“My Only Thing Is That It Swings” By Scott Allan Stevens
Pianist Joe Baque is well known to area music fans for his vast musical knowledge and deft touch in styles from classical to show tunes to jazz. Yet for such a familiar figure on the music scene, Baque may inspire more awe than understanding.
Joe Baque greeted me at the door, dressed entirely in black, including his trademark beret. After a firm handshake, he ushered me to a sofa as he settled into a matching chair in a living room dominated by two grand pianos. It was just after 10:00 a.m., and Joe said he’d already practiced for three hours.
Before I could ask him a question, Joe offered up a key part of his own story. It was 1983 and he had a performing gig with Holland America Cruise Lines. One night he noticed a young woman lingering after the set, even after most of the other musicians and audience had left. Actually, he did more than just notice her, but he didn’t talk to her because she looked, he said, “young enough to get me into trouble.” Still, she and her family showed up on a second cruise soon after, and, to make a long story short, Joe soon found himself packing his bags and moving to Olympia for the love of this woman with whom he’s been together since 1983.
Only later do I see how this story really crystallizes Joe Baque and how he views music as a way to connect with other people. As a very young boy growing up in Queens, New York, Joe says, he developed an ability to understand and remember songs -- even complex classical music -- after hearing it just a few times. When he was 14, his parents recognized his musical talent by buying him a ¼-sized Chickering grand piano. This instrument remained in his parents’ home for many years, and now is one of the two working pianos in his living room. You know it could tell some stories. At age 16, Joe was already in college at NYU. But despite his obvious smarts and his parents’ desires for him to get “a respectable job,” Joe already had his heart set on music. He ended up quitting (“before they threw me out”) and only years later returned to Empire State College, where he graduated in 1975 with a double major of music and psychology. The latter, he says, “just in case I had to get a real job.” But it was a musician’s life for him. He played innumerable parties, weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, and such events, often with big bands of 12-15 musicians.
Oh, and the local reputation of Joe as a jazz musician? Mere circumstance. In listing his vast repertoire (Jewish, French, Spanish, Cuban, show tunes, …), Joe says that jazz just happens to be what people in Olympia want to hear. “If I was in a Jewish Bar Mitzvah town, I’d be known for that.”
Joe has known plenty of musicians who play like factory workers – check in, play the same thing every day, check out. But for him, music has to swing. In fact, that’s the crucial ingredient. “My only thing is that it swings.”
Actually defining swing isn’t so simple. But for Joe it’s definitely something visceral: “…something in the pulse itself…swing has the sensation of being alive…in my nervous system it feels good.”
One of the frequently repeated facts about Joe is that he has “played with all the greats.” But the moment I mentioned this is the one time all morning his face turned sour and he asked: “Do we have to go there?” He acknowledged that he has crossed paths with many of the best-known musicians and singers of the 20th century, yet most of this was fleeting. Like other working musicians, after his paid gigs he’d hit the clubs for jam sessions, and it was there that he mingled with the true musical geniuses. Stan Getz. Coleman Hawkins. Lena Horne. Louis Armstrong. You name ‘em.
Joe makes a clear distinction between such musical luminaries and himself. “I’ve always been expert in imitation – I’ve always been in a supporting role. ... I’m good at what I do, but these guys are geniuses.” What did he learn from them? “Not to bullshit.” Also that what makes a genius is the willingness to be present at all times. To be in the moment, conscious of the current note or chord, and not thinking about what just happened, or what’s coming next. And he learned that genius can be lonely, a loneliness that often leads to substance abuse.
Joe has avoided that trap through the company of others. “Given the choice of playing alone or playing in a group,” he says, “I’d choose the group.” In the interplay of connected musicians Joe says he finds something transcendental, as “the self disappears…time disappears.” This happened a lot, he says, during the last set of the night, when just a few people remained “and the music became more important than any of our egos.”
Joe sees such interpersonal connections as a broader metaphor for living people living peaceably together. “As soon as you’ve got ‘we’ you’ve got a civilization,” he says. It’s unclear if he’s still talking about music. Maybe he’s talking talking about his marriage again. Maybe he’s talking about everything. For all his focus on music’s transcendent potential, Joe doesn’t ignore current events. He mentioned with some pleasure the victory of anti-war candidate Ned Lamont over Joe Lieberman in Connecticut. And though he has lived through a lot, including the McCarthy anti-Communist scare in the 1950s, he says he’s appalled by the current administration. “Nothing has even approached this,” he says, “We’re in a fascist state.” His chosen battle to change the status quo is the fight against “corporate personhood.”
I fully expected to discuss Joe’s age. But the more we talked, the less important it seemed. His energy, his firm belief in the healing and sustaining power of music, and his unabated enthusiasm for exploring new ideas took up so much of our conversation that the counting of years never came up. Suffice it to say he’s a young-at-heart octogenarian. Joe says that brain synapses may die off, but he’s constantly creating new ones by learning new music and exploring new ideas.
One of his goals is to still be around when his son, who is just entering college, graduates. And he’s making plans for a new CD, one that will include both jazz pieces and some classical music to which he’s been drawn recently. In the meantime, you can catch Joe around town at various private gigs, or you might see him walking through Watershed Park, which he calls “my cathedral.” He says he will continue to ignore friends who ask him when he’s going to retire. He’ll continue to take students and perform. How can one retire from a job that incorporates healing energy, connections to other people, and such tangible beauty? Even after so many decades of performing, Joe still seems slightly surprised and clearly delighted that, as he puts it, “I get paid to have fun.”
Joe sums up his outlook on life only indirectly, by quoting an ee cummings poem that reads, in part: “While you and i have lips and voices which / are for kissing and to sing with / who cares if some oneyed son for a bitch / invents an instrument to measure Spring with?
In the interplay of connected musicians Joe says he finds something transcendental, as “the self disappears…time disappears.”