As I sit here on February 27, 2021 watching the horrific attack unleashed by Putin on Ukraine, I am thinking of an amazingly peaceful man who can hear “the troops coming out” when he plays the piano. That man is Ran Blake, who plays the piano like no other pianist, speaks like no other person, has a memory like no other person, is like no other person, and is a genius among us, winner of a MacArthur genius grant, and the longtime leader of the Contemporary Improvisation Department at the New England Conservatory of Music. You might think a guy with those chops would be hard to know. Not at all. Easy to know. Easy to love, as many who know him do. Described as the man who wants to “introduce everybody in the world to everybody else,” Ran’s eyes become moist listening to other musicians make music, part and parcel of his own modesty about his own unique talent. You might ask why Ran hears those troops coming out. Because he was caught in the jaws of the Greek junta in 1967. Later, his great and good friend, American composer and everything else musical, Gunther Schuller, wisely brought him to NEC, where Gunther was then ensconced as President. When the Twin Towers came down on 9/11, within days Ran organized a concert to honor Anwar Sadat, Yitzhak Rabin, and the New York firefighters, in which he brought together musical artists from all points of the compass to play indigenous music, including several Muslim countries, to offset the anti-Muslim hatred then raging. Not long before that concert I met and interviewed Ran for the Oral History of American Music Project at Yale University (OHAM). We became immediate friends then to this day. That was easy because Ran was forever supportive as I took up writing as a second career. It might well have been the other way around, but that is not who Ran is. Visiting this “genius” in his modest Brookline apartment is an experience in itself. You might be greeted by his beautiful cat, Dektor, with his pushed in face, huge whiskers, long hair, and leonine appearance. Often his faithful friend, trumpeter, Aaron Hartley, is there to attend to now octogenarian, Ran. Standing tall in the living room is Ran’s grand piano, where he teaches his students. The walls are lined with shelves containing his vast library of musical scores, his long list of his published CD’s, as well as his library of film noir, in which he revels. In fact, Ran and Aaron produce a show based on a classic film noir movie at NEC regularly, featuring an array of Improv students. Visiting Ran he might give you some apple sauce made by an apple sauce maker of renown, my wife, Lois, who brings Ran that treat regularly. Hear about Ran telling of musical soirees long ago at the home of Dorothy Wallace on Chestnut Place in Brookline, where Ran and Gunther would come to commune with their genius brethren, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig Van Beethoven. What, you thought Ran was only a jazzer? Geniuses travel all roads. This genius loves us all.
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