Bookends

I’m aware that this will be the second month in a row I’m dwelling on dear ones who, to quote Sondheim, “leave you halfway through the woods.” I beg your indulgence as this month I lost two people who were integral to my becoming who I am today: my mother Mary Barnhart passed away on June 15 at EXACTLY (within a mere minute or two) 81½ years of age, while Max Morath shed this mortal coil on June 19 at age 96. Max’s history and contributions to all things ragtime were well-documented in last month’s issue of TST and he was, in a past era, virtually a household name; my mom was known only by family and friends, but her stamp was firmly pressed on every musical appearance I made in my primary and secondary school years. Unsurprisingly, I met Mom several decades before I met Mr. Morath, so I’ll start with the story of Mary.

Mary Barnhart was not an accomplished musician. She was a competent piano player (her father had been a skilled organist, as outlined in TST November 2021) but that stopped soon after her son, Jeff, surpassed her in ability. He (I) was not at all nice about her mistakes and would make faces when she made an error while playing something from memory, so she quietly gave it up. I was a right rotter when I was younger and will always regret not being encouraging to her then; I urged her in later years to get back to the piano, to middling effect.

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This story, however, is not about my myopia; it’s about her musicality. Music exuded from her. There wasn’t a moment during the day when I was growing up that she wasn’t singing or had a tune of one of a dozen styles playing from one of her hundreds of LPs. On trips in the car from when I was old enough to speak, she’d sing some song I didn’t know and teach it to me, then teach me a harmony to go with it. I was able to competently harmonize by age five, all because of her musical gift (in every sense of the word).

Jeff’s family making music together; from left: William (Pop-Pop) Berkow; sister Jen; Mom. (photo courtesy Jeff Barnhart)

Without engaging in formal ear training, she was planting the roots for my musical mind and soul. As I plunked out my first notes on the organ in NJ, then eventually the piano in CT, she’d be in the kitchen gently remonstrating me when there was a wrong note (much more nicely than I would to her) and during the years I was taking piano lessons, would remind me (at the time I’dve used the verb “nagged”) to “slow down so you can learn the tricky parts.”

When my parents got divorced, Mom went back to work and so wasn’t around until the evening each weekday. She knew better than to ask if I’d done my homework (I had) and she knew better than to NOT ask me if I’d practiced my piano (I hadn’t). She got me my first paying gig (story chronicled in TST July 2022) and when I started playing at the Yankee Silversmith in Wallingford, CT with banjoist Bob Price (TST August 2022), she drove me 20 minutes from home to the gig, went back home on weekdays to get other stuff done, and returned to pick me up at 11 pm after the gig was over. She did this for three years, three times a week before I earned my driver’s license and became autonomous.

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On Fridays, she’d sometimes bring colleagues from work to the Yankee for a drink and nosh, all the while belting out her beloved sing-along tunes. She had a loud, unapologetic voice that got so low as she aged that we used to parody an old country song (“Mamma Sang Bass”) together. On weekends, she’d bring my younger sister Jen along and they and I would sit at the piano bar singing old tunes in three-part harmony. Jen also played trombone. If this had been a different age (and country) we could’ve precursed the Carling Family dynasty!

Mom was also a font of reason when it came to my post-graduate activities. My plan once I’d received my double-bachelor’s degrees in Music and English was to simply keep doing what I was doing: playing wherever there was a piano and a crowd. She saw no future in this and continually encouraged me (at the time I’d’ve used the phrase “harped on”) to “slow down and find a real job.” Her remonstrations regarding my “non-career” choices led to my returning to school for my Masters in the Fine Arts of Teaching. I know the skills and insights I gained during that stint daily inform my interactions with others, my performances on stages large and small, and gave me the raw tools to create the program my wife Anne and I teach several weeks a year for Road Scholar.

Mom and Max

Moreover, Mom introduced me to the music of Max Morath in 1976. Once I became obsessed with All Things Ragtime (thank you Sting), she went out and bought all the recorded ragtime she could find. The Joshua Rifkin LPs seemed snoozers to a nine-year-old, although I find them beautiful now. The vitality of syncopated music burst from the stereo speakers when I put on Max Morath’s double-LP on Vanguard (VSD 39/40), Max Morath Plays the Best of Scott Joplin (and other rag classics), released in 1972 (a year before The Sting brought Joplin back to the table of mass consumption, thank you very much!). Imagine my surprise when I heard disc two: ragtime being played by a quartet of piano, banjo, guitar, and bass! Mom also gifted me the newly released Vanguard double-LP Max Morath Plays Ragtime (VSD 83/84), a combining of Vol. 1 and 2 of The World of Scott Joplin, released in 1973 to coincide with The Sting’s popularity.

It was in 1994 that pianist Matthew Davidson (occasionally writing for this paper as Matthew De Lacey Davidson) appeared with me at a Ragtime festival in Niantic CT produced by ragtime pianist/composer and orchestra leader Galen Wilkes. Now, Matthew’s interpretation and pianistic ability create fine wine compared to my rock-gut rye, but he heard something that moved him to alert Max Morath about me, sending him my cassette (!?!) called Saloon. Max soon reached out, as he always did with new “kids on the scene,” and it was Max who got me into the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival in 1996. I met him in person the following year (along with legends Bob Darch and David Jasen) when we both appeared at the Tom Turpin Ragtime Festival in Savannah, GA.

Jeff, Max, and Anne Barnhart at the Sacramento Airport after the West Coast Ragtime Festival (photo courtesy Diane Fay Skomars)

Right from the beginning, Max was supportive, inspirational, patient, free with gentle, constructive criticism and even more forthcoming with praise: the perfect mentor who I’m honored would become a close friend. He and I had phone conversations on an almost monthly basis and it was always an odd but gratifying contest to see who could ask more about the other (What have you been up to? How was the last gig? How far are you along in your book? What’s the future of the music we both love? Should I bother calling that guy for a gig? Did you get the check?). His wisdom abounded, as did generosity, inquisitiveness, and genuine caring for those he came across; he was a masterful entertainer, a true advocate for OKOM, and above all, a beautiful human being.

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Max’s wife and soulmate of thirty years, Diane Fay Skomars, wrote a piece to be read during a concert in his honor in Sedalia during the Scott Joplin Festival this year. She based it on conversations, observations and hopes they’d shared over their years together. Though at this stage Max was no longer verbal, he smiled that raffish smile as she finished reading it to him, giving her his blessing. With her kind permission, I share it here (#4-7 are universal):

To you players at the concert, Max would say the following:

1. If you have the GIFT of music, you must act on it.

2. If you are a COMPOSER, you are compelled to create.

3.  Don’t forget it is the Music BUSINESS! Get a contract in writing and collect the check at the end of the concert.

4. Polish your shoes. They show on stage.

5. Be as supportive of your family members in their endeavors as they are of you.

6. Promote each other. There is room for all.

7. Life is short. Give it a light touch.

Love, Max and Diane

Although Mom and Max never met, they’re two bookends on either side of my musical life AND had a brief “interlude.” On June 15, hospice called to tell us that Mom was entering the “end of life” stage and if we wanted to see her one last time, we’d better immediately start driving from Mystic to New Haven, CT. Whenever we start the car, a random song from Anne’s iTunes repertoire on her phone starts playing through the speakers. On that day, out of the 12,000+ tunes Anne has on her phone, “Bye Bye Blackbird” started playing: significant because this was Max Morath’s favorite tune!

As Max was the older and better known of the two, I’ll end with my favorite “Max”-im:

“Life is short. Assume it will go well.”

Jeff Barnhart is an internationally renowned pianist, vocalist, arranger, bandleader, recording artist, ASCAP composer, educator and entertainer. Visit him online at www.jeffbarnhart.com. Email: [email protected]

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