I started piano lessons early in school (in first grade, I think, but my mother remembered it as second grade, and I’m reluctant to question her recall). Performing in recitals and talent shows were important parts of my growing up. I enjoyed playing, but I have never had a lot of discipline and I was never very good at practicing.
We had a piano at the house, and for many years a Hammond C-2, which was eventually replaced by a B-3. But although I was able to bang out a tune on the organ, I never really knew how to play it–and in my early years my feet couldn’t reach the pedals anyway. Eventually, though, I followed my sister Judy in taking lessons from Jack Framke.
By that time I had learned most of the basics of reading music, and I was somewhat surprised at my first lesson when Jack put a simplified piece of music in front of me: it had a single staff with a key signature, a time signature, a one-note melody line, and some unusual markings above the melody line. He explained that these were the chords: I was to play the main chord notes (the tonic and dominant notes, I later learned) on the pedals, the chords on the lower keyboard with my left hand, and the melody on the upper keyboard with my right hand.
I didn’t know the term at the time, but what he was teaching me was how to play from a lead sheet, and that instruction was very different from the more classical training I had received as a piano student. It’s the basis for the way jazz and pop musicians play, and it literally changed my musical life. Jack taught me chord theory, and chord substitutions, and how to figure out the underlying chord structure of a piece of traditionally-written music.Over the next five years, I worked closely with Jack, eventually demonstrating for the local Hammond distributor in a teenaged organ ensemble called the Metro-Gnomes (groan). One year, the Metro-Gnomes played at the Chicagoland Music Festival at Soldier Field, which remains the largest audience I have ever performed for and gave me the opportunity to meet bandleaders Pete Fountain and Wayne King. Jack also helped me prepare my entry in the 1965 organ competition at the Illinois State Fair. (My splashy arrangement of “Seventy-six Trombones” came in second to a performance of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor.”) When the chorus at St. Patrick High School needed an organist, I tried out for the job and got it. (Not that there was a lot of competition. This gig typically meant playing about two songs a year: the rest of the time, I joined the baritones while John “Chisels” Larsen accompanied on the piano.) Meanwhile, one thing led to another, because if it had a keyboard, Jack could teach it. He had piano students, and he also taught the vibraphone, marimba, and xylophone, on which the player uses mallets to strike bars arranged like keys. So when St. Pat’s got ready in 1966 to stage its first musical and the music director decided I should play percussion (!) in the orchestra, Jack supplemented the organ lessons with mallet lessons for a few months, and I was able to play nine instruments in the percussion session for our production of Oliver! As with so many things, this had a lasting influence. I decided I liked musicals: in my senior year, St. Pat’s staged a musical called Fiorello, and this time I was in the cast. Not only were these shows important to me socially, they helped shape my career. In college, I became an accompanist for the John Carroll University Glee Club, applying some of the lead-sheet techniques on the piano. During my senior year of college, at the interview that led to my first teaching job, the principal looked over my list of school activities. He noted that I had been a newspaper editor and had performed in shows, and asked which I would be interested in: advising the school paper or directing the school musicals. (“Neither” wasn’t an option.) I chose the musicals, and began a career in which I directed hundreds of students in over thirty plays and musicals. That career likely wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t played the xylophone in a school musical, using lessons improbably provided by my organ teacher. The organ lessons had ended when I reached my senior year of high school and prepared to move to Cleveland. I began my own adult life and wondered occasionally about my old organ teacher, but I never acted on those wonderings: never tried the old number in Chicago or called at Jack and Irene’s apartment on Belmont. But about twenty years ago, I used some new thing called the “World Wide Web” to do a search, and found a Jack Framke living in Arizona. I knew that after Irene and music, Jack’s next love was golf, and that they play a lot of golf in Arizona. I took a chance and got in touch, and found out that the Jack Framke living in Glendale, Arizona, was indeed my old organ teacher. We corresponded and exchanged Christmas cards for years, and in February 2010 I visited Jack and Irene in Glendale with my sister and brother-in-law, Jane and John. At nearly 90, Jack was still playing and still teaching. He had lost none of his energy and none of his enthusiasm for music, and he delighted in demonstrating the capabilities of some pretty sophisticated modern digital organs and keyboards. He was still playing golf just about every day, and when he took us to lunch at his country club, everybody knew who he was. I learned at our luncheon that Jack had gone to Lane Tech High School in Chicago, and had played saxophone in the jazz band there. He worked with a few bands out of high school and eventually used what he learned from that experience to start teaching students. So his own musical training was based more on playing than on studying. I’ve done most of my own adult music-making in churches, not clubs. I play the piano more than the organ, and the organs I do play are a far cry from the Hammond B-3 we had at home. But when I work out chords with guitarists, transpose a song to make it easier for the congregation to sing, or improvise an extension of a hymn, I’m using skills that Jack taught me. I am grateful to have known him, and to have had the opportunity to get back in touch with him so many years later.