Category Archives: Music Legacy

George and Nathaniel.  Names of two American boys growing up a decade apart.

One white.  One black.  Both pianists. Each came to be known by different names. The former was an orphan from New York.  The latter a preacher’s kid born in Alabama.  Music eventually brought the two together.

Rather than finish high school, Nathaniel Adams Cole (1919-1965) decided to take his music career to the next level.  His mom – the church organist – had taught him how to play as a boy. She had an impact on her whole family; four sons all pursued music careers in the 1930s and 40s.  Inspiration surely also came from the likes of Louis Armstrong, one of the many music icons Nathaniel would sneak out to see perform in nearby clubs.

Making a living as a jazz pianist and big band leader, he eventually formed his own band per the request of a club owner. They called themselves the “King Cole Swingsters,” taking a cue from the nursery rhyme: “Old King Cole was a merry old soul.”   Singing was never his goal, but once he got started, people raved about the voice of Nat King Cole.

1946 saw the debut of the 15 minute radio show King Cole Trio Time, and a number of hit recordings followed. Notably, he even got a TV show in 1956, The Nat ‘King’ Cole show on NBC.  After six months, they doubled the show length to 30 minutes. And six months after that, it ended. Despite an array of big name musicians trying to help recruit a national sponsor, the financing wasn’t secured. Shortly thereafter, Cole made the poignant remark that “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.” (‘Madison Avenue’ is a term sometimes used in reference to the advertising industry as a whole.)

Much of the country was afraid of the dark. When Cole bought a house in an all-white community of Los Angeles in 1948, the home owners’ association informed him that they didn’t want any “undesirables” around. His response?: “Neither do I.  And if I see anybody undesirable coming in here, I’ll be the first to complain.” He was greeted with a burning cross from the KKK on his new front lawn.

Interestingly, Cole initially avoided much involvement in the civil rights movement or racial issues.  He didn’t want to shake things up, and he even performed for segregated audiences into the fifties – much to the chagrin of peers who longed for him to use his platform to effect change. He eventually did just this, contributing to the Montgomery Bus boycott in ‘56, and helping coordinate efforts for the 1963 March on Washington, among a number of other political and social initiatives.

Jump back a few years to the packed out Lincoln Theater in Los Angeles.  It is 1947. Cole’s delicate vocal style has attracted someone to try to connect with him.  Someone who wants to share a piece of music.  Cole’s manager passes it along to him, and in short order Cole was performing it in his shows. In 1948 it was recorded.  The composer was not seeking fame.  In fact, he was hard to find at all.  There’s not really an address for “under the first L of the HOLLYWOOD sign.”

George Alexander Aberle, born in 1908, had been adopted at age nine and raised as George McGrew in Kansas.  He made his way to California in the 1940s, building on his career as a jazz pianist and band leader – just like Cole. He reached a different audience though.  Aberle played piano at a health food store and raw foods restaurant.  (I would take that job! When our local co-op recruited feedback on their expansion plans, I really should have suggested a piano.)

Following eccentric ideologies and lifestyles strongly emphasizing back-to-nature living, organic vegetarian diets, beard-growing, sandal-wearing, and deep thinking, Aberle and other followers of this lifestyle at the time were termed “Nature Boys.” He even changed his name to eden ahbez, insisting that God and Infinity are the only words that should be capitalized. (He was known to friends as “ahbe” – pronounced “AH-bee” – which, ironically is our oldest daughter’s nickname.) 

As one of America’s early hippies, ahbe roamed the countryside of California, at times making his home, as mentioned, under the famous sign above Los Angeles. “Mostly he slept where he gardened.” (see article below) This is where he was found when the publishers and media wanted to make deals and tell the world the story behind this hot new song.  “Nature Boy” was a No. 1 hit for eight weeks.  Imagine, this nomad of a man, being reviewed by Life, Time, and Newsweek magazines – simultaneously!  He actually had a number of songs that Cole and others recorded over time, as well as his own 1960 solo EP Eden’s Island.

Below is a powerful excerpt about the song, from a 1977 Los Angeles Times article written by Pearl Rowe, ahbez’s sister-in-law. The article gives a keen description of this unique man – it’s worth a read.

“It was a song that touched everyone.  Even the disenchanted buck-hungry stopped to listen and wonder where they had missed the final pay-off in their lives.  It was strange for those days of Cole Porter-like sophistication.  But it grabbed the imagination of a world still stunned by a terrible war and then a peace that never really came, a time when no one could find answers so they hopefully clung to the sweet philosophy of someone who had come from nowhere and soon belonged everywhere.”  From the Los Angeles Times calendar – Sunday July 24 1977.

“…It grabbed the imagination of a world still stunned by a terrible war and then a peace that never really came…”

ahbez was once asked about his perspective on race relations in America. He answered,

“Some white people hate black people, and some white people love black people, some black people hate white people, and some black people love white people. So you see it’s not an issue of black and white, it’s an issue of Lovers and Haters.”  source

If ahbez had had his way, the lyrics for this song would have been “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is to love and be loved, just to love, and be loved.”  Poetically not as fitting, but it does eliminate the implication of a deal being made.  As ahbez said “To be loved in return, is too much of a deal, and there’s no deal in love.” source

In February of 1965, Nat King Cole died of lung cancer at the age of 45. Thirty years later, in March of 1995, at the age of 85, eden ahbez died after a car crash.

Between the two of these men – the eccentric mystic vagabond, and the famous jazz professional – one white, one black, both socially ‘othered’ – is a snapshot of diversity and unity and collaboration and unexpected success.  The strangeness of it all is rather endearing.

“Nature Boy” by eden ahbez

There was a boy
A very strange, enchanted boy
They say he wandered very far
Very far, over land and sea

A little shy and sad of eye
But very wise was he 

And then one day
One magic day he passed my way
While we spoke of many things
Fools and Kings
This he said to me:

“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return.”

Listen to our recording of this song:


featured image: elijah macleod via

Wikipedia –
Nat King Cole

eden ahbez

Nature Boy

Ties and Slurs and Jobs

I’m not not talking about clothing accessories and inebriated speech…just yet.

When reading them little black and white dots on top of all them lines, aka music notation, it’s really easy for beginners to confuse ties with slurs.  Both are graceful arcs between notes. The actual shape of the lines can be identical.  The purpose is very different, however.  Ties are about rhythm.  They connect the rhythmic event of one note to the rhythmic event of the same note later on and tie the two together in one rhythmic event. Slurs denote how a series of different notes should be played.  Slurs are drawn over a series of two or more notes that are different than one another but who share the same melodic idea.

Sometimes life and work is like reading music notation.  It looks like it’s black and white and you just have to make music out of it.  However, if you misinterpret the notation you’re going to fall flat….and on your face.

There’s so much that I love about being self-employed and in music.  The thrill of hearing my volunteer church choir lock into their chord.  The joy of hearing my voice students creating gorgeous music to express themselves. The fun of casting a vision for a new concert production and seeing it come to fruition through collaboration with a dedicated team of various talented friends.  I love it all.

Brian Tracy, in his book, Earn what You’re Really Worth says that income security can only be guaranteed when you do something that is A. Important, B. in Demand, and C. where you are Irreplaceable.

I know that music is important.  I know that my music performance/instruction/production is in demand and has been growing consistently over the past five years.  I’d like to think that I’m irreplaceable.

So why then am I looking for full-time work? Well, there’s a few.

  1. Work/Life Balance. Teaching thirty voice students at five different teaching studios has been exciting to have a somewhat regular flow of monies, but it makes for a difficult work/life balance.  The emotional cost to my family has been greater than the financial reward.
  2. Growing family, growing needs.  Yep.  Number 4 here we go!  We’re very excited to meet this little addition in October.  I’ll be more excited if we’re able to move into a different home by the end-of-summer.
  3. Self-Employed and you want a Mortgage?  Despite growing my own business for the past five years and experiencing some really cool successes/expansions with teaching/performing/producing, all I need is a couple of pay stubs at a new job and I’d qualify to buy a home for my family.  #thanxhousingmarketcrash

SO.  I’m looking for work that allows me to capture more of the value of my experience in a full-time W-2 “real” job.  The music won’t stop.  Don’t you worry.

After telling a friend of mine about my job hunt, he said that he was sad at the thought of me in a tie and a cubicle.  I understand that I don’t fit inside that box very well.  I’m hoping to God I get to do something that I’m passionate about where I can work with people, care about a cause and finally get paid to be the creative vision guy.  But most importantly, I welcome the tie if it comes with some economic security for my family.

I’m just going to read it as a slur and make it part of my melodic line.

Two Things Wright

I’ve been enjoying learning a little bit more about the birth of flight as I prepare for Test Pilot in a few weeks.

Penny Freeh with guys Test Pilot

Rehearsing airplane choreography with Penny Freeh

While most of what I’ve been learning has to do with what to sing or how to move, there are two things about the Wright brothers that really stick out to me.

As they were trying to figure out this whole flight thing, they were working in their bicycle shop.  They had been trying to figure out how to maneuver the plane once they were to get into the air. The solution that they ended up using was arrived at by simply playing around with the box from a tire inner tube.  (The process is called “wing warping.”)  Not only did they arrive at the solution by just noticing the world around them, but they were solving problem C before they had even passed problem A.

They were open to finding a solution before they even needed it.  They were dreaming. And they were planning on their dream coming true.

The second thing that really inspired me this week is about an equation – the all important equation for lift.  They were finding all of these dead ends in their attempts to solve it until they realized that part of the equation – which had been “proven” to be the case – was actually false.

So the two things…

1. Plan ahead.  Don’t get caught up in the problems of today such that there is no energy to dream about solutions for tomorrow.

2. Question. Question the status quo.  Don’t let the “rules” by the experts keep you on the ground.


Wright-Glider-LC-DIG-ppprs-00571” by (unknown) – Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Ukraine 2012

I’m thrilled to be heading to Ukraine July 5th-July 18th this summer.  I’ll be singing with   Evangelion Chorale and connecting with musicians and composers in Ukraine.  This trip is very different from previous tours in that there are Ukrainians rehearsing simultaneously who will be singing with us and translating for us.  After committing to the trip, I’ve found out that some of the Ukrainian singers with us are friends of mine that I met in 2006!!!  This will be an incredible tour.  For those of you who weren’t able to attend our spring concert, one reason why I’m especially excited about this trip is the prospect of connecting with fans or family of Ivan Mychik, the amazing choral and vocal composer who gave me a copy of his music in 2006, some of which we performed on “Beauty Awake,” our spring concert.  I am very sad to have learned recently that he passed away, but I hope to learn about the legacy he left.

The Organ Hall in L’viv where I met Ivan Mychik and received a copy of his incredible music. Tim Sawyer reminded me that this hall was reserved by promise of two pounds of peanut butter. Things are just a little different in Ukraine. 🙂

The music we’re performing is fantastic.  From Monteverdi to a spiritual arrangement done recently by Dr. Jon Veenker, there’s a wide range.  Many of the singers in Evangelion are members of other high caliber choral ensembles as well.  We have members from MN Chorale, the National Lutheran Choir.  Evangelion, directed by Dr. Dennis Port, has been to Ukraine 7 times before and has developed a positive reputation and following there.  Bringing hope and good news to Ukraine through sacred choral works: a beautiful tradition to be a part of.
Please be praying for Naomi and my two sweeties.  P and A (1 and 3) are beautiful and smart, but  they can be a huge challenge like any kids their age.  Besides getting ready for this tour, I’m in the thick of concert planning for the rest of the year as well.  Any well-wishes, babysitting offers, and mommy support would be a God-send.
Also, any financial support would be greatly appreciated.  Go to our support page for specifics for this trip.
Here’s a sample of our itinerary in Ukraine.
  • Sunday, July 8, a.m. church service at Cherkassy Baptist Church
  • Sunday, July 8, p.m. evening concert at Cherkassy Baptist Church
  • Monday, July 9, evening concert in Poltava,
  • Tuesday, July 10, free day in Poltava and Kyiv
  • Wednesday, July 11, evening concert in Zhitomyr
  • Thursday, July 12, evening concert in Luts’k
  • Friday, July 13, evening concert in L’viv
  • Saturday, July 14, evening concert at organ hall in Rivne
  • Sunday, July 15, evening concert at Central Baptist, Kyiv
  • Monday, July 16, evening concert with KSOC orchestra at Tschaikovsky Conservatory auditorium, Kyiv

Minnesota – Choral “mecca”

I have known for some time that the Twin Cities is a strong incubator of arts and culture.  I was impressed by a documentary I watched last week entitled “Never Stop Singing” by TPT.  Originally aired summer of 2009 it was recently rebroadcast on February 11th of this year.  It celebrates the rich choral tradition of the state of MN.  Thomas D. Rossin, conductor of chamber choir and orchestra, Exultate, describes MN as the “mecca” of choral singing.  I believe it.  I’m proud of our state.  Here’s a few links to the transcripts of the interviews that were used for this documentary.  These are just a handful of the many composers, conductors, and performers in choral music who live or work in this state.  

Philip Brunelle

René Clausen

Erick Lichte

Weston Noble

Joan Oliver Goldsmith

Robert Robinson

Kathy Saltzman Romey

Dale Warland

Anton Armstrong

The largest reason why MN is the greatest state for choral singing is thanks to a man that wasn’t even a singer.  F. Melius Christainsen.

This man came to work for a little college in Northfield, MN called St. Olaf in 1892.   Even though his main instrument was violin, his love of choral music and passion for excellence left a legacy that is still alive today.  St. Olaf is internationally known and has been leading the way in this nation for decades.  The following was taken from St. Olaf’s website.

A description of Dr. Christiansen while conducting a rehearsal has been given by a visiting music critic as follows:

“A strikingly calm, cool exterior might easily mislead the careless observer into a belief that the celebrated Minnesota Kapellmeister is a musician of the purely scientific, intellectual variety.
“But a view of his face while he conducts a rehearsal, a glimpse of his eyes as he discusses some great composer, the tone of his voice as he expounds the great principles underlying his work, these tell the story of an ever-burning spiritual flame which now and again reaches white heat.”

Are you in MN and wanting to join a choir?  There’s only 75 to choose from here.  Never Stop Singing .org houses much of the information that was used for the documentary.  It sums the MN choral reality like this:

“According to Chorus America, more than 450,000 Minnesotans sing in at least one chorus. These ensembles cover the full spectrum of choral involvement: from youth choirs to high school, college, and community choirs; from intimate ensembles to symphonic choruses; and from early-music devotees to specialists in contemporary, barbershop or Gospel music. While we couldn’t begin to cover all of these different choruses, the stories and the messages are universal. What all choral ensembles seem to share is an amazing ability to motivate, inspire and bring people together through the shared experience of singing.”

Does this make you want to sing?