Ric Shumake has tuned the pianos of some big-name musicians in his career.
Sometimes they’re standoffish and demanding.
Not that any of that matters to Shumake, owner of Ric’s Piano Tuning on Hilton Head Island, as long as they’re all happy in the end.
But one of his clients, jazz legend Mose Allison, stood out in this regard.
He was none of those things.
“He was a nice, warm gentleman,” Shumake said Wednesday, a day after Allison died at his Hilton Head home at age 89. “He was easy to talk with. I didn’t think of him as thinking of himself as special.”
The Washington Post noted the “whimsical humor” and dark cynicism in his lyrics and included a long list of musicians — the Who, the Rolling Stones and Elvis Costello among them — who were inspired by Allison.
Local musicians I’ve talked to say Allison’s piano playing was inimitable, and his song-writing was nothing short of poetic.
By all accounts, he was a genius.
That’s not an overstatement. I’ve asked around. I’ve tested that word with people who know about such things.
Allison will long be regarded this way in the annals of history.
And he lived here.
Quietly. Unassumingly. Like the rest of us.
“I think he liked it here because people didn’t treat him like (he was special),” Shumake surmised.
It’s also possible that people just didn’t know who he was or know the level of who he was.
“Musicians and poets knew,” said Vic Varner, a Beaufort musician who performs regularly with Vic and Friends and who includes a Mose Allison cover, “I Know You Didn’t Mean It,” in his sets. “He had a cult following.”
That cult included Van Morrison and Randy Newman.
It did not include me.
Allison maintained a busy touring schedule until recent years. He performed at The Jazz Corner at least once a year for a long time. I saw him there one time.
He was in the audience.
A friend of mine, Jeff Vrabel, often wrote about Allison.
I read the headlines, but never the words.
“Allison isn’t a big fan of explaining his songs too much, as it tends to deprive them of a little of their magic,” Vrabel wrote in 2007. “But the ideals he does write seem to stand the test of the years. I’m doing tunes now that I wrote 30 years ago, and people say to me, ‘Did you just write that?’ And I say, ‘Man, I’ve been writing that for 40 years!’”
The story ended with a quote from Allison.
“(Music is) what I’ve always done. I’ve never been able to figure it out — no jazz player ever has. But I get satisfaction out of it every night.”
Somehow, though, he escaped me.
I had never thought to listen to a Mose Allison song until Tuesday. This bothers me.
I don’t know how to write about music, not in the way that others do, anyway. I just know that Allison’s songs fit well in my ear.
And that I missed out.
Varner and I talked about this a little. He was a high school music teacher for 30 years and knows that people my age and younger often have no taste in music.
“There’s been a loss of melody,” he said about popular music, noting that the younger set isn’t often drawn to music they see as belonging to another generation.
He told me about Johann Sebastian Bach and how Bach’s many children, who were musicians, scoffed at his work. They dismissed it as for old people and pursued their own sound.
He didn’t need to tell me who transcended that test of time.
Varner can recite from memory the lyrics from Allison’s songs. He thinks about their meaning and has his own associations with certain verses.
“One of the really cool things about Mose is that he kept going,” he said. “He released albums into his 80s. Really good, excellent ones with new compositions.”
If only Allison had had a reality show while he was doing this.
Here’s what I know: Genius exists among us in such ordinary ways sometimes that it’s easy to overlook it. The appreciation comes in the catch-up, rather than in the support.
This is true of any art, I suppose. Some people get it as it’s being created. Others don’t until the artist dies and they finally hit play on their song.
And some artists are OK with that.
They just want to create until they can’t.
“He was just an ordinary person,” Shumake said. “An easygoing, nice fellow.”
“But he was somebody.”