Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Letter to Avon Gillespie

Avon Gillespie was my first, and most influential, Orff teacher. I first met him in 1972 at Antioch College in Ohio, took Orff training from him summers of 1983-85 in Santa Cruz, California, taught with him in an Orff Course in Denton, Texas summers of 1986-88. On May 29th, 1989, he died far too young at 51-years old. He was a dynamic living presence who transformed the lives of countless people, perhaps most of all, mine. And so this letter.

Dear Avon,

It is now 23 years to the day since you left us. (Do they still count years where you are?)
Every year on this day, I call or write to Judy, Mary and Rick to remember you. They say that we live on for as long as we are remembered and I have been faithful to you in that respect. Not that it takes any effort. All these years later, I still feel you by my side when I teach, see your look of displeasure when I fall short or your smile of pride when I get it right. I was your student and destined to carry on your work in my own voice. Still people who knew you tell me they feel a bit of you in my work.

So the news. I think you’d be happy to know—and I imagine you do know—that I’ve stayed true to our mutual path and brought our “missionary work” far and wide—40 countries to date, on every continent (except Antartica). I taught at the Orff Institut for the first time the year after you passed and have been back most every year since. Recently I brought 17 kids to perform at their 50th Anniversary Symposium and showed them your life-sized photo in the exhibit’s photo montage of the Institut’s glorious history. You are still fondly remembered by many there. To this day, Sonja Czuk (still there!) tells the story of you wheeling the piano out into the hall and leading a spontaneous Gospel session, the students five feet in the air from euphoria to sing this spirited music as only you could lead it.

I’m about to finish my 37th year at the school I landed in a few years after we first met. It’s still a fine place to be and the music program is stronger than ever. Sadly, you never met my two colleagues, James Harding and Sofía López-Ibor. How you would love their work!! James came the Fall after you died, Sofia in 1996 and the two of them launched an already-inspired Orff program into the stratosphere! I’m sure that if you still were with us I’d be suffering hearing your praise of their work and your diminished interest in mine! But hey, I do what I can.

You must be happy to know that your Santa Cruz course turned to Mills turned to The SF Orff Course is stronger than ever. For at least the last 10 years, the largest course in North America, the most international times 10, filled each year by February with long waiting lists and with an inspired staff that has stayed constant and loves working together. James, Sofia and myself, Rick still with us, his student Paul, Christa (a dance teacher you would love), Susan (who left recently, but his work you would also greatly admire), Martha and Annette teaching recorder. Avon, truth be told, the course is MUCH stronger than when I took it with you! Minus your soul-stirring tutti sessions, which I show sometime on the video that was made from highlights of that time in Santa Cruz. I also invoke your name at the beginning of each summer course and you’d be very happy to know that we still close with the song In Living Fully. Can you hear us when we sing it?

You’d also like to know that your brother Raymond came up to spend a day with us in the course a couple of years back and gave us his blessing, recognizing you in every corner of the work. Many years back, I also got in touch through e-mail with your daughter Robin. (Weird to think that we didn’t really have e-mail when you were still with us!) We once made a date to meet in the Dallas Airport, but my plane was delayed and it didn’t work out. Still hope to meet her sometime. She recently announced a graduation party at North Texas, so I hope you’re proud of her.

I had a dream the other night that you suggested I publish a book of your songs and I’d like to think about that, in collaboration with Raymond. Fact is, I often dream about you and often variations on this theme: you never died, but are kind of hiding out in Texas, sometimes deciding to come back into the Orff scene, sometimes not. The fact is that your death was somewhat abstract. Never was a funeral/memorial service (except two that I led in Santa Cruz and Atlanta, Georgia during the next AOSA Conference). I did come to see you two weeks before you passed and found you weak, thin and confused in the hospital, so I had a clear idea that you were leaving us and got some small sense of closure. But in these dreams, I’m always so surprised and so happy to discover that you’re still here. And then I awake, disappointed.

But hey, as this letter shows, you are still here. Of course, I wish I could see who you would have been at 74 years old, wish you were still around to talk with, to joke with, to gossip with. But instead, I’m your reporter down here on planet Earth.

And so a little bit more gossip. Had some wonderful contact with Mary, who donated an amazing grand piano to the school. She’s in Minnesota and doing work with a gamelan amongst other things, ever the delightful person she’s always been. Judith is back to her own piano work, does occasional Orff workshops, critiques my work and affirms my writing in her own inimitable style. Rick married Jacqui, the love of his life, at an Orff Conference! He’s still at the Key School and teaching theory and still one of the funniest people on the planet. And I’m a grandfather—imagine that! Each year, more of your generation passes over—Gin, Jacobeth, Lillian, Grace Nash, Brigitte, Isabel, Nancy, Norm, Ruth, Dr. Regner. Are you all forming an Orff Chapter on the other side?

I still go to the AOSA Conference every year, the usual blend of inspiration and sheer crap, am a little worried about who’s coming up the ranks. The new generation seems too similar—competent, but with no sense of personal voice, thorough, but without daring risk, clever, but without much soul. Truth be told, the most promising people I see live in Brazil or Finland or South Africa. But I’m ever hopeful and on the lookout. As you were for me.

That’s the news, such as it is.

Love and gratitude,



  1. Hello, Doug! I cannot tell you how much finding your words means to me this day. I awakened this morning with thoughts of Avon Gillespie on my mind. I first encountered him, when he came to my hometown of St. Louis, in the mid '70's, on tour with the Capital University Men's Glee Club. I was completely taken with him, his immensely wonderful presence, his huge well manicured afro, and his overwhelming beautiful and varied choices of music to perform. It was a night I shall always treasure! Towards the end of the program, he left the podium and accompanied the glee club on his own rousing gospel arrangement of 'The Lord is Blessing Me!' At the point, he took the entire audience into the bosom of the 'Black Religious Experience.' In other words, he took us straight to 'Church' that night. I purchased their recording, and played the grooves off of it.

    Later, in 1976, I moved to Columbus, Ohio to pursue studies at Ohio State. I remembered that he was in nearby Bexley at Capital, and he gave me such a warm reception, helped me find a job, and became a friend. Many years passed, I moved to the SF Bay area, and later re-connected with him, after he moved to Austin, Tx. By then, it was 1988, and he wasn't exactly sure of who I was, by name, but said he never forgeot a face. So, I mailed him a snapshot, and we later had the best chats, and remembrances by phone. One Thanksgiving, he gave me instructions on how to prepare a delicious rack of lamb; whenever rosemary & thyme comes up, he's always here with me.

    Eventually, musician friends told me of his illness. I will never forget the sadness I felt when one day the photo I sent him was returned to me, with a very nice note from his wife about his passing. I have searched the internet, all these years, for someone with whom to share my memories. I am so grateful for this opportunity. Thank you. Avon wrote that beautiful little piece 'Hello's and Goodbyes' that haunts me still, along with the chant 'I sing of Life' that he used to bring on the Capital Glee Club the first time I saw him. What a passionate, beautiful Soul he continues to be.

    Peace to you,
    Rob Harrison
    Oakland, CA

  2. Hello, Doug - thank you for writing this! I know I'm a little late in finding it, but it was a fitting tribute to Dad... ;)

    --Robin Gillespie

  3. Hi Doug -- I just stumbled upon this posting. What a beautiful letter. I somehow missed it when you first published it, but google sent me here as I was searching for more info on Avon, my curiosity piqued from the mini conference. We missed you there!

    I was looking for his music, and itunes doesn't have any of his tracks. too bad! Perhaps his cassettes never got transferred to a digital format? What a shame -- I still hope that happens some day. And I hope you do publish that book of songs some day, so that my generation can enjoy his work too, and carry the torch. Sending that loving community vibe from Carmel.

  4. I wonder if anyone will see this... Today, for some reason, my men's chorus leader from UNT (as it was known at the time) came to mind. What was his name again? That wonderful, magical, black man with the velvet voice and the charming smile that always seemed to make the adolescent worries of his students melt away when he came bounding in the room. I remember him becoming ill as the 1988 school year ebbed on. I feel I was aware that he was nearing the end at the time. I wonder... A bit of googling... My yes, Avon Gillespie! And... oh my... he was indeed very near the end when I knew him. To myself I thought "He died in May of 89?!?!". That... that was just after the end of the school year when I knew him. I remember him missing portions of the last semester due to his illness. But... I had no idea... I was actually one of the students in his last academic Men's Chorus. I see that they had a memorial concert in Sept of 89, the beginning of next school year (after I had abandoned my musical dreams and left the school). On the program for that memorial concert was one song "Sanza Kroma"... oh my... I sang that song with my choral brethren under Avon's guidance the year before. I still know it by heart. We sang it at the year-end concert in early 89, led by Avon's assistant as he was too ill to attend and see the fruits his year with us had borne. I'm not sure the point to all of this... just that I, like many of you, will always remember that bright, shining man. One of very few people I have met that I truly believe was "magic". And only now as I near 50 can I truly comprehend how lucky I was to be one of the last people to glimpse what he chose to share with the world he loved so much.

  5. I was a member of the Capital University Men's Glee Club (Columbus, OH) under Avon's direction from 1973-77. From Avon, and through Avon, I think I learned as much as in all my other college classes combined. I was far to young in those college days to appreciate fully what a gift this gifted man was. Even though, I believe I did know that I was in the presence of someone very special every day from 4:00-5:00 p.m. when the Glee Club rehearsed. Thank you, Doug, for your letter, and for those of you who have responded. I am now on the faculty of Trinity Lutheran Seminary at Capital University. There is not a day that goes by when I am on campus that I do not think of Avon with awe and gratitude. - Brad Binau


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.