Writings about Music
Gift of a Lifetime from Earl Wild
There I was working full-time at the Joseph Patelson Music House behind Carnegie Hall. As mentioned in my previous essay, Setting the Bar High, I had rejected a scholarship from a leading graduate composition program, instead heading out on my own because I didn’t wish to be compromised by what I found to be a misguided milieu.
From time to time, famous people would wander in, a few I happened to notice being Al Pacino, Tony Randall, Ornette Coleman, and Daniel Barenboim. And two such people I was fortunate to meet were very positive influences. One was Don Shirley, now much more famous due to the current film about his life, Green Book. I wrote about Don before learning about the film in an essay titled, Overcoming.
Now, I’m thinking back to my experience with Earl Wild, one of the leading concert pianists of his time. Earl invited me to his apartment for tea and pastries, and after discussing our lives in music, asked me to leave any piano scores I might have with his doorman later in the week. I was glad to do so, and after a few weeks had passed, Earl returned to Patelson’s and proceeded to plant a very important idea in my consciousness. He said with great urgency and considerable distress that it was an awful thing for me to have to be spending time away from composition at any other job, and that I must find a way to focus all my time on music. Earl felt this way even though he said that the early piano composition I had left for him was not something he felt particularly comfortable with because there was an absence of a steady pulse. My sense was that Earl had taken my music very seriously, was honestly perplexed by how unusual the work was, and felt I deserved to have the opportunity in terms of time to develop my abilities.
When Earl said this it seemed like an impossible idea, completely impractical. However, spurred by his insistence and belief in me, I was able to move within a few months from full-time work at Patelson’s to part-time temp work a few days a week only, and this made composing much more manageable. Without Earl’s input, I tend to doubt that I would have had the nerve or courage to even attempt this new lifestyle.
My favorite place to work part-time was Polo, including meeting Ralph Lauren himself, and being offered a full-time job by his Senior Vice President, apparently at Ralph’s request. One afternoon, I overheard Ralph from the adjacent room where I was working refer to me by the name "handsome" while saying there was something very unusual about myself, a comment Leonard Altman once made, too.
Anyway, I actually found the nerve to turn down the full-time job offer from Polo, which included working with their stunning models, because it would have interfered with my composing. I still recall the look of disbelief on Lauren’s face as I explained my decision to him while riding down in the elevator together, him getting into a waiting limousine, myself walking home.
Key moments like this, moments like this with Earl and Ralph, define who we are and what we become, I suppose.
I was greatly impressed with Ralph's spontaneous creativity. For example, one day there was a high level meeting with all his key people and an important phone call came in. Needing privacy, but not wishing to disrupt the meeting, Ralph slipped smoothly under the massive wooden table and took the call lying comfortably on his back as calm as an Alpine lake while everyone remained seated in astonishment. I was in the adjacent room with the door open observing all this.
When my first album, Trembling Flowers, was released, I sent a copy to Ralph Lauren in New York, and he sent back a beautiful letter of congratulations with an invitation to stop by his office and say hello if I should return to Polo for temp work.
Just remembered: When Earl found out how I was considering moving to Maui, he strongly advised against it, feeling the environment there was too remote and distracting. Vacation there for months he said, but don't actually make the move. As it happens, I did eventually move to Maui for one memorable year, but subsequently visit only part of the year, making Los Angeles my primary home.
I wish Earl was here to play a newly available score made of an improvisation titled Maria Improvisation.
Thank you for everything, Earl. In 2017, I began playing and recording piano improvisations, and wish he was still here to ask some keyboard questions. Pretty sad how we're all here for what seems like a few moments...
- Michael Robinson, February 2019, Los Angeles
© 2019 Michael Robinson All rights reserved
Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer (musicologist).