul campus.

Thompson has more than 400 jazz albums and has been driving the bus for 12 years.  He tells students that they may be getting a four-year degree from the university, but by riding with him, they're also getting a degree in jazz.

Because there are more than two dozen shuttle buses, students never know when they're going to catch the jazz bus.  And that, I think, is one of the cool things about this story.  As reporter Boyd Huppert puts it, "For a U of M student, catching the jazz bus is one of life's random pleasures."

We need more random pleasures like that in our daily lives.

We also need to give more credit to people like Thompson, who make others happy just by doing what they love.

"I think God gave us all a talent. You find out what that that talent is and you use it," Thompson says.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Yo-Yo Ma, Meryl Streep and the Genesis of a Musician

When I picked Elias up from his piano lesson the other day, I learned the story of how his teacher started in piano.  Turns out, Mr. Wee really wanted to play the violin when he was a kid.  His mother said, "We don't have a violin.  But we do have a piano.  Why don't you try that?"  He did, and he went on to have a distinguished career as a piano professor.

His story made me think of a Yo-Yo Ma interview I had just watched on the first episode of Faces of America with Henry Louis Gates Jr.  It's a four-part series on PBS about genealogy, where Gates uncovers the family histories of 12 well-known Americans.  It concludes March 3 and is available online.  Here's a New York Times review of the series.

(Yes, it's that Gates, of the President Obama beer summit fame.  The Harvard professor had just returned from researching Ma's family in China last summer when he had trouble opening his front door; a neighbor called the police, thinking he was a burglar).

Ma was born in Paris in 1955.  His parents were Chinese expatriates; his mother sang, and his father was a violinist and music teacher.  Ma started the violin at age 3 but hated it.  At age 4, he heard someone play an oversized bass, and he wanted to play that.  His parents thought it was too big, so they compromised with the cello.

If Ma had played the bass instead, would he have achieved the same level of mastery or fame?  If Mr. Wee had access to a violin as a kid, would he now be teaching violin?  Is there something about a certain instrument that speaks to us?  What role does natural talent play in instrument selection, and how much is tied to instrument availability?

My great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, was a violin and cornet soloist and a band director.  An article about him appeared in the Dec. 13, 1913 issue of the American Musician and Art Journal.

While watching the interview, I also learned that Ma's father had a saying: "It takes three generations to make a musician: the first to leave poverty, the second to go to school, and the third to master an instrument."

I don't know if that saying applies to my family, but it's an interesting way to think about connections between generations, and about the genesis of a musician.  My great-great grandfather, Jasper Riggs, grew up on an Illinois farm and learned to play a violin he inherited from his uncle at age 10.  His wife, Rebecca, played the accordion.  Jasper found farming to be too strenuous after he was injured in the Civil War, so he went into the hardware store business.  His son, G. Oliver, played instruments from an early age, and directed his first band at age 15.

G. Oliver, third from the left, with his Ezbon (Kansas) Cornet Band in 1885.  His dad, Jasper, is second from the left.

G. Oliver earned enough money as a musician to put himself through school at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, where he studied violin, cornet and piano.  He performed as a cornet and violin soloist for many years before he began devoting all his time to directing bands.

G. Oliver married Islea, a talented pianist.  Their son Ronald, my grandfather, played the clarinet and saxophone, and his brother Percy played all kinds of instruments, including cornet and drums.  They both married women who played the piano; my grandmother, Eleanor, also played the flute in high school (my grandfather was her band director, but that's a story for another time!).  I don't know if G. Oliver influenced his sons' choices in instruments, or why neither one of them took up the violin.

My dad never played the violin, either, but he plays trumpet and piano.  My mom took piano lessons, although she always thought she'd liked to have tried the harp.  My brother and I both took piano lessons.  He played the trumpet, and I played the French horn.

My husband, Steve, would have liked to have learned piano, but his family didn't have one.  He started on the trumpet and switched to the French horn in high school, and he learned how to play guitar in medical school.  He also has sung in many different choirs over the years.  Our daughter, Louisa, insisted as a kindergartner that we find her a piano teacher.  She and our older son, Sebastian, both took lessons from Mr. Wee, and they're both members of the Northfield Youth Choirs.  In fifth grade, Louisa decided to play the French horn in band because both Steve and I had played it, and she figured we could help her.  Sebastian came home from school a few years ago and announced that he wanted to play the viola in orchestra.  He added the trumpet the next year because, as he put it, "It's not my favorite instrument, but I felt I should carry on the tradition."

Now I'm interested to see what Elias chooses.  He could start orchestra next year, or band the following year.  Either way, he will be following family tradition.  Or, he could stick with piano, and he'd still be following family tradition.

And that makes me think of a quote from Meryl Streep, who, like Yo-Yo Ma, was interviewed for the Faces of America series.  The first episode didn't include much from her (I think she's interviewed in a later episode), but it did include a clip of her saying: "We are the sum of all the people that have lived before us."

It's fun to think about that, in terms of my musical family members, past and present.  Together, we are an orchestra and a concert band.  We are a pep band, a marching band and a jazz band.  We are a choir and a piano recital.  We are a jam session.  We play an ongoing symphony.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Party Like It's 1895

It's Presidents' Day, and I'm really wishing that my great-grandfather G. Oliver Riggs had kept a journal.  Then I might know more about what it was like for him to party with the Lincolns in 1895.  Instead, I have to rely on accounts from the Mount Pleasant (Iowa) Journal.  

Here's what I know: Abraham Lincoln's daugther-in-law, Mary Harlan Lincoln, (wife of Robert), hired Riggs to provide the musical entertainment for parties held in honor of her daughters, Mary and Jessie, in the fall of 1895 at the family's second home, now known as the Harlan-Lincoln house, on the edge of the Iowa Wesleyan College campus.

Riggs was a professor of music at the Iowa Wesleyan University Conservatory of Music, where he also organized and directed the Cadet Band.  He taught at the school from 1892-96 and from 1910-11. 

This line drawing of Riggs is from the 1893 Mount Pleasant city directory.

Of the party given in honor of Mary Lincoln Isham, the Oct. 17, 1895 newspaper article says:  “The large library was transformed into a tempting dance hall, and the trained and graceful feet of the initiated kept time to the rhythmic movement of Prof. Riggs’ orchestra.”    

Lynn Ellsworth, the college archivist who tipped me off to the Riggs-Lincoln connection, said the newspaper printed an accompanying story about how the Methodist school did not permit dancing, and college students were to leave before the dancing.  But two girls stayed and were expelled from class for one week.

As my dad says, the Riggs orchestra music must have been so good for dancing, people were willing to risk expulsion! 

An article in the Nov. 7, 1895 issue of the Journal describes the party Mary Harlan Lincoln hosted for her younger daughter, Jessie.

“Wed., evening of this week the hospitable home of Mrs. Robert Lincoln was again thrown open to the young people of our city; this time in honor of Miss Lincoln’s birthday.  The guests were bidden to come in Domino and mask, which resulted, as expected, in adding gayety (sic) to the occasion.

The floral decorations of the spacious rooms were of chrysanthemums in great profusion, with vines, palms, and ferns.  The long library with its perfectly smooth and polished floor was used for dancing.  Prof. Riggs orchestra in an alcove opening into this room was concealed behind a bower of palms and ferns ...
G. Oliver was born in 1870, and was a contemporary of the Lincoln granddaughters, born in 1869 and 1875, respectively (their brother, Jack, was born in 1873 and died in 1890).  It's cool to know that he played for them, and it's even more meaningful knowing that G. Oliver's father, Jasper Riggs, fought for the Union during the Civil War, as a member of the 45th Illinois Infantry.

I don't have any reason to think the families had any other connection, but it is interesting to note that G. Oliver's grandparents, Harrison Riggs (born 1801) and Juliet Froman (born 1807), were of the same generation as Abraham Lincoln (born 1809), and, like Lincoln, were born in Kentucky and moved to Illinois.  Harrison and Juliet were among the earliest U.S. government-approved settlers of Mercer County, Illinois, and they built the first log cabin in Millersburg Township in 1834.

It would be fun to know more about those parties at the Harlan-Lincoln house.  Did the Lincolns compliment G. Oliver on the music?  Did they have any song requests?  What kind of refreshments were served?  It would also be interesting to know how much G. Oliver was paid for providing the orchestra (he couldn't have been paid in money with Lincoln's face on it; the first $5 bill with Lincoln's portrait debuted in 1914, and the Lincoln cent wasn't minted until 1909).

The moral of the story here is this: write down stories about your life for your descendants.  Even if you don't think it's all that compelling, you never know what they will find interesting.

And now for the Sarah Vowell-Assassination Vacation-inspired postscript:
Robert Todd Lincoln, as you may know, had the misfortune to be at or near the assassinations of three presidents:
• his father's (Robert declined an invite to go to Ford's Theatre and stayed at the White House that fateful evening in 1865)
• James Garfield's (Robert was Garfield's secretary of war and was at the train station when Garfield was shot in 1881)
• William McKinley's (Robert was at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, NY, where McKinley was shot in 1901)

Turns out, G. Oliver Riggs can be tied to all three presidents, too, in a tenuous, musical way:
• Lincoln: As I've already mentioned, G. Oliver provided music for the parties of the two Lincoln granddaughters in 1895.
• Garfield: Before he became president, Garfield served in the Union Army, and fought in battles at Shiloh and Chickamauga.  In November 1906, G. Oliver Riggs played cornet in the 55th Iowa Regimental Band, which went on a tour dedicating the Iowa monuments at several Southern battlefields, including Shiloh and Chickamauga.
• McKinley: G. Oliver's Crookston Municipal Band played for McKinley when he made a brief stop in Fargo in October 1899.

I don't know if Robert Todd Lincoln had a connection to John F. Kennedy, the only other U.S. president to be assassinated.  But G. Oliver Riggs did.  One of his former St. Cloud Boys' Band pupils, U.S. Army Band Assistant Director Chester Heinzel, was the officer in charge of a strings group that performed at White House state dinners during the Kennedy administration.  Heinzel also participated in President Lyndon B. Johnson's Inaugural parade.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Chicago, Widows and All that Jazz

It's tech week.  That means the cast of Chicago is gearing up for opening night on Friday.  And it means I'm not seeing much of my husband, Steve, these days, since he usually goes right to rehearsal from work, and I'm often asleep by the time he gets home.
(In fact, last week, we didn't see each other awake at all from Wednesday evening, when he left for rehearsal, until Friday evening when he got home from work.)

I usually get pretty irritable by the time a show has progressed to tech week.  I get tired of not spending any quality time with Steve, tired of shouldering the day-to-day parenting responsibilities alone.  I think my mood is sunnier this time partly because the kids are older and more independent, and partly because I have so much going on for myself; I'm taking a weekly writing class at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis with my friend (and Chicago cast member) Myrna Mibus, I'm writing my column for Minnesota Parent magazine, I'm writing this blog.  Or maybe it's because I'm going to yoga twice a week.  

But it does get to be a drag.  And yes, that does have a double meaning, which you'll understand if you go see Steve on stage in Chicago with a cast of murderous women.  Or if you saw him four years ago when he played the emcee in Cabaret.  (WCCO-TV even did a story about him, Doctor by Day, Cabaret Emcee by Night).

Two months before he performed in Cabaret in spring 2006, Steve (and Louisa) had performed in The Jungle Book.  It was a long winter for me, but it did inspire me to write my first and – so far – only play for the Northfield Arts Guild's Very Short Play Festival (submissions for this year's festival are due March 15).  I wrote, directed and acted in the three-minute play, and cast two other people whose spouses had recently acted in or directed NAG shows.  It was called The Widows and was about the frustrations of having a spouse who devotes so much time to community theater.  Hearing the crowd's reaction to the twist at the end was extremely fulfilling. 

I don't want to give the impression that I think experiencing the inconveniences of having a spouse involved in community theater is anything like being an actual widow.  There is no comparison.  It also is nothing compared to the burdens carried by the spouses of men and women who serve in the military (I'm talking about you and yours, Sherpa).  I don't want to come off as a whiner, because I really do have a great life.  It's kind of like going to a parenting class to talk about the difficulties you're having in getting your child to sleep, and hearing another mom say that her child has been diagnosed with cancer.  We all have our challenges, and there's always someone worse off than you.  It's all in how you look at it.

That said, I think the way spouses get through tough times, whatever that means for them, is pretty universal: with humor and a great support system.

My mom has been great a role model, as the wife of a man who has a passion for performing music.  My parents were both teachers, but my dad has played in jazz and big bands since before I was born.  My first memory of him is seeing him standing in front of the kitchen sink, cleaning his trumpet in preparation for a gig.  My mom has always been supportive of his need to have this outlet, but she also takes care of herself.  She has her own friends, her own passions, and a wonderful sense of humor.

I've discovered that my great-grandmother Islea, who was married to Bandmaster G. Oliver Riggs, also dealt with this issue in a similar way.  Islea was an accomplished musician herself.  After she graduated from Aledo (Illinois) High School in 1892, she went to Chicago to study piano with Emil Liebling, a pupil of Franz Liszt.

Islea Graham Riggs as a young woman

I often think of Islea when I'm reading about concerts G. Oliver gave, or about all the time he put into rehearsing his bands.  I doubt he could have accomplished all that he did if he hadn't had her support.  During the Jazz Age – the time the musical Chicago is set – Islea played piano accompaniment for G. Oliver's bands, she played the organ at churches and movie theaters, and she taught piano lessons.  She also was active in women's music clubs in the cities where she lived.  I don't know nearly as much about her as I do about G. Oliver, because the newspapers didn't track her activities as extensively.  They never even referred to her by her first name; she was known as Mrs. G. Oliver Riggs.

I wonder if she ever felt constrained by society's expectations for women.  I wonder how she juggled her music and her family life.  From the few letters I have in her handwriting, I get the impression that humor and a sense of purpose got her through periods of loneliness and doubt.

I love what she wrote in October 1936 to Eleanor Johnson (my grandmother), who at that time was dating my grandfather Ronald.  Islea apparently had spent the day alone, because G. Oliver was at the lake cabin, and she'd gone to see a movie called "The General Died at Dawn."

Islea wrote, "I saw 'The General died at dawn' – and did not care for it.  I kept wishing dawn would come, so I could leave!"

When I read that, I knew she and I could have been friends.

She may have had a different outlook by the time she died in 1942, but I hope she maintained the sense of self worth and confidence she exuded as a fresh-faced 18-year-old, encouraging her peers in her commencement speech to pursue a calling that suits them.
    Having found out what you have to do – whether to lead an army or sweep a crossing – do it with all your might, because it is your duty, your enjoyment.  Remember that life’s battles cannot be fought by proxy, be your own helper, be earnest, be diligent, and if success is not soon, you will have done the next-best thing – you will have deserved it.
 Well said, Great-Grandma.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Soundtracks and Golden Statuettes

It's been a big week in the Musical Family household.  Oscar nominations were announced on Tuesday.  The sixth and final season of the Lost TV series had its two-hour premiere.  And the groundhog saw its shadow, which means we have four and a half weeks to try to catch a few more nominated movies before the 82nd annual Academy Awards airs on March 7.

My husband, my three kids and I are such movie geeks that we are as excited to watch the Academy Awards as some people are to watch the Super Bowl.  It also helps that our friends Laurie and Bryan host a better-than-Hollywood Oscar party every year, complete with Oscar-shaped sugar cookies, a mind-bending movie trivia quiz, and the coveted chocolate Oscar.

Because my kids love to watch movie special features almost as much as the movies themselves, they have learned to recognize the names of directors, special effects geniuses and the often unsung, behind-the-scenes professionals, the music composers.

Music isn't the first thing most people think of when it comes to movies, or movie awards.  But it's difficult to imagine fully enjoying a movie without that integral element.  Some movie themes are so ingrained in our culture, you only need to hear a few notes, and you're propelled back into the adventure – think of Star Wars or Indiana Jones (both composed by the prolific and wonderful John Williams, who's been nominated for an Academy Award 45 times).  Some transport us to other cultures (like last year's big winner, Slumdog Millionaire) or to fantasy worlds (the Lord of the Rings trilogy).  Others are so subtle, you don't realize how well they complement the story until you listen to the soundtrack by itself, and are able to visualize the scene that goes with the music.

The nominees this year in the best original score category are:
Up by Michael Giacchino, who also composed the scores for The Incredibles and Ratatouille, and who composes the music for Lost.
Avatar by James Horner, who's best known for Titanic.  His other movies include Glory, Aliens, and Braveheart.
Fantastic Mr. Fox, by Alexandre Desplat, who also composed music for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Queen, and Syriana.
The Hurt Locker, by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders, who also collaborated on 3:10 to Yuma, I Robot and Hellboy.
Sherlock Holmes by Hans Zimmer, known for scoring the Pirates of the Caribbean series, Gladiator and The Lion King.

It probably isn't fair, since I've only seen the first three movies, but I'm pulling for Giacchino to win this one.  I love his movie work, and I became an even bigger fan after watching a Lost special feature about how he composes the music for that show.  Seeing footage of the Honolulu Symphony performing an outdoor concert of the Lost score made me want to jump on a plane to Hawaii.

(So does knowing we have at least six more weeks of winter.)

The Academy didn't begin giving Oscars for music scoring until 1935, several years after "talking pictures" replaced silent movies.  During the heyday of silent movies in the 1920s, pianists or organists provided live music and sound effects to accompany the movies.  My great-grandmother, Islea, wife of bandmaster G. Oliver Riggs, was one of those musicians.

Islea began working at the Paramount Theatre in downtown St. Cloud sometime after 1923, when she and G. Oliver moved to St. Cloud from Bemidji.  Former boys' band member Leonard Jung told me that Islea "could play background music for the movie and read a magazine at the same time." 

The St. Cloud Municipal Boys' Band sometimes played concerts at the theater between movie showings.  The program below is from a concert in April 1937. 

The movie playing that day was "On the Avenue," starring Dick Powell, Madeleine Carroll and Alice Kaye.  The music score by Irving Berlin didn't receive an Oscar nomination, but it did include the hit, "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm," which is a good song to sing on a snowy February day.

It would be fun if bands still played between movie showings.  I'd much rather hear a mini concert than watch an insipid, looping slide show of local ads for nail salons, restaurants and car washes.  But if having a live band is too impractical, I'd prefer to skip the ads and just listen to famous movie music, like they play through speakers at Walt Disney World.

Do you have an all-time favorite movie score or song?  Who do you think should win the Oscar this year?

Monday, February 1, 2010

My Life: the Musical

It's Monday - which, in my house, means it's a music-filled evening.  Elias has a piano lesson.  Louisa and Sebastian have rehearsal for Northfield Youth Choirs, up the hill from our house on the St. Olaf College campus.  My husband, Steve, has rehearsal for the musical "Chicago," which the Northfield Arts Guild is putting on, beginning Feb. 12.  (Get your tickets now!).

And I have ... I have a job as taxi driver, getting the kids to and from their activities.  What do I listen to, in the brief minutes we're in the car?  Music, you might think?  A favorite CD?  No, usually Minnesota Public Radio's news channel, 91.1, KNOW.  Or, even better, nothing at all.

Because I live in a musical, I need an intermission, every now and then.