Everyone has heroes. Jazz pianist Jeff Usher’s is the maverick genius Thelonious Monk. The uncompromising quirkiness of Monk’s music just blew Usher away.
“It was his personality,” said Brisbane-based Usher. “When Monk played, it sounded like he was having a great laugh at everybody, because of those harmonies of his. It sounded like he was having a great, big, good time! Although ‘Round Midnight is not like that, and neither is Pannonica. Those were two really serious pieces, and I got them straight away.
“I know just about every Monk song there ever was. I’m Australia’s resident Monkologist. I wanted to play like Monk. I was so obsessed it got to the stage where I’d get a Weather Report tune, and play it in a Monk style! Can you imagine?
“The first time I heard ‘Round Midnight, it was played by Bill Evans, with Miles Davis. They played beautiful chords, but not the right chords. Then I heard it played by the man himself, with Gerry Mulligan on baritone sax. It was about the fourth or fifth time Monk had recorded it, in 1957. Man! I knew I liked Monk, but I hadn’t set my heart on him yet. Then I heard ‘Round Midnight on the album Mulligan Meets Monk. This was the composer playing his own tune and this was the way it was supposed to be played! That was it for me.”
We were in the beautiful home of Alex and Nita Stratton-Funk, in Rochedale, Queensland. Usher played Pannonica, the song Monk wrote for his dear friend Pannonica de Koenigswarter, also known as The Jazz Baroness.
“In those days I had an old mate, Sid Bromley. He died a few years ago. He was Queensland’s major jazz archivist. Sid and I became friends in 1980 when I was 22 or thereabouts and he was sixty. When he found out I wanted to play Monk like Monk, he went really silly, because he loved Thelonious Monk. There was nobody then who was into Monk. Some of the young kids around now want to play like Monk, which is really good!”
Here’s Usher playing Nica’s Dream, Horace Silver’s dedication to the Jazz Baroness.
“When I was casting around trying to decide if I should be a piano tuner or something, my father – God bless him – said, ‘Look, you did all that classical stuff for years and years, you love jazz, why don’t you just go and learn how to play some Boogie Woogie?’ Which I did.
“I had to get that left hand happening; I got into Boogie Woogie and stride piano. It was hard. I never used to do a lot of jumps in the piano.
“I worked for the Bellino brothers. They used to run all the strip joints around in the 80s. I worked for Francesco Bellino, and the only reason he sacked me was because his place got raided by the cops. I knew the theme for The Godfather, so I played it for him. He said, ‘That’s the most beautiful version of the song I’ve ever heard in my life.’ So I had to play it for him whenever he came around. I was earning 140 dollars a night, which was good in 1991. I wasn’t singing either, just playing.”
Just as Monk was a bold and unapologetic black man in white man’s world, Usher was a bolshy young blind man staking his claim in a world run by people who can see. Like Monk, Usher had a special friend too; within five minutes of describing his childhood he spoke about his ally in life, Sydney-based music teacher Kathleen Kerr.
“She was the most fabulous human being I ever had the chance to deal with,” he said.
Usher was born with glaucoma, and although he could see colours as a child, he never saw well enough to be able to read. Born in Ipswich in 1957, the family moved to Brisbane when he was two and he studied piano at the age of six with a teacher in Brisbane, John Felmingham.
“John Felmingham was a very serious man, and a brilliant pianist. He was stunning. When I was 8 or 9 years old he would stay back after he taught me and my younger sister, and he would play for us. He would rip off – you name it – Bach, Beethoven, Prokofiev, Stravinsky. He was crazy, and he was a chorister at St John’s Anglican Cathedral. He taught me for six years until I went to Sydney.
“John Felmingham was very experienced at teaching blind people. He knew that teaching me to read using print was not an option. He would play a note, show me where it was on the piano, tell me what it was, and then play another note.”
Usher learned all the white notes, then the black notes, then chords that way.
“By the time I was 8 years old, I could pick all of them out. I never lost a mark on aural tests, after that.”
Examination marks were really important to Usher. He was an achiever, and marks enabled him to see how he was doing in the world as he pit himself against everyone out there. He took Pianoforte music examinations, and he did well.
“I’d done Preliminary, Grade I and Grade II exams, and passed with 85, 87 and 87 per cent. They used to give out percentages back then, and they stopped doing that in 1973, which I was most annoyed about. Percentages used to tell me where I was, as far as my exams were concerned.
“I was a mark maniac, I was addicted to marks, I was a markaholic.”
Usher grew up in a house filled with music.
“I don’t remember a time in my life when there wasn’t music,” he said. “Whether it was classical music or rock ‘n’ roll. The sister that I live with now, Carol, is an avid old time rock ‘n’ roll fan, so that was my first experience with Little Richard and Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry and Fats Domino, and my youngest sister and my eldest sister were both into classical music, folk music.. We always had the radio on.
“I heard jazz from about three or four years old. We used to listen to Radio 4BH and they used to play a lot of jazz in the 1960s. We’d listen on a Saturday and Sunday afternoon to hear the Rugby League, and the guy who came on before – Ben Beckinsale – always used to play a lot of jazz: Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, some George Shearing. I didn’t get to hear things like Bebop or John Coltrane and that sort of thing.”
No-one ever taught Jeff about jazz chords like 11ths and 13ths. Jeff played a C minor 11th chord on the piano.
“When I heard that chord, I knew it was a C minor, and I could hear the 7th, and I could also hear there was a 2nd and 4th upstairs. But I didn’t know it was called C minor 11th. That’s actually how the older musicians did it.”
Usher lived at home with his mother and three other siblings, two of whom were also blind. His father worked in Papua New Guinea.
“In July 1969 Mum had an emotional breakdown and we think she also had a mild stroke. There was a lot to deal with and I reached an impasse with my music.”
Usher’s mother went to Papua New Guinea to join her husband, and Usher went to St. Edmund’s School for the Visually Impaired, in Sydney.
“It was a school for blind, mainly Catholic boys, but they allowed in kids from other denominations as well. It’s been co-ed for thirty years now.”
At that time, St. Edmund’s didn’t teach music in braille, but they brought in someone who did.
“On the 4th March 1970, Brother Adams said to me, ‘This is your new music theory teacher Mrs. Kerr. She’s going to teach you braille music and theory.'”
Kerr entered Usher for his first theory exam, which was Grade II in Music Perception. With a good foundation under John Felmingham, and the nurturing guidance of Kerr, Usher scored 100 per cent. In his book, he was doing just fine.
St. Edmund’s dealt with Usher differently. They put him in for a Pianoforte Grade IV exam, and gave him eight months to do it. This wasn’t enough time for him, and Usher let the school know it in no uncertain terms. But they bulldozed him through, and Usher just passed, with 66 per cent. It put a hole in his admirable record.
“A 64 would have been a Fail. I was so bloody angry. I had gotten 85, 87, 87 and now a 66.”
Usher’s self-confidence was shot to pieces. Kerr became the full-time Music Teacher at St. Edmund’s, and together they walked a long road to bring 13-year-old Usher back to music.
“After what happened, I didn’t want to have anything to do with music. Mrs. Kerr said to me, ‘Let me say something. I know what happened to you last year, and none of it was your fault. I know you want to quit the piano, but this is what I’ll do if you don’t quit piano. You can do Grade 4 all over again, and you can take two years. You’ve already got the repertoire. Just do it for me, and I’ll make sure nothing like that ever happens to you again.’
“I did a 180 degrees turnaround. Suddenly music was a safe place for me. I knew I could go to the piano, and play for Mrs. Kerr. There would be no name calling, there would be no negative stuff going on, because she wasn’t that kind of person.
“Kathleen Kerr stayed my friend for the rest of her life. She died in 1997. She was thrilled when I became a jazz pianist, even though she wasn’t a jazz fan. I could not talk about that time for 35 bloody years, but I always had it in the back of my mind that if I ever did a PhD I was going to dedicate it to her memory, and I’m doing that now.”
Here’s part of Usher’s composition entitled Kathleen
“For a PhD, you are writing about some subject that you allegedly know about, and you write something new that can contribute to the field of knowledge in that area. What I’m doing is on my own compositions. So I’m writing a bunch of new compositions, in the jazz idiom. I’ve written about 17 or 18 tunes for my PhD.”
Usher intends to write about the process of writing music, as well as the major influences on his music.
“I still use braille music, because I like to document my compositions. But you only have two hands, not four, so you can’t play and feel the music at the same time; you do have to memorise the music.”
Here’s one more Usher original song. In Jeffu, he’s acknowledging Duke Jordan. Can you hear the Jordu in it?
“It was written in 2011, and it’s dedicated to Bud Powell and Duke Jordan and Charles Mingus and anybody else who got me started off!”
Good thing they did! See ya around, Jeff! Thanks for the music!