How some unlikely musical talent helped him become the godfather of modern jazz

You can tell Bruce Gaston was a musical prodigy by the time he was 17 years old, playing the organ in a synagogue in Jackson, Mississippi. He’d clearly always played in church before, he…

You can tell Bruce Gaston was a musical prodigy by the time he was 17 years old, playing the organ in a synagogue in Jackson, Mississippi. He’d clearly always played in church before, he just needed a formal education. As soon as Gaston’s godmother and aunt instructed him to learn the Suzuki method of conducting and piano teaching, Bruce headed off to a piano teacher’s class on his way back to his hotel. After the first lesson, he couldn’t wait to go back to the hotel to practice.

And so it has gone through Gaston’s life. He died of kidney failure on Sunday, aged 75. He had struggled with kidney disease for 30 years. Gaston’s illness seemed to take its toll when he had to cancel an appearance on E! news at a music festival in Tennessee last year because of the condition.

Not long after he was diagnosed with kidney disease in 1984, he was asked by a friend to be his accompanist for a little classical music around the dinner table. His friend then asked if Gaston would consider playing a different style of music. “By that time I was playing jazz,” Gaston told the Los Angeles Times a few years ago. “I didn’t start out being a jazz musician. It was a natural progression.”

Gaston, a high school dropout who got his musical education at Harvard University in the 1960s, soon began exploring a variety of classical repertoire, such as Bach and Handel. When he wasn’t teaching piano or conducting, he taught for 10 years at Harvard. But his love of the music he studied ran deep. “If you ever play Mozart, Mozart is the ultimate,” Gaston told the LA Times. “There’s something magical about the music. There’s something very spiritual about it. That’s why it’s right for me to teach it.”

Story by Natasha Jen. Images: Robert Gage/iStock/Titmus

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