Musical Resurrections: from Liszt to Jazz

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<!-- missing image -->The other day I read a feature in the LA Times by Anthony Mostrom called “The Bizarre Decline of a Musical Prodigy”.  That prodigy was the Hungarian pianist Ervin Nyiregyhazi.

He was a follower of the great Hungarian composer and pianist Franz Liszt.  After establishing himself as a child prodigy in Budapest in the early part of the last century, he captured Europe, performing before royalty and winning early fame.  Among his gifts were perfect pitch, eidetic (photographic) memory, and total tactile recall, meaning that once he’d played a piece his motor memory would retain it forever and he could play it at will even decades later with no sheet music.

He captured America, playing Carnegie Hall in 1920 and taking New York audiences by storm.  Then he ventured west to LA, and that’s where his story becomes more unusual.  His tempestuous style didn’t sit well with audiences here, and he wound up playing small theatres in places like Eagle Rock.  He eventually gave up performances and began living in skid row flophouses.  He dropped out of sight, and was only rediscovered by somebody who happened to enter a church in San Francisco in the 1970s and hear Nyiregyhazi playing.  The audience of one was astounded, recorded it on a cassette, and the legendary pianist emerged from self-imposed oblivion.  By the way, he was married ten times, had numerous affairs with famous women such as Gloria Swanson and for during the 1920’s was the toast of Hollywood—if not the conservative classical establishment.  I am reminded here of the brilliant musical lexicogropher Nicolas Slonimsky, whose career as a conductor of new music was cut short at the Hollywood Bowl in 1928 when he conducted Edgar Varese and Henry Cowell to a booing and unfriendly audience.

I am reminded also of gifted jazz musicians who vanished into obscurity, homelessness and mental illness.  The best known of these is probably Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, a Juilliard-trained violinist whose career was resurrected by LA Times columnist Steve Lopez and became the subject of the 2009  film The Soloist.  There is also bassist Henry Grimes, also classically trained at Juilliard, who gave up jazz in the 1960s after playing with Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, Benny Goodman and other top artists and wound up destitute and ekeing out a small living from a tiny LA apartment.  In 2003  Marshal Marrotte, a jazz fan and social worker knew he was somewhere in LA, sought him out and finally found him..

Also found in LA living on the streets in the 1990s was saxophonist Sonny Simmons, who in the 1960s had worked alongside Eric Dolphy, Elvin Jones, and other top avant-garde players.    He’s revived his career, touring Europe and playing in major festivals such as Moers, Helsinki, and the Montreal International Jazz Festival as well.

Nyiregyhazi, Grimes, Ayers, and Simmons were all gifted musicians who for various (and non-drug-related) reasons fell out of the music scene.  And all four bounced back miraculously.  Simmons, Grimes, and Ayers are still playing and touring.  They are survivors.

Here’s a clip of Nyiregyhazi playing Liszt:

Henry Grimes Trio playing in Kerava Festival, Finland