Yesterday in the news, famed pianist Van Cliburn died at the age of 78.
I grew up in the same community as Van Cliburn. But we were worlds apart. He had been to The Soviet Union and captured everyone’s imagination by winning the He always told her she needed a baby grand in that room.Competition. And yet, he would sit in my parent’s living room and play piano on my mother’s upright Hamilton piano.
Van was an ambassador of music. Of peace and of self-assurance. He was also a hell of a basketball player. There is a story in Kilgore, our hometown, which has become something of legend. In high school the basketball coach watched Van sprout up and grow tall. He saw his enormous hands and just knew the kid was a star in the making. He asked him to come out for the team. Van’s mother put a quick end to the athletic career. She didn’t want her son’s hands being injured in a sporting competition. He had more important things to do with them, in her estimation. She, of course, was right; but one has to wonder how good he would have been on a fast break with that Kilgore team.
Back to our living room. One evening — it was a Sunday evening, Van, his mother and father and a friend of our family were all at the house and Van sat at the piano and started playing the most delicious New Orleans jazz you’ve ever heard. From there he went into a bit of boogie woogie and finally some rock and roll, at which time his mother cleared her throat rather empathically and Van returned to a Chopin piece and finally rested. The room was having fun and we had enjoyed his rather spontaneous and mixed collection of tunes. (I’m not sure his mother did, but this is about him, not her.)
That was Van. Always predictable at being unpredictable. He almost always started each concert with the National Anthem and always had fun with his audience, even in the most serious of formal settings. Van Cliburn will be missed. He is truly a Texas star, always will be, too.