No history of the music scene in Chattanooga could be written without Jay Craven appearing as a central figure. He has assumed so many titles and roles as a musician here as to be synonymous with the entire musical genre.
We can thank an early childhood illness for helping to shape Jay's musical career, and we can also thank Jay's brother, Roy, for inadvertently directing him toward his lifelong instrument of choice. The childhood disease was a lung problem, for which his doctors suggested that blowing some kind of horn might help him overcome. But what kind of horn? It so happened that Roy, the older brother, was interested in Theater, Art, and all kinds of music - from the relatively new "country" music coming out of Nashville, to symphonic and opera.
Roy had arranged a small home studio where he could work on his theatrical sets and other artwork while playing 78 RPM records of his favorite music. On one of those records, the famous Tchaikovsky Opus called "Francesca da Rimini" had a part where a clarinet sound emerges from near silence, and Jay Craven, upon hearing that passage, exclaimed that THAT was the sound he wanted to make! So from that moment forward, Jay and his clarinet have been inseperable. Thanks to his lung problem (which soon went away), and to older brother, Roy Craven, Jay was equipped for life.
Jay can well be classified as a "born musician", but even these gifted people have to practice, and learn all the rudimentary mechanics of "music theory" enabling them to play in tandem with other similarly trained musicians. Years of practice followed. But Jay was winning awards and receiving scholarships from the earliest years of grade school forward. All his teachers recognized the innate talent and stepped forward to help him. From my own meager knowledge of music, largely through the City school system, I can vouch for the strong music programs that used to pervade our schools at that time, and through it the education that Jay received was second to none.
(I am thinking - above - specifically of such people as Harold Cadek, son of the Conservatory's founder, Annalee Huffaker, music teacher, first at Brainerd Junior HS, and later at City HS. Dr. Werner Wolff, and wife, Emmy Land Wolff, founders of the Chattanooga Opera Association along with Dorothy Hackett Ward; Dr. Arthur Plettner, first CSO Conductor, (before arrival of permanent Conductor, Joseph Hawthorne), Musicians E.D. Rushworth, Albert Richard Casavant, Don Hilbert, and many others. These people all played a role in the professional development of Jay Craven).
Jay set no boundaries on his musical tastes: he liked it all, and excelled at performing it all. As easily at home with New Orleans Jazz as with Tchaikovsky, he was the typical "musician's musician". And he played his first gig in 1944...!
My first-hand knowledge of Jay, however, "only" goes back to the year 1946, when Mr. A.R. Casavant, newly in charge of music in our City school system, administered a test to sixth-graders to discover talent for future Band programs in that system. I was one of many who passed the Casavant test, and was offered a summer of free band instruction at City HS. My dad took me to a "get acquainted" session for that program - and there was Mr. Casavant. His job that day was to see if all his prospective students might be able to find a suitable musical instrument for the summer program. I did not have one. Conveniently, Casavant had a used, but totally reconditioned E-flat Alto Saxophone, which a very young Jay Craven was demonstrating. I was fascinated by both Jay's youth - only a few years older than me - and his playing ability. Some chemistry worked its magic, and my dad and I walked off the premises carrying my newly-acquired E-flat Alto saxophone! That moment is etched in my memory forever! I can still see and hear Jay's rapid "do-re-mi" scales interspersed with bits of recognizable popular tunes. The only athletic "letter" I ever earned in any school was the direct result of that day's events, for the next year in a state-wide band competition held at Oak Ridge, TN., Brainerd Junior High won the "Best Junior High School Band in Tennessee" award!
In my recent interview with Jay, he also remembers the details of that day in Oak Ridge, as he too was competing, though as a high school Senior. Jay can also remember every detail of his entire long career in much the same way - what had happened when he was first playing in those start-up years of the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera Associations. He remembers all the duties he had thrust upon him, but which he graciously accepted as there was no one else qualified to do them; he just wanted to play his clarinet! Jay has been involved in so many phases of music - both playing in front of an audience and behind the scenes where the mundane tasks of bookkeeping, hiring and firing, were done. Once, out of a clear blue sky he was "told" that he was now head of the city schools' brand new TV series on Channel 3. On-Camera time was a breeze, but the preparation behind the scenes was staggering, requiring great amounts of time, forwarding and receiving of information, and record-keeping. Jay handled it all well - this before the day of email and the Internet.
To one of my age it was refreshing to hear Jay recall so many names from Chattanooga's musical past. He reminded me of the countless music venues there had been in the past, and how he had played in all of them at one time or another. These included the Green Room at the Read House, ballrooms at the Patten Hotel, the Lookout Mountain Hotel, Panoram Club, Signal Mountain Golf and Country Club, Fairyland Club, Alhambra Shrine, Elks Club, American Legion, and possibly others.
When asked what he considered to be the main accomplishments of his lifetime in music it was hard to get a definite answer, but I believe from the way he kept referring to the Chattanooga Symphony's Valentine programs held at the Tivoli Theater between 1998 and 2008 must have been among his favorites. If there were a lot of clarinet solos, then I am sure that would rank "tops". Jay was for a long time Director of the Chattanooga Symphony's Youth Orchestra - retiring from one position for a short time, only to be soon drafted back again.
Jay's long career reminds me somewhat of a juggler who must keep seven bowling pins aloft while balancing a volleyball on his nose, and all the time waltzing effortlessly through a crowded room! He talks about such musicians from the past as Ed Shallet, and baton-meisters Julius Hegyi, and world-class conductor and artistic director, Vakhtang Jordania, as if they were still in the room. Names like Morris Bales, O.J. Bailey, and Jim Wilson are still very much alive in his memory, and even promoters like Hugh Hannah. Jay also likes to point out that he played with the Chattanooga Symphony Orchestra for 60 years, and 50 years with the Chattanooga Opera Association! In the more recent past, Jay enjoyed a long association - among his best - with CSO Conductor, Robert Bernhardt, whose jovial manner and vibrant wit contributed so much to a good working relationship. Barely slowing down even now, he still plays his clarinet voluntarily at least one day each week to cheer the patients at Memorial Hospital.
Jay's good wife of 66 years is the former Kathleen Bender, daughter of L.B. "Chief" Bender, who was a very popular teacher at Kirkman Vocational High School when I was there. I am certain that an interview with her would turn up a second equally interesting story. Jay was one of four siblings, and he was devoted especially to older brother Roy, who did indeed become an artist, marrying Lorna Andreae who was an Honors graduate in Art from the University of Chattanooga. Roy soon became Head of the Art Department at the University of Florida, Gainesville. She and Roy deserve their own "Memories" article. (Roy's scholarly works on East Indian Art remain in book form, available on Amazon and elsewhere).
Although our interview never approached this matter, it is my pure speculation that Jay Craven could have made it with any "Big Band" or orchestra of his choice in the entire country. But his wholesome family lifestyle could never have survived the temptations thrust upon so many of our contemporary musicians who have wasted themselves by age fifty. Let's be glad his high moral character helped him "choose Chattanooga"!
(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at email@example.com )