I don’t get it when I find out that some people who went to college don’t have memories of an inspiring professor. I guess they just coasted through, did their time and got out, as if the whole exercise was just a perfunctory step one does after completing high school. Those folks should probably get their money back.
There are a handful of professors I hold dear. One of them died this week after a yearlong battle with liver cancer. When I was in the music program at Morehead State University, I only had Jay Flippin for one class, Music Theory IV. It’s not as though that was my first exposure to Jay though. He didn’t live in the lofty tower of academia, descending only occasionally to impart wisdom on us unworthy plebes. Jay was a working musician who happened to be really good at teaching and nurturing musical talent in college kids.
In the wake of his death, much will be said about his world-class musical talent. The man has a shelf full of awards (including an Emmy) and accolades attesting to his abilities as a performing artist.
Jay also was possessed of a boundless generosity. Many of us have often observed that he made piano playing look easy. It was the same with his sense of human decency. His legacy ought to remind us that being a decent human being ought to be effortless.
I played bassoon in college, mostly, so I was never formally in Jay’s wheelhouse. He taught jazz studies, jazz and classical piano, composition, arranging, history of rock ‘n’ roll, and the aforementioned theory class. As a result, I didn’t always have the student-teacher relationship with him, even in college. I was, as I continue to be, one of the lucky hangers-on who got to be a small part of his life.
Anyone who has been paying attention to Facebook the past few days has been regaled with tales of “The Van” and periodic sojourns from Baird Music Hall to nearby Jerry’s restaurant with Jay. As I write this, I am smiling at the memory of seeing him in his characteristic stride walking along University Boulevard toward Main Street on the way to lunch. We called it “JayWalking” and some of us effected our own imitations. It was what we did to amuse ourselves when we weren’t in class, a rehearsal or a practice room.
“The Van” was simply a yellow cargo van that had, in a former life, belonged to the rental company Hertz. You could barely make out the logo pattern on the vehicle body from where the decal had been removed. I helped load and unload that van more times than I care to remember, and I still couldn’t tell you how to pack it. I should pause for a moment and explain that in college my workstudy position was stage manager of Duncan Recital Hall. It was a difficult job that involved bringing down the house lights when it was time for a performance to begin, opening the stage door so the performer could go out on stage, sitting for the duration of the piece (I got a lot of listening in when I had that job) and then looking through the peephole when the piece was finished so I could open the door and let the performer backstage. Repeat for the next piece until the recital was over. That was it. Technically (and for worker’s compensation reasons), I probably shouldn’t have been loading or unloading The Van, and Jay never asked me to do it himself. I did it because it was Jay and for at least a couple of hours I was a tiny part of his jazz fusion ensemble or whatever group he was performing in. I was a bassoon-playing roadie trying to hang with the cool kids, but Jay treated me with the same respect he showed his student players. It was illustrative of the way he treated everyone. At the end of the performance and after all the equipment was snug in The Van, sometimes he would entertain whatever stragglers who had not gone back to their apartments or dorms with stories about life, music, people he met, or whatever. For me, that was the reward for unloading and loading The Van.
When I finally left Morehead in 1997, I embarked on what would be a 14-year career in journalism. I won’t bore you with the autobiographical details of how I went from wanting to teach high school band to wanting to be Irwin M. Fletcher. It happened. So there I was, right out of college, new career but no horn. I had, for the first time since second grade, turned my back on music.
It was maybe a couple of years after I left Morehead, I had moved on from my first job to become an editor for a sports publishing company in Lexington. One of the duties of that job involved going to University of Kentucky basketball games, sitting on press row and watching the action. There was a little bit of actual work involved, but mostly it was a lot of sitting down. At one of these games, I ran into Jay. We caught up, trading stories about what we were doing, life and all that. It was different running into him outside the context of school, and me being a professional. Before we parted ways, he said to me “you should really think about auditioning for Lexington Singers.” I told him I’d think about it, and put the idea in drawer in my brain for a while.
Again, I need to pause and relate a story about Jay from one of my former classmates. Neil Laferty, who is originally from Rowan County, but now lives and works in Chicago, is also one of the finest jazz guitarists I’ve heard. Morehead State is widely renowned for its wind ensembles and choral program, but it also attracts students who are very promising and talented jazz soloists. Neil was one of those musicians who played (and still does play) with a Flippin-like effortlessness. Once upon a time, however, Neil was fretting over his impending graduation, as we all did, and whether he was going to find a steady gig making music. What Jay told Neil is something that all of us who play or sing ought to take to the bank. “Neil, here’s the thing. You are a musician. For better or worse, YOU are a musician. You might have a hundred gigs a year, or you might hang it up tomorrow and never play again. But, you’ll still be a musician, whether you like it or not. So, you just have to deal with that.” I apologize to Neil for plagiarizing, but of all the Jay stories that have been in circulation, that one resonated with me the most.
I am not as talented as Neil, but I could relate to the advice he received. Jay never stopped nudging me back toward music whenever we would run into each other. “I’m a bassoonist, Jay,” I’d try to explain, but he had the added advantage of knowing where I went to college and from whom I had learned to sightsing.
In August 2000 I bit the bullet and decided to give it a try. It was the first time I had auditioned for anything in about four years.
Here’s one more thing about Jay that no one who knew him will likely disagree with. When he was happy to see you, you knew it instantly. He was one of those rare, genuine human beings. When I walked into that audition, it was Jay at the piano and Jeff Johnson, the Lexington Singers’ musical director seated at a makeshift desk. It was good to see Jay again. It was always good to see Jay. It was especially comforting to see him that day, because I was nervous as hell. Like I said, I was a woodwinds player. Apart from a non-audition choral ensemble and an opera workshop in college (OperaWorks was a lot of fun though…a great musical sandbox without the cat poop), I had no other real vocal training. I did my audition, thanked Jay and Jeff, and left.
The next day I got a phone call saying I’d been accepted into the group.
Seeing Jay in Lexington Singers was like learning that your dad had a second family somewhere that you never knew about, only without the creepy, family traumatizing adverse effects. I always knew Jay was married, but for whatever reason I never got to know his wife while I was at Morehead. That changed when joined Lexington Singers. Nancy is a proud member of the alto section, and possibly the most patient woman alive. He spoke of her with the kind of enthusiasm and admiration that I hope to be able to someday. I will miss Jay, to be sure, but I will also miss seeing Jay and Nancy together, because what more does the world need than a couple still in love with each other after decades, modeling that love for others to emulate.
I was only in the group for about three years when a change in my work schedule and marriage caused me to drop out. Nine years later I auditioned again. It was like I hadn’t even been gone. In my life that’s how I’ve known my really good friends. The passage of time does nothing to erode the friendship.
I’d love to be able to say that I felt like I owned a piece of him, but that’s really just folly. Jay didn’t really belong to any of us, outside of Nancy and his daughters Vicki and Emily and their families. What he didn’t reserve for his family belonged to the world, and God bless him for that. I could develop a headache trying to comprehend the true impact of his influence on so many musicians, on so many people. I knew Jay the musician and Jay the teacher, but there are roles he played I will never know, but they meant something to others. He was a Sunday school teacher, church leader, business partner, trusted giver of sage advice. And he was our friend.
I don’t get it when I find out that some people who went to college don’t have memories of an inspiring professor. I’m grateful, though, that I realized Jay was one of mine.