Chattanoogan: Jay Craven – Meaningful Melodies

Sunday, February 10, 2013 - by Jen Jeffrey

Most anyone who has visited or has been a patient at Memorial Hospital has likely heard the beautiful melodies of a clarinet echoing in the halls.

Native of Chattanooga, Jay Craven notes that playing the clarinet may have saved his life.

“I was attracted to music when I was young, but I was sickly. I had a bad lung which created a real problem. I was very thin and I had asthma. I was always coughing and wheezing and my mother tried to take care of me. When I was 10, the doctor told my mother, ‘We have to do something or he is gonna die - maybe if he blew a horn, it would strengthen his lungs,’ …Ta-dah,” Jay sings, as he reveals the miraculous change in his health.

Music had always surrounded Jay. His mother Edna would sit at the piano and play operettas such as Sigmund Romberg melodies and Franz Lehar’s ‘The Merry Widow’; while his brother RC played recordings of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart on 78s - old, heavy, breakable records, mostly 10" with a small label (in case you're under 45 or so).

“One day RC was playing Tchaikovsky’s ‘Francesca da Rimini’ - a tone poem; you don’t hear it much. All of a sudden it got real soft and out of nowhere comes this beautiful solo, it was the love theme. I asked RC what it was and he said it was the clarinet. I said, ‘That’s what I want!’” Jay remembers.

In 1941, Jay was given his first clarinet. “I was practicing all the time, just blowing and squeaking away.  The first piece I played was The Merry Widow Waltz and it sounded terrible!” Jay admits.

“I had to go across what we call in clarinet, ‘the break’. I would go along and then squeak …my fingers were too small,” he laughs.

Professional musician and band director of Chattanooga High School, Ira Summers, played the trumpet. He had a son, Ira Summers Jr., who lived two blocks from Jay and had given him lessons on the clarinet. Ira Jr. was a fine pianist, but made his living teaching music. Shortly after WWII began, Jay realized he was playing pretty well.

During Jay's years in junior high school, Mr. A.R.Casavant , the band teacher, would come to the school  a few days a week and teach. Mr. Casavant was a very good trumpet player and performed at the Chattanooga Golf & Country Club with the Ed Shallet Orchestra. As men were getting drafted, Mr. Casavant said to Jay, "We need a saxophone player. Can you get your parents to get you a saxophone and play with us?"


Jay told his father Roy about the opportunity and Roy emphatically had said to him, “You’re not gonna play in no Jazz band,” but Jay’s mother ended up getting him a Saxophone and he started playing in the band.

Ed Shallet and his orchestra played every Saturday night at the country club. “Mr. Casavant would pick  me up all through junior high and sometimes during senior high school. I was making money – about a dollar and half to two dollars a week,” Jay says.

“The union was very strong in those days and you had to get a permit. I wasn’t a member of AF of M (American Federation of Musicians), but because of the war I had a permit to play,” Jay adds.

Blowing into the reed of his clarinet really did strengthen Jay’s lungs and he outgrew asthma. The young musician started playing in the Chattanooga Symphony under conductor Arthur Plettner - first as a sub and then he played in the symphony in 1948 when he was still in high school.

“They needed an extra clarinet player for a performance of Gershwin’s Concerto in F. In those days, concerts were held at the old Chattanooga High School on Third Street. They had two clarinets.  Dr. A.R. Casavant, my band director, was playing in the symphony too. They had said ‘We got this clarinet player who is real good’ and they hired me to play the second part for that one piece,” Jay says.

Opera was a different orchestra entirely. Recalling when a first clarinet was too ill to perform, Jay was asked to play in the Opera’s orchestra led by Dr. Werner Wolff.

After having won awards and offered scholarships, someone approached Jay telling him that he was good enough to have his own band.

“He said he would help support me; he was a booker and he’d get a cut out of it. But I felt like a big fish in a little pond. He had a good band and we started playing professionally.  I kept at it for a few years, playing at country clubs but I really wanted to play more symphonies.

Jay gave up the band and had married his wife Kathleen of 62 years. “I don’t see how she has put up with me all these years,” he jokes. The couple share a son, a daughter and three grandchildren.

Jay attended UC (now UTC) and went to Chicago for his master’s degree in education. “I wanted to be involved in teaching kids, so I did. I got my masters and studied with the Chicago Symphony Players. When I came back to Chattanooga, I was hired to play principal clarinet.

Technically, Jay was with the symphony for 60 years when you add the date he began with the symphony and played with the opera and the merged CSO. In 1975 they made him the personnel manager. When the symphony and opera came together to become CSO, Jay had been teaching and became supervisor of music with the city schools until took early retirement in 1986.

“I was then hired by the school system in 86 just to play. I stayed with the symphony until 1998 and, because I could play jazz; they hired me to come back to play with Big Band, for 10 more years. In 2008 I said ‘That was enough’,” Jay claims.

Jay and his wife wanted to keep busy and to help in the community. They became volunteers at Memorial Hospital, working for the auxiliary.

“At that time we ran the gift shop and I worked on the desk too. In 1999 they had a section called Wellspring and they started the Music of Memorial. They had a wonderful harpist named Jan Pennington, who died at only 29 years old; it was tragic. After that, I was approached to play – I would set up in the lobby and play and people would come up with requests and I would play. It just got to be that I was doing more playing than working in the gift shop or working the desk. In a sense, I guess I took her place. I feel honored but it was so sad,” Jay confides.

When asked about any memorable moments he could share during his years playing at Memorial, he said, “I’ve got so many I couldn’t tell you! My wife said I ought to write all this stuff down,” he voices.

Playing melodies at the hospital for nearly 13 years, there aren’t many who don’t know the man with the melodies.

“I go all over the hospital. I have been everywhere, but surgery and the morgue – those are the only places they won’t let me go,” he laughs.

Jay has played on all the floors, in the ICUs, the fusion centers, the lobbies, as well as Memorial North Park.

“It makes a difference. It is therapeutic, I have seen it.  Even today, I was in the short-stay playing and it just made them feel better. I am blessed and I feel it is a ministry. I feel like God just opened up the door for me to go in there,” Jay insists.

The celebrated musician never thought he would be playing music in a hospital. “I use no music, I just play. I know a lot of music. I don’t remember everything, but I had played all kinds of musicals; I can play Jewish hymns and country music,” he says.

Once when Jay and Kathleen visited Nazareth, Ky. where the Motherhouse and Chapel are located, Kathleen had wanted to check out the Stephen Foster story. Jay saw the old Civil War relics and dresses and heard the story about Foster’s life. He heard the old music from that era and decided when he got back that he would play some of those songs.

Forgetting about it – it wasn’t until six weeks later that he remembered what he had wanted to do. But it was exactly the right moment to remember because of what came about.

“I will never forget; I was on the third floor which was oncology at the time, sitting by the nurses’ station. I never go into the rooms unless I am asked. I was playing Stephen Foster’s Beautiful Dreamer and a man came right up to me from down the hall. I could see that he was crying - tears coming down his cheeks… man, he was crying,” Jay pauses as he remembers that significant moment. “He said, ‘You can’t imagine what you have done with that song. My mother, who is very old, has been down in that room for about two weeks, very ill and in a coma – she has not been communicating at all. When you started playing that song, her eyes came open and she started moving her mouth and trying to sing.’ He said that his parents had gotten married very young, lived way out in the country and that that song was played at their wedding,” Jay relays.

“I could have played that at any time, but it was that day when they were there. I will never forget that,” he expresses.

Memorial’s gift shop hosts several CDs of the beautiful melodies that have been recorded. After meeting Jim Palmour, who was also playing his guitar at Memorial, he said, "We started jammin' together. We even ended up recording a few tracks. We'll have to wait and see what happens next." 

I feel like my playing at Memorial was providential.  "With all the different kinds of music I have played over the years,I feel  that God was preparing me for the real stuff," Jay insists.

In playing concertos with the symphony and ‘donning the tails’, Jay has played with some of the greatest artists in the world and he says, “Though it has been a blessing it has all come together, for this.”

How long will he continue his meaningful melodies?

“I will do it,” he says rubbing his arthritic hands, “as long as the good Lord gives me breath.” 

jen@jenjeffrey.com


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