Friday, May 28, 2021

A memorable piano lesson

As the years have passed, and this blog’s status has risen via Google searches, I’ve occasionally heard from first-time visitors eager to share their long-ago “Guaraldi encounters.”

This is a good one, courtesy of a lovely woman named Peggy Tillman, who — way back in the day — unexpectedly found herself seated alongside Guaraldi, on his piano bench.


But that’s getting ahead of things.


Sonoma State College — in Rohnert Park, California, just a few minutes south of Santa Rosa — opened to 274 students in the fall of 1961. Because the campus still was far from completed, many of the classrooms and other key activities took place in leased buildings within the city.


Peggy transferred into Sonoma State in the fall of 1963, her sophomore year; she remembers the still-gestating state of affairs. “Our ‘library’ was built as a grocery store,” she laughs, “and after we moved out, a few years later, it became a grocery store.”


The student body, still quite modest, included a disproportionately large percentage of adults: either working folks looking to secure credits for a long-delayed graduation, or retired individuals with the time to enhance their knowledge. “The joke,” Peggy recalls, “was that the average age of the student body was higher than the average age of the faculty. When school administrators sought input on the creation of a school mascot or symbol, somebody suggested a rocking chair.”


Jokes aside, these “returning students” were a challenge. “They were tough competition: far in advance of us, because they had life skills, better study habits, and often were taking only one or two classes, whereas we younger students were taking a full load.”


Peggy entered as an education major, with an eye toward teaching, but — as luck would have it — California changed its academic requirements that year, mandating a fifth year of post-graduation instruction in order to obtain a teaching degree. Preferring to graduate in the planned four years, Peggy switched majors and entered the psychology department.


Toward the end of her junior year, the campus Concert and Lectures Committee booked the Guaraldi/Bola Sete Quartet for a performance on April 5, 1965. Since Sonoma State did not yet have a performance hall, the gig was scheduled into the nearby Cotati Veterans Memorial Auditorium. Admission was free to students, and $2 for the general public.

By this point, Peggy had become one of the three people who made up the college’s fledgling audio/visual department; thanks to her experience as campus photographer during her high school career, she stepped into that same role for Sonoma State. One of her psychology department professors, Dr. Frank Siroky, was doing research on the body postures of people, as they listened to music; he hired Peggy to take pictures of the audience during the upcoming Guaraldi/Sete concert.


(Ah, such innocent times. It’s an intriguing research premise, to be sure, but it’d never fly in today’s hyper-vigilant era of privacy concerns.)


“It was work for hire,” Peggy explains, “not a class assignment. I used college equipment, and we had to visit a Santa Rosa camera store, to rent a long lens.”


Peggy and Dr. Siroky drove to the venue early afternoon on April 5, in order to set up their equipment. “Vince arrived to check out his set-up at the same time, so we became acquainted at that point.”


Their prep work completed, Peggy and the professor departed; they returned later, an hour or two before the evening concert.


“Vince, Bola and the rest of the trio — bassist Tom Beeson, and drummer Lee Charlton — arrived with their manager. We all had a great deal of time to wait around. Vince brought some brownies that his wife had baked, and shared them all around. (And no, they weren’t ‘funny brownies,’ even though this was the mid-’60s!) Bola was very focused, and spent most of the time by himself, off in the wings, playing his guitar.


“Earlier in the afternoon, during our initial set-up, I was wearing typical college attire: sweatshirt and jeans, or blouse and jeans … something like that. But I got out my nicest dress for the concert, which was my favorite color — a real bright pink — with a matching little jacket, so it was business-like. When I arrived this second time, Vince immediately said how much he liked the dress; he wanted to know where I had gotten it, because he wanted to buy one for his wife. And I said, well, my mother made it. And he said, ‘Oh, that’s too bad, because he really wanted to buy one.”


Then came the magic moment.


“I confessed that I had failed at learning the piano as a child; my piano teachers had pronounced me tone-deaf, so anything dealing with music made me shudder. But Vince insisted that playing the piano was really easy. 

“Even though it was almost time for people to enter the auditorium, he had me sit down next to him — I was on his right — and he played some notes and chords. He seemed really concerned that I felt like a failure at the piano. He wanted me to appreciate music, and not be self-conscious, or bothered by it. He was almost fatherly toward me.”


Peggy recalls this impromptu “lesson” running five, perhaps 10 minutes. Unfortunately…


“I’ve never felt comfortable in the limelight; I kept worrying that people would start entering the theater at any minute, and wonder who was on stage plunking at the piano!”


Once patrons did begin to file into the auditorium, everybody went to work. Peggy took her position on stage, near the wings, where she could photograph the audience.


The auditorium was small, seating a modest 200. “I don’t remember seeing any empty seats,” Peggy continues. “I knew he was famous, and I was surprised that such a ‘big name’ would play such a tiny hall.”


The performance followed the format that Guaraldi and Sete had perfected, during their 16-week run at Berkeley’s Trois Couleur, during the late winter and spring of 1964. Guaraldi’s Trio delivered a set, while Sete remained backstage, out of sight; he then took the stage for a solo spot. Following intermission, the entire quartet performed a lengthy set.


“I took pictures of the audience during the first half,” Peggy recalls, “but I still had some film available when that was done, so I began taking pictures of the band, from the wings and the edge of the stage. I hadn’t planned that, so I had only that long lens and black-and-white film, and had to make do with the stage lighting.”


(The results are sprinkled throughout this post.)


“During the intermission, we all discussed what refreshments were available. I remembered a Coke machine in the lobby — Dr. Siroky said he wasn’t surprised that I’d notice such a thing, because he knew that I really loved Cokes — and Vince immediately offered to run out to the lobby, to get some. We had to talk him out of doing that, because we knew that he’d be mobbed by fans. He finally agreed that his manager was the best person to send.


“And then he brought up my dress again! He asked if I thought my mother would be willing to make another one, for his wife, if he paid her. He was so sincere about it. But I knew my mother wouldn’t go for that, so I said no, sorry, but no way.”

Her photographic assignment concluded, Peggy was able to take in the performance during the second half. “I totally enjoyed the music … and yes, I bought a copy of Vince Guaraldi/Bola Sete/And Friends soon thereafter!”


After the concert concluded, and the audience had departed, the musicians wanted to go somewhere, to unwind. “Dr. Siroky told them that I had an apartment close by, but I very quickly nixed that idea. Even though Vince and Bola were true gentlemen, I wasn’t about to entertain a group of musicians in the middle of the night. It was a pleasant little apartment complex; we all got along … and I wanted to keep it that way!”


That concluded Peggy’s encounter with Guaraldi, but it’s not quite the end of her story.


The move to Sonoma State’s permanent site of 215 acres took place in 1966, upon completion of Stevenson and Darwin Halls for classrooms. “When we moved onto the permanent campus, [San Francisco Chronicle columnist] Ralph Gleason — who was on staff that year — taught a jazz appreciation class, which my boyfriend (who I later married) talked me into taking. It was delightful; we just sat and listened to jazz records by people such as Billie Holiday. I remember knitting a sweater during class.”


Peggy continued to dabble with photography after graduation, and during the early years of marriage; she set up her own darkroom for processing color slides, frequently working with the then-new Cibachrome process. As time passed, she taught school for several years, then worked various odd jobs.


She got a new dog in the mid-’90s, which prompted a renewed interest in canine training: a sidebar use of her psychology degree. Although she initially had no plan beyond training her own dog (“and training my then-husband to properly train the dog”), Peggy became involved with the awakening interest in operant conditioning and clicker training. She developed enough of a reputation to get talked into teaching a class, which — over time — relied on her steadily expanding sheaf of notes. Students began to complain that this was a bit unwieldy.


“I kept trying to rope people into writing an actual book,” Peggy laughs, “but nobody would do it, so I wound up writing one.”


Clicking with Your Dog: Step-by-Step in Pictures, published in late 2000, became the first book on this innovative training method. It remains in print — and quite popular — to this day.


As for her brief adventure with Guaraldi … while it wasn’t life-changing, it certainly was memorable, as proven by the impressive detail with which Peggy recalls that afternoon and evening, more than half a century later.

“He was a really nice, sweet man. It was clear that he truly loved music, and wanted to share it with everyone.”

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