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Mountain Home Magazine

The Piano Man

Feb 01, 2016 05:22PM

How do you get world-class musicians to come spend part of their summers in a tiny mountain town in northern Pennsylvania?

You ask.

And it helps if the person doing the asking is an acclaimed maestro with an international resume that includes conducting a Grammy-nominated recording. Stephen Gunzenhauser, the music director and conductor of the Lancaster Symphony Orchestra, formerly head of the Delaware Symphony, was the first music man who fell in love with a little Pennsylvania town and brought all the rest, a summer troupe of celebrated musicians from around the world.

The Endless Mountain Music Festival (EMMF) has been called the gem of the region’s performance calendar. But its founding music director and conductor calls it “summer camp for musicians.” Gunzenhauser seeks out innovative artists with the spirit to take the music to Main Street. Specifically, Main Street, Wellsboro.

“I tell them we are uncompromising in the quality we seek for the festival and that we are open to all kinds of music,” Gunzenhauser relates, making it sound deceptively simple to corral some of the world’s most accomplished musicians to come to a place they have never heard of.

Bram Wijnands must have wonderful memories of summer camp as a child, because a pianist, composer, and arranger of his caliber could go anywhere to play during the golden days of late July, and he chooses to come to Wellsboro.

Maestro Gunzenhauser’s recruitment plan can be compared to a cheerful Amway scheme. The musicians he recruits go back to their respective circles and rave about the experience to their colleagues. This word-of–mouth strategy results in new performers who, before they arrive, have already been exposed to the gospel on the mount that is EMMF.

After that, the beauty of the Endless Mountains, the charm of the communities, and the welcome and the musical IQ of the audiences does the rest, bringing performers back year after year.

Bram heard about EMMF from a friend from Kansas City who was playing with the Festival, who then recommended him to Gunzenhauser. That was 2010, and the native of Holland hasn’t missed a summer since.

Asked why he thinks Bram returns to the festival, Gunzenhauser gives a casual shrug and a plain-as-your-nose explanation.

“He fell in love with the place, same as many of us.”

Bram will be back this month in his role as the headliner for EMMF’s Winter Jazz Fest. And, during the main summer festival this year, which kicks off on July 23, Bram will be back with—for the first time—his Kansas City jazz/swing band.

Love plays more of a role in this story than one might think. Bram caught the eye of Alla Krolevich, a lovely Russian violinist from Miami who was summering at the festival. An admittedly difficult long-distance romance began and, two years later, they returned to Wellsboro to perform for EMMF and were married in the lobby of the Penn Wells Hotel the day after the festival concluded. (Coincidentally, he considers the Penn Wells to be his favorite concert venue. Maybe not so coincidentally.) The pair now resides in Kansas City, where Bram is determined to arrange some violin music to allow his bride to explore her improv side. The festival has produced four such unions, proof that all things lovely grow in the clean mountain air.

A pianist since the age of four, Bram’s brain began a lifelong habit of “processing music” long before his youthful fingers could make the sound. His chosen genre was the jazz of the 1930s and ’40s. He loved the emotions it triggered in people and its rich history.

“Jazz came to Europe because of the war. When you think on it, it really was the music of the resistance during World War I,” he says. “The Germans had banned it, so it went underground.” The natural emotion of the music was fed by the cultural shock that always comes with war. Instead of diminishing it, jazz flourished in the world.

The love of music fused with a work ethic instilled by his father and grandfather. “Do it well or don’t do it at all.” (He still returns to Holland once a year for an eight- concert tour and to see his parents.) As a young man, he was in an excellent neighborhood of the global village to study jazz. The Conservatory in The Hague, the seat of the Dutch Parliament, began a program on jazz in 1928. But there is nothing better for learning than to soak oneself in the place of a music’s origin.

Enrollment in the Hilversum Conservatory landed him with a teacher who clearly saw his talent. And it led to his first Kansas City connection, when a teacher at the school returned to the land of blues and barbeque and bragged about the young piano player to anyone with ears. Bram came to America in 1992 and played with many of the swing and jazz greats. He wasted no time in carving out a reputation for himself in the clubs of Kansas City, New Orleans, and New York, including a memorable performance at Carnegie Hall. Kansas City is so enamored with this son of Holland that the Mayor proclaimed him their “Ambassador of Swing,” a title that seems impossibly cool for someone who barely qualifies for his AARP card. That is, until you hear him play.

His style has been described as “hard-driving and enthusiastic,” but Bram sees it more as “communicative” than anything else. “If I can make someone in the audience smile, that makes me happy.” It is nearly impossible to watch him play without grinning and discovering you have lost muscular control of your right foot. You have probably heard “Just One Of Those Things” before. But, until you hear the Bram Wijnands arrangement, you don’t realize how much energy was encased in the song. It’s like Bram holds the key to freeing the words and music and, while performing it, he smiles at you like you’ve been let in on a secret that only you and he share.

It is not only his piano-playing, but his singing style that make you feel time-traveled back to the heyday of jazz. Hearing Bram do his thing is reminiscent of a steamy, southern night when Fats Waller and Memphis Slim were providing the soundtrack for a vibrant, optimistic time on the American landscape.

Bram’s connection to the music, in turn, connects him to people who have that jazz beat in their souls. Sometimes, it is a genuine surprise who relates to the tunes. His adopted hometown of Kansas City has a “sister city” in Florida. When Bram played there before dignitaries from around the world, the evening ended with the King of Ghana taking several CDs home. Can’t you just see Saturday night in the palace, with the royal family swinging across the marble floors to “Lover Come Back”?

A devotee of the “stride method” of piano, Bram is nearly single-handedly keeping a music style alive. So called because the left hand must jump back and forth between the bass and the chord, stride is the ultimate homage to the jazz greats of the past. He was seven years old when he saw a movie of Fats Waller playing this way and tried to imitate it. His hands weren’t big enough yet. But his brain understood it, and it was only a matter of time and nature working their magic on the child prodigy.

But why this particular flavor of jazz? The music that captured his heart was popular decades before Bram was even born. There are many forms of newer jazz that his contemporaries play, yet he is ever loyal to that Count Basie beat. Accused of hiding his own Dorian Gray-type painting that conceals his true age, Bram barks out a strong laugh. “No, I don’t. But I do believe I am an old soul.”

“There is a connection with the audience, an emotional response that I really enjoy. Eighty percent of jazz is energy, and when the audience is moving with the music, it enhances my love of performing. No form of jazz conveys that like vintage jazz.”

It was perfectly logical that such a passion would need to develop its own outlet, and Bram did. He founded a seven-piece group that Maestro Gunzenhauser refuses to call a “band.

Not an orchestra, either. It has so many variations to it, so much talent, I’m not sure what word to use.” The Bram Wijnands Jazz Band is slated for a summer visit to the Endless Mountains, showcasing Bram’s compositions and arrangements that breathe new life into familiar tunes.

So, does playing such a dated style of music tend to produce older audiences? “I’ve been aging along with my audience, so the age difference doesn’t feel as severe now as when I was twenty, but yes, they do skew older. Usually, though, there are some young people who understand it.”

In fact, Bram is taking time in February, during the Winter Jazz Fest, to visit a couple of area schools to talk jazz with the students. 

Hopefully, the students will ask about this “brain-finger” relationship that is so critical to Bram’s musical style, though their teachers may wince at his less than disciplined playing schedule. “I’m at the point now where I don’t practice at the piano very much anymore. What I spend my time doing is thinking out the music in my head. Then it translates to my hands. The technique of doing it is less of an issue than thinking out the logistics in my brain.”

Asked if his brain has ever come up with something his fingers can’t do, the crack of laughter comes again. “Oh yes, hell yes, all the time. Then the work commences to figure out how to do it.”

Amidst a packed touring schedule, steady dates at the hot spots in Kansas City, “dabbling” in the bass and accordion, and recording, Bram makes time to teach. He is on the adjunct faculty of the University of Missouri- Kansas City. You had better believe his students have to take a shot at “stride method,” if only to learn how difficult the style birthed by their ancestors is.

Bring the topic around to current jazz styles, and if anything “modern” appeals to him and the response is short but respectful. “No, not really.” Bram compares newer styles to abstract artwork. “I may understand it, but I don’t get it, I don’t feel it like I do my music.”

The pianist has a complex relationship with jazz, but that is not to be confused with complicated. “I’m not looking to create a whole new genre or style. I don’t like music that is so intellectually high-minded that the audience cannot relate to it. I want people to smile, to laugh, to move. It is not a complicated form of communication, but it should reach people.”

That connection is one of the many reasons he makes room on his busy touring schedule for the Endless

Mountain Music Festival and its smaller cousin, the Endless Mountain Winter Jazz Fest, which takes place in this month. “When you play in most jazz clubs, there is a lot going on in the room. People are talking, laughing, moving around while you are playing. In the kind of setting the festival offers, the audience is attentive and focused on the music. I can see faces, I can see feet tapping, and there is a great deal more feedback.”

Always a student of music himself, Bram also revels in the access the festival provides to world-class musicians with whom he might not otherwise cross paths.

A favorite pull to the area is the Penn Wells Hotel itself. “I just love that classic, old hotel. The entire town feels like my second home.” Bram credits the warmth of area residents for his return visits. “People are so friendly, so welcoming. It makes you want to come back.” 

One of his great joys is the chance to have family nearby on his Wellsboro sojourns. Alla will be with the EMMF orchestra this year, and daughter Lucille has sung with him in the past (including at his wedding in August). She may stop by to sing with him, if her last-summer- before-college allows.

The love affair between the musician and the town is one of deep mutual affection. Bram’s concerts are hugely popular, and his performances are not confined to pre-planned appearances on a stage. After one of his last showings at the Deane Center during the summer festival, music lovers exited the reception to find him playing accordion on the sidewalk. Impromptu music seems to erupt wherever Bram goes. A scratch-n-dent corner upright in a bar room explodes with sound as he leads sing-alongs with contagious joy. Any instrument with keys is in for the tuning of its life from the tools in his utility-like panel van.

Local author (and Mountain Home publisher) Michael Capuzzo once proposed an idea that only sounds ridiculous to those who haven’t been around Bram. “I told him that if we had a “Bram tax” for county residents, we could steal him from Kansas City for about a dollar a person. He could spend his days playing in homes, parks, stores—wherever the spirit moved him, and it would do wonders for everyone’s mood!” Michael says Bram loved the idea, and said he’d do it.

Consider this extraordinary statement from the world-famous musician. “I’ve done Jazz at Lincoln Center. I’ve played Carnegie Hall. As a performance experience, I would put the Endless Mountain festival in the same category as those venues. It is so much more connected. You feel like the audience is on the same wavelength as the musicians. You don’t get that everywhere.”

Thanks be to the music gods that they get it here.