Chicago is well known for its architecture--stone, iron, and glass jutting upward into the sky from what was once flat Midwestern prairie and swamp. The result is a signature skyline known throughout the world.
The architects and engineers who created this wonder did so by managing the interaction between physical forces and material. We can only sense the inner strength that keeps the whole from collapsing.
Today, somewhere around 250 people witnessed another sort of inner strength that created an aural beauty on par with Chicago's best architectural works. Long-time Chicago resident, Norman Malone, gave a one-song performance on the main stage of the University of Chicago's Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts. He performed under the moniker, the Left-Handed Pianist. Members of Kartemquin Films were on hand to film it -- and the subsequent panel discussion -- for an upcoming documentary (already two years in the making) about Malone's journey to the concert stage in his 80's.
Norman almost didn't survive his childhood. When he was 10, his father, who suffered from mental illness, tried to kill Norman and his two younger brothers. After violently striking his three sons with a hammer, Quintis Malone fled the family's home in the Ida B. Wells housing project, presuming the three were dead. He then committed suicide by train in the early morning hours following the attack. All three boys survived despite the holes left in their skulls and splattered blood and brain tissue on the apartment walls.
After months of hospitalization, Norman emerged, but without the use of his right arm, and with an impaired right leg and foot. As is often the case when people survive unspeakable tragedies, Norman kept the events to himself, explaining that his limitations came from his "Accident." Few knew that Norman was a talented pianist who had begun playing at age five.
It took him nine years to receive an undergraduate degree in music from DePaul University, while working full-time for the American Medical Association. He then became a high school choral director in the Chicago Public School system. All the time, he continued to play the piano, attempting to master the limited repertoire for left-handed pianists. His students never learned of his early childhood or his efforts to master the piano. According to Norman, that was not their problem.
Now retired, Norman was quite the teacher, as Mary Brandt attested when she described her own son's participation in the Lincoln Park High School choir. She read several testimonials from some of Norman's other students. As anyone who has had influential teachers knows, the lessons taught often go far beyond the specific subject matter.
During the discussion today, Norman noted that he has collected over 300 pieces written for left-handed pianists, including Maurice Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. Norman is aware of over 1,000 pieces, but noted, using his understated and always polite wit, that several are pretty much unlistenable.
Norman's full story is recounted in an excellent series of articles written by Chicago Tribune music critic, Howard Reich. Several years back, Reich was catching dinner before a Chicago Jazz Orchestra performance. He planned to read as he ate dinner, but the dynamic duo of Judith Stein and Almarie Wagner ran into Reich at the restaurant, asking to join him. Reich reluctantly agreed, forgoing brief moments of solitude before his workday began.
During the dinner, Norman's name came up in a passing reference. He lived on the same floor as Stein, who was well of aware of Norman's keyboard skills after hearing him practice.
Reich, being the ever-curious student of the piano, decided that there might be a good story here and asked to be introduced to Malone. While Reich reviews music for a living, he often goes well beyond the music, focusing on the personal struggles, joys, influences, and motivations that mold what we hear coming from the stage, which places Reich in a long line of Tribune writers that have included Mike Royko and Rick Kogan. Ostensibly, they write about politics, the arts, or current events, but their interest is really in humanity.
The introduction led to a series of newspaper articles and television interviews. One thing led to another, with Norman now performing publicly. In 2016, he made his orchestral debut with the West Hartford Symphony Orchestra in Connecticut. Not surprisingly, he played the Ravel piano concerto, which had been commissioned by and written for another left-handed pianist, Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in World War I combat. Norman has been invited to return next year for an encore performance with the same symphony.
Undoubtedly there will be other performances, now that the world has discovered Norman. He has been featured on the CBS Evening News, as well as CBS News Sunday Morning.
Today, when I walked into the performance hall early, I heard Norman doing a final run through of the piece that he would be performing. It sounded more like a piano rag than a classical piece of music.
My ears had not deceived me. The work had been composed for Norman by Reginald Robinson, a MacArthur Foundation "Genius" grant winner who is an authority on ragtime music. With the title A Royals [sic] Delight, it first brings to mind Queen Elizabeth and her brood--although probably not descriptive of her mood after a recent tea with Donald J. Trump. In fact, the "Royal" in the title is Norman, who is everybody's delight. If the MacArthur Foundation is smart, they will make a statement about aging -- by awarding Normal a Genius grant. Every time Norman performs, he demonstrates that neither age nor infirmity impose any limits on dedication to craft or genius.
Howard Reich, Music Critic for the Chicago Tribune, Describes First Learning of Norman Malone
Mary Brandt Describing Norman's Influence on Her Son and Other Students
The Left-Handed Pianist Sprinkles His Magic
The Left Hand at Work
Norman Malone Looks Out Over an Audience That Admirers His Inner Strength as Much as His Music
Acknowledging the Composer
Reginald Robinson, MacArthur Fellow, and composer of A Royals Delight
Reginald and Norman Discuss the Performance and the Composition
Howard Listens to Norman Intently
Listening to a Question From the Audience
The Panelists Listen to Norman During the Q & A Session
What Might Have Been, But for Determination and Talent
Photographer's Notes. Because Norman's performance was being filmed for a documentary, I purposely brought a very long lens and stayed pretty much in back of the cameras. Ms. Illinois was not quite as considerate, wearing a garish and totally out-of-place tiara while sitting toward the center in front-middle section of the performance hall. Had I been the filmmaker, I would have demanded that she remove it despite a contractual obligation to wear it in public. In fact, I told the filmmaker that after the concert. The performance was not about her. She could have easily joined me in the back of the concert hall.