…With Jane Jarvis at the Organ…

jane jarvisRecently, I learned that jazz pianist Jane Jarvis had passed away in January.

Though I didn’t realize it at the time, Jane Jarvis was instrumental in my introduction to jazz. I attended countless performances by Ms. Jarvis during the late sixties and early seventies, but I never got to see her play in person.

In fact, I can still remember the date that I first heard Jane Jarvis play live; it was Sunday, July 27, 1969. It was a performance attended by 55, 390 other paying customers, plus 50 players, 4 umpires and an assortment of coaches and hot dog vendors. For you see, July 27, 1969, was the first time I attended a Major League Baseball game; and from 1964 through 1979, Ms. Jarvis was the organist at what was then the New York Mets’ home ballpark, Shea Stadium.

Baseball had first captured my imagination that spring; as the Mets were embarking upon what turned out to be a legendary season. As I watched games on TV, the sound of the organist in the background always caught my attention. I had heard many organists before, in churches, at the skating rink and in other places, but there was something different about the Shea organist. Her sound was happier and the way she “grouped her notes”, as I would say back then, was special. I would listen intently as Mets broadcaster Lindsey Nelson, would introduce her big solo before every game with the phrase “…and now, with Jane Jarvis at the organ, our National Anthem.” Her version of “The Star Spangled Banner” was a little different. It was appropriately reverential, but there would often be a jazzy run connecting the stanzas and an improvised coda after the last line of the song. Ms. Jarvis almost succeeded in making what is with all due respect, a difficult piece of music, cool.

Ms. Jarvis left Shea after the 1979 season, when new Mets ownership decided to drop organ music in favor of the loud recorded pop hits and mindless drivel that you hear at most stadiums today. About a decade went by before I heard the name Jane Jarvis again. By then, my interest in jazz had taken hold; and I was pleasantly surprised as I read the newspaper on the morning train, to learn that Jane Jarvis was opening at one of the New York clubs, leading a jazz trio. As I continued to read the article, I found out a bit of her backstory.

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Born Luella Jane Nossett in 1915, in Indiana, to a schoolteacher mother and lawyer father, she began picking out melodies on the piano at the age of 4. Her parents then arranged for her to began studying classical piano the next year at Vincennes University and then at several conservatories in the Chicago area. By age 11, Jane was appearing regularly on a Gary, IN radio show. By the age of 13, she had become a staff pianist at WJKS-WIND radio in Chicago, where she accompanied artists such as Ethel Waters, Sophie Tucker and the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. That same year, tragedy struck, as both of her parents were killed in a car accident. Devastated, but determined, Jarvis continued to study at various conservatories and work hard in the local music industry. She remained in the Midwest, where she gave birth to and raised two children. Eventually, Jane moved to Milwaukee, where she worked as accompanist at radio station WTMJ and hosted a local TV show called “Jivin’ With Jarvis”. During that time, baseball’s Braves moved from Boston to Milwaukee and they were looking for an organist. Jane answered the call and remained with the Braves for eight years. In 1963, she moved to New York. Seeking regular employment, she took at job at Muzak Corporation as an arranger. She would remain with Muzak for the next 18 years, eventually rising to the position of VP of programming and recording.

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The next year, 1964, the Mets were opening their brand new ballpark in Flushing, Queens and looking for an experienced organist. Jane Jarvis answered the call. For the next 15 years, fans like me were treated to an array of swinging, up-tempo tunes that ranged from the obligatory (“Take Me Out to the Ballgame”), to the inventive. Whenever fan-favorite relief pitcher Tug McGraw would enter a game, Jane would greet him with a jazzy chorus of “The Campbell’s are Coming”, to which Tug would time his warm-up pitches. Those of us in attendance would clap along in giddy delight. I particularly loved one skittish tune that she often used between innings. It wasn’t until I began to dig Charlie Parker, years later that I realized that the skittish tune was “Scrapple from the Apple”

After leaving Muzak and the Mets, Ms. Jarvis finally found time to concentrate more on jazz piano, which she had never stopped dabbling in. By the mid-eighties she had a regular gig at Zinno, a West-Village restaurant-nightclub, where the great Milt Hinton was her regular bassist. She was also the only woman in Statesmen of Jazz, a group of jazz players all over the age of 65. Finally in 1985, at the tender age of 70, Jane Jarvis recorded her first album as a leader. As a pianist, Ms. Jarvis style was as elegant as is was unfailingly swinging; rooted in the swing of her youth. Her playing was reminiscent of a couple a swing era greats who had gained fame with Benny Goodman: Teddy Wilson and Jess Stacy.

Of the five albums that she recorded as a leader or co-leader, between 1985 and 2000, two remain in print: 1995’s Jane Jarvis Jams, with Bob Haggart on bass, Grady Tate on drums and Dan Barrett, doubling on trombone and cornet. And her final session as a leader, Atlantic – Pacific, from 1999; a date which saw Jarvis fronting both an East Coast based quintet, with Benny Powell, (whom we also recently lost) and Frank Wess and a West Coast sextet, that included Bill Berry, Tommy Newsome and Jake Hanna. Both sessions are on the fine swing oriented label, Arbors Records and are currently available on CD and as an MP3 download from Amazon.com. Both of these dates show that although Ms. Jarvis was past 80 when they were recorded, her skills had not diminished.  Her sidemen were having a ball as well. Mr. Barrett nearly steals the show on Jane Jarvis Jams, demonstrating impressive skills on cornet, in addition to his usual trombone. However, of these two sessions, I have to give the nod to Atlantic – Pacific, on which the presence of Powell, Wess and Newsome, seems to push Jane to take her game a bit higher.

Below are links to a track from each session for your listening pleasure: “Mountain Greenery”, from Jane Jarvis Jams and “Beautiful Love” from the “Atlantic” portion of Atlantic – Pacific, which also features some fine ‘bone, courtesy of Mr. Powell.

Mountain Greenery – Jane Jarvis

Beautiful Love – Jane Jarvis and Benny Powell

Just because she did not lead any more recorded sessions, does not mean that Jane Jarvis was inactive for the last decade of her life. She continued to work with the Statesmen of Jazz and was still playing on dates around NYC as late as 2008.  She even survived, unscathed,  a 2008 construction crane collapse at the building adjacent to her E. 50th Street apartment. Until her death, she was still regaling visitors with wonderful stories from the lore of baseball and jazz, with a life affirming joy. As she said in a 1999 interview with the Indianapolis Star, “I figure I’ve got another 25 years, at least I’ve got 25 years booked out.”

The music of Jane Jarvis and many others can be heard on Curt’s Café WebJazz Radio; 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Click the adjacent link to listen. 24/7 JazzStream

We’re concluding this post with a brief, moving tribute to Jane and Benny Powell that we found on YouTube, called “Before the Crane”. Many thanks to JazzLegacy for putting it online.

Until the next time, the jazz continues…

6 Responses to “…With Jane Jarvis at the Organ…”

  1. Curt, I too fell in love with baseball in 69 and for one year was a Mets fan, then my dad started taking me to Phillies games. We did make one trip the Shea during my youth, so maybe I heard her play too. Great tribute.

  2. Fred Winther Says:

    Do you know where I can find her playing songs from Shea Stadium including the “Mexican Hat Dance” “Meet The Mets” & the “Star Spangled Banner?

    • Hi Fred,

      Unfortunately, there are no commercial recordings of Ms. Jarvis playing her Shea favorites. I have heard a recording that is purported to be of her playing “Meet the Mets” on You Tube. Apparently, the closest we’ll come to hearing her play at Shea is when ESPN Classic or SNY.tv replays some of those classic games from 1969…

      Thanks for your question and for reading my blog.

      Curtis

  3. Fred Winther Says:

    Any one have thr Audio of the Mexican Hat Dance?

  4. I have a copy of Jane Jarvis playing the Star Spangled Banner but its on a old fashond audo Casitie

  5. Jane Jarvis playing at Shea can be heard on many of the audio clips at http://www.insystem.com/bb/sounds.htm

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