Monday, August 01, 2005

In Memoriam: Arnold Grayson

[This originally appeared on the Butterfly Lightning website ... April 8, 2001]

When someone you have always considered a fixture of life suddenly vanishes, there is an irresistible urge to gather up all your memories of that person, catalog them, fold them up and tuck them away for safe keeping. That's what happened to me this week on learning of the death of Arnold Grayson, the man who came to Miami in the 1950's like a missionary to plant the seed of "Early Music" here, and stayed to nurture it into fruition throughout the rest of his life.

I was no special friend or pupil of Arnie's, just another one of the great many who learned from him and absorbed and enjoyed his company. There were lots of us -- hundreds in the local chapter of the American Recorder Society alone, thousands more who only got to witness a performance, or who were reached indirectly by a student or consort that he had inspired.

When I was a child my parents, who both played classical piano, were anxious for me to take up an instrument. When I showed little interest in the keyboard, they bought me a soprano recorder one Christmas, a German instrument imported by this odd duck of a man who had set up shop in an old wooden building on Bird Road in Coconut Grove, a place he called "The Recorder Workshop." For years I did nothing put tootle on the thing once in awhile, making no attempt to learn how to play it properly. Even so, it was my own instrument, the first of a long series I acquired later in my life.

In the seventh grade, a friend of mine joined the school band and began to learn the flute. To keep him company, I dug out my old recorder and the beginner's method book that had come along with it, and began to study. Soon we were playing halting duets together. We learned to appreciate the simple melodies of the medieval and renaissance eras. It gave us chills when the phantom voice created by the harmony between the two pure tones of the flute and recorder would dance around the tune in unpredictable ways. Pretty soon we were ready for more material, and the only place to find a good selection was The Recorder Workshop.

It sounds a daunting task, even now, to try to make a living selling antique instruments and teaching ancient music. But somehow Arnie was making a go of it, in stark contrast to other music stores that carried nothing but marching band instruments and the sheet music to Broadway musicals. We loved the place at first sight -- the dark interior like some quirky European shop, the instruments hanging from the walls and ceiling, the records that were often playing of krumhorns and lutes, the endless boxes full of sheet music for duos, trios, quartets, and larger ensembles. And there was Arnie himself, who always seemed to have time to demonstrate the difference between an oboe and a rauchpfeif, or to show off something more bizarre like a rackett (which resembled an oatmeal container with a mouthpiece stuck in it and had a voice as deep as a bassoon).

I acquired a tenor recorder to extend my repertoire, then moved on to the alto, for which most baroque recorder music was written. I was unable to afford lessons, but fueled by Arnie's supply of manuscripts, and inspired by my growing collection of recordings, I was soon practicing Telemann, Handel, Vivaldi and Bach. One thing led to another. I turned to the piano and found it appealing now. I started with a Bach two-part invention, one hand at a time, and eventually found myself playing preludes and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier, much to the satisfaction of my parents. My sister had tried and abandoned the guitar. I liked folk music, so I picked that up too. By college I was writing songs and considering a career as a pop musician.

The sixties had brought us the Beatles and Ravi Shankar. I heard Arnie was importing sitars from India, and I became one of a handful of people in the city to own one and attempt to play it. Eventually I got competent enough to work it into my folk song act. (I did George Harrison's "Within You, Without You," and Donovan's "Peregrine Falcon.")

Finally, I took some actual lessons from Arnie. I went to the Recorder Society meetings, where he played conductor to a whole orchestra of the five sizes of recorders. There I met other aficionados who played in small groups. I had only a few lessons, some with the group, some on my own. After he listened to me solo, Arnie asked what sort of music I usually played. I told him I had started out with the renaissance but moved on to baroque. It must have sounded as if I thought baroque music was more advanced, because I was treated to a tirade about how much more challenging and rhythmically sophisticated the older music was. It was probably the most impassioned speech I ever heard him make -- and I had to listen, coming as it did from a past performer with the New York Pro Musica ensemble.

Encouraged, however, that he seemed to think me fairly competent, I ended up forming a quartet with harpsichord, flute or violin, cello and recorder. (Along the way I had built the harpsichord myself from a kit.) We specialized in the baroque trio sonatas that I liked best in spite of Arnie's point of view. Eventually we even performed some paid gigs for weddings. It was a point I never thought I'd reach -- performing classical music for hire. And looking at it now, I know it was an experience I never would have had without Arnie's patient encouragement. Quietly from the background of our lives, he urged things on.

One of the things I always loved about The Recorder Workshop was the rack full of instruments on the wall behind the counter where Arnie waited on you -- all kinds and sizes of recorders, both plastic and wood, stained and blond, krumhorns like umbrella handles, and things more difficult to name. Years later I found I had acquired a similar rack of instruments -- bamboo, wood and plastic flutes, ancient and modern, oriental and occidental. It was a collection that simply happened without thought or planning. Sadly, the last item to come from The Recorder Workshop was a handsome Moeck cross-blown flute at the liquidation sale held by Arnie's friends when he suffered a stroke and had to retire to an assisted-living facility.

Memory isn't all neat and organized. Much of it is fragmentary. I remember how pieces from a shipment of guitars, destroyed in transit, were displayed in plastic bags at The Recorder Workshop labeled "Guitar kits -- add water." Then there was the performance at a local college where a faculty member introduced him as "the world famous Arthur Grayson."

And people are neither simple nor all we might expect them to be. I have no wish to sanitize or edit what I remember, so I include the other tales we heard about Arnie: the way he might develop a fondness for a female student, or be invited to a party and then found the next morning asleep on the lawn. Legend has it that he drove up to the summer music festivals in New England non-stop, with a bottle of gin between his legs and a row of joints on the seat beside him. But far from destroying his image, such apocryphal tales made him more human and wizard-like, as if he were one of those Zen sages drunk on rice wine and life.

Once I met him at a party and modern music performance at a Coconut Grove house. I hadn't seen him for years and wasn't sure he'd remember me, especially in the state of mild inebriation he appeared to be in. I said hello and introduced myself. He looked at me for a moment, then said, "Ah, yes ... Steve Donachie ... recorder, sitar, Zuckerman harpsichord, Maggie S__, Robin T___, baroque quartet ..." and went on to name the people who had been in my small ensemble for lessons. I was stunned -- in an instant he had dumped the entire database of facts that constituted our association, all the instruments and people that we shared in common. It was a delightful though startling way of saying, "Yes, I remember you."

Well, I remember you too, Arnie, I remember you too.

[For more about recorders and ancient music, visit The Recorder Homepage.]


  1. Ditto those Arnie/Recorder Workshop memories minus the personal musical capabilities. The Grove was the best of all places to live about then. There is a stellar cast of characters to recall and a litany of sweet memories. Thanks.

  2. jane freeman3:52 PM

    My 3 sisters, 4 cousins, mother & aunt took recorder lessons for years from Mr. Grayson --Arnie, as the adults called him, gentle giant as we called him behind his back. We had a little chamber group--sopranos, altos, tenors, and once were on TV with him. Some of us also took lute. Lots of memories, many concordant with what you describe. We 8 little girls couldn't help giggling (he was very shy) and he expressed disapproval by intoning "Oh, oh, oh." I knew him from about age 9 (1958) until his death, when I was in college.

  3. Anonymous5:19 PM

    I too knew Arnold Grayson, from the Recorder Workshop, at 27Birds as it was called in the Coconut Grove area. I know he had a sister that lived in Pittsburgh area. I met her once when she came to visit. I don't believe I have known anyone in the music field that knew more about music than Arnold. He once gave a private recital, on a beautiful Harpsichord at his Workshop, for some 3 hours. It was just the three of us, & I must say it was a recital of a lifetime for my wife & I. Later after the private performance, he said he gave a recital for the king of Saudi Arabia, I think it was king Saud, Saud bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, at one of his many weddings. The Harpsichord was custom made by the king for the event. Afterwards the instrument was presented to Arnie as a gift by the king. It was that very instrument I personally listened to Arnie play at that private recital. I will never forget how perfect he played that instrument. I moved away for a time from the Miami area, & when I came back for a short visit in about circa 1986, maybe 1987, I went by the Recorder Workshop for a visit. I was shocked to find a deep hole in the ground where the Recorder Workshop once stood. I called his phone number & reached a person that told me Arnie had a stroke & was in a hospice being cared for. That is all they would tell me. I asked if I could visit him while in town, & was told he could not receive visitors. I really respected that man for everything he stood for in the music world. I only wish I could have seen him one more time before the end. Sincerely, Friend of Arnold Grayson.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your story. It does not surprise me in the least that Arnie would have been so generous in sharing his gifts -- sorry I wasn't there for what sounds like a magical evening.

  4. Anonymous1:17 PM

    I remember Arnie too. He did not know me by name but I was fascinated with his shop. In the mid 70's I discovered early music in high school when my peers were into Led Zepplin and Deep Purple. I was sad to see the recorder workshop disappear. I am so happy to see him remembered on the web. I have a transverse copper flute that I purchased from his store. I have never seen another one like it.

  5. Thanks for your comments. I'd love to see a photo of that flute! Never heard of one like it.