Maestro’s musical taste shaped by dad

Courtney Lewis

I’m often asked about the music I listen to outside work. When I was announced as music director of the Jacksonville Symphony five years ago, there were plenty of embarrassing headlines such as “Conductor likes Britney and Beethoven.” People tend to think that there is something amusing or even faintly scandalous about a classical musician enjoying other music. We musicians are also guilty; when we talk about dipping into a little jazz or pop now and again it’s often with the patronizing implication that these genres are less meaningful than classical music. Needless to say, this is nonsense, and a reflection of the dangerous fracture lines running through our society today.

Over the next few weeks I’m going to write about the music that I love beyond classical music. I’ve written before about the enormous influence my high school music teacher had on my musical outlook, but I haven’t mentioned another man whose musical tastes were just as formative: my father.

My dad was the eldest of six children, growing up in an affluent household in east Belfast. In 1969, when my father was 15, my grandfather moved the entire family to North Carolina, where he entered the Baptist seminary. The rest of my father’s childhood was endless moving from city to city, church to church, as my grandfather began his career as a pastor, eventually ending up in Santa Barbara, Calif. It was not a tolerant household, and things were made even more difficult by my dad being placed in high school classes in which all the other students were two years older than him. Music was a refuge.

It’s hard to fathom how different Northern Ireland and California were in the 1960s. Belfast knew little about credit cards, hippies, people of color or sunshine. The cultural shock must have been exhilarating and overwhelming, so much so that later it was impossible to get my dad to talk about it. But he was handsome and funny and made lots of friends. I can only imagine what he got up to as a 16-year old in San Francisco in 1970, but in photos he looks ridiculously cool. There seems to have been enough bad behavior that at the age of 19 he left Duke University and was sent home to Belfast to live with his grandparents and go to law school. There, at Queen’s University, he met my mother and restarted his life in Ireland as an American with long hair and cowboy boots, thousands of miles away from the rest of his siblings.

Those years in the States gave my father an uncharacteristically broad taste in music. He loved ’70s rock, especially Steely Dan. His knowledge of jazz was encyclopedic — everything from the masters such as John Coltrane to volumes of trios by Brad Meldau and Keith Jarrett, to lighter stuff by Pat Metheny. Music was always playing at home over an enormous stereo system, especially when he was cooking (the apple didn’t fall far from the tree). When he picked us up from school, we were just as likely to step into the world of Alfred Brendel playing late Beethoven piano sonatas as Mick Jagger yelling “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” He loved Rachel Ferrell and Tchaikovsky equally. The thread running through this eclectic mix was quality and passion, ignoring the lines of genre, and he was always pleased when a musician could straddle both worlds: he loved listening to Keith Jarrett’s recordings of Mozart piano concertos, or his son improvising a saxophone solo in band, right after singing William Byrd at church.

Some of you may have read Oliver Sacks’ fascinating book “Musicophilia.” It’s a stream-of-consciousness exploration of music and the human brain. Sacks discusses a particular breed of human who always has some kind of music running in his brain. When a friend bought me a copy a few years ago, I just laughed and said, “tell me something I don’t know!” I always have music playing internally; even as I write this and ask myself “is that really true?”, Mahler and Drake are competing for mental real estate. The point is that while institutions such as symphony orchestras and record companies impose genre boundaries, our brains don’t discriminate in the same way.

Next month I’m going to write about five of my favorite artists, so I encourage you to do some listening. Try these albums: John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” Brad Meldau’s “The Art of the Trio,” Beyoncé’s “Lemonade,” Kendrick Lamar’s “Section 80,” (all on Spotify and Apple Music) and Sagi Kariv’s “Forever Tel Aviv Pride 2018” (available to stream on the SoundCloud app).

By Courtney Lewis, Music Director of the Jacksonville Symphony