Benny's Teacher


28 Jul

            In the late 90’s, while I was living in a small town in the northwest hills of Connecticut, I was hired by a woman to do some interior painting in a house that was owned by her grandfather. I have forgotten her name now, so I will call her “Maria.” We had met several times before, and had some mutual friends, but the only thing I knew about her was that she was a novelist, and had eight books to her credit. Her grandfather had recently passed away, and the house was going on the market.
            When she took me to see it, I could tell from the exterior architecture that it would be one of the most unusual houses I had ever worked on. It was rectangular, very wide, with a simple roof line across the length, and two front doors, one on each end. But that was not to be the most surprising thing I discovered, as we entered through the door on the right.
            The first thing I noticed was that the house was divided in half. The part that I had just entered was an enormous square room, at least 40x40 feet, with a cathedral ceiling, and a wall of sliding glass doors and windows along the back side of the house. Looking out, I could see a pool in the backyard, and the edge of the woods behind the house. The room was furnished with a stuffed couch and coffee table in the center, a picnic table near where I stood, and a grand piano in the far corner, near the sliding doors. That was it. There was nothing else in the room. It had the cavernous effect of an abandoned warehouse.
            The wall on my left was a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf, from the front of the room to the back, and as I discovered later, it was filled with every imaginable book on music, some of them old and probably very rare. Hundreds of albums from jazz artists to classical composers lined the shelves between the books, and reels of recording tape were neatly stacked alongside the records.
On our way in, we had passed through a galley-like kitchen enclosed by cabinets, with a pass-through counter that divided the kitchen from the big room. It seemed almost like an afterthought in the design of the house, as if having to eat might get in the way of more important things. I had the same impression when Maria took me into the other section of the house. She opened a simple, flat-paneled door, and we walked down a long hallway, passing a small bathroom, an open storage area, and then into her grandfather’s bedroom. She referred to it as his “studio,” and I could see why. It was a fairly large room in itself, fully furnished, and filled with small tables and lamps, stuffed chairs, a couch, freestanding bookcases, and a large bed off to one side. In one corner, there was a piano, and in another, her grandfather’s desk and filing cabinet. A built-in bookcase lined the far wall, with more albums, and a collection of photos neatly arranged across the top shelf. A large reel-to-reel tape deck sat on a rolling table at one end, and a classical guitar leaned against the bookcase. I asked Maria if I could play it, and after strumming a few chords, I asked her what her grandfather did for a living.
“He was Benny Goodman’s clarinet teacher.” She said.
            She could see the surprise on my face. "Why would Benny Goodman need a clarinet teacher?” I said, and we both laughed. He was one of the greatest musicians of our time, and it was hard for me to imagine that there was anything left for him to learn.

            I tried to put that question out of my mind, as Maria and I talked about painting. She wanted to barter, and was more than generous in allowing me to choose the things I would work for, but she also gave me her grandfather's tape deck, cassette recorder, several microphones and other recording equipment, along with his guitar, which I still have. Whenever I play it, I think back to the feeling I had when I first walked into her grandfather's house. It was something I had felt in some cathedrals and concert halls. Everything in the house echoed the humility and grace of a man whose life was spent in the shadows, and yet whose talent and influence in the world of music had spread outward to a larger stage, occupied by his student and friend, the great Benny Goodman.

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