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RIP JANE JARVIS (1915-2010)

My efforts to avert the jinx of three notable people dying together by writing in my last post about Bobby Bragan and Curt Motton (who both died on Jan. 21) failed when I learned in a New York Times obituary on January 31 that Jane Jarvis had died at the age of 94 on Jan. 25 at the Lillian Booth Actors Home in Englewood, New Jersey. She had been living there for nearly two years since the crane accident on East 51st Street had forced her out of her apartment in her beloved Manhattan.

Jane, most famous for being the organist for the New York Mets in their first 15 years at Shea Stadium, was a remarkable person as well as a great musical talent - a child prodigy on both organ and piano. She was born in Vincennes, Indiana on Halloween in 1915 to a lawyer-father and a schoolteacher-mother. Jane was an only child whose first name was Luella, a name she loathed and she would have cringed if she knew it made the newspaper.

Her life story was truly remarkable. One night in 1929 shortly before the October stock market crash, Jane was playing jazz at home with her friends while her parents were out for the evening. In a call that changed her life, she was notified that they had been killed in an auto-railroad train collision.

She was now basically alone in the world because her few relatives didn't care for her nor did she like them. Georgia Carmichael, Hoagy’s sister who Jane once told me was the inspiration for Hoagy's famous song "Georgia On My Mind" not the state, became one of her mentors and encouraged her jazz playing.

Always confident about her abilities – she won several scholarships to classical conservatories - and blessed with a talent for getting along with people, Jane was soon able to earn a living as a musician. She appeared on radio stations in Gary, Indiana and Chicago and served as music director for a few of them. For some of her Windy City gigs she accompanied such great stars as Ethel Waters and Sophie Tucker.

In the 1940s she became the music director of a radio station in Milwaukee where one of her colleagues was a public affairs program host whom everyone called Goldy. Some years later “Goldy” became better known as Golda Meir, Israel’s prime minister.

Jane had never been to a baseball game until in 1954 she was hired as County Stadium’s organist by Milwaukee Braves president John McHale. In the transplanted Boston Braves’ wildly successful first year of 1953 their organist’s playing had been too intrusive. McHale instructed Jane not to play too often, only before the game and during the 7th inning stretch. She soon picked up the knack of baseball watching. On one occasion she played soothing numbers to calm the crowd during a dugout-clearing brawl.

Once she had assured the wives that she had no designs on their athlete-husbands, she became friendly with many of the Braves players, among them future Hall of Fame third baseman Eddie Mathews and two of their African-American players, center fielder Bill Bruton and first baseman George Crowe.

Sportswriters at that time said that Crowe would have been managerial timber if his color were not a handicap. Jane told me that in his wisdom and stature Crowe reminded her of the great Detroit-bred jazz bassist Major Holley. I would meet Major Quincy Adams Holley in the 1980s when he was playing with Jane at the late lamented Zinno’s restaurant-jazz club in Greenwich Village, the place where I fell in love with live jazz in the 1980s. Holley was indeed a powerful and insightful presence on the music scene.

Another Milwaukee memory Jane shared with me was of the young Joe Torre who broke into the major leagues in 1961 as a young 21-year-old catcher. She marveled at the poise and maturity far beyond his tender age that he displayed talking to fans and others in the community, compassionate traits that have served him well in his managing career with the Yankees and now the Dodgers.

Every jazz musician yearns to test him or herself in the Big Apple and Jane was no exception. She arrived in NYC not at first to play jazz but to become an executive for the Muzak corporation, makers of elevator music. When the New York Mets were looking for an organist to play at their new Shea Stadium in 1964, John McHale gave Jane a glowing recommendation.

Before long Jane had found a budding new audience among fans, players and other members of the Mets organization.
Broadcaster Ralph Kiner, future Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver, and ace reliever Tug McGraw found her music and personality especially endearing.

On the January night six years ago that Tug “You Gotta Believe” McGraw died, Jane phoned me just wanting to talk and reminisce about Tug. She told me that early in his career when he was being tried out as a starting pitcher, he would come up to her booth after his workouts and talk to her and fiddle around on the keyboard. (I guess the genes of country singer Tim McGraw were being formed in those days.)

Jane always considered it her good fortune that she worked in baseball at a time when there were still paternal feelings between management and players and the game had not degenerated into a war over money and power. She remembered fondly the maternal attitude of the Mets’ first owner, Mrs. Joan Payson, an heiress to one of the Whitney fortunes, who used to bestow gifts on the players’ wives whenever a child was born.

Jane left the Mets and baseball after the 1979 season to devote herself more fully to her career as a jazz pianist. She had developed a “raft of fans” (I use the term she said flatteringly about me and the audience in my radio days) among the jazz cats, many of whom like Clark Terry and Lionel Hampton had loved the way she slipped jazz tunes into her organ work at the ballpark.

While working for Muzak, Jane had also seen to it that many jazz musicians received composition work to help support them. The sad truth remains that most of the time they cannot earn a living playing the music they love the most.

I'll never forget Jane telling me that jazz and baseball hold special places in American culture because they are uniquely American creations. “Everything else in this country comes from Europe or somewhere else,” she noted sagely.

She will be memorialized later this year at St. Peters Lutheran Church on East 54th Street in Manhattan, the locale where for many years she played carols on the organ on Christmas Eve and where she often played solo and duo jazz recitals. Watch this space for the exact day and time.
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