Tonight at Sabbath services, while we said the Kaddish—the prayer commemorating people’s deaths—I thought of James Erb, friend and colleague at the University of Richmond, a small, titularly Baptist college in Richmond, VA. I was at UR for my first real job(s), the two years after I finished at Stanford: two successive sabbatical-replacement Visiting Assistant Professorships, first as piano faculty, then as musicologist. (And thus the eleventh-hour change of direction was made, despite my D.M.A.) Former students from the University of Richmond have alerted me to the fact that Jim died on November 11, and I’ve been thinking about him.
You know the folksong “Shenandoah”? The heartbreaking choral version that ends with a canon? That’s his arrangement. “I got lucky, really,” he told me once. “I’ve spent my life trying to get another success like that.” I’ve heard several of his arrangements, and they were all superb; that particular one just hit the sweet spot. So? He spent a wonderfully productive life conducting choirs at UR, interrupted by four years at Harvard when he got a Ph.D. in Musicology with a dissertation on Lassus. The Richmond students who remember him talk about his artistic standards, his inspiration, etc. He was my office next-door-neighbor my first year, and I have some memories of my own.
First, the interview. It was only a one-year position in a small, liberal-arts music department, and he was not present for the interview. So he insisted that he be allowed to drive me back to the airport, because he wouldn’t get to meet me otherwise. I—a baby doc just out of grad school—was suitably impressed, and we hit it off…both of us were voluble, exciteable, delighted to discuss music we liked, ironic senses of humor, etc. After I got the job, we next spoke at length at a music faculty mixer: one of those delightfully convivial, alcohol-lubricated conversations where shared musical tastes are discovered. I was telling him how much I loved some of Rossini’s Sins of My Old Age, especially, “La Passeggiata,” which I had sung in choir when I was a sophomore at Cal Poly Pomona, under the late (lamented) voice teacher and choral conductor Charles Lindsley. “Oh, I’d love to do that with my singers,” said Jim, “but the real problem is that the piano part is so damned hard…” Well. That was my cue. “I’d love to do it!” I said. “That’s a great piano part!” So I learned it and played it, with the chamber singers, on their concert, and they all came in concert dress and did it on my piano recital in December. The piano part is a real kick, and it was fun to work with Jim and the singers on this. This is precisely what colleges and universities are good for: partners in crime, people who begin conversations with “Y’know what I’ve always wanted to do…?” and off you go.
During my two years there, I observed how much the students loved him (“He’s. So. awesome!” said one, as he brushed by her, speaking in a Mel Blanc voice), how they’d go to the gates of hell for him. This is your successful conductor, choral, band, or orchestral: the job description is “make them play or sing better than they actually are.” I also saw him once several years later at an AMS meeting, with Debbie and baby Ben, and we had a fun breakfast chatting. But that isn’t the main point: I have a specific debt to acknowledge.
In Fall 1993, I—white male phenotype in the dog days of Affirmative Action,* D.M.A. and not a Ph.D., years on the job market already—was despairing of ever getting a job, and was in a very dark frame of mind. We had a baby, Debbie was a grad student, doing her best to shore me up emotionally…and she informed me that I would continue applying until I found a job, because she didn’t intend to live with me if I was unhappy; she’d done that before and didn’t like it. (There is a traditional Jewish blessing, the ayshet-chayil. “A virtuous woman, who can find?” I think it’s a passage from the Book of Isaiah. I’m here to tell you, and others who know about rock-like support when needed will agree with me: it’s real. No joke.)
So there’s this fairly late-breaking job at the University of Northern Colorado. It was year-to-year, not even tenure-track (that happened later), but it was one of, I think, three positions nationally that entire year. I thought it was just another sabbatical replacement, so I initially ignored it, but Debbie forced me to apply. And I got an interview, and hit it off with everyone pretty well, and things looked good. UNC was critically interested in new blood on the history side, and wanted to be sure—so the Chair of the Search, as it turned out, knew some people in Richmond and made some calls. One of his friends had actually played in an ensemble with me, and said good things, for which I was grateful. But more importantly, Jim Erb—may his soul sail on to glory—heard that I was being considered here, and made an unsolicited call of support. “I want to talk to you about Jonathan Bellman,” I heard he said. And he sang my praises, as colleague, pianist, academic…. And I got the gig. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The effect of a call like that cannot be overestimated, particular when one considers that it eventually became an ideal fit for me, then (when she got her job) for the thrice-feared Dr. K, and for our family. Jim Erb, a busy man, did not have to make that call, and I believe it happened at a key time. Thus, the door opened, and here we are. I will tell that story for the rest of my life, always with this moral: nothing worthwhile ever goes strictly according to protocol. There is always a break, a glitch, a recovered fumble, a something…with an angel there to make it work out right.
Jim’s “Shenandoah,” was the last thing we heard before hitting the road for California. Unemployed, apprehensive, and frankly scared about some troubling but inconclusive medical reports on the pregnancy-in-progress (which amounted to nothing, thankfully). Final packing of the car, emptying of the apartment, and Jim’s song comes on the radio. We stopped, listened, and Debbie said in a choked voice, “That’s it. Turn it off,” and we hit the interstate, having heard the single most appropriate Leaving Richmond song possible. And four months later, we had to fly back to Richmond for Ben to be delivered in a Richmond hospital (medical care COBRA payments; you don’t want to know), and Jim insisted I borrow his brand-new Camry for that long weekend, while he was gone at the AMS meeting in Pittsburgh. Lemons there were aplenty, and the Richmonders made us lemonade of the sweetest kind, Jim at the front of the line.
As we say in Yiddish: !פורן געזונד Go well! Soar, journey. Your menschlakhkayt and humanity have always been a model for me of How One Acts, What We Do. Thanks from the bottom of my heart. Ave, atque vale!
*Don’t even bother getting offended. That was the reality, and plenty of people with far fewer qualifications but different plumbing got tenure-track gigs while I didn’t get phone calls. You’re welcome to your opinion of the justice of the situation, but it was demoralizing as hell for those of us on whom, in many ways, the rules had been changed. I was there, and I saw it, and I’ll never forget how I felt during that period.