Calvin Simmons (April 27, 1950 – August 21, 1982) was the first African-American conductor of a major American orchestra. He had been preceded by pioneers such as Everett Lee and Henry Lewis, to name but two iconic Black conductors.
But the reason I’m posting this is not due to an anniversary or as a celebration of Calvin’s warp-speed 8 year-career.
What prompted this little homage to someone whom we cherished as a close friend from our college days is that another friend from those days, Michael Patterson premiered one of his works at CCM last night in a wonderful concert in which the Ariel Quartet collaborated with some of the finest jazz musicians in Cincinnati.
Michael, Kimberly, and Rick and Anna VanMatre and I had dinner tonight and our exchange of stories extended well past the restaurant’s closing time. And Mike reminded us that Calvin was the rehearsal pianist for the first ever directorial venture of mine at CCM in 1969.
But even more personally, Calvin and Kimberly and I became soul mates at CCM back in 1967 when Calvin, age 18 arrived at CCM like a blast of fresh air.
Calvin inhabited a realm rarely inhabited by mere mortals. He was a gangly bean pole of a guy, certifiably mad, and a genius. He could sit at the piano and play the entire score of Aida by memory, while singing in a funny voice all the parts. He could turn around and sing the part of Ko-Ko in The Mikado in a flawless Oxbridge accent.
Calvin was flunking at CCM right out of the gate because he would not practice scales for his piano boards. Italo Tajo recognized that Calvin’s was an outsized talent. Sylvia Ogden Lee and Max Rudolf did, and they absconded with Calvin when they left Cincinnati for Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute.
As things go in this crazy career of ours, we saw little of each other over the next several years: once in Philadelphia when we were there to do a Mike Douglas Show, once in San Francisco, when we were back from an engagement in the Far East or on our way to one (I forget which) and Calvin was being recognized with some major award given him by the City.
The year was 1980 or 1981, I recall, and Calvin already well on his way to a major conducting career took us aside and asked to please write to him and keep him in our radar.
It was just months after his untimely death in 1982, at the age of 32 in a canoeing accident on Lake George that we learned from our friend Nancy Markum that Calvin was gone. We couldn’t mourn his loss and I think Calvin would not have wanted us to. He would have joked about it. And so we chose to remember our good times together, most of which were filled with music and laughter. And dinner tonight brought him to mind.
One more thing I thought of after posting this: Italo Tajo’s birthday is April 25, mine is April 23, Calvin’s is April 27. All three of us hard-headed children born under the sign if Taurus. Calvin often played for my lessons with Maestro Tajo, who often took Calvin and Kimberly and me home for Italian dinners cooked by Signora Tajo that kept all of us from starvation during our college days.
Funny how those things happen and how the lives and careers of people in the arts interconnect.