Meeting Peter Ecklund

Peter Ecklund was a freshman at Yale when I first met him in 1964. At the time, I was a medical student, playing a weekly duo gig on tuba with a terrific banjo player, Billy Wellcome, at Jocko Sullivan’s restaurant on Chapel St. across from from the Old Campus, where all the freshmen resided.

Peter asked to sit on a tune, and it was evident that he was still beginning to learn the basics of jazz improvising.

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Peter Ecklund, Carolyn Newberger, Jim Bentley 1965
Eli Newberger Peter Ecklund, Carolyn Newberger, and Jim Bentley, in the backyard of the Yale International House, c. 1965

I invited him to attend the Friday jam sessions at Yale’s International House, where Carolyn and I served as its resident directors from 1963 to 1966. We’d organized a little coffee house in a large basement room that contained a tiny upright piano, from which I led the band.

We vividly recall Peter’s modest manner and intense focus in the company of more mature players, including Yale musicologist, Larry Gushee, on clarinet, Lou Pontecorvo on trumpet, Jim Bentley on drums, Ben Martin, a Dutch chemical engineering grad student on bass, Carolyn on washboard, and such frequent out-of-town visitors as Sammy Rimington, clarinet, and Barry Martyn, drums, from England, and Noel Kaletsky on clarinet.

It was a delightful, ever-evolving, warm and friendly scene that the “foreign” students, as they were called then, tremendously enjoyed. Peter was on a steep and impressive learning curve.

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Together, we even got the occasional paying gig at functions in New Haven, performing as the International Feetwarmers.

In 1968, while I was a Peace Corps doctor in W. Africa, a banjo playing friend from New Haven, Hub McDonald, sent me an article in the New Haven Register that described the Galvanized Washboard Jazz Band. It mentioned that I’d led its predecessor outfit, and that a Harvard undergraduate, Tom Sancton, was playing clarinet frequently with them.

When I arrived in Boston in 1969 to begin my pediatric training, I called Tommy, who recognized my name and mentioned that an English trumpet player, Tony Pringle, had recently arrived to take a job in a suburban computer company.

Perhaps, he suggested, we could form a band in the New Orleans tradition.

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We got together and formed what became the Black Eagle Jazz Band, with me on piano. (After Tommy graduated in 1971, I switched to tuba, and we added “New” to its name.)

The New Black Eagles provided the setting to meet Peter again, the same lovely person but now possessed of a formidable, distinctive jazz voice and stellar technique. I was blown away by his sense of ensemble improvisation when he subbed for Tony, and in listening to him with other ensembles at festivals around the world.

The news of Peter’s untimely death in this time of anxiety and tragic, sudden loss makes me especially sad, not only because I witnessed his hope and disciplined growth as a musician but because he suffered from such an unjust and chronically debilitating illness. His spirit will sustain, unvanquished, along with the memories of how he reciprocated so generously all that he himself received from his cherished colleagues, family, and friends.

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