I’ve sometimes wondered, how did I come to play music? A lot of musicians originate from “musical families,” but mine didn’t seem unusually so growing up. As I started to research my ancestors and ask questions of relatives, I realized that my family was much more musical than I had thought.
An aunt referred me to a book written by a cousin. The book said that my great-grandfather from Copenhagen who became a Wisconsin patriarch, Matt Matson, kept the luxury of a phonograph player and classical records in his farmhouse, even when necessities were hard to come by – he raised twelve children on that farm. Matt played violin, as did several of the children, and he also made violins, based on this book caption from June Pomerinke's "The Young Years." (1)
Matt Matson's son-in-law, and my grandfather, Arvid Anderson passed when I was very young and I had just fleeting memories of him. I later learned that he also played the violin, and that he enjoyed down-home fiddle jamming as shown in this photo, discovered at a family reunion:
One account from "The Young Years" described the family music-making:
“Midsummer was a very happy time at our house. … Arvid would bring (his violin). Dad (Matt) would take his off the wall and brother Bob [Matson] would play his accordion – and everybody sang.” (2)
My maternal grandfather Charles Mattinen was clearly musical. He sang bass in choirs for most of his life, bought me my first professional saxophone (the alto sax I play on Melting Pot), and when planning his memorial service in his 90s, requested that my classically trained pianist/cousin, Laura (Oinonen) Yrjanson, play Sibelius’s full “Finlandia” overture on piano as prelude music. Years ago I wrote a song for him derived from the “Finlandia” theme called “Blues for Chas.”
Charlie's wife, my grandmother Vi, was warm-hearted but tone-deaf, and could not carry a tune when singing hymns next to me in the local Finnish Lutheran church on Sunday mornings. Yet music was important to her. One of her possessions I've acquired is a notebook of over 200 full song lyrics from the year 1935-36 that she had painstakingly written out by hand as a young adult. I especially relate to some of these “new” songs like “Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing,” “The Way You Look Tonight” and “No Greater Love” because they would later become jazz standards. I wrote a song for her called “One for Vienna.”
My mother, Kathryn (Mattinen) Anderson was a talented pianist. After I moved to New York, my mother hinted that she'd love to see a concert at Carnegie Hall, so I took my parents to a performance there of Martha Argerich playing the Ravel Piano Concerto. Afterward, she told me that her childhood piano teacher had told her she should dream of playing at Carnegie Hall one day. The story surprised me because she played rarely and was modest about her abilities. I wrote a couple of songs after my mother’s passing, one called “Sanctuary” and another called “Splendor of the Old” paying tribute to her work as a geriatric nurse.
My mother’s sister Marion was developmentally disabled, yet had the savant-like ability to instantly recognize and give the names of hundreds of songs. Her guardian in her later years, cousin Laura said that Marion could pick out melodies she knew on the piano, despite never having a piano lesson, and that she believed Marion had perfect pitch.
My brother, Bob, played the guitar and bass, had good taste in music and brought home the first recordings that “hipped me” to jazz. His recordings of Maynard Ferguson, Grover Washington and Woody Herman were essential to getting me started with the genre.
As I looked over my family history, I understood that I came to play music because it’s in my family culture, because it was an option provided to me, and to some degree, because it’s in my genes. Why didn’t I make the connection sooner? I had been distracted by the styles of music my elders enjoyed – it wasn’t my music, so I couldn’t see how my musical interest came through them.
My father, Emmett, never played a musical instrument. But I saw parallels between my pursuit of music, and his young days learning to fly planes (he enlisted in the Air Force, was the first in his class to fly solo, and flew refueling planes during peacetime before becoming an educator & counselor). I pictured my dad embracing risk and adventure through flying, finding freedom and joy. I wrote a song for him called “The Aviator” and had the chance to perform it for him a couple of times on gigs. He told the story of his plane stalling one day while flying solo – an ultimate test of a pilot’s nerve (if he had not calmly restarted the plane engine in flight, I would not be here). Accordingly, at the end of this song from my debut album Clarity (performed with pianist John Hansen), I left my father suddenly, silently, up in the air:
The music for the Melting Pot album was not written to convey my musical background, but to celebrate the musical heritage of people I’ve met and musicians I've been performing with. In my upcoming posts, I’ll write about the origin of the “Melting Pot” in American culture, and the about the musical Melting Pot of New York City.
(1) June Pomerinke, The Young Years, Young Press, St. Maries, Idaho, 1986, p. 247.
(2) The Young Years, p. 17.